Sunday, March 25, 2012

Lyndon B Johnson Library and Museum

Museum re-creates life and times of LBJ

with Carla Anderson

Columbia Daily Tribune One wall of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, celebrates “the thousand laws” of Johnson’s Great Society program. He praises the 88th Congress for “the greatest outpouring of creative legislation in the history of this nation.”

As our 36th president, Johnson knew how to pressure legislators into action. He worked unbelievably long hours and pushed, pushed and pushed. When he took office after President John Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, the time was ripe for some serious progress in race relations and the treatment of the disadvantaged.

The museum shows Johnson as a fighter for civil rights, interacting with Martin Luther King Jr. The war on poverty made some advances, and the Head Start program improved both the nutritional and educational level of poor children. Other laws created Medicare, the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities and the Job Corps. He encouraged space travel. Along with his wife, Lady Bird, he worked on environmental issues, and parklands were increased by 15 percent.

An introductory film gives his history from childhood to his death. The family expected he would become a politician. In fact, at his birth, his grandfather anticipated he would become a senator. It is interesting how early he got good positions where his talents could be demonstrated. He was 29 when first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He lost his first try at becoming a senator but succeeded on his second and was soon minority leader and later majority leader.

Despite his power over Congress, he never related to the American public in the same charismatic way that his predecessor, Kennedy, did. However, in several museum exhibits, Johnson’s skill as a storyteller is stressed, the most impressive being a life-size animated figure that uses his voice, moves its arms and lips, and blinks its eyes as it tells a joke that makes a point.

An automaton of LBJ at his Library and Museum tells stories.

 Attention was taken away from Johnson’s many excellent accomplishments because of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. After Walter Cronkite said the situation was hopeless, Johnson felt he no longer had the support of the American people and gave the famous speech indicating he would refuse to run for re-election.

On a television screen at the museum, Kirk Douglas reads LBJ’s letters to Lady Bird, and Helen Hayes reads hers to him. In a letter during the 11-week whirlwind courtship, Lady Bird wrote, “I would hate for you to go into politics.”

Later, she kept a diary on tape; we could hear her voice describing how on the day of the Kennedy assassination she heard three shots, and their Secret Service man vaulted over the front seat, landing on top of Johnson, and threw him to the floor, saying, “Get down.”

On leaving the presidency, Johnson said: “I know I have given it everything that was in me.” He devoted 30 years to public service. Lady Bird called their retirement time the “milk-and-honey years.”

On the fourth floor is a sample of 80 state gifts from the 1,400 given to Johnson from around the world. The museum is the only free one among presidential museums because LBJ made arrangements to cover the costs for visitors.

A reconstruction of LBJ’s Oval Office