LBJ's life and times, documented in a Texas building Troubled times: Johnson's presidential library-museum tells his story, and the story of the '60s. And it's all free to the public.

November 05, 1995|By Susanne Hopkins | Susanne Hopkins,LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS

It says something about the late President Lyndon Baines Johnson that his is the only presidential library offering free admission.

The others -- those paying tribute to Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan -- all charge a fee. But this library reflects the man who, when he was in office, started what he called "the war on poverty."

"He insisted that the library be kept free," said a docent at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, which rises high on the University of Texas campus in Austin. (The museum was, in fact, built and paid for by the university with public money, another reason there is no entry fee.)

That has allowed more than 11 million people -- the most of any of the presidential libraries -- to visit since the library's opening in 1971. It's a figure that would probably have pleased the gregarious Johnson, who often liked to surprise visitors by sitting at the desk in the library's re-created Oval Office.

The eight-story, Italian travertine marble library-museum with its massive photo displays reflects the expansive personality of the man who inspired it -- and tells his story, as well. There are more than 40 million pages of historical documents housed here, the bulk of them from the 1960s, when America was a boiling caldron of racial strife, political upheaval and Vietnam War protests. And there are films and exhibits reflecting the times in which LBJ served as America's 36th president.

(As with all presidential libraries, you cannot expect an impartial recounting of the administration's accomplishments and failures. These facilities are, after all, built by the former presidents and their supporters, not critics or detractors. But whatever your political leanings, they offer interesting peeks into historical events and the men behind them.)

The best way to start a tour of the museum (the library is open only to scholars and historians, or by arrangement) is with the 20-minute orientation film on LBJ shown in the facility's theater. Narrated by people who knew him, the film offers a telling look at a man born in Stonewall, Texas, on Aug. 27, 1908 -- portentously next door to a graveyard and in the middle of a storm. Death and political storms would play significant roles in his life.

The film shows us a man who, as a young boy, ran away from home to go to school, eventually became a teacher and then followed in his father's and grandfather's footsteps as a state legislator. He became a member of Congress in 1937, moved to the Senate in 1948 and was the Senate's Democratic leader by 1953. But his bid for the presidential nomination would fall short; he lost to John F. Kennedy and instead became the vice president. He would gain the presidency only by Kennedy's death in 1963. Johnson was elected in his own right in 1964.

The film chronicles his push for the "Great Society," his far-reaching civil rights bill, his efforts on behalf of education and Medicare, and his war on poverty. It also touches on the war in Vietnam and Johnson's fateful decision to increase America's involvement in that battle. (By 1968, during the Tet Offensive, there were more than 525,000 American troops in Vietnam.) That decision would trigger riots at home -- 40 in April 1968 alone -- and would leave him with an unwanted legacy.

Johnson, a voice in the film tells us, wanted to be remembered for his achievements in education, equal rights, the Clean Air Bill. "Instead, he was left with an unpopular war."

The exhibits, which include photos, artifacts and mementos -- even a presidential limousine with flags flying and the pair of teletype machines known as the hot line that once tied America to the Kremlim -- are accommodated on two floors, with the Oval Office replica and huge color transparencies of the executive mansion occupying the eighth floor.

Just outside the theater on the first floor are massive photos illustrating America during Johnson's lifetime and his family life with wife Lady Bird (Claudia Taylor) and daughters Lynda and Luci.

But it's the rest of the first-floor exhibits that are the most riveting, for here we enter the tumultuous 1960s. There are photos of the motorcade rolling down a Dallas street that fateful day in November 1963, and we see the smiles of the principal players -- Kennedy and wife Jacqueline, Texas Gov. John Connally, and Johnson and Lady Bird -- turn to horror as the president is mortally wounded. There are photos of Johnson taking the presidential oath of office aboard Air Force One. And there is the voice of Lady Bird Johnson recalling that terrible day.

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