A presidential tour of Austin
At the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, an animatronic statue of the president tells jokes. (LBJ Library Photo by Lauren Gerson)
Of all the US presidents, Lyndon B Johnson is not the most likely choice for holiday itinerary inspiration.
Although he was president during an era that is perennially retro cool (1963 to 1969), the man himself was known as a consummate politician and something of a workaholic. And while his home city of Austin, Texas, is both defined by the credo “Keep Austin weird” and its live music scene, for LBJ, as he was known, “fun” meant reminiscing with friends, probably about politics, and his preferred tunes from musicals including Oklahoma and Hello Dolly are unlikely to be heard at venues on Sixth Street today.
But the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, located on the University of Texas campus in Austin, has just undergone an impressive $10 million refresh, and its new, multimedia-to-the-max exhibitions provide a deep, broad look at the man, his vast political legacy and the era in which he governed. And it turns out that the 36th US president can indeed inspire a new way to visit Austin – involving romance, ice cream and speakeasies – in a way that even the least political creature can appreciate.
The first stop, of course, is the museum, which reopened to the public on 22 December, the day that would have been first lady Lady Bird Johnson’s 100th birthday. As the president was best known for a series of legislative initiatives called The Great Society – divisive reforms aimed at eliminating poverty and racial injustice – the museum’s video and photography shed light on LBJ’s unique method of persuasion, something that became known as “The Johnson Treatment”. He would position his more than 6ft-tall frame practically chest-to-chest with someone he wanted to influence, and lean in nearly nose-to-nose as his quarry would try to squirm away.
LBJ was also known for successfully calming the nation when he assumed the presidency after the assassination of John F Kennedy on 22 November 1963. In an especially moving exhibit, the museum displays the notes for Johnson’s simple and direct remarks to the cabinet at 2:30 pm the next day: “The President is dead. We must keep the business of the government moving. None of us in this room can really express the sadness that we feel. Yet we have work to do. We must do it.”
Old fashioned, wall-mounted telephones let visitors listen in to selections from more than 600 hours of LBJ’s recorded phone conversations, including an eavesdrop on a chat with John Steinbeck as the writer prepared for a trip to Vietnam – an issue for which LBJ’s legacy is the most clouded. Under his leadership, the US greatly increased both its troop presence and casualties in Vietnam; mass protests often featured the chant “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”.
On a lighter note, an exhibit on LBJ’s humour stars a fairly creepy animatronic statue of the president standing at a podium; press the buttons to make the robot tell jokes and stories.
Throughout the museum there are touches that give a good sense of the 1960s, such as popular board games like Twister and televisions showing vintage commercials. A movie poster from the Gregory Peck/Sophia Loren film Arabesque has a tag line that sums up the time well: Ultra Mad, Ultra Mod, Ultra Mystery. Loren’s fabulous knee-high white leather boots and fur-trimmed leopard print coat could easily inspire a visit to Frock on Vintage or one of Austin’s other vintage shops to hunt for something similar.
At the museum, it is also clear that LBJ had an uncommonly close relationship with his wife, and the city’s historic downtown Driskill Hotel played a large part in that relationship. The Johnsons’ first date, on 5 September 1934, was over breakfast at the Driskill’s dining parlour, and the would-be president was so smitten that he very quickly proposed. Ten days after their first date, the 26 year old wrote this letter:
“I’m sure that there is nothing that could be more distracting, disturbing and estranging to me than a continued evidence of indifference upon your part…