You eavesdrop on a phone conversation. You realize the voices are President Lyndon Baines Johnson and former First Lady and now widow Jackie Kennedy on the line. It’s an emotional discussion. Even though the phone call happened more than 50 years ago, you feel like a kid sneaking on the extension. Your ear’s glued to the earpiece, listening to these two have a personal and almost awkward discussion about Jackie’s access to the President. You hear Jackie confess she’s received more letters from LBJ in the last 10 days than she ever received from John F. Kennedy.
You put the receiver down, a bit drained and surprised at the closeness of the phone call, as though you’d listened to a friend talking on their smartphone set to speaker.
Two presidents from Texas have built libraries in Texas in the last two decades. But you need to see LBJ’s library.
The formal name is the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. But it’s known as the LBJ Presidential Library. At the moment, there’s not that much traffic in the library. You actually have an opportunity to have the Oval Office to yourself.
The life of LBJ, even for those who remember Johnson and have lived in Texas all their lives, is surprising. It’s large. It’s outrageous and inspiring and maddening. You see the calculating, cynical side of Johnson as he manipulates the manipulators. Yet you see that cynical intellect push the envelope on civil rights and the ultra-conservatism of his own party and state.
When you see the LBJ library’s structure, a 10-story limestone monolith, you might dismiss it at first. But give it a chance. It’s a paradox: massive, yet understated.
Here are the 7 things you must see when you visit the LBJ Library:
1. The Great Hall
When one walks up the colossal staircase into the Great Hall of the library, there is a magnificent photoengraved mural from photos of LBJ with prior presidents, including Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy.
Above the mural you see, housed behind brilliant glass, four floors of archives that contain more than 45 million pages of documents from the Johnson administration. Those archives are not available to the casual visitor.
You can, however, muse through the interactive video exhibits on the north side of the Great Hall, or gaze at the presidential portraits of every U.S. President and First Lady from Washington to Obama.
2. Phone Conversations
Long before Nixon and the Watergate tapes, LBJ recorded phone calls. You can listen to these phone calls through a receiver of the phone at the time. The recordings are remarkably good, and intimate. You’ll get the feeling of eavesdropping on an extension though the conversation happened more than fifty years ago.
Perhaps the conversations from the days after JFK’s assassination on November 22, 1963 are the “must-hear.” There’s a conversation between LBJ and Martin Luther King on November 25, 1963 and a conversation between LBJ and Gerald Ford on November 29, 1963.
Make a point, especially, to listen to Johnson’s December 2, 1963 conversation with Jackie Kennedy. It will give you the chills and, perhaps, even bring a tear to your eye.
Like all libraries and museums, the LBJ houses thousands of artifacts. Only about 2% are on display at any one time. They range from the mundane – an electric toothbrush stamped with a presidential seal – to sports – a New York Jets helmet signed by quarterback Joe Namath – to the historic – a Russian sniper rifle taken from the North Vietnamese army by American soldiers.
There are artifacts seemingly unrelated to the LBJ administration, but interesting in themselves. You can view an 1864 Winslow Homer “Half of the Wagon Train” or an ancient autograph book bearing the signature of Abraham Lincoln.
4. Permanent Exhibits
Permanent exhibits at the LBJ Library include the Vice Presidency, the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, LBJ’s Great Society and Vietnam.
Be sure to look at the Space exhibit as well. As Senate Majority Leader, Johnson was the architect and sponsor of NASA. He immediately recognized the importance of the 1957 Sputnik surprise launch by the Russians and capitalized on the Russian achievement much to the chagrin of the slow-reacting Eisenhower administration. Johnson’s work in creating what became NASA is considered by many historians to be what pushed the Democrats, JFK and LBJ into the White House.
Of course, you need to spend time in the Civil Rights exhibit too. A topic that has become so hot today involves the same issues as it did in Johnson’s time: voting rights and discrimination. Because of LBJ’s leadership in the 1950s and 1960s, he was able to sign the Civil Rights Act into law during his administration. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barrack Obama attended the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library in April this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.
5. The Johnson Treatment
Many exhibits at the LBJ Library allude to the “Johnson Treatment.” This was LBJ’s habit of leaning over and into the face of politicians he was trying to persuade, convince and intimidate. Several film interviews feature subjects recalling witnessing or receiving the “Johnson Treatment” and how it was almost impossible to resist. The library even has a mockup in its gift shop that enables you to buy a photo of LBJ giving you the “Johnson Treatment.”
6. Tenth Floor
On the 10th and top floor of the LBJ Library is a mockup of LBJ’s oval office and Ladybird’s office. Both will hold your attention. Nearby, there’s also an exhibit and film of family life in the White House including the president’s daughters, Lynda Bird Johnson Robb and Luci Baines Johnson.
7. Sixty from the Sixties
At the moment, the library has a “Sixty from the ‘60s” exhibit that will remain until January 4, 2015. The library selected 60 Americans that impacted America and the world during that decade and is exhibiting photographs, artifacts, books, clothing, posters and artwork related to them. See Hugh Hefner’s silk pajamas and pipe, Charles Schultz with his Peanuts comic strip and a jukebox constantly playing iconic 60s songs (you can plug in your favorites).
You, like most residents of Texas and its capital, probably haven’t seen this library. You should go. LBJ’s words and actions continue to shape your life. The former Texas schoolteacher from Stonewall still gives us all the “Johnson Treatment.”
Located at 2313 Red River St. – Official website
Have you been to the LBJ Library? If so, what do you remember most?
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