A Step Back in History at Austin’s LBJ Presidential Library

Entering the LBJ Presidential Library

Entering the LBJ Presidential Library

The last time I visited Austin’s LBJ Presidential Library I was a teenager and the exhibits are as good as I remember. Located on the campus of the University of Texas, the library lets visitors step back into a turbulent time in American history during the 1960s and the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Admission to the library is an optional suggested donation of $8.00 and the tour begins with an 11 minute film overview of Lyndon Johnson himself. Described as a man who “…came on like a force of nature “, Johnson’s views were formed early at his first job in Cotulla, Texas, teaching impoverished Mexican-American students who often came to school hungry. He believed that government could give people a chance, wanting to form not just a good society, but a Great Society. His vision was driven by the ideology that “…a compassionate government cannot ignore the plight of the ill-housed, ill-fed or ill-clothed.” An immense amount of legislation was passed during the Johnson years; however, his dream of a Great Society was overshadowed by the Vietnam War.

Visitors to the LBJ Presidential Library will enter on the third floor in an imposing, marble interior. On this floor, visitors will see a timeline of Johnson’s rise to power including serving as both a U.S. Representative and a U.S. Senator, before becoming Vice President in 1960. The timelines on the walls are interesting, including not only Johnson’s background but also details of what was happening in the world at the time. For the exhibit section on the Vietnam War, some of the letters on display are emotional, as one letter was from a family who had lost their son. Another letter surprised me, as this was from the television comedy show,” The Smothers Brothers”, apologizing for some of their aired comments.

Kennedy/Johnson campaign

Kennedy/Johnson campaign

Be sure to visit the third floor’s special exhibition “News to History – Photojournalism and the Presidency” which includes several Pulitzer Prize winning photos from the administrations of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama. I have seen some of these photos in newspapers and magazines in the past. Seeing the detailed pictures up close makes an impact on the visitor—especially for someone like me who is interested in both journalism and history.

Moving on to the fourth floor, visitors will notice all the archived documents located above the Great Hall. I was stunned to find out that there are roughly 45 million pages of documents stored in the library archives. On this floor, visitors will get a good overview of LBJ’s presidency, starting with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, as Johnson’s presidency began at a dark moment in United States’ history. I was surprised to see the actual outfits worn by Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson as he was sworn in on Air Force One.

Volumes of archived documents

Volumes of archived documents

The fourth floor exhibits give an overview of the immense amount of legislation passed under Johnson including the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid and the Fair Housing Act. Johnson had the ability to lean in close to legislators and bring them around to his way of thinking which was known as the “Johnson treatment” (which may explain why so much legislation was successfully passed).

The exhibits include details on the amount of Americans living in poverty (roughly 20 percent) during Johnson’s administration. I found it interesting that the exhibits include pros and cons as to whether the legislation helped.

On the fourth floor, visitors can also experience the Gulf of Tonkin incident room and visitors can make the decisions about the event. The exhibits explain the Vietnam War in context as at the time, it was the height of the Cold War and the U.S. Government was deeply concerned about any additional countries falling under Russian or Chinese influence.

Scattered throughout the fourth floor are videos of what was going in the 1960s from television shows (such as “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “Bewitched”) and movies (like “The Sound of Music” and “Funny Girl”) versus what was on the world news.

The remaining exhibits are housed on the library’s tenth floor. Visitors can see a replica of Johnson’s oval office (apparently the exhibit’s oval office is 1/8 smaller) which is decorated like Johnson’s actual office. I found the three-screened television interesting, as President Johnson wanted to be able to watch the news on the three main television networks at the same time.

Inside the Johnson oval office.  The desk is original to the office.

Inside the Johnson oval office. The desk is original to the office.

Visitors to the tenth floor will also get an overview of life in the Johnson White House which experienced civil rights protest sit-ins as well as protestors against the Vietnam War. The tenth floor of the library also provides visitors insight about Lady Bird Johnson, who was a huge fan of wildflowers, as well as some of the unique gifts the President and First Lady received from other countries. Some of my favorites were silver spurs from Singapore as well as a ritual mask from Senegal.

Wildflower china in the Johnson White House as well as a drawing from Artist Marc Chagall in the White House guestbook

Wildflower china in the Johnson White House as well as a drawing from Artist Marc Chagall in the White House guest book

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President Lyndon Johnson became President on a dark day in history and his administration lasted during a difficult era in American history. The library is immense—sort of like the personality of President Johnson himself. For a step back into the 1960s, a visit to the LBJ Presidential Library is a must. I enjoyed visiting as a teenager and many years later as an adult, I enjoyed the visit even more.

LBJ Presidential Library
2313 Red River Street
Austin, Texas 78705
(512)721-0200

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