When I was in Austin on business recently, I planned my appointments to allow time for a visit to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. This was my third presidential library visit – I have previously reported on my visits to the Carter and Clinton libraries.
I have long been intrigued by LBJ. I’ll confess that one of the main reasons has nothing to do with politics or history – the fact is, LBJ has always reminded me of my Granddaddy W. That comparison was enhanced by one of the exhibits in the museum, which was a life-sized, moving and talking figure of LBJ telling stories. I sat entranced in front of it for 10 minutes, half-expecting the figure to launch into one of Granddaddy’s tales about life on the farm in North Carolina.
LBJ animatron aside, I found the LBJ museum to be a bit underwhelming, at least in comparison to the Carter and Clinton museums. To a large extent that’s no criticism of the LBJ museum itself. I had been moved by the Carter museum in Atlanta largely because I felt a connection to the man and the time. Carter was in office when I first started developing an interest in politics; I remember making posters for his re-election campaign with the Teen Democrats club in high school. (I guess we should have made a few more). By contrast, I was only 5 when LBJ left office, so I don’t have any firsthand recollection of him as President. As a result, I found it difficult to feel that same sense of personal connection as I strolled through the LBJ exhibits.
Similarly, the relative recency of the Clinton presidency afforded the Clinton museum a sense of immediacy and relevancy that I found lacking at the LBJ museum. Beyond that, though, I think that anyone would find the Little Rock museum impressive if for nothing other than its sheer size and number of exhibits. For better or worse, Clinton’s presidency seemed larger than life in many ways, and the Clinton museum reflects that.
By contrast, the LBJ museum is relatively small and sparse. Even the Oval Office replica has been reduced to 7/8 size. I found this disappointing and somewhat incongruous with the man himself. LBJ was a big man, from a big state, with a big agenda. Indeed, how could anything be larger than the goal of the establishment of a Great Society?
In retrospect, though, perhaps the downsized museum was a fitting monument. Despite his significant domestic successes, LBJ was in many ways a tragic figure. He first assumed the office due to the tragedy of Kennedy’s assassination, and after completing his first elected term declined to run again, having been rendered politically impotent by the tragedy of the war in Vietnam. I left the museum sobered and somewhat somber, and that may well be the best way to look at 1963-1969.