Bravado and simple charm at LBJ’s Hill Country ranch
I remember seeing a photo of Lyndon Baines Johnson taking the oath of office on Air Force One after President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, LBJ’s wife Lady Bird and JFK’s widow Jackie by his side. The Kennedys were planning to spend the night at LBJ’s ranch on that day when Camelot died. I was eight years old.
Visiting LBJ’s ranch is a strange mix of nostalgia for simpler times and a fairy tale the president created about his own life as a Texas cattleman. You can visit his birthplace, his first school and a living-history farm that gives you a sense of the hardscrabble times in which he was growing up.
My son Nate and I visited in 2008, about a year after Lady Bird died. Then, you still boarded a bus to tour the ranch, rolling past the Secret Service post. I was excited to see it again, this time with husband, Tom, in The Epic Van. Today, it’s a self-driving tour, and the Secret Service buildings are now used by National Park personnel.
The Johnson’s home on the ranch was dubbed the Texas White House because LBJ spent almost a quarter of his presidency working there, serving as host to world leaders, royalty, celebrities and other politicians.
When Lady Bird was alive, she would sometimes send the Johnson girls out to greet visitors on the bus. After she died, the house was opened to the public, much of it returned to the ’60s style of LBJ’s presidency, including yellow Formica countertops in the kitchen and wild wallpaper. (No photos are allowed inside.) On the stove is a replica of a pecan pie, a pie that JFK had requested for that fateful day, a pie made from Lady Bird’s recipe he had sampled on a previous visit, a pie that Jackie would get to taste.
It was never to be.
While I was on the bus home from third grade in Hanover, Indiana, JFK was pronounced dead and LBJ was racing back to Washington, D.C., where he would inherit intensifying problems in Vietnam, and Lady Bird would handle the delicate transfer of the living quarters from the Kennedys to the Johnsons.
LBJ had grown up poor in the Hill Country of Texas, his father making and losing all the family money, his mother, a college-educated woman who felt out of place with other Texas homemakers. When it came time for college, LBJ had to earn the money working on road crews and other jobs, and attended Southwest Texas State Teachers College.
After teaching high school and working as a legislative aid, he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, then the Senate, becoming majority leader, then was picked by JFK to be his running mate.
But he chafed at the lack of power in his secondary role, snubbed by elites in the Kennedy administration.
After the assassination, he vowed to use his lawmaking skill to be known as the greatest president of all time, passing hundreds of pieces of legislation to make his Great Society, including the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and Medicare.
Lady Bird worried that she would be judged lacking in sophistication when compared to her predecessor. But she set about changing the role of first lady, hiring her own chief of staff and press secretary, and championing her own cause, the beautification of America.
At the ranch, LBJ would have visitors, like the Apollo astronauts, sign their names in slabs of cement that were used as pavers around the grounds. He would take them on joy rides – he loved driving his many vehicles on the ranch – including a light-blue convertible. He would drive it to the edge of a lake, then let it roll, exclaiming that the brakes had given out. “We’re going in! We’re going under,” he would yell, terrifying the passengers. Then the car, which was amphibious, would bob harmlessly in the water, LBJ roaring with laughter.
The ranch was where LBJ “played” Texas cattleman, showing visitors his herd of registered white-faced Hereford cattle. But the money came mostly from lesser breeds he would buy and resell. The president would show them his birthplace just down the road from his house, but it was a reconstructed, slightly upgraded version he had produced.
And he would cater barbecue for them, serving dinners in the hangar or under the spreading live oak in front of the house. Just a good old Texas boy with a big heart.
In reality, he was addicted to political power and determined to enrich himself, likely stuffing the ballot box in his Senate race. He was crass, sometimes making aides follow him into the bathroom to continue meetings. He was an adulterer, bringing pretty Texas women, some who couldn’t type, to D.C. to work in his office, installing a special buzzer in the Oval Office for Secret Service to alert him of Lady Bird’s approach after she caught him having sex with a secretary on the couch, and bragging, “I had more women accidentally, than he (Kennedy) ever had on purpose.” He was a bully, towering over others with his 6-foot-3½-inch heavy frame, sometimes having “meetings” in the deep end of the ranch’s swimming pool, where the always shorter adversary would have to tread water while LBJ stood firmly on the pool floor. Getting “the Johnson treatment” was legendary in Texas and Washington. And he was a deceiver, lying repeatedly to the American public about the cost in lives and dollars of escalating the Vietnam War.
But at the ranch, when you go into his utterly nondescript office, only slightly larger than the one my father, a university professor, kept at home, you can still feel a nostalgia for a time when a president was passionate about lifting the poor rather than enriching the wealthy.