Friday, July 5, 2013

Austin's LBJ Presidential Library

Celebrating Achievement In An Era of Dysfunction

I spent much of this week on a business trip to Austin Texas.  I am very fond of Austin. It is a big brash, diverse, exuberant city filled with music, academics and art. 

It's sense of humor is exemplified perfectly by its unofficial motto "Keep Austin Weird!"

With meetings complete, I had a bit of spare time this morning before my flight home. Being the 4th of July I was unsure what sightseeing options I might have. So local friends confirmed for me that the LBJ Presidential Library would be open.

As soon as you enter friendly staff provide a big Texas welcome and offer instructions how to best experience the library.

The LBJ Library and Presidential Archives

LBJ was a big, wickedly smart and frequently crude man. There was nothing subtle about him. As a young teacher in a segregated school he witnessed bigotry and poverty first hand. As a senator he worked tirelessly acquiring senatorial power. Once he had it he used his power to mete out unbearable pressure on anyone who got in his way.

As vice president fate compelled him to grasp the loose ends of one of America's most charismatic presidencies and create a presidency of his own.

LBJ rose to the task. He consolidated power and when he ran for the presidency won 98% of the popular vote. Using his power and brute strength in his 6 years in office he delivered powerful legislation, and lots of it; more legislation than any president before or since.

Dedicated in 1971 the LBJ Library is big and brutal. I find its proportions to be quite awkward and uncomfortable. Conceived to be monumental, it is really as much sculpture as building. It is oblivious to human scale. Visitors are challenged to simply find its tiny front door. It could be a backdrop for the original Star Wars movie. 

Perhaps, its uneven architectural character reflects the big, brutish, hardworking man it celebrates.

Once inside, space goes from claustrophobic to grand with a peculiar visitor flow. You go from low spaces to an enormous space. Then after completing some exhibits you must locate an obscure elevator for the trip to the 10th floor (the floor that floats above the Great Hall) to complete the visit.

The displays themselves are very good. They capture LBJ's era marvelously.

Four Floors of Presidential Papers / Archives

The Main Staircase

Rant Alert
For me the visit was bittersweet. LBJ believed in government and he effectively used its power. He championed legislation to aid the elderly, children and the poor. He steamrolled the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. He created a cabinet position for housing and urban development, established Medicare, Headstart, actionable environmental legislation and funds for urban mass transit. During his presidency poverty was cut in half.

LBJ challenged us to become a "Great Society" saying:
"The Great Society asks not how much, but how good; not only how to create wealth, but how to use it; not only how fast we are going, but where we are headed. It proposes as the first test for a nation: the quality of its people." 

By comparison many of today's politicians hide behind rhetoric stating that government is inherently bad. It allows them to do nothing. Heck, the most recent congress took 38 "symbolic" votes on the very same meaningless "legislation" (calling for the recall the Affordable Care Act), yet they allowed mindless across-the-board sequestration cuts to take place.

Instead of building a future, they gut LBJ era programs that for four decades have benefitted the poor, elderly and disenfranchised.

While claiming we can't afford social programs, they renewed $38 billion in tax breaks for big oil, and expanded benefits to special interests. They increased their own lifetime health benefits and created new tax breaks exclusively benefitting the (already) richest members of our society.

If LBJ's test for a nation is how it nurtures the "quality of its people", this generation of "leadership" is a complete failure. Congress has presided over the rapid expansion of poverty, pushed for the evaporation of our middle class, ignored surging infant mortality rates and looked at the ground while hunger rates surge among the old and young.

History will eviscerate them.

Singing with Friends

The library, however, does not shy away from LBJ's failings. It narrates LBJ's hatred of communism, overconfidence in American military power and corresponding massive escalation of the Viet Nam war. He misjudged it and slowly realized his legacy would now own this failed war. His war legacy is clearly illustrated by the heartbreaking display of thousands of dogtags in the great hall.

Although Johnson knew when he had power and was rarely afraid to use it, he also demonstrated the true test of power; knowing when to relinquish it. As he realized that his position on the war was making him completely ineffective, he deliberately, and dramatically, stepped away from a run for a second full term.

Dogtags From The 35,000 Texans Killed in Viet Nam

LBJ's Oval Office is Replicated

As my visit continued I appreciated the insight the library provided into the life of Claudia Alta "Lady Bird" Taylor Johnson. Recipient of both of America's two highest civilian honors The Presidential Medal of Freedom, and The Congressional Gold Medal, "Bird" was a women of amazing intellect, integrity and drive. Clearly Lady Bird proved herself to be one of America's smartest and most effective first ladies.

Lady Bird's Office is Also Replicated 
(Complete With Her Trademark "Can Do" Desk Sign)

Tony Lama Boots With the Presidential Seal

The Presidential Limo

No one knew LBJ better than Lady Bird. She summed up her husband as "A good man to have at your side when times get rough". 

While history has proven her right, I contend with conviction that the same may be said for her.

Practical Stuff:

• Hours:
9:00 AM to 5:00 PM

• Parking:
It is free. There is a lot of construction going on in and around the library. Highway signs currently direct you to a closed parking lot. Just drive to the east side of the facility (along the freeway) and there is a  temporary parking lot next to the Briscoe Center for American History (which is a destination of its own.)

• Recommended Donation:
Until recently this was the only presidential library with free admission. Presently a voluntary donation is suggested ($8 for adults, $5 seniors, $3 children). The library is transitioning and will soon charge an admission.

• Webiste: The LBJ Library

Roadboy's Travels © 2013

No comments: