Texas Hill Country, as it’s officially known, begins north of San Antonio and west of Austin. President Lyndon Baines Johnson was born in these semi-arid rolling hills, he grew up here, died here, and his grave now lies here. It’s said jokingly that he “didn’t get far in life,” and truthfully it could be said that LBJ brought Hill Country to Washington and the world.
Tragedy and Triumph
Lyndon Johnson did not pursue the Presidency in the way that most Presidents do. In 1960 he didn’t campaign in the presidential primaries, and took the role of JFK’s second fiddle, in order to bring all important Texas into the Kennedy camp. While a back seat to Kennedy bored the energetic and industrious Texan, there isn’t much evidence Vice President Johnson viewed himself as Oval Office material.
Having never actually campaigned for President, Johnson assumed the office suddenly upon Kennedy’s death in November 1963. Beyond the conspiracy theories, the tragedy in Dallas haunted Lyndon Johnson in two crucial ways. First, the sophisticated Kennedy wing of the Democratic Party never accepted him as JFK’s legitimate heir. Second, Johnson came into office at a time when the United States was drifting ever closer to all-out war in Vietnam.
Those closest to the President agree that after inheriting the office, and less than ten months in the White House, Johnson seriously considered not seeking his party’s nomination in 1964. Just two days before he would speak at the Democratic convention, LBJ reviewed a statement he’d personally prepared on the matter, with Press Secretary George Reedy:
The time has come to acquire leadership about which there is no doubt, and a voice that men of all parties and sections and color can follow. I’ve learned after trying very hard, that I am not that voice or that leader. Therefore – and then I’m going to say – therefore, I suggest that the representatives from all states of this union, selected for the purpose of selecting a democratic nominee, for President and Vice President, proceed to do their duty. And that no consideration be given to me because I am absolutely unavailable. Audio Link Below
As events unfolded LBJ never issued that statement. Over the following days the encouragement of advisors and his beloved wife “Lady Bird,” propelled him forward. President Johnson went on to win the 1964 election with a margin unmatched by any Democratic candidate since.
Following that victory, the newly elected President entered into a time in the sun. His Great Society legislation shaped the nation in education, health care, the environment, poverty, and civil rights. The 1964 campaign through 1966 represents LBJ in full bloom; the hard working, social planner President who got things done at home, and defended American interests abroad. His legendary persuasive powers - the “Johnson Treatment” - were most evident during this time, and were part of a larger persona shaped by his origins. Here was a President who somewhat fittingly named his twin beagles “Him” and “Her.” After famously picking “Him” up by the ears for reporters, the President later explained, “I’ve been pulling Him’s ears since he was a pup, and he seemed to like it.” LBJ at his finest was a genuine, all-too-human character, with an earthy Hill Country likability.
Audio of Johnson's Conversation with George Reedy
Importantly, LBJ the President did not exhibit hubris. He was not the brassy, hard charging personality sometimes associated with the term “Texan.” He hated to be alone, craved public adulation, and sought the advice of experts, who he referred to as his “Harvards.” Johnson anguished in his decision making, had a strong sense of responsibility, and privately doubted himself. More than most political leaders, he needed the people around him. Press Secretary Bill Moyers recounted finding the President in bed, the covers pulled above his head, as LBJ described a sense of slowly sinking into a Louisiana swamp.
By 1967 Johnson’s time in the sun had come to an end. While Americans initially had little reason to doubt a favorable outcome in Vietnam, drastic escalation without obvious results placed tremendous pressure on the President. Below is a summary of LBJ’s investment in winning the Vietnam War:
- November 1964: Johnson’s election victory. 15,000 US military advisors serve in Vietnam. Situation rapidly deteriorating.
- February 1965: 3,500 Marines land near Da Nang. Operation Rolling Thunder, a massive bombing campaign, continues for the next three years.
- July 1965: Existing US troop level of 75,000 increased to 125,000.
- 1966: 385,000 US troops in Vietnam.
- 1967: 485,000 US troops in Vietnam.
- January 1968: Tet Offensive against US forces lasts three months. US troop strength exceeds 500,000 by year’s end.
When the expected victory never materialized a restlessness set in, and by 1968 Johnson’s own advisors began to abandon him. Chief Vietnam strategist Robert McNamara departed in February 1968, having lost faith in the war effort. A month later the “wise men,” a group of elder statesmen whose advice had informed years of escalation, suddenly counseled Johnson to disengage. Worst of all, after the Tet Offensive revealed American victory was nowhere in sight, LBJ forever lost the American people. He famously announced to the world he would not seek his party's nomination in 1968.
Branded by the very issue tearing the nation apart, in January 1969 Lyndon Johnson put himself out to pasture, returning to the Texas Hill Country. At the LBJ Ranch near Stonewall Texas, he avoided the media and rarely surfaced in public. He gained weight, drank whiskey, and after quitting cigarettes fourteen years earlier, now returned to smoking several packs a day. The former President busied himself with the day to day operation of the ranch, down to the finest detail, and oversaw planning for his presidential library, which opened in May 1971.
News from the outside world continued to hit Johnson hard. In June 1971 the Pentagon Papers became public, demonstrating his administration had early and ongoing evidence of failure in Vietnam. Then, in 1972 the Democratic Party disavowed Johnson’s foreign policy, selecting the anti-war Senator George McGovern as their presidential nominee. LBJ met with McGovern at the ranch and provided as cool an endorsement as possible, privately telling the Senator his views on Vietnam were “crazy as hell.” Behind the scenes, Johnson supported President Nixon against McGovern in 1972.
As years passed on the ranch, Johnson’s heart hurt more and more. In 1970 his doctors diagnosed angina, a hardening of the arteries. In 1972, while visiting his daughter in Virginia, LBJ suffered a severe heart attack. Thereafter he experienced daily chest pains, rarely drove, didn’t climb stairs, and relied on oxygen and nitroglycerine pills. In December 1972 Johnson made his last major public appearance. Long haired and popping nitroglycerine pills, he managed to take the stage at his library’s Civil Rights Summit. LBJ’s presence that day may be more significant than his words, knowing now how close to death he was. Little more than a month later, on January 22, 1973, he was unusually quiet at breakfast. An employee drove him around the ranch. He ate a late lunch, and rested in his bedroom. At 3:49pm LBJ managed to place an emergency call to the ranch’s Secret Service station. Two agents arrived to find him on the floor beside his bed, dead of a heart attack at age sixty-four.
Texas Hill Country today is a mix of traditional cattle ranches and trendy wine vineyards. Easily accessible by car from San Antonio or Austin, wildflowers line the country highways in spring. From west to east, the three main LBJ related sights are the ranch near Stonewall, the boyhood home in Johnson City, and the Presidential Library and Museum in Austin.
The LBJ Ranch served as Johnson’s retreat from Washington during his presidency, and as his home during the four years of his retirement. Today it’s known officially as the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site, and is divided by the Perdernales River into two sections. Visitors enter south of the river, where there is a visitor center, as well as public use areas for swimming, tennis, picknicking, and fishing. The river offers bass, catfish and sunfish, and no fishing license is required within the park. Visitors can also experience an early Hill Country farmstead and examples of pioneer construction.
The ranch itself lies north of the Perdernales River. A pleasant drive leads past the Johnson family cemetery, where red granite marks the final resting place of the President and First Lady. The lane continues past a reconstruction of LBJ’s birth house, through ranchland populated by cattle descended from the President’s Hereford’s, and terminates at a parking area near the ranch airstrip. Here guests view LBJ’s Lockhead Jetstar presidential jet, his personal vehicles, and visit the ranch museum. At the museum anyone can listen in on LBJ’s conversations with figures such as Robert Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower, and view the stockpile of items he would gift ranch visitors. Nearby, the main home, a sprawling white structure known as the “Texas White House,” faces the Perdernales River. The house tour includes among other rooms LBJ’s office, and the bedroom where he died. Aside from a three-dollar fee to tour the home, the remainder of the ranch experience is free of charge.
Fifteen minutes east, down US-290, is LBJ’s boyhood home in Johnson City. The property occupies a city block today. More modest than the ranch house, the boyhood home can also be toured, and there is a nearby visitor center and museum with information on Lady Bird, and LBJ’s legislative initiatives. The Johnson City sites are free of charge, and can be accomplished in one to two hours.
The third and most comprehensive historical attraction is Johnson’s Presidential Library and Museum, on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. The striking architecture and the quality of the exhibits reflects LBJ’s fondness for projects and his attention to detail. There is an interactive aspect to the museum; for example, visitors can take turns getting the “Johnson Treatment.” The inside structure reflects a sense of openness, and accessing LBJ’s presidential records is a relatively simple matter. The library advises researchers to call one day prior to arrival, and to bring identification. Parking at the LBJ Library and Museum is free of charge, and the museum is well worth the eight-dollar entry fee.
Experiencing all three LBJ related attractions costs a grand total of eleven dollars per person, and the staff are friendly and welcoming. The Hill Country sites represent Johnson’s best hope for ever being rehabilitated in the public eye, and they are operated as such. The idea is, that the more people learn about LBJ, the less he’ll be seen merely as the “Vietnam President.” Johnson liked to think that if visitors take a close enough look, they will find more good than bad, and understand that his failures were not for a lack of effort or concern.
To understand Lyndon Johnson, you have to understand the place he came from. In sharp contrast to his predecessor, he was born and died a man of the soil, a progressive idealist nonetheless. What originally peaked my own interest was a chance study of my passport, where I found a page quoting LBJ’s inaugural address of 1965. He described America then as “the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge…. The star that is not reached, and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground.” After leaving the White House, LBJ spoke of Hill Country in similar, idyllic terms. “The moons are a little fuller here”, he declares in a message to visitors, “the stars are a little brighter.” Pay a visit to Texas Hill Country yourself, to discover if there’s a bit of truth in that message.