36. Lyndon B. Johnson

Johnson ranch (February 16, 2008)

There was a president from Texas once who spent a staggering amount of time on his ranch, cared deeply about education and presided over a transformative and often unpopular war. And he was a Democrat. Who says America isn't bipartisan?

A lot of president's homes are just houses with artifacts, and while it's deeply moving to see the dinner set Rutherford B. Hayes ate off of, what does it really tell you about the man, aside from his exquisite taste in flatware? The LBJ ranch, just west of Austin, is more like the LBJ Experience -- you cruise around Hill Country for a little while and you supposedly get a feel for the guy, or at least the image of the guy that he wanted to project: badass cattleman. Which may sound corny, but since the guy made a living out of herding politicians, it's not that far off the mark. Don't mess with Texas.

In 1908 the Texas hill country was basically "No Country for Old Men" without all the annoying civilization. No running water, no electricity, no Ford F150s with peeing Calvin stickers on the back. LBJ was born into that life in a one-story house not far off the Pedernales (Spanish for "Kill All Communists") River, by his family's cotton farm. That house is gone, but there's a recreation there today which LBJ himself ordered -- it's the first stop on the bus tour you have to take if you want to see the ranch at all. Not that I'm complaining. There's nothing like riding around on a shuttle where the average age is 64. It's how you learn about America. There's not much to the house, but aces for going all the way with the reconstruction:

Yes, visiting dignitaries could experience bowel movements the same way a 4-year-old LBJ did. And from that, detente.

From that house he could walk up the river to his grandfather's house and get peppermint sticks; he could walk down the river to the one-room schoolhouse where he was enrolled at a very young age (his mom supposedly greased the skids, because as a teacher she highly valued education, and she also wanted day care so that LBJ wouldn't drown in the river. And thus the seeds of Head Start were planted). LBJ signed one of the biggest education programs in U.S. history into law in a ceremony in front of that schoolhouse.

Unfortunately for his cotton-farming family, the land is really only good for ranching and drinking, so at the age of five dad moved the good times 15 miles east to Johnson City. Which, if you have to move, it's probably best to go to a town founded by your relatives. It makes things simpler when you're trying to move up the ranks in the PTA. You can visit the boyhood home, which was on a 1 1/2 acre plot and featured a decent-sized building, a dirt yard and a few outbuildings. LBJ's dad did odd jobs, read the law, and made the trip back to the family farm on occasions; he was also a regular in the Texas state legislature. That was only a part time job, because Texans chose long ago to settle most legal disputes by shooting wildly into the air and punching nancies in the mouth. But it did make politics a family affair, and when rough men show up at your house to drink and curse and cut shady deals with your dad on your front porch, that's going to leave an impression.

Also leaving an impression: the print of All is Vanity over the fireplace in the parlor. Yikes.

LBJ finished high school at the age of 15 and was president of his graduating class (of six, he was the most popular). He bummed around doing odd jobs in California for a few years, then came home to Texas to get some more schooling. He ended up with a teaching certificate, just like his three sisters and his mother, who obviously did a good job hammering home the importance of edumacation. In 1931 he went to Washington to be a legislative aide to a Congressman; he gladhanded his way to a New Deal job in Texas in 1935; and at the age of 28 in 1937 he ran for Congress. He announced his campaign from the porch of his boyhood home. He ran on a platform of modernization -- bringing power and water and modern amenities to the land he had grown up in, after years of having to share a bathroom with his three sisters without those benefits. He won, and he delivered on his promises. And so he made possible the electrified fence, and there was much rejoicing.

The ranch comes back into play in the 1950s, when LBJ bought his uncle's home; as the story goes, it was a place he had to visit to "recharge his batteries" after long weeks of 20-hour days railroading people into doing his bidding; they have recordings of friends and aides describing how a drained man on Friday night would slowly fill up with piss and vinegar by Monday morning. It's a functioning cattle ranch -- LBJ raised Herefords, in part for the money and in part because it makes for a great photo op when you're on horseback roping a huge bull. The park service keeps it running today, per the terms of LBJ's will, and the tour bus does give you the chance to visit some of the stables and pastures:

The weights are to make sure the horns grow down. And also because this particular cow was totally goth.

If hanging out with smelly animals wasn't enough to persuade visitors to completely rewrite civil rights laws or reformulate America into an entitlement culture, then he could always take them for a swim:

That's the pool of the "Texas White House," as the ranch home came to be known, and sadly that's all you can see if it for now. The Johnson family still owns it, and though the death of Lady Bird last year triggered the transition to government hands, it won't be complete until this summer. So the most you can do is stand at the wall and take pictures of the pool. It's a great way to feel dirty and historically curious at the same time.

So much of the tour is through a bus window -- the air strip, the pastures, the trailers for the network news people, the garage with LBJ's famous Cadillacs, which he would drive guests around in. It would be nice to have a closer look. But in part it kind of reinforces the vastness of the whole thing -- that this was a lot more than just a house, it was a ranch that took in a whole countryside and way of life. In that sense it's kind of cool, even if you have to share a shuttle bus with 20 people who take 4 minutes to navigate the bus' three steps.

One sort-of up close thing is the family cemetery, a simple enclosed plot by the river dominated by two beautiful oak trees. For a man who was larger than life, LBJ has an understated marker.

His is the tallest headstone in the shot, but it's stunningly simple, isn't it? The flowers next to it mark Lady Bird's grave; the tombstone isn't ready yet. The large face-like thing in the front is me.

The big question in all this is what to believe. Johnson was by any standard a world-changing president, through his efforts on Vietnam, civil rights and the Great Society programs that have in many ways totally reshaped American political culture. He had powers of persuasion that were legendary and an unwavering faith in the ability of government to improve people's lives. When you see his home, you can understand why.

But he was also a man very aware of his image. Before you board the bus, you watch a 1966 NBC News special in which Johnson (whose popularity was beginning to tank) takes a reporter on basically the tour you are about to experience. It's filled with beautiful shots of the countryside, and stories about humble beginnings, and LBJ talking about the clarity and serenity he drew from being home. EVen if it's 100 percent sincere, it's an effort at spinning his image, and so a shadow of doubt creeps in. He knew the power of television and public relations, and when you take the bus tour, the message is basically the same as in 1966.

So you know there's more to the story -- for instance, the ranch was a functional business, but a lot of LBJ's money came from owning TV and radio stations. He knew about ranching, but he also knew the value of projecting the cowboy image. And the more brutish side of the man -- the strong-arming, the threatening, the rough edges that made him so astonishingly good at his job -- doesn't really fit in to the picture they're painting. Vietnam doesn't get too much mention, nor the change in spirit that led him to walk away from D.C. in 1969. There's just a ton to know about the guy, who might be up there with Woodrow Wilson as far as "most s*** to deal with during a presidency" -- the first assassination of the TV era, the Civil Rights era, the Cold War, Vietnam, Beatlemania, counterculture ... he wasn't captaining the ship through smooth seas.

But I guess that's why they write books. Sigh. Still, if you're in Austin or San Antonio, go check it out. Totally worth it.

Bonus photo: an arty shot of one of the buildings at the "Johnson settlement" in Johnson city. Basically it's the spread that LBJ's grandfather had close to town. It has old buildings. And no visitors but me. It's great.


  • In his five-year presidency, LBJ spent approximately 25 percent of those days on his Texas ranch. 74 percent was spent in Washington, and 1 percent was spent in disguise working the counter at an International House of Pancakes in San Bernadino.
  • LBJ's favorite song (and the #1 selection on the Texas White House jukebox) was "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," though orders to blare it from the speakers of low-flying helicopters in Vietnam had little effect.
  • He was the least experienced senator ever promoted to minority leader, and is considered by many to be the greatest Senate leader in U.S. history. I know -- better than Harry Reid? Hard to believe, but I guess so.
  • Johnson never intended Great Society programs to be handouts, but as it turns out, people aren't so great.
  • While serving in Congress he enrolled in the Naval reserves during World War II and requested front-line assignments. Which is probably why he found draft dodgers slightly annoying.

One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White