Texas White House
In this article, Norma Meyer gives us a tour of the Texas White House, President Lyndon Johnson's Texas home.
TRAVEL AND ADVENTURE
RELEASE: SUNDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2017
Texas White House
A Visit to President Lyndon Johnson's Texas Home
By Norma Meyer
So much for executive privilege. At the Texas White House I'm in the dated yellow bathroom of our 36th U.S. president, peeping at his teeth-cleaning Water Pik, Old Spice aftershave and olive-green Air Force One-logo towels hanging next to a wall phone reachable from the commode.
Colorful, complex Lyndon Baines Johnson spent a fourth of his five-year presidency at this ancestral homestead in big-sky Texas Hill Country. When I step into the hallway I half-expect to see the towering Texan in his beige Sears Outlander jacket, sipping a tumbler of Cutty Sark scotch and soda in between lobbying for landmark civil rights and tending to his Hereford cows.
A $3 tour of the LBJ Ranch, operated by the National Park Service, gives such a personal look at Johnson and his gracious wife Lady Bird, it's as if you snuck in while they're living there. Johnson's bedroom is time-frozen in the 1960s, hung with paintings of his cherub grandchildren and outfitted with a massage table where a Navy corpsman routinely gave him stress-relieving rubdowns. On Jan. 22 it'll be 45 years since LBJ lay down on the bed to take his afternoon nap and suffered a massive heart attack. He picked up the phone to call Secret Service agents for help and then fell to the floor.
“The president died right here in this bedroom,” says Park Service ranger Dave Schafer as we hover over the white cotton bedspread. “He took his last breath here about a mile from where he took his very first breath. He was 64.”
It's incredibly moving, especially if you remember this larger-than-life president alive. (Fascination with him continues: The Rob Reiner-directed biopic, “LBJ” starring Woody Harrelson recently hit theaters.) A Southern Democrat, he ascended to the presidency in 1963 as America emotionally reeled from John F. Kennedy's assassination. Ultimately, LBJ would be criticized for upping U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War but lauded for pushing through the sweeping Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Head Start, aid for schools and environmental protection laws.
What strikes me is that Johnson hosted scores of foreign leaders and other VIPs at the century-old Texas White House — as a senator he bought the place from his widowed aunt in 1951 — yet it's a relatively modest two-story eight-bedroom home that once had an entryway doormat reading “All the World is Welcome Here.” Two donkeys, Soup and Noodles, used to trot around pulling a green cart to humor guests. Nowadays, tour groups can peer into the Johnsons' clothes closets (she liked bright fabrics; he fancied khakis and Stetson hats) because the first couple donated their 2,700-acre spread for public visits. (I can't help contrasting Donald Trump's Southern White House, the posh gold-swathed 128-room Mar-a-Lago mansion in Palm Beach.)
Johnson died four years after leaving office and returning full-time to the folksy ranch he enjoyed as a boy — you can visit his first school and reconstructed birthplace cottage just down the road. No wonder he loved Hill Country with its deer-dotted pastures, pecan-tree groves and springtime bluebonnet wildflowers (today, the region draws tourists for its 50 wineries and the charming German town of Fredericksburg). Not one for stuffiness, LBJ often held Cabinet meetings under a 300-year-old still-standing oak tree in front of the house. Advisers, such as Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara, discussed Vietnam with him while sitting in webbed patio chairs on the lawn.
To relax, the chief executive got behind the wheel. A huge garage houses his fleet of vehicles, including the rare lagoon-blue Amphicar, a 1960s German-made floatable auto. Johnson got a kick out of scaring unsuspecting passengers by shouting the brakes had failed and careening the amphibious car into a lake. He also tooled around the ranch in his white Lincoln Continental convertible, sometimes steering with Cutty Sark in hand.
Outside, you can board “Air Force One-Half,” permanently parked on the ranch's runway. Air Force One was too heavy to land here, so as both president and vice president, Johnson took the 13-passenger “One-Half” Lockheed jet to his Texas outpost.
I'm drawn by the little details, though. Such as the “gift room,” stocked with presents Johnson would give to ranch guests; he must've been practical, judging by boxes of Ronson cordless electric shavers (embossed with presidential seal). And in LBJ's knotty pine-paneled study on his recliner you can't miss the needlepoint pillow embroidered “This is my ranch and I do as I damn please!”
At the tour's end, you'll have a human view of this strong-willed president whose Great Society agenda aimed to knock down racial barriers and eliminate poverty.
“He was born, lived, died and is buried here,” Schafer says. Under the shade of ancient oaks, I solemnly stare at LBJ's simple headstone in the ranch's family cemetery, where Lady Bird, his parents, grandparents and the ashes of his beloved beagles, Him and Her, are also interred.
WHEN YOU GO
For information about Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park: www.nps.gov/lyjo
Stay in the nearby 1846-founded German town of Fredericksburg, a lively enclave of schnitzel and brave immigrant history, www.visitfredericksburgtx.com. I slept in the retro-cool 1940s-style Hangar Hotel, built on an airstrip and resembling a World War II military hangar: www.hangarhotel.com.
Norma Meyer is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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