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LBJ, In His Own Words

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 20, 1998; Page E04


A woman's handwritten note implores her husband-to-be, "I would hate for you to go into politics."

Lyndon B. Johnson would disappoint Bird Taylor in that regard, just as she would not be able to save him decades later when he penned this note to his wife at the depth of the Vietnam War: "I can't get out. I can't finish it with what I have got. So what the hell can I do?"

The tragedy of Lyndon Baines Johnson is not hard to find even among the ritual celebrations of his presidency at the LBJ Library, the marble mausoleum-like structure on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. The man who succeeded John F. Kennedy and who will be remembered both for creating the full-service federal government of the Great Society and for leading the nation deep into the abyss of Vietnam sought, like all modern presidents, to manage his legacy, to build a museum that would enshrine his accomplishments and soft-pedal his failures.

But beyond the lobby busts of LBJ and Lady Bird, past the nifty black 1968 Lincoln Continental limo that ferried President Johnson around the District, this presidential library offers a startlingly frank look at the wounded nation of the mid-1960s: race riots, the war, the generation gap.

There's not much of a crowd gathered to see the slide show about Johnson, mostly a white-haired bunch, and while some disparagingly compared LBJ with Ronald Reagan, others grow teary as they listen to a tape of Johnson reciting his "We Shall Overcome" speech: "Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it's not just Negroes, but all of us. . . ."

Presidential library slide shows can be awfully hokey, but this one plays it reasonably straight, saturated with heroic music but frankly calling Johnson "the first American president to lose a war" and repeatedly showing LBJ as a dejected, rejected figure.

The library's main exhibit is a good review of the first seven decades of this American century, viewed through the prism of Johnson's extraordinary rags-to-riches life. Even the high school kids passing through stare intently at the president's elementary school report card, his letters from the Pacific, the hate mail he received when he was a senator fighting for civil rights. A striking wall display of the 1,000 laws of the Great Society drives home just how much of today's America Johnson shaped. A tape recording of Lady Bird's recollections of the JFK assassination takes your breath away.

An animatronic LBJ leaning on a corral provides some unintended humor as he recites some of the president's rubber-chicken-circuit jokes. And the library's bookshop displays a clumsy bit of censorship in its selection, offering books by Michael Beschloss and Taylor Branch, but none of Robert Caro's masterful yet critical works on Johnson's life. Tucked away on the eighth floor is a scale model of the Oval Office in Johnson's day, complete with the three-screen TV console on which he monitored the evening newscasts.

But the choice TV moment in the museum is a letter of apology from the Smothers Brothers to the president dated Oct. 31, 1968. "We have taken satirical jabs at you and more than occasionally overstepped our bounds," the letter says. But it was too late for all involved: Within weeks, the CBS-TV satirists had lost their show and the president had become a lame duck, victims of the most turbulent year of the latter half of the century.

The LBJ Library and Museum, 2313 Red River St., one block west of I-35 on the University of Texas campus at Austin, is open daily except Christmas 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. Call 512- 916-5136. Continental, among the airlines that offer connecting service to Austin from Washington, is quoting a round-trip fare of $258, with restrictions.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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