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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 347

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This is the grave of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Where to even start with one of the most complicated people in American history? I guess I will just make a few points since his basic story is well-known, especially to those who have read the 80,000 pages Robert Caro has written on his life.

1) It’s important to note just how poor LBJ was growing up. Caro’s first volume does a wonderful job with this, spending the first few hundred pages on the Hill Country, Johnson’s family, the Populists, and generally painting a picture of a boy who grew up in a local political family, but one that was downwardly mobile. Johnson’s father Sam was one of the few Populist state legislators in Texas who resisted the wining and dining of lobbyists when he got to Austin and thus he lacked political friends in high places and a way to make money. Caro is right when he talks about how this impacted Johnson’s life. LBJ would be damn sure that he wasn’t going to end up poor after a life of politics and of course he did not, making a ton of money on ethically sketchy radio station deals.

2) LBJ wasn’t really a great person. We sometimes valorize his method of physically intimidating recalcitrant senators and laugh about him humiliating people by giving interviews while on the toilet, but this is awful behavior. He treated Lady Bird terribly too, not only by cheating on her all the time, but through berating her around others. She did have a friend in Sam Rayburn, who not only mentored Lyndon, but who thought Lady Bird was pretty great. But still….

3) Johnson was an effective majority leader. Some have argued the most effective in history, although McConnell may have a say in that, as much as I hate to say it. He was such a smart person and could process politics so quickly–which is interesting because he was not intellectually curious at all and was primarily interested in power and politics and his brain served that purpose–that he simply controlled the chamber personally. This still makes the decision to become VP for Kennedy somewhat baffling, especially given that the position was always useless up to that point and would continue to be so for him. It worked out for him certainly, but it still surprises me that he gave up so much power. He hedged his bets of course, having the Texas legislature change the law so he could run for reelection at the same time as for VP.

4) Of course, his presidency was the biggest mixed bag in history. He did not have to take up the mantle of civil rights and it was an incredible act of bravery to do so. Johnson had political capital and he was going to spend it. Sure, he saw the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through and that wasn’t easy, but it was also such a weak law that civil rights activists weren’t happy and they certainly didn’t trust the new president. But his hatred of poverty and injustice, which he had seen not only growing up but in his time teaching in south Texas, genuinely moved a man who wasn’t easily persuaded to do anything that wouldn’t help himself directly. Of course, he became the greatest civil rights president since Lincoln. He still saw all of this through politics. He was baffled at the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s moral crusade to get the white Mississippi delegation kicked out of the 1964 DNC. As he put it, if he won, they would have a friend in the White House and if he lost because the white South abandoned him for Goldwater, they wouldn’t. He didn’t understand social movements outside of politics. He wasn’t perfect. He completely rejected out of hand large-scale direct government employment programs during the War on Poverty, which might have been a lot more effective than many of the enacted programs. But the War on Poverty was at least a concerted effort to do something about the many problems the nation had in leaving people behind. Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start are programs that have changed many lives. Johnson’s environmental agenda was outstanding, second probably only to Carter’s in our history. If it was only domestic policy we were judging, LBJ would be a top 5 president.

5) Alas, there was Vietnam. Johnson didn’t really want to fight in Vietnam. But being a Cold War liberal who saw what the “Who Lost China?” slogan did to Truman and the Democratic Party, he was determined not to let that become him. But because of the difficult nature of fighting in a civil war we had no business involving ourselves in and because Johnson struggled to be honest to the public about why we were there and how close we were to victory, it all blew up in his face after the Tet Offensive (and really before that too), leading to him deciding not to run for reelection in 1968. And really, that’s a tragedy, not only because Nixon won, but because a second term might have seen him enact more great domestic programs.

There is really so much more one can say about LBJ, but I will leave it to you all.

This is also of course the grave of Lady Bird Johnson. She did not die until 2007. I was living in Texas at that time and even though the state had already swung hard to the Republicans, it was truly a mourning period for a queen. She was beloved. Some of this was because of her highway beautification and environmental campaigns. Much of it was her dignity. This deeply shy woman became an active campaigner for her husband and also because she solved a lot of the problems he caused with other people, creating a great love for her from the media.

Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson are buried on the LBJ Ranch, outside of Stonewall, Texas. This is now run by the National Park Service. It’s a cool place to tool around for a couple of hours. The family cemetery is restricted and so this was as close as I could get to their graves.

This grave visit was covered by LGM reader contributions. Basically, I had a conference last month in San Antonio and you all paid for the rental car and my lunch to head up to see some dead Texans. I think that when you contributed, this is the kind of thing you had in mind. If you would like me to cover more presidents, you can donate to cover the required expenses to keep this series alive here. I am now attempting to gather resources to go to Nashville, which has graves galore, including that of James Polk, which Andrew Jackson is just outside of town at the Hermitage. I think we all know that those would be good additions to this series. Help make it happen! Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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