Over the course of his 64 years, Lyndon Baines Johnson was many things: elevator operator, teacher, congressional aide, U.S. representative, Senate majority leader, vice president and ultimately commander in chief. • But above all, Johnson was a son of the Texas Hill Country. • "The sun seems to be a little brighter and the air a little fresher and the people a little kinder and understanding,'' is how he described the land he loved. • To understand the tragic-heroic figure that was LBJ, there is no better way than to visit this beautiful but once backward region where he grew up, got his start in politics and eventually returned as president forging a Great Society at home while waging a disastrous war abroad. And the best time to tour the LBJ Ranch and four recently opened rooms of the Texas White House is in spring, when billions of wildflowers burst into bloom. • I was here in mid March, a bit too early to catch the spectacular show of color. But it was a fine morning nonetheless when I pulled up to the visitors center at the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park.
Partly for budget reasons, the National Park Service no longer gives guided bus tours of the ranch and is instead experimenting with a free, self-drive system. Visitors get a map and a CD that features Johnson's own drawl narrating part of the tour.
As you drive along the well-kept Ranch Road 1, it's difficult to imagine how primitive the Hill Country was at the time of Johnson's birth in 1908.
Though his parents were relatively well off — his father was a state rep, his mother a teacher — daily life for women in Central Texas was an exhausting grind of pumping water by hand and stoking fires to cook and wash in the sweltering heat. It was not until 1939 that the region finally got electricity, thanks largely to Johnson's relentless efforts as a young congressman.
The first stop on the tour is the one-room school where Miss Katie taught all eight grades and Johnson, at age 4, sat on her lap to recite his lessons. Decades later, Miss Katie was by his side when he returned to sign the Federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, one of more than 60 education bills he supported as president.
(The act's best-known provision is the Head Start program, which to this day helps millions of low-income children. In his final years, Johnson sometimes visited the original Head Start site in nearby Stonewall, where kids knew him as Mr. Jelly Bean.)
Those schoolhouse days "were that magic time when the world of learning began to unfold before our eyes,'' Johnson later recalled. And because of his own struggles to get one, "I know education is the only valid passport from poverty.''
From there I drove along the Pedernales River (locals pronounce it PURR-da-nalis), past Herefords lazily grazing on what remains a working ranch. Thanks to wife Lady Bird's money and his own canny (and sometimes suspect) financial dealings, Johnson had become a wealthy man by 1951 when he bought the ranch from his aunt.
LBJ spent a fourth of his presidential term at home in Texas, and visitors to the Texas White House now park on the runway where Air Force One and other planes used to land. At a trailer marked "Airport Hangar'' you can pay $2 for a ranger-guided tour of the house and grounds.
First comes a look at the family cars. Fans of vintage autos will swoon over two '60s-era Lincoln convertibles and a tomato-red Ford Phaeton equipped with rifle rack and wet bar, amply stocked in Johnson's day with Cutty Sark.
His favorite, though, was a 1962 baby-blue German Amphicar, one of only a few thousand ever produced.
As the story goes, the nation's 36th president loved to shock unsuspecting guests by driving straight toward the river, shouting, "The brakes don't work — we're going in!'' Just as passengers began to gasp or pray, the amphibious car started to float and the party proceeded safely along.
But the star attraction of the tour is the house itself, magnificently situated on the banks of the Pedernales and shaded by an enormous live oak at least four centuries old.
Built in the late 1800s, the stone and wood house was expanded over the years to 28 rooms, including eight bedrooms and nine bathrooms. Although Johnson donated the ranch to the park service in 1972, a year before his fatal heart attack, Lady Bird stayed on under a life estate. She often rocked on the porch in nice weather and waved at tourists as they rode by on the bus.
In 2008, a year after Lady Bird joined her husband in the nearby family graveyard, the park service opened a few rooms to the public. Cozy though they are, they reflect the ego of a man who was obsessed with the trappings of the presidency but had an innate feel for the uses of power.
"This is my ranch and I do as I damn please,'' he liked to say.
In the oak-paneled office, two Naugahyde recliners with the presidential seal flank a stone fireplace. Above is a portrait of Johnson as Senate majority leader. Though many Americans dismissed him as a Texas hick when he became president after John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, LBJ was one of the most brilliant, if ruthless, political figures this nation has ever seen.
In pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other landmark legislation, "Johnson passed things that no one believed could be passed in the Senate,'' said Robert Caro, his Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer. "To watch him do it is to see not just legislative power but legislative genius.''
For its day, the Texas White House was a technological marvel. There were 70 phones, including one mounted under the dining room table where Johnson could easily reach it as he sat in his cowhide-covered chair. The family room had three television sets — for NBC, ABC and CBS, the only networks available in the '60s.
Visitors can also enter the den and kitchen, unremarkable but for a montage of family photos including LBJ dressed as Santa Claus. Due to open in the next few years are the Johnson bedrooms (with Stetsons still in the closet).
While at the Texas White House, Johnson often hosted heads of state and other dignitaries. He threw huge barbecues, complete with chuck wagon and actors dressed up as cowboys on horseback.
Weather permitting, official business was conducted outside in the shade of the oak. One photo on display shows Johnson meeting here with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and other cabinet members soon after the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin crisis. That incident led to a dramatic escalation of the Vietnam War — and Johnson's stunning decision not to seek re-election four years later.
After going through the house, I returned to the visitors center and did what most people do at the start of their tour — watch a 25-minute film first shown as an NBC special in 1966.
In The Hill Country — Lyndon Johnson's Texas, the president himself escorts a TV crew around the ranch and nearby Johnson City, where he spent much of his youth. In 1966, his remarkable career had yet to be fully realized or appreciated. There is no mention in the film of the Civil Rights Act or Medicare or any of the other programs that defined the Great Society.
No, in The Hill Country Johnson is just a man old before his time talking about his love of a land that nurtured him and steeled him and ultimately provided refuge from the slings of an increasingly hostile public. So it seemed fitting to leave Lyndon Johnson's ranch with his own words freshest in mind:
"I guess we all like home. Maybe I like it a little more than the average fellow.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at [email protected].