The LBJ Presidential Library at 50
For five decades, the LBJ Library & Museum has been not only keeping history but also making history
You won't see it rendered on any emblematic skyline of Austin. It doesn't show up on any lists of iconic local landmarks. It isn't the most monumental structure in the city or the grandest, the tallest or the oldest. People may live here for years and years and never pay it a visit. And yet it's one of the most important buildings in Austin – important not only to the city but to the nation. It holds invaluable pieces of history. It tells the story of a national leader who changed the course of the country. It helps us make sense of a time which was both tragic and transformative. It's the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library.
In the spring of this year, that institution commemorated the 50th anniversary of its opening, and at the half-century mark, the LBJ Library has transcended its role as a repository of history; it is history itself. For decades, the Library has hosted leaders in politics, social issues, and culture to address contemporary issues, and it convened major summits on the Vietnam War, race in America, and civil rights – the last with four U.S. presidents attending – that didn't rehash history but rather connected past to present, relating touchstone topics of the Sixties with those of our own time.
Truth be told, though, the LBJ Library has been making history from the beginning. Presidential libraries were still a relatively new concept in 1971; Johnson's was only the fourth to open (John F. Kennedy's library was still under construction). The first three – for FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower – had established a template of Shrine to the Great Man. But LBJ, ever the rowdy Texan, broke from the herd. His library would not simply burnish the character of its subject by focusing on his life story and accomplishments. It would tell "the story of our time, with the bark off," as LBJ famously put it at the library's dedication. This president would show it all, what he got right and what he got wrong, what people cheered and what they loathed, right down to the postcard he was sent by a California man that read: "I demand that you as a gutless son-of-a-bitch resign as President of the United States."
That sentiment was still widespread when the Library was dedicated on May 22, 1971. LBJ had been out of office just two years. The U.S. remained deeply embroiled in the Vietnam War – the day of the dedication, 30 American soldiers were killed and 50 more wounded in three rocket attacks in South Vietnam – and the label of "the Vietnam President" dogged Johnson. His escalation of the war, and the ballooning casualties that came with it, obscured most of his administration's progressive domestic achievements. At that point, the folks who talked the most about his Great Society initiatives were conservatives, who railed against them. Johnson's successor in the Oval Office, Richard Nixon, called the welfare system "a monstrous, consuming outrage" and sought to abolish it, as well as dismantle the Office of Economic Opportunity. In a nutshell, LBJ's White House legacy was still very much in question.
And yet this was the man who insisted that his presidential library make the records of his administration available for research as quickly as possible. Harry Middleton, LBJ's former assistant and his choice for library director in 1970, recalled his boss being "impatient with the general if unspoken rule at the time that it took at least five years for the first group to be opened. 'Let's cut that in half,' he ordered."
The commitment to getting his papers out there didn't end then or end with LBJ. Lady Bird Johnson, in all things her husband's partner, shared his vision for the Library, and after his death, she authorized taped phone conversations from the White House to be released years before LBJ himself wanted them to be. Current Library Director Mark A. Lawrence considers that emblematic of what the Library stands for. "Releasing that really valuable material speaks to something I've always appreciated about this institution, which is the dedication to openness," he says. "The leadership here has always prioritized that."
The upshot of all that openness has been extraordinary access to the inner workings of the LBJ White House, for historians and the public. Both groups have been able to explore, in extreme detail, how the administration engineered and passed its landmark legislative achievements – the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Economic Opportunity Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the creation of the National Endowment of the Arts and National Endowment of the Humanities, just for starters – and how programs established by those actions were implemented and operated. People have had a window into LBJ's decision-making process about Vietnam, of course, but also foreign policy with other nations, and they've been able to hear – literally hear – LBJ's dealings with political figures foreign and domestic, leaders in the civil rights movement, and other major personalities of the time.
The LBJ Library's openness has, in turn, opened us to new perspectives on Johnson and his legacy. Without the preservation of and access to LBJ's staggeringly massive archives – and anyone who's stood at the base of the Library's Great Hall and looked up at the four floors of red boxes, each floor 175 rows of boxes across and each row six boxes high, knows that descriptor is no understatement – author Robert Caro could never have produced his monumental (at present) four-volume The Years of Lyndon Johnson, a work that has provided priceless new insights into its subject. In the 45 million pieces of paper filling those red boxes, Caro has been able to put his hands on obscure scraps that have helped fill in gaps in LBJ's biography and resolve open questions about his actions and motivations.
Caro recounts one example in his book Working, in which the discovery of a 1940 telegram from George Brown of Brown & Root enabled the author to explain the rise of Johnson's influence in Washington. "You were supposed to have the checks by Friday," the message begins, and then names six people who were assigned to send LBJ money. With it is LBJ's reply acknowledging receipt of the checks. It was the first written evidence Caro found linking Johnson's changing fortunes to financial contributions, and with it he pieced together a trail of money for Democratic candidates that LBJ could decide how to distribute. That's why everybody suddenly wanted to get on the good side of this young congressman from Texas. Caro had had to dig through lots of papers for it, but it was all there, just as LBJ promised at the dedication. The bark was off, indeed.
Many, many authors and historians have, like Caro, been able to shed new light on Johnson, his administration, the people around him, and the controversies of the 1960s thanks to research done at the Library. That includes two of the Library's six directors, both of whom first came to know the Library as historians: current Director Lawrence and former Director Mark Updegrove, now president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation. "I had the thought that the LBJ Library was the best Presidential Library in the system well before I ever thought about becoming the director," says Updegrove. "The archivists were so knowledgeable and the ease of getting materials was so much better" than at other presidential libraries. Julia Sweig gives a similar shout-out to the Library's archivists in the acknowledgments of her 2021 biography Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight; she praises their "expertise and unfailing dedication at every turn," adding that they "embody the vision that Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson had for the professionalism and rigor of their presidential library."
As above – i.e., where all those red boxes sit – so below, in the museum part of the LBJ Library. Exhibitions, both permanent and temporary, have drawn from the archives' resources to remedy received notions of who the Johnsons were and what they did. The permanent exhibitions, reconceived in 2012 to offer a more holistic view of LBJ, push past the macho militarist heedlessly sending young Americans to die in Vietnam and the cartoon Texan lifting his beagle by the ears to show the deal maker, the risk taker, the new president who chose to spend his political capital on getting a major civil rights bill passed. Likewise, the current temporary exhibit on Lady Bird – the title gets right to the point: "Beyond the Wildflowers" – shows Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson as much more than the Southern lady and genteel helpmeet to Lyndon; this is Lady Bird the writer, the businesswoman, the politically savvy campaigner for LBJ, the ardent advocate for education and environmentalism. It's the full picture.
And 50 years on, the full picture is good to have. Today, UT students taking the course "The Johnson Years" taught by Lawrence and Updegrove may know LBJ only through the opinions of their grandparents, the only family members to have lived through his presidency (and heaven help them if Grandpa still feels like that long-ago postcard writer from Cali). Then it's worthwhile to be able to talk to them about the War on Poverty and Head Start and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, not to mention the Voting Rights Act and two Civil Rights Acts. And, okay, the Johnson treatment and his appendectomy scars and his coarse manners. "This was an enormously complicated figure," says Lawrence. "I don't know who it was that said that every adjective in the dictionary applies to LBJ, but that's probably right."
The LBJ Library has been dedicated to conveying as many of those adjectives as possible, and it's still at it. The appearance of the library itself may suggest a mausoleum, even a tomb of the pharaoh, but inside care has been taken to tell the story of a very human-sized man.
The Library's challenge at 50 is to balance its eye on the past with one on the present. "One of the things I like about LBJ is that he and his presidency raised so many questions that are still so relevant to the 21st century," says Lawrence. "Way back at the beginning, there was this idea that the institution could be an archive but it could be much more than that. It could be a stage and a forum for discussion of important public issues and debates. And a lot of people who had a really strong hand in shaping this institution over the years have consistently been dedicated to that idea that the history is great, and that's a big reason why we're here, but we should use that as the foundation to think about the present and the future."
That philosophy and mission, laid as a cornerstone for the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library by its namesake and his spouse, is what's made it a history-making institution for the past 50 years. And if they remain in place as they have, the Library will no doubt continue to make history for 50 more.