Friday, March 23, 2012

The Western White House

I've been traveling across Texas the past week and a half. I stayed with friends in Marble Falls, and on Wednesday we went to Lyndon Johnson's ranch, now a state and national park.

You sign up for a permit, and you get a cd narrating the drive around the park.

It's a beautiful place, across the Pedernales (pronounced Per-de-nales by Johnson and my Texas friend) River from the Highway 290. There's a long, well-paved runway, and the small Lockheed jet that LBJ used after leaving his 707 in Austin, stands under a roof.

The Western White House. How many times we heard that phrase during LBJ's presidency! You come to it after driving past the older homes on the property, earlier generations of Johnsons, and the family cemetary where LBJ and Ladybird lie. The hangar where he held press conferences now holds exhibits - Johnson making his speech on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, photos of him and Ladybird - and a desk where $2 buys you a ticket to tour the house.

It's a nice limestone home under old oak trees. An office that gave him about as much room as my office gives me, with three secretaries added. IBM typewriters, cord phones, three televisions for the three networks with one of the first remotes ever. The rest of the house is not extraordinary except for the thinking that pursued me.

"Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" echoed through my head after an enlarged LBJ-Humphrey campaign button caught my eye.

And yet...the Civil Rights Act. Johnson's observation that his signing it would end the south's support of the Democratic party has been much cited. It's quite a contrast to most current political approaches: the good of the country came first.

If the Republicans hadn't picked up the South, that party wouldn't be quite so crazy today. And if Johnson hadn't signed the Civil Rights Act, that probably wouldn't have happened. But the country would have been torn apart anyway. The ending of the Vietnam War and the draft wouldn't have been enough.

Alternative history always intrigues me. But there are so many possible paths, and so many unexpected events possible. Who would have thought that it would be a Southern, typically corrupt Dixiecrat brought to the presidency by an assassin's gun who would do so much to end segregation?

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