We came to the Hill Country of Texas because we were on a mission. We were intent on uncovering the clues that would help us piece together a more thoughtful understanding of our 36th president, Lyndon Baines Johnson. After visiting the Johnson Presidential Library in Austin in 2016, we realized that our memories of him, formed in the turmoil and passion of the 1960s, were narrower than the historical record. The filter of our 20-year old lenses acted like a microscope, zeroing in on the details of just two things – the assassination of JFK and the Vietnam War. While both were hugely formative in our young lives, the lens created a blind spot when it came to an awareness of the deeper contributions of his presidency, of the man himself.
We needed a home base for this trip and our research led us to Pedernales Falls State Park, a spectacular campground in the Hill Country, shown here in the header when Peter and I went on a short hike. The campground sits in a broad and lush valley the center of which is the wide and impressive Pedernales River, which flows through the Johnson Ranch. It was our home for four nights and five days. Our campsite was very wooded and private and a perfect location for the retrospection and reflection and awesome connection that would be present during our stay here.
Our first stop into the LBJ history began with a visit to Johnson Settlement, the National Park site where his grandfather first settled upon coming into the Hill Country after the Civil War, living here between 1867 and 1872. His grandfather, Sam Johnson, Sr. brought his new bride to the place to speculate on cattle. He and his brother planned to cash in on the cattle drives up the Chisholm Trail to Kansas. The drives were long and treacherous and not always lucrative. The brothers made a significant amount of money in the early years and then lost it all. Sam’s brother drowned in 1877 on a drive.
While driving cattle, LBJ’s grandmother was left alone at the isolated cabin. Family stories, which LBJ was known to embellish, included one about his grandmother hiding under the cabin with her first baby during a Comanche raid, a testimony to the archetypal DNA that formed the man who would be president. The young family later moved to a town near Austin for a few years and then returned to the area where other family members continued to live. Their oldest son, LBJ’s father, Sam, Jr., grew up in the area, became a rancher and state legislator and married Rebekah Baines, a college graduate and school teacher.
Next to the settlement sits the boyhood home of LBJ (1908 – 1973) where he and his three sisters and one brother grew up. His family was not wealthy. There was no running water, and no electricity. One of the historians we read called LBJ, “the last of the frontier presidents” because of his first hand understanding of poverty and the isolation of rural life. What I learned was that much of what LBJ considered his greatest achievements in his long public career were initiatives that addressed the crushing nature of poverty, which he knew firsthand. From the establishment of the rural electric cooperative, which brought power and lights to his hometown, to public education reform and funding, to the development of Head Start, growing up poor shaped his sense of purpose and public service.
I found myself frequently saying to Peter, “I didn’t know that…” and this is of course what this visit was about. The more I learned and absorbed, the more I began to deconstruct the generalizations about LBJ that had become so comfortable in the shorthand of my young adult years. When we visited his Presidential Library in Austin last year, one of the most touching exhibits was a video presentation by the two Johnson daughters Lynda Bird and Luci Baines. In it, each one talked about how the tumultuous nature of their father’s time in office took its toll on him. Luci, who is my age, always captured my imagination because she was known to be a rebel during the White House years. I remembered that she changed the spelling of her own name, converted to Catholicism at age 18, married a young national guardsman at age 19, and found a way out of the public spotlight of the White House through wedlock and motherhood. Listening to her very moving tribute to her father last year laid the groundwork for this journey of my own personal dismantling of generalizations.
Now I am going to share the narrative of what happened the next day on our visit to the Texas White House, the LBJ ranch about 14 miles from the Johnson Settlement. This is the place where LBJ found respite during his most distressing presidential times, where he entertained heads of state, and where he eventually retired and died, within four years of leaving the White House. We wanted to take a guided tour of the Texas White House and arrived at 2:00 to the busy visitor’s center, in time to get assigned to the 2:20 tour.
At the appointed time, our volunteer guide, Matt, convened the 12 of us and walked us toward the main house, a stately u-shaped two-story wood frame building at the top of a gently sloping field that dropped onto the shores of the Pedernales River. At the covered porch of one wing, he gathered us up, like chicks, reciting the rules about our conduct during the 20-minutes tour (“don’t touch anything, don’t lean on the walls, no photography”). Before we went into the wing that served as the President’s office, he directed our attention to a small group of people chatting lower on the lawn and said, “See the woman in the black dress? That is Luci Baines Johnson who is here with a private group”. Excitedly, we began to snap a couple of pictures over what was too much distance in an attempt to capture a version of a tourist shot of the presidential daughter.
We turned and went inside and listened to Matt’s narrative, looked at the impressive desk the President used, imagining who had sat on the blue leather couch now empty in silent tribute. Suddenly, the door opened and two women walked in, one of them the woman in the black dress, Luci Baines Johnson. She seemed surprised to see a tour still in her father’s office, but quickly dropped into a “Welcome to your Texas White House” speech and then asked, “Are you ending or just beginning the tour?” Matt indicated we were just beginning and she said perhaps she and her guest would tag along if that would be OK. Matt said it would and invited her to add anything she wanted to the tour.
What happened next was awesome. Luci Baines said she would be happy to speak up and off we went, but the energy of the tour had shifted. In a nano-second, it became apparent that we were about to get a personal tour of the Texas White House conducted by Luci Baines Johnson. And we did. Her genuine love for the place shined through every moment of her narrative. She told us that she spent 55 Christmases here from the age of 5 to the age of 60, when her mother died. She shared stories about the piano in the living room (which still belongs to her and is on loan to the National Park Service). There was a personal story about the framed collection of arrowheads on the wall in one room where three television sets sat, like duck decoys, on a low table. Back in the day, she explained, the president would watch all three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) simultaneously at the news hour.
In the dining room, she pointed out the telephone mounted on the side chair at the head of the table where the president sat during meals. As we walked through the kitchen, she told us the story of how on the day that President Kennedy was shot in Dallas in 1963, the household staff was preparing a dinner for President Kennedy who was scheduled to come to the ranch after his day in Dallas. At the time the news tore through the world saying he had died, food preparations stopped and as she was telling the story, her voice cracked with emotion and I felt myself tearing up. She turned to me and said, “I was 16 and I bet you remember exactly where you were when you heard the news”.
And I did, as if it were last week. On November 22, 1963, Luci Baines was in private school in Washington, DC and I was in Harborfields High School in Greenlawn, NY. Both of us were being 16 in our very different lives but here we were, sharing the memory of those cataclysmic events as we stood under the kitchen clock that the Park Service had stopped a few minutes after 1:00pm when President Kennedy was given last rites. Luci Baines’ father was sworn in that afternoon as the 36th president amid anguish and grief and disbelief and our lives continued, leading up to this amazing convergence of our personal journeys.
Next, Luci Baines led us into the private wing of the house where her parents lived permanently once they left Washington in January 1969. She told us of her father’s joy at being back in Texas and how nearly four years later to the day he left Washington, he died here in 1973. Her mother lived in the ranch until her death in 2007 at which time the ranch became part of the National Park Service.
Luci Baines Johnson spent one full hour with us pilgrims that day. We applauded her when she left us, deeply moved by her generosity of time, her candor, and her personal stories. She was, I later realized, continuing a family commitment to be of service. In addition to the history lessons, she shared tiny insights into the tumultuous nature of having LBJ as a father, which must not have been easy. I read LBJ described as “a man who embodied the (Hill Country’s) contrasting seasons of great gentleness and violent energy. Often joyous and effusive… he sometimes withdrew into a lonely battle with his own blizzards and droughts”. I was called to reflect on my own experience as the adult daughter of a challenging father living in those decades of social upheaval and the private and public struggles for individuation.
As I move into these closing decades of my life, experiencing roles beyond that of daughter, into wife and mother and grandmother, I feel my heart stretching into the territory of kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and awe. We left the ranch and drove out into the glorious late spring sunlight. We stopped at the private cemetery where generations of Johnsons, including the President and the First Lady, are buried. It was a moment of gratitude and thanksgiving for the awesome synchronicity of the day that delivered this remarkable experience of meeting Luci Baines Johnson. And at the cemetery, her father was not the only Dad in my heart.
Peter and Liz continue their pilgrimage to here, pointed east and north of Dallas, in their Airstream.