AUSTIN - Few presidents have matched the legislative might of Lyndon B. Johnson.
From 1964-69, the "thousand laws" of Johnson's Great Society touched all corners of the nation: the Voting Rights Act, food stamps, safety standards for seat belts in cars, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities - and even "socialized" medical insurance for Americans age 65 and older.
Opposition to Medicare in the 1960s was at times just as loud as the criticism of the Obama Administration's current efforts to expand access to health insurance. But Johnson was a maestro in working the levers of power in Washington, even if it required vigorous arm-twisting behind closed doors.
A visit to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin provides a sweeping view of an era of presidential and congressional productivity that seems far removed from today's world, when almost any major government initiative, conservative or liberal, can become ensnared by the ideological snipping of the blogosphere and 24-hour cable news networks.
One can argue about the merits of "big government," but it's hard to dispute that Johnson, at 6 feet 3 inches, was a big man with a talent for expanding Uncle Sam's reach.
Central Texas is also home of the vast Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, about 60 miles west of Austin.
Johnson was born and raised there amid grinding poverty. It later became the site of the ranch where he hosted national and world leaders and where he returned to retire after a tumultuous time in office, bookended by the assassination of JFK and the quagmire of war in Vietnam.
As a history buff, I was thrilled to turn a recent weekend trip to Texas into a journey through the life of America's 36th president. While staying with friends in San Antonio, I rented a car to make the hour-long drive up I-35 to Austin.
The LBJ library, just off the highway, is a looming 10-story structure that sits on a plaza at the edge of the University of Texas campus. Most of the space in the building is dedicated to the archives, which hold 45 million pages of historical documents.
It is the only presidential library in the country to offer free admission, according to Anne Wheeler, communications director. "That was LBJ's directive," she said. "He wanted anyone to feel welcome here, regardless of their ability to pay."
Parking also is free.
The centerpiece exhibit is "America: 1908-1973," which presents both the story of the nation in the 20th century and Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird Johnson.
Johnson was born in 1908 in a farmhouse on the Pedernales River in the impoverished Texas Hill Country. His father was a state legislator and was often away from home. Johnson's mother, Rebekah, one of the few college-educated women in the area, impressed upon the future president and his siblings "a compassion for human needs," according to the National Parks Service, which maintains the site of his birth.
In his early 20s, he taught at a Mexican-American school in Cotulla, a poor town in south Texas. Several years later, he became an aide to a congressman in Washington, and he won his own seat in Congress in 1937. He was a devoted follower of Franklin D. Roosevelt, another big government president.
In 1948, Johnson rose to the Senate after an 87-vote victory in the Democratic primary, earning the nickname "Landslide Lyndon." He went on to become the youngest Senate majority leader in U.S. history. John F. Kennedy selected him as a running mate in the 1960 election, and he ascended to the presidency three years later.
Throughout this journey, Johnson eagerly amassed power for himself. But he also never forgot the Cotulla school.
"My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. They knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice," he said in a special address to Congress as president in 1965.
"I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country.
"But now I do have that chance - and I'll let you in on a secret - I mean to use it."
That speech and others are looped on video screens at the beginning of the "America" exhibit. As Johnson reached the climactic phrase - "I mean to use it" - his tone resembled a blend of the soaring idealism of Barack Obama and the moral certainty and Texas twang of George W. Bush. It was hard to imagine him not getting what he wanted.
The exhibit also features a moving section on the JFK assassination, with an audio recording of Mrs. Johnson describing her reaction to the death of the young president and a handwritten letter that Jacqueline Kennedy gave to the Johnsons.
The domestic achievements of the Great Society were overshadowed by the vast expansion of the U.S. military commitment in Vietnam, and there is the famous video footage of Johnson's stunning televised 1968 announcement that resulted from the war: "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."
A central staircase at the museum takes visitors into the Great Hall, where a five-story wall of glass provides a view of the massive archives collection. Portraits of the presidents and first ladies line the lower walls.
The building's 10th floor has a near replica of Johnson's Oval Office and an exhibit on Mrs. Johnson's work as first lady, including home movie footage.
After several hours at the museum, I left Austin and headed west on U.S. 290, cutting through the rugged limestone hills of central Texas. An hour's drive brought me to Johnson City, named for a cousin of the president and site of the simple white house where his family moved when he was 5.
I didn't have enough time to go to the LBJ Ranch, about 14 miles past Johnson City and where Johnson spent about one-fourth of his presidency. The Parks Service conducts daily tours of the ranch, including visits to his reconstructed birthplace and the Johnson family cemetery where he is buried.
By the time of Johnson's death in 1973, the nation was on the cusp of the Watergate scandal, and the public would soon be wary of all-powerful presidents.
The debate over the proper size and role of government will undoubtedly continue for generations to come, but a visit to LBJ country is a reminder that an era of big and rapid change once dominated the White House.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Jerome L. Sherman is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
Contact Jerome L. Sherman at: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go:
•Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, 2313 Red River St., Austin, 512-721-0200, www.lbjlib.utexas.edu. Open daily except Christmas from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free admission and parking.
•Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, 60 miles west of Austin, has two visitor areas separated by about 14 miles: the Johnson Settlement/Visitor Center/Boyhood Home/Park Headquarters in Johnson City and the LBJ Ranch (which includes the Texas White House) near Stonewall.
Find descriptions and directions at nps.gov/lyjo/index.htm. Or call 830-868-7128, ext. 244.
Admission to the Johnson City district is free; donations accepted. Driving permits for LBJ ranch are free. There is a $1 charge for adults 18 and older for the Texas White House tour; 17 and under are free.
The park is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. The Visitor Center is open from 8:45 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Guided tours of the LBJ Boyhood Home in Johnson City are offered 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. seven days a week. Tours begin on the hour and half-hour, except at noon and 12:30 p.m., during which the home is closed.
Self-guided tours of the Johnson Settlement, also in Johnson City, are available from 9 a.m. until sunset seven days a week. Costumed or ranger-guided interpretive tours of the Johnson Settlement are offered.
Self-guided driving tours of the LBJ Ranch near Stonewall are available from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. seven days a week. Driving permits are given out starting at 9 a.m. No permits are given out after 4:30 p.m.
Guided tours of the president's office in the Texas White House, which opened in August, 2008, on the LBJ Ranch are offered 10 a.m. until 4:45 p.m.
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