Hiram’s Garfield Presidency Scholars embarked on a four-day journey to the outsized state of Texas last week. The 26 students took the trek to enrich their study of the larger-than-life 36th President of The United States, Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-69).
Led by Douglas Brattebo, Ph.D., associate professor of political science and director of the James A. Garfield Center for the Study of the American Presidency, the scholars examined their most modern presidential pick yet. In the Center’s previous three program years, the scholars studied the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson.
Through studying the Johnson presidency, the scholars have looked closely at issues that shaped the United States as we know it today and continue to challenge the American people, their leaders, and political institutions. These topics include: The War on Poverty; the Great Society legislation’s influence on health care, education, and culture; and most notably, the civil rights movement, as embodied in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
During the past few months, the scholars have read biographies about the president and presented on topics ranging from Johnson’s childhood to his personal philosophy about leadership and the role of government, to his political rhetoric, strategies, and tactics.
The Texas trip allowed the scholars to see firsthand his humble beginnings and the land that influenced and meant so much to him.
After a long morning of flights on Oct. 4, the scholars began their Lone Star State tour at the Texas State Capitol in Austin. Though Johnson himself never served at the state level of government, his father did and this connection offers insight into young Lyndon’s interest in politics.
Next on the agenda was the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which bears the name of First Lady Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson, and shows a softer side of LBJ’s public and private lives. During a tour of gardens full of native plants, including the yellow prairie goldenrod and the bright red turkscap flowers, a guide explained the First Lady’s mission of beautification and attention to environmental issues.
Over dinner that night, many scholars remarked that they had gained a greater appreciation for the First Lady. She was a powerful leader in Johnson’s life, editing and critiquing his speeches and pursuing her own mission of bringing native plants to highway roadsides and city squares.
The next two days provided even greater insight into LBJ as a person and politician.
Students visited the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum, where they listened to recordings of Johnson’s phone calls—hearing him administer the infamous “Johnson Treatment” with his varied persuasive techniques. They also saw exhibits on Sesame Street and NPR honoring the 50th anniversary of the Public Broadcasting Corporation, a result of Johnson’s Great Society legislation.
An engaging meeting with Professor Mark A. Lawrence of the University of Texas at Austin allowed the scholars to discuss and consider a more somber part of the Johnson years, the Vietnam War.
The next day began bright and early with a drive to the countryside and a visit to the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. The scholars visited Johnson City, a small town nestled in the hills, where they toured the modest farmhouse where the unlikely president lived for a crucial stretch of his childhood. They also visited Stonewall, Texas, to tour the more magnificent Texas White House, Johnson’s beloved ranch at which he retired after his presidency. It was here that you might have found the president driving through the stables in his white Lincoln or lounging poolside making deals with politicians over the phone.
The scholars’ trip ended with a memorable Texas experience—a night at Rancho Cortez near Bandera. The students traded their professional suit jackets and dresses for jeans and hiking boots as they immersed themselves in ranch life. They tried their hand at lassoing cow busts, rode horses through the scenic trails of the Hill Country, and listened to stories told around campfires by bona-fide cowboys. The experience gave them a taste of the countryside that Johnson adored and which restored his energies in political times good and bad.
After ending the country stay with a burst of kayaking and swimming on the Guadalupe River, the students made their way to the last hotel, the airport, and the trip home just in sight.
The whirlwind Texas tour drew the group, which consisted of students drawn from all four years and a wide range of disciplines, closer together. It also gave them a greater appreciation and understanding of the things that shaped Lyndon B. Johnson. According to the scholars, seeing his home life, listening to his interactions via recordings, and hearing Texans talk about LBJ gave insight into how the 36th president was so successful in pushing controversial but necessary legislation through Congress.
In the spring, the scholars will delve deeper into exploring the social transformation of the 1960s as they travel to Mississippi and Alabama to see crucial sites of the civil rights movement and interact with some of the heroes of that watershed period of American history.