The LBJ Ranch
Stonewall, Texas President Lyndon Baines Johnson loved to drive unsuspecting guests around his 2,700-acre working cattle ranch in a baby blue Amphicar (an amphibious car made in Germany). When they reached a steep hill at the edge of a lake, he would pretend the brakes didn’t work and let the car splash into the water.
Nowadays, visitors can drive around the expansive LBJ Ranch in their own cars, stopping to tour the sprawling, laid-back Johnson ranch house and the replica of Johnson’s birthplace and boyhood home (a dogtrot house rebuilt by Johnson). The president also enjoyed giving visitors personalized high-speed tours of his ranch in a Lincoln Continental convertible and taking children for rides in a donkey cart.
Exploring this tranquil ranch helped me understand precisely why LBJ spent 490 days of his presidency (nearly 25 percent) at the aptly nicknamed “Texas White House.” Here, he held outdoor staff meetings in lawn chairs and signed into law nearly 300 bills dealing with environmental protection. He retired here, died here and lies buried here alongside his wife, Lady Bird.
The nearby LBJ Museum in Austin displays letters exchanged between Johnson and comedians Tom and Dick Smothers. “We have taken satirical jabs at you,” wrote the Smothers Brothers, “and more than occasionally overstepped our bounds.” Johnson responded: “It is part of the price of leadership of this great nation to be the target of satirists. You have given the gift of laughter to our people. May we never grow so somber or self-important that we fail to appreciate the humorous in our lives.”
The Truman Home
Independence, Missouri “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” said Harry Truman, so it was only natural when touring his house in Independence—outside of Kansas City — to stand in the kitchen. I marveled at the quaint table where “Give ’Em Hell Harry” and his wife, Bess, ate breakfast every morning after leaving the White House. Inside his home, the president who distinguished himself by ordering the desegregation of the military but who also had to make the difficult decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan comes across as a remarkably down-to-earth guy. The Secret Service erected a black iron fence around the yard in 1949 to prevent souvenir hunters from stealing boards from the house, taking flowers from the grounds or wandering through the home uninvited. Yet the former president frequently drove his own car, helped Bess do the dishes and gladly gave his autograph to tourists lining the front gate each morning.
To me, the centerpiece of the nearby Harry S. Truman Library & Museum, aside from a visit to the graves of Harry and Bess Truman in the courtyard, is the glass display case containing the actual sign that graced Truman’s desk in the Oval Office: