- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I wasn’t really up for a visit to the LBJ Ranch, because I decided against writing a book on the Vietnam War and I have small admiration for the man. But my wife talked me into it, so after listening to music in Luckenbach we headed northeast to the Pedernales Valley.
I am glad we did. Knocking around the ranch and seeing his house helped me understand Johnson better. The thing that struck me most was that there were telephones and televisions everywhere — three TVs in the living room, and even a telephone in the dining room, under the table at his big cowhide-covered seat at the head of the table. Our National Park Service guide said he sometimes spent 18 hours a day on the phone. Yet for all that, I thought, he was a poor communicator. While he could intimidate congressional colleagues, he never really spoke to the country about the war he was waging in Vietnam. I still don’t understand why. If it was worth killing and dying for, it was worth talking about to the people. LBJ’s hero, FDR, knew this, yet Johnson didn’t learn the lesson.
Second, as Texas ranches go, it really wasn’t very big. But it is in a pretty location, and those are rare in much of Texas. The Hill Country is nice enough — a desiccated plateau, I think, of scrubby land. It wouldn’t make my top 20 list of the most beautiful regions in the United States. Nor even my top 100.
Third, the comments by Johnson on the CD we bought for the driving tour were odd. He spoke, I think he thought affectingly, of how the air was clearer and the water purer here in the Hill Country. As I listened, I looked down at the trickle of the Pedernales and thought that it probably is one-third cowshit and another third sheep and deer shit. After heavy rains, when tons of manure are sluiced down the valley, the e. coli count is probably so high that the river vibrates. I wondered how much of LBJ’s problem was an ability for self-deception for what he considered the best of reasons.
Finally, I was surprised that Johnson grew up just east of Fredericksburg, the heart of the 19th century German-American settlements in central Texas. As I understand it, there was a progressivist streak in those isolated settlers. Many were anti-slavery, and some sided with the Union during the Civil War. "The God damn Dutchmen are Unionists to a man," complained Capt. James Duff, commander of the Confederate troops sent to occupy Fredericksburg, according to T.R. Ferhenbach’s Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans. Those suspected of disloyalty were harassed and lynched. When a bunch of German-Americans opted to head for Mexico, they were pursued and killed by Confederates, including nine who had been taken prisoner. I wonder how much of this rubbed off on young Lyndon. If a lot, then I would say he was from the South, but not really of it.
The Fredericksburg High School motto, BTW, is "Billie Pride Uber Alles."
As I left, I wondered if LBJ was a little man trying to act big — kind of the person Harry Truman was accused of being, incorrectly.