Thirty-eight years ago yesterday, on January 22, 1973, Lyndon Baines Johnson, suffered a heart attack and died at his ranch in the Texas Hill Country. His life is so intertwined with his beloved Hill Country that it is impossible to consider his life, his accomplishments, and his failures, without understanding the impact the hill country had upon him. During his lifetime, Johnson left his historical mark on the United States, and the world, but to a very real extent, he never really left the hill country, nor, did the things he experienced in the hill country, ever leave him. As a result, he enjoyed great political triumphs, but, also, tragedy and failure.
Born along the banks of the Pedernales River, Johnson rose from a poor and humble beginning, to become one of the most powerful men in American politics, first as a United States Senator, then Senate Majority Leader, later Vice-President, and finally, as President of the United States. Growing up in the hill country, he learned to respect both the land, and its people. He once said, that the Texas Hill Country was a place “where they know when you’re sick and they care when you die.” The people Johnson was referring to knew and cared, because the hill country can be a difficult place to live. The weather is temperamental, and vacillates between bringing extreme drought and a widespread flooding. The people who have historically lived in the hill country have been a tough lot, learning how to adapt and prosper in the difficult environment, despite many hardships. They’ve always believed that with the proper focus, hard work, and cooperation with their neighbors, there was no problem which could not be solved. This belief was fundamental to the person Lyndon Johnson became as an adult, and how he viewed the entire world for most of the rest of his life.
As Johnson’s career progressed, he used his increasing political power to solve real problems, and this only reinforced his view, that all problems, given the right attention, could be resolved. Early in his career, Johnson was responsible for bringing both electricity and flood control to the hill country, and in so doing, eliminated a lot of suffering among his constituents. Later, as President, he used his strong personality and political power to get legislation passed which became the foundation of his “Great Society.” Most notably, among the many pieces of legislation, was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many of the laws Johnson spearheaded as President are still controversial today among some people, but they remain an important part of who we are. The implementation of the Great Society emanates from what Johnson learned in the hill country. That being that any problem can be solved, despite its complexity, through personal attention, hard work, and cooperation with one’s neighbors, in this case, the U.S. Congress. The Great Society was Johnson’s greatest political success, and has left a lasting positive impression on the United States.
Unfortunately, the benefits of the Great Society are often forgotten, especially among many members of my generation, because of the war in Vietnam. The tragedy of Vietnam was perpetuated, in large part, because Johnson failed to understand that the things he learned in the hill country about problem solving, did not work with respect to Vietnam. Johnson found out, albeit painfully, that giving his personal attention, and micromanagement to domestic legislation, was a far different matter than micromanaging a foreign war. When Johnson personally selected bombing targets in Vietnam, he deprived his commanders on the ground of their natural prerogative to do so. As a result, with the war being managed by Washington, a schism developed between those who were fighting the war in Vietnam, and those who were controlling it. Likewise, the United States had few military allies, and little international support during the war, so, cooperation with any “neighbors” to help Johnson “win” the war was never a real possibility.
As the war dragged on, Johnson only applied more of what he had learned about problem solving during his youth, and, as a result, the dying was prolonged and the United States was torn apart by civil unrest. The Vietnam War became Johnson’s greatest tragedy, and his biggest failure. Thirty-eight years ago, on this very day, January 23, 1973, a peace agreement was announced, but it came one day too late for Johnson, who had died the previous day.
Johnson once said, “I hope it may be said a hundred years from now, that by working together we helped to make our country more just, more just for all its people, as well as to insure and guarantee the blessings of liberty for all of our posterity. That is what I hope. But I believe that at least it will be said that we tried.”
The places where Lyndon Johnson was born, first attended school, learned about life, implemented historic legislation, directed the war, died, and is buried are all within walking distance of one other on a relatively small strip of land along the banks of the hill country’s Pedernales River. Whatever anyone thinks of what he did, or, how he did it, there is no denying that he left his mark on the world, and also, that he is without a doubt, the Texas Hill Country’s favorite son.