Fifty years ago this Sunday, a crowd gathered at Austin’s Bergstrom Air Force Base with handwritten signs displaying messages like “Nation’s Loss is Texas’ Gain!” The University of Texas Longhorn band played as Director Vincent DiNino waved his baton in the chilly air. It was January 20, 1969, the day outgoing President Lyndon Johnson returned to his home state for good.
“LBJ was really, really quiet on the plane coming back,” remembers Larry Temple, Johnson’s White House lawyer. “He was not his ebullient self. But there were throngs of people at Bergstrom when he got off the plane. He was like a new politician on the trail, shaking hands down the line.”
Johnson would spend the remaining four years of his life on the LBJ Ranch near Stonewall, commuting to Austin to oversee the development of the LBJ Presidential Library. Ironically, as the 50thanniversary of LBJ’s return approaches, both the LBJ Library and the LBJ National Historical Park at the ranch site are closed because of the federal government’s partial shutdown. (The Lyndon B. Johnson State Park & Historic Site remains open.)
In Texas, LBJ and his wife, Lady Bird, lived in a ranch home dubbed the “Texas White House,” a centerpiece of the historical park that’s been off limits to the public since August because of structural issues. “It’s going to take a while; the building needs shoring up,” says Shelton Coleman, director of the volunteer Friends of LBJ National Historical Park. He hopes the sprawling residence will reopen in six months, but the government shutdown has stalled letting of renovation contracts.
The good news is that, thanks in part to the friends group’s fundraising, another intriguing piece of the ranch complex, the Secret Service command center, may be restored and opened to visitors. “Before it was Secret Service, it was the ranch hands’ quarters,” Coleman explains, “but after the Kennedy assassination, the Secret Service kicked the ranch hands out and said, ‘We’ve got to have that.’” The 1960s-era Secret Service equipment, such a phones and security monitors, are in storage and eventually may find their way back to their original location.
When the LBJ Library reopens, visitors can view a large photograph of LBJ departing for Texas after the inauguration of Richard Nixon. “The thing that stands out to me is a person to the side,” notes Temple, now chair of the LBJ Foundation, of the crowd pressing in. “He was a fellow named George H. W. Bush,” then a young Republican congressman from Houston.
Asked why Bush was at Andrews AFB instead of downtown Washington celebrating with other GOP officials, Temple recalls Bush saying something to the effect of, “President Johnson has been my president and my friend, and I want to be here with him.” According to Temple, who was there, LBJ spotted Bush and plowed through well-wishers to shake his hand.
Temple says he and his wife will celebrate with friends on Jan. 20. “I said to my wife we should open a bottle of champagne and celebrate,” he says. That is the 50th anniversary of our trip home.”
So it was for his boss, the 36th President of the United States.