LBJ's neighbors

The roads dips down slightly here just before it crosses the Pedernales-River. Beside it, a sign advises travelers to "drive friendly." But there aren't many passers-by on this stretch of road to heed the warning.

When an unfamiliar car pulls up, Harry Sultemeir stops churning the earth with his small gas-powered plough and -- after a few words about the late frost that has killed most of the local peach crop -- starts talking about his one-time neighbor, Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Mr. Sultemier, a local school teacher born and raised on this small piece of land bordering the LBJ ranch, well remembers the former President stopping to say a word or two about ranching problems and, occasionally, world affairs.

"he'd try to put forth what he was about, and you'd just listen," he recalls, adding that Mr. Johnson was a good neighbor, congressman, and President as far as local folk were concerned. "Everybody here was well pleased."

It might be something of an exaggeration to say that everybody around Johnson City was "well pleased" with LBJ; but one can fairly report that Lyndon Johnson still casts a tall, much-revered shadow across the hill country of central Texas.

Folks around here do no remember the napalmed villages, war-torn families, and embittered veterans of Vietnam when they think of Lyndon Johnson: they remember a neighbor of Bunyanesque proportions who imparted a special grandeur to their lives and community by becoming the nation's 36th President and bringing the world to their doorstep.

The doorstep in this case is Johnson Ciyt, a low flat collection of homes and small businesses at the intersection of two state highways. The highest thing in town is the water tower; the nicest is the sandstone-faced administration building of the LBJ boyhood home and other historical sites; the only other signs of affluence are a carefuly-manicured park and the Pedernales Electric Cooperative.

The town itself sort of rises and falls in affluence around these landmarks, never reaching far above the paint-faded neatness of Texas exurbia. It's one of those places that looks as if it happened by accident and almost never happened at all.

Stories of visits from former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and other heads of state, as well as close associations with a former President are common here among people who would be chatting about spring planting and the price of beef if they lived anywhere else.

Levi Deiki, a man in a grey jacket wo runs the post office and general store in nearby Hye, Texas, where Lyndon Johnson posted his first leter, has such a story.

On the wall of the store, among the work clothes, food staples, and livestock feeds, are pictures of LBJ signing-in his Postmaster and of Mr. Deike dressed in an unaccustomed suit, proudly attending the occasion. Deike -- who says his rustic store, with its leather harnesses, old-fashinoned postal window, and hardwood counters, hasn't changed in the 46 years he's been running it, and won't as long as he has anything to say about it -- attended a one-room school with lyndon Johnson.

His opinion of the former President hasn't changed any more than his general store: "He was good to us," he says flatly, sucking on the remains of a straw.

This may not cut much ice with Americans who regard LBJ as the chief architect of a national tragedy in our most divisive war; but the people around here and in nearby Austin have never forgotten his passionate interest and concern for them. The picture they give of him contrasts sharply with the national image of a back-slapping, arm-twisting, Texas politician with a voting booth for a heart and a strong cactus for an arm.

Lyndon Johnson made it his business to bring dozens of simple country people to Washington when he was in the White House and to invite hundreds of others "out to the ranch" to watch movies in his private airplane hangar or to have dinner with members of his cabinet and other notables. Local ranchers, farmers and field hands became intimate friends of the President, staying at the ranch, eating with the family, and sharing in his personal life.

Many of those people are here, today, in a sense, still working for the late President, scattered throughout the farflung institutions and preserves that constitute the formal LBJ legacy in central Texas.

A longtime friend of LBJ's administers the state park carved out of the rugged hill country in his honor; the one- time foreman of the LBJ ranch holes up in a tiny office overlooking the boyhood home; the wife of LBJ's personal pilot bustles about in the same building; and many of the ladies who voluntarily staffed the boyhood home when LBJ was vice-president are still absorbed in the legacy of Lyndon Johnson.

The thriving center of this legacy is the library and museum in Austin on the campus of the University of Texas, an unembarrassed, monolithic monument to Lyndon Johnson, which houses films of LBJ signing the Great Society into law; tape recordings of him telling humorous, homsepun stories; photographs of the White House weddings of his two daughters; and the collection of 40 million papers, which are generally used by the 1,200 or so researchers and writers, who plumb the original and copied documents for insights into the tangled interworkings of Presidential power.

Memos to the President from McGeorge Bundy and Bill Moyers, together with annotated recommendations from his ubiquitous special assistant, Joseph Califano , are boxed in bright red cases, along with logs of Presidential phone calls and records of each day of Lyndon Johnson's Presidency (beginning with a tersely mournful account of the visit to Dallas that saw the assassination of Jack Kennedy and the Air Force One signing-in of LBJ.)

In a plush, two-office suite presiding over this complex, Harry Middleton, a former free-lance writer who became swept up in the LBJ whirlwind in Washington and was made director of the museum, sits staring out the window at the remote Texas hill country and explains that the library was intended as "a living legacy, to make a contribution to the intellectual life of the community."

On frequent visits after he had left office, LBJ made it clear that this was what he intended, Mr. Middleton remembers.

LBJ "would go out to the ranch and ride around with him and talk. Those were reflective times [when the former President would readily discuss] things that were on his mind . . . the book, the library, and then there would be broken fences [on the ranch], and cattle guards, and fertilizer, and cattle feed. . . ."

The cattle guards, fences, and fertilizer are still there, as you traverse the 200-odd acres of the LBJ ranch. It takes a considerable drive across the endless countryside to reach the 37-room LBJ ranch house.

When you do, your eye is drawn to the view from a big bay window in the stone face that looks out at the Pedernales River, narrow and sleepy here. And the family cemetary stands under a canopy of strong trees casting shadows on the quiet ground. All of it making you feel awfully far from the maelstrom of Vietnam, Eugene McCarthy, political armtwisting and the maelstrom of Presidential power.

But there are reminders.

As you approach the gate, secret service cameras watch you. The fences have time- rusted small devices to detect intruders.Two Lincoln Continentals sit parked, white and silent where LBJ left them, next to a pair of private gas pumps. There's an airstrip behind the ranch house that still evokes images of Presidential helicopters.

Across the river, between the trees, you can just make out a tall statue of LBJ standing on a pedestal among the trees, pointing an oratorical finger at an invisible audience of squirrels and butterflies. And tourists who come by the thousands each year to wander through the boyhood home in Johnson City, stand in the cool shade under the trees that circle the family home near the present ranch site, and talk to local people about the former President.

Sitting on the porch of the home, surrounded by peaceful afternoon sunlight, you can see them in little Park Service, buses making their way across the property, listening to tape recordings of the former President and his wife talking about this part of Texas and why they loved it.

But, according to one local resident, that's not the real way to find the hill-country legacy of Lyndon Johnson.

You go looking for Lyndon Johnson's legacy here, he advises, by taking Ranch Road One out to where it intersects Highway 1623.Then, you take that until you reach a great big sheet metal barn. Before long, you'll be at Tom Weinheimer's place. (You'll know it by the steer's skull lying on a dead limb beside the gate.)

Tom Weinheimer is a rancher/farmer, ad he looks it. His hands are large, well-worked, sun-leathered. His face is creased and friendly. He wears blue work clothes and dusty boots that look slightly out of place in the tastefully-furnished living room his wife has decorated with an artist's touch. Neither does he look like the type of person anyone would call "Sugar," but his wife is ebullient and charming enough to get away with it.

Sitting around the kitchen table consuming a thick steak taken from one of the steers on their place, he and his wife and son swap memories of the late President:

Tom and ex-President Johnson sitting in a fishing boat with a radio in the middle of a lake, when a report came on of the Egyptian-Israeli war, and LBJ reflected quietly for a moment, finally saying, "Tom, I'm sure glad somebody else is making the decision on that one. . . ." The man with the little black box following them around when they were with the President. . . . The time LBJ sent them to Mexico on Air Force One to present a gift to the President of that country. . . . A bus trip with Dolf Briscoe when LBJ had Mrs. Weinheimer sig "Those Faraway Places" to get votes for his senatorial campaign. . . . The way he used to try to outwit the secret service men. . . . Their boundless personal affection for him.

"I felt a great sense of security when I was around him," their son says. "Nothing could happen that he couldn't handle."

"Tell him about the time the Eastern press fell in the dipping vat," Mr. Weinheimer orders. And they laugh uproariously at the memory of a television executive falling into a pit full of sheep-dip -- laughter that includes a good deal of resentment over what they feel the press wrongfully did to their friend.

"That night they had the convention in Chicago [the Democratic national convention, when Hubert Humphrey was nominated], when they had all the riots," he recalls angrily. "The papers came out and said LBJ was controlling the whole thing, pulling strings and telling people what to do. Well, we watched the convention with Lyndon and Mrs. Johnson. Now, how was the supposed to be pulling strings while he was sitting there right with us?"

Similarly, the Weinheimers think LBJ got a bum rap on Vietnam: "It was set up by Eisenhower," he argues. "A one-way street. No way you could go back on it."

And somehow you feel there is no point in bringing up the Vietnam vets in hospitals around the country, or the fact that millions, including many of his own domestic advisers, hold LBJ personally responsible for escalting the war into a nightmarish bloodbath.

All of this would seem awfully out of place here, in the heart of LBJ's own country.

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