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Location: College Station and Austin
What You’ll Need: Pork rinds, Fresca
First, a caveat: The exhibits at presidential libraries are to history what the White House press office is to daily news. They burnish rather than analyze their subjects. But what the museum portion of a presidential library lacks in nuance it makes up for in quirky displays, family photos, and artifacts. The George W. Bush Presidential Library will soon be coming to Southern Methodist University, but for now history dweebs must content themselves with a two-stop tour, unless you include Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, the ranch with LBJ’s “Texas White House” (and what happens to be this dweeb’s favorite presidential history museum in Texas).
Begin in College Station, at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, on the campus of Texas A&M University. It’d be easy to overlook the fact that the bronze casting of galloping horses out front is not just another Western-themed sculpture but actually a representation of horses galloping through the rubble of the Berlin Wall, a flourish that seems positively Reaganesque. Inside, though, it’s all Bushes to the core: the likable “team player,” his eminent clan, and America’s favorite matron. You’ll find some presidential library staples—the limousine, the Oval Office replica—along with a refurbished TBM-Avenger like the one Poppy Bush flew in World War II, a Studebaker like the one he drove from Connecticut to Odessa when he was starting out in the oil business, a spy camera like those in use at the time he led the CIA, a paper target with “Bush” scrawled across it that was discovered in General Manuel Noriega’s bunker following the invasion of Panama, and a “situation room” with touch-screen computers displaying information about the first Gulf war.
If contemplating our nation’s forty-first president leaves you peckish, try La Bodega, in town, for fish tacos. Or if it leaves you wanting a drink, the Messina Hof Winery and Resort is ten miles away, in Bryan; it offers tours, tastings, and “vineyard cuisine” in its restaurant. From College Station, the drive to Austin takes roughly two hours. If you’re prepared to splurge, stay at the Driskill Hotel, where LBJ and Lady Bird ate breakfast on their first date—he proposed later that same day—and where he stayed the night of the 1960 election. The presidential history buff on a budget might choose to stay elsewhere but can still enjoy some of Austin’s best chocolate cake at the hotel’s 1886 Cafe and Bakery.
Inside the white travertine spaceship that is the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, at the University of Texas at Austin, much of the exhibition space is given over to explaining historical context for the Johnson presidency, so that sometimes it seems as if specific and personal mementos are crowded out by general information about Vietnam or civil rights. But it’s hard not to be impressed by the long list of his legislative accomplishments, and there’s nothing not to like about the library’s animatronic Lyndon Johnson, a joke-telling robot in ranch clothes with a scarily lifelike hand. The exhibit devoted to Lady Bird charms with details of her 1964 whistle-stop tour of the South, as well as her bowling shoes. True to his populist roots, Johnson stipulated that his library charge no admission: It’s the only one that’s free.
Presidential Library Tour Directory
Driskill Hotel 604 Brazos, 512-474-5911 or driskillhotel.com. Rates start at $189 a night.
George Bush Presidential Library and Museum 1000 George Bush Dr. West, 979-691-4000 or bushlibrary.tamu.edu.
La Bodega 102 Church Ave., 979-691-8226 or bodegatacos.com.
Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum 2313 Red River, 512-721-0200 or lbjlib.utexas.edu.
Messina Hof Winery and Resort 4545 Old Reliance Rd., 979-778-9463 or messinahof.com.