Five Minutes With Russ Whitlock, Author “The Texas White House”

by Lisa Davis on February 28, 2019 in Lifestyle, Living Texas, What I'm Reading,
WhiteHouse Scot Miller 7 27 2018 e1551349509563

President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson considered the LBJ Ranch in Johnson City, Texas ‘their heart’s home’ for the better part of their lives.

During his political tenure, President Johnson and Lady Bird would divide their time between Washington D.C. and the Texas Hill Country. Johnson hosted world leaders, astronauts, press conferences, and social events at, what reporters affectionately called, the Texas White House.  President Johnson once said of his beloved community, “the Hill Country of Texas was where people knew when you were sick and cared when you died.”

Russ Whitlock worked in the National Park Service before becoming superintendent of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park shortly before Lady Bird’s death in 2007. Whitlock retired in 2017 after 37 years with the National Park Service and decided to share his story as well as the Johnson family’s story in his book The Texas White House.’ In this pictorial guide through the LBJ Ranch house, Whitlock weaves stories shared by family, assistants and friends of the Johnson family.

President Johnson, Mrs. Johnson and their daughters Lynda and Luci at the Ranch House in December 1953. Lady Bird wasn’t initially happy with the purchase of the home but later referred to the beloved ranch and house as “their heart’s home.” Courtesy photo

What made you want to write this book?

During my time as park superintendent (2006-2017), I recognized the need for a book of photos as visitors who tour the home cannot take photographs inside, so have no way to document their visit and share it with others. The public who cannot visit the ranch want to see the inside, in detail, and explore the place where a president and his family lived. After ten years as superintendent, no one had produced a book, so I took retirement time and wrote one.  Over the years I gave and participated in many VIP tours of the home and told stories shared with me from family, friends and professional associates of the 36th President. Some of those are included in the book.

President and Mrs. Johnson referred to the den as the “crossroads” of the house, where he signed the documents gifting the ranch to the National Park Service. Courtesy photo

Is there one story about President Johnson that stands out most to you?

From his first year as a congressman, he used the power of his office and position to help his constituents.  As president, he used all his political capital to build the Great Society programs that still benefit Americans today.  The great tragedy is how much more he wanted to accomplish domestically, but could not because of the Vietnam War, a war he did not want and could not find a way out.  When I talked with park visitors a recurring statement from many was their relating him to the tragedy of Vietnam and were surprised to learn about how much he accomplished.  Many reluctant guests, who stopped because a spouse or friends wanted to, left with a new appreciation for Lyndon Johnson.

Which room is the most interesting inside the Texas White House?

I always found myself lingering in the living room and imagining being there with the President and Mrs. Johnson.  It was the first room of the ranch house I experienced when invited for dinner with Mrs. Johnson. The photograph from that night is on the back cover of the book.  I imagine many visitors of that time walked into the room and felt the same thing modern guests feel; immediately at ease and comfortable. It is simply decorated, no grand chandeliers or furnishings. Mrs. Johnson used to speculate what world leaders must have thought when they first visited this home of a U.S. president.

President Johnson enjoyed playing his favorite game of dominoes and found joy at “the big house” on the Pedernales River. Courtesy photo

Why do you think the LBJ Ranch continues to draw visitors?

Americans have a fascination with their presidents. They are the closest thing to royalty in America and significant players in our history. As the years pass, and Vietnam is further away and more analyzed, many historians and citizens are recognizing the contributions of Lyndon Johnson to our nation.  Of course, the ranch is along Hwy. 290 between Johnson City and Fredericksburg featuring an abundance of wineries in the Hill Country. And, the LBJ Ranch is one of very few operating cattle ranches open to the public.

The National Park Service returned President Johnson’s office to its original appearance which includes the same furniture, curtains and light fixtures. The saddle was a gift from Mexican president Lopez Mateos. Courtesy photo

What is your favorite part of your book?

The stories I share that provide an opportunity to relate to a president and first lady. For all the pomp and circumstance, they lived lives very similar to ours.  They loved, laughed, cried and lost in this place Mrs. Johnson called it “their heart’s home.” Luci and Lynda, the Johnson daughters, were a part of the book’s development.  It was important to me that they be comfortable with how I shared the home because they had welcomed me so warmly into the extended LBJ family.

~ The Texas Hill Country became a familiar region for Americans during Johnson’s presidency throughout the late 1960s. Whitlock has eloquently captured a part of the grandeur and history of the Hill Country in his book through fascinating pictures and personal stories of President Johnson’s Texas White House.

Cover photo: The Ranch House, known as Headquarters grew from a three-bedroom, two-bath home to include eight bedrooms and eight and one-half bathrooms. Photo courtesy Scot Miller

Austinite Lisa Davis is the Editorial Assistant at Texas Lifestyle Magazine and a student at Concordia University-Texas.