STONEWALL, Texas — My wife and I came to this place expecting to be moved in some fashion.
Neither of us expected precisely what we felt when we walked up to this family plot on the sprawling LBJ ranch, which the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the National Park Service have turned into a national historic site.
The cemetery lies under a grove of live oaks. It’s got a few headstones. The tallest two grave markers belong to President Lyndon Baines Johnson and first lady Lady Bird Johnson.
It was the circumstances of the president’s death that struck me the most today as we paid our respects to the late former first couple.
My wife marveled at the peace and serenity of the place. She said — only half-jokingly, I believe — that she “wouldn’t mind” being buried there. It won’t happen, obviously.
But later on our tour of the ranch, we heard from a young guide — who admitted he was born in 1991, 28 years after LBJ’s death — about how the president was able to go out “on his own terms.”
Johnson’s presidency perhaps killed him. I remember how he had aged in the more than five years he served as president. He’d had two heart attacks already, the first one coming in 1955 when he was just 47 years of age.
The Vietnam War raged throughout his presidency — which began, of course, under the enormous weight of international tragedy, the assassination of President Kennedy.
Johnson would win election in the 1964 landslide. Then he would become the target of intense national anger over the conduct of the war he inherited from his predecessor.
He left office in January 1969 and returned to the place along the Pedernales River that formed his character.
The young guide informed us how LBJ — once he settled in back at the ranch — resumed his smoking habits, dragging on Lucky Strike; he drank too much; he ate all the foods he wasn’t supposed to eat, given his history of heart trouble.
Then, just four years and two days after leaving the White House, the fatal heart attack struck him. He phoned his Secret Service garrison the moment he felt it coming on and told them, “Get in here, boys; something bad is happening.”
He died essentially in his bedroom.
President Johnson was just 64 years old when he died. But he was an old 64.
They buried him under the live oaks about 200 yards from where he came into this world in a modest home that’s been reconstructed.
My thought as we left that place today? What a way to go, Mr. President.