A Ringing Endorsement

NB 1: Austin TX is home to a joke-telling robot effigy of Lyndon B. Johnson, which I describe below.

Welcome to Ringing Endorsement, wherein Decider speaks to local people of note to get their hearty recommendation of an event, restaurant, or whatever strikes their fancy. This week, Scottish-born “anti-travel” writer Daniel Kalder—whose new book, Strange Telescopes, follows four eccentric Russians who have created their own alternative realities, such as a traffic cop turned self-proclaimed messiah—reveals why everyone should request an audience with the “Humor Of LBJ” robot at the LBJ Presidential Library And Museum.

I was in Austin for quite a while before I came here—you know, LBJ kind of just slips in between JFK and Nixon. If you’re a foreigner, you don’t know much about LBJ apart from Vietnam, so coming here was quite an education. He did all this important stuff, especially with the civil rights legislation and space program, and probably achieved much more than JFK ever achieved, by and large. I was amazed at all the legislation that he signed—although, I don’t think I can forgive him for creating PBS.

Decider: What’s your beef with PBS?

It’s terrible stuff. I think they still show Keeping Up Appearances—these prehistoric British sitcoms on a permanent loop. And they’re always trying to teach me something as well, to improve me. I don’t watch TV to be improved.

Anyway, learning that was all quite good—and quite dull as well—but then I found the hall of presidents’ gifts, which I quite enjoy. It’s like in Russia, where they have a permanent exhibition of Stalin’s gifts, and to be honest, there’s parity there. I wouldn’t say that Stalin’s gifts are that much better than LBJ’s. I was also looking for Britain’s gift, because Britain always gives the crappiest gift. The Shah of Iran will give some elaborate chair, and Britain gives you a teacup or thimble or something. So I’d fulfilled that desire and was just about to leave, when I saw this cubicle and thought, “Fucking hell, what’s this? It’s a robot LBJ—and telling jokes, no less.” Here in the middle of this quite dull yet educational library that tries to construct this official, very pro-LBJ message is this surrealist object. It’s classically surreal, in the sense of André Breton, who would wander around looking for mystical objects in the everyday. Here, in the middle of Austin, is a robot telling jokes. And the jokes are all right. I’ve had a chuckle.

D: That’s because we expect our leaders to also be entertainers.

Yeah, American presidents have got to be witty hucksters, or whatever. Gordon Brown certainly can’t tell a joke. But Americans always want their leaders to be folksy. The robot actually sparked my interest in LBJ—and of course, the robot is quite nice. You’d quite like having him living over your fence if you were on a ranch: “Oh, here comes the LBJ robot. Tell us a joke, then.” But actually, the real LBJ wasn’t that nice. I heard that he could be right tyrannical.

I know a guy who used to be quite high up in Democratic circles, and there’s this story about LBJ going hunting on his ranch—and of course, he had his Secret Service guy with him at all times. So they were out there and he said, “Hold up, I’ve gotta take a slash.” So he starts taking a piss, and the Secret Service guy goes, “Mr. President, you’re pissing on my shoes.” And LBJ goes, “I’m the President. That’s my prerogative.” Now that’s a man who enjoys his power. Even if it’s not true, it contains some truth somewhere in there. I also took the tour out at the LBJ birthplace, which is good because it’s only a dollar, and I could tell that the tour guide didn’t like LBJ because he started off like, “Lots of people will tell you funny stories about LBJ. Most of them are false. He was a bit of a fucker, really.”

A couple of weeks ago, I brought my brother here and we watched the little film downstairs, and it told us that LBJ himself used to come here and sit in the replica of the Oval Office just to surprise people. I thought that was a very poignant story. It’s like Lenin going to his own mausoleum. And in the basement they’ve got all of his old cowboy boots, Lady Bird’s wedding dress, so it’s got this weird, Miss Havisham-like psychic energy.

The reason I’m so drawn to this place is in Britain we don’t have anything like this. We despise our prime ministers—even Winston Churchill*—and while we do have some effigies of them, they’re made of wax, and they don’t move, talk, or tell jokes, and it’s usually only the really important prime ministers or kings and queens. I’d be very surprised if you went to Madame Tussauds and found Edward Heath. Then, of course, you have communist countries who actually just stuff the corpse of their leader—like Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Mao, and Klement Gottwald in Czechoslovakia. But then you come to America, and they have a talking robot. Perhaps this is a symbol of the greater dynamism of American culture. Your effigies move, sing songs, and dance. So maybe to visit the LBJ robot is to embrace the dream of America.

*I was slightly misquoted here—I immediately qualified this statement by adding that Churchill was more popular in the USA than the UK, rather than despised in his home country which he is not.

Sean O’Neal, The Onion May 19, 2009

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