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Golis: All the way with LBJ?


NEW YORK

In casting an actor to play President Lyndon Johnson, Bryan Cranston — last seen as a New Mexico meth dealer in the TV hit "Breaking Bad" — seemed an unlikely choice.

But the former Walter White is taking his star turn on Broadway this spring. In his role as LBJ, Cranston is playing to large audiences and (mostly) enthusiastic reviews. "Mr. Cranston's heat-generating performance," wrote the New York Times theater critic, "galvanizes the production."

There's nothing quiet about his performance. He plays Johnson as the guy who takes up all the air in the room — crude, profane, manipulative, sometimes cruel, but also shrewd in the ways of politics and persuasive in close quarters.

When Johnson says that a rival has become more helpful "since I stepped on his (blank)," we laugh because we know he means it.

"Everybody wants power." Johnson tells us. "Everybody."

And later to the future Vice President Hubert Humphrey: "That's the trouble with you liberals. You don't know how to fight."

For all his bluster and bullying, Johnson also was the first prominent Southern Democrat to embrace two simple ideas: (1) it was time to end discrimination on the basis of race; and (2) the government ought to help people escape poverty.

"What's the point of being president," he asks, "if you don't do what's right?"

Playwright Robert Schenkkan has the president tell us about his first job out of college, teaching kids in a dirt-poor school in Cotulla, Texas. The experience made a lasting impression.

The play is called "All the Way," and if you think you saw it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, that's because you did. The play comes to Broadway from Ashland via Cambridge, Mass. (Cranston assumed the role of LBJ when the play arrived in Cambridge.)

"All the Way" opens with Johnson's succession to the presidency following the assassination of John Kennedy and concludes 11 months later with Johnson's election to a full term.

Much of the play is devoted to the machinations preceding passage of the Civil Rights Act. For political junkies at least, it's hard not to get involved with a list of characters that includes Humphrey, Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover, George Wallace, Stokely Carmichael and more. (Some would say too many more).

As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, the play reminds us that much remains unsettled. Race and the politics of race continue to cast their shadows over the American story.

A year hasn't passed since a bare majority on the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, leaving nine states free to impose rules that will make it more difficult for low-income and black people to vote.

Johnson's southern allies warned him that passage of the Civil Rights Act would destroy the Democratic majority in the South, and as Act One closes, Johnson concedes as much: "The Democratic Party just lost the South for my lifetime — and years more."

Since Richard Nixon, "the solid South" has been the solidly Republican South. (On Thursday, the New York Times reported that record numbers of Southern whites voted Republican in 2012. In many counties, more than 90 percent of the white voters voted for Republican Mitt Romney.)

What seems lost to history is that the Civil Rights Act proposed by a Democratic president would not have passed without the support of large numbers of Republicans. In both houses, Republican majorities in support of the legislation were greater than Democratic majorities. (Once upon a time, it seems, Democrats and Republicans worked together for the best interests of the country.)

No president since Johnson can boast of so many domestic achievements. The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, the War on Poverty, landmark legislation on housing, education, clean air and water, public broadcasting, highways, mass transit and airport development — the list is long.

Yet Johnson remains a polarizing figure. Even in the reviews of this new play, one can sense where critics came down on the questions that haunt LBJ's legacy: Are we willing to forgive his crude manner and Machiavellian politics? Are we willing to forgive him for the escalation of the Vietnam War?

Counting down to the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, the Johnson family has asked people to pay more attention to his entire record. At a three-day event at the Johnson Presidential Library, President Barack Obama and three former presidents — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — came to praise Johnson's domestic achievements.

Yet there is always Vietnam — a war that tore the country apart and killed 58,000 young Americans.

The writer and historian Michael Kazin wasted no time offering an alternate view. In a commentary for the New Republic magazine, Kazin declared: ". . . to portray him solely as a paragon of empathy, a liberal hero with a minor flaw or two, is not merely a feat of willful amnesia. It is deeply immoral."

Such disagreements presuppose that history eventually will provide a simple judgment — good or bad — on the Johnson presidency. With LBJ, however, it's difficult to imagine there will ever be a simple answer.

<i>Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.</i>