Special to The History Place
Lyndon Johnson’s downfall was a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions. The most powerful senator of his time, made president first by horrid chance, but then by a landslide election victory, and the architect of the Great Society, he left the White House in 1969 in disgrace. Retiring to his Texas ranch, his weak heart gave up the ghost only a few years later. And, although hundreds of millions of Americans have benefited from his Medicare and Medicaid programs, his 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, the man himself is not remembered fondly, if he is remembered at all. Vietnam obscures our view of our 36th president.
Recently, we have seen some renewed interest in the man and his achievements. All the Way, a 2014 Broadway play and 2016 HBO movie starring Bryan Cranston focused on Johnson’s determined, successful effort to push the ’64 Civil Rights Act through a reluctant Congress. The statute desegregated private accommodations, such as restaurants and hotels. Best known is Title VII of the law, which created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, enforcer of America’s anti-discrimination laws, including the Age Discrimination in Employment and Americans with Disabilities acts, in addition to Title VII itself.
Director Rob Reiner’s new film, which opened this weekend, takes a very different tack from All the Way. Mostly ignoring Johnson’s presidency, the film focuses on 1959-1963. His service as Senate Majority Leader, and his ascent to the presidency upon JFK’s assassination, form the bookends for his years in the wilderness of the vice presidency.
Joining Kennedy’s ticket in 1960 enabled the young senator to beat Richard Nixon by the narrowest margin seen in a presidential election until the Bush-Gore contest of 2000. Accepting the second slot on the ticket cost Johnson his place as perhaps the most powerful majority leader in Congressional history.
No good deed goes unpunished. For his trouble, the Kennedy clan treated Johnson as a profane rube, a country bumpkin. Like Churchill in the years before World War II, Johnson abided, endured and was rewarded with his nation’s highest office. Churchill saved his nation from conquest. Johnson completed the revolutions begun by Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.
How did this son of Texas, a socially conservative, segregationist state, evolve into the champion of civil rights and social justice? Rob Reiner’s movie seeks to answer that question.
Woody Harrelson masterfully portrays the cagey, earthy politician as a man of lofty ambition and abysmal doubts. When, after winning the nomination on the first ballot, JFK offers his rival the second seat on the ticket, Johnson accepts, against the advice of his staffers. Only 10 in 36 vice presidents succeeded to the top slot in all U.S. history, they tell him. The post is thankless and powerless.
Power has always followed wherever I’ve gone, he retorts.
True to his word, he uses the chairmanship of an equal-opportunity committee to leverage his limited influence. At first, power and influence seem the only motivators of his interest in civil rights. But Johnson’s essence was his “up close and personal” style. He was a man of strong emotions and also possessed a knack for empathy.
When his private cook, an African American woman, declines to take “Little Beagle” Johnson with her on a drive from Washington to Texas, explaining how hard she found finding lodging and restaurants for herself without the burden of a pooch, he is moved. Enacting the moribund Kennedy civil rights bill is personalized. After the handsome king of Camelot is stricken down, LBJ makes passage of a civil rights statute the signature crusade of his first year in office.
Reiner sticks with the story through Johnson’s maiden speech to Congress, an eloquent oration penned by Ted Sorenson and delivered with passion and conviction by Harrelson’s LBJ.
In the film’s final scene, as the camera pulls back from a president hard at work in the Oval Office, we are reminded by Reiner that our two great civil rights laws and a raft of Great Society legislation -- pillars of the federal social-welfare structure down to this very day -- flowed, one after another, from LBJ’s one full term. The movie closes on this high note with an energized, hopeful Johnson implementing what Kennedy could not accomplish, or perhaps even envision. That was a nice place to end the tale, before the war siphoned off revenues better spent on domestic projects and before Johnson’s greatest fear, that the American people would not love, or even like, him, became his self-fulfilled prophesy.
Watch for a 'Best Actor' nomination for Harrelson, who gives the performance of his life. We, who have romanticized the martyred Kennedy brothers for so long, are made by Woody to appreciate the humanity and the genius of the Caliban who succeeded them.
Rated R for language.
Jim Castagnera is a Principal in Holland Media Services, LLC. He is the author of 20 books, including Counter Terrorism Issues: Case Studies in the Courtroom. During the past five years he has reviewed more than 50 films for The History Place.