‘All the Way’
Bryan Cranston’s Lyndon B. Johnson in All the Way goes at warp speed, and the depiction borders on caricature; the whirling dervishness sends him into clowning and Johnson nearly becomes a Monty Python president. The play presents LBJ dominating Congress and, through a combination of willpower, guile, wit, and near-bribery, browbeating it into passing the civil rights bill. But this isn’t what happened.
In reality, Johnson wasn’t in a position to guide events to this extent and Johnson had good reason to be chary of getting deeply involved in the workings of the Senate. He recognized the “Upper Chamber’s” institutional pride; he’d been there, after all. Moreover, shortly after he became vice president, Johnson asked to attend Democratic caucus meetings and was told, Nothing doing. Charles Ferris, Majority Leader Mike Mansfield’s counsel at the time, told me recently, “His friends in the Senate chose the independence of the Senate over their friendship with LBJ. After that, LBJ was gun shy in dealing with the Senate.” Within the confines of the Senate and publicly as well Mansfield repeatedly made it clear that the Senate would work its own will.
This play is well worth the evening, if only to see Bryan Cranston’s magnificent performance. But in keeping the spotlight on Johnson, this telling of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 misses out on much of its true glory: A coalition of whites, blacks, and church groups who banded together to help move a nation. A congressional process that worked the way that it should. A balance that was struck between wise Senate leaders and a president who was determined but also understood the limits of his influence.
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