The Limits of Lyndon Johnson

LBJ play.jpg

Evgenia Eliseeva

Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Johnson and Robert Petkoff as Hubert Humphrey in Robert Schenkkan’s Broadway play All the Way

The fiftieth anniversary of the sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964 has, coincidentally or not, been marked by numerous events. An odd tribute took place at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin in early April, the first in a planned multi-year celebration of major bills Johnson signed into law. Certainly Johnson’s place in history deserves more attention than it’s been paid, but going overboard won’t necessarily give him his due. At the presidential library conference, more a gala than a serious addressing of the nation’s first major civil rights law, among the subjects discussed were gay marriage and “music and social consciousness.” In attendance were presidents past and present, some former Johnson staff members, and numerous celebrities. Not invited were the less famous officials and congressional staff, or the social activists who were deeply involved in getting the bill through Congress.

This Johnsonization of the Civil Rights Act, a law that was in fact achieved through the efforts of many people and in a more interesting and impressive way, has also been taking place on Broadway, in Robert Schenkkan’s popular play, All the Way. It tells the story of how Lyndon Johnson urgently had to establish himself as an authentic president following the assassination of John Kennedy. Act one covers the passage of the historic civil rights law. The sprawling second act takes us up to the moment when Johnson is elected in his own right, glancing at everything from the fight over whether to seat black delegates from Mississippi at the Democratic Convention to Johnson’s supposedly split-second decision to accept Robert McNamara’s recommendation to bomb North Vietnam to J. Edgar Hoover’s stalking of Martin Luther King.

What makes this energetic if not frenetic production work is the stunning performance of Bryan Cranston as Johnson. Cranston, who was previously the meth dealer in Breaking Bad and who in real life could be taken for a lawyer or businessman, transforms himself into the noisy, brilliant, crude, emotional, bullying, self-pitying Johnson, a joy to watch whenever he’s on stage, which, fortunately, he is for most of the nearly three-hour play.

Even though his face is thinner, Cranston makes himself look like Johnson: his brows are furrowed just as LBJ’s were at his most intense or intimidating; as LBJ did, he puts his face smack into that of the usually alarmed person he’s working over. His britches are hitched up above his waistline; he has the Texas twang and swagger down cold. Cranston is considerably shorter than Johnson, who used his 6’4” body to great effect, but Cranston maneuvers athletically, forces the bending back of those whom he’s addressing and creates the illusion of a much larger man. (Though I’d often observed Johnson in the Senate, when I was first ushered into his sitting room just off the Oval Office for an interview and he rose slowly from a Barcalounger and hovered over me, I thought he was the largest and most terrifying person I had ever seen.)

Cranston’s Johnson 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.

At the heart of the bill was a guarantee of racial equality in access to public accommodations (hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters); hard as it may be to believe now, fifty years ago, blacks couldn’t eat or sleep or shop or urinate where whites could in commercial facilities, and this had become a national scandal. The bill also promised equality of opportunity in employment, prevented racial discrimination by agencies that receive federal funds, and strengthened efforts to achieve desegregation of schools. It was a sweeping act, a makeover of much of American society.

Schenkkan’s skillfully written script shows how Johnson employed his wiles when it came to his working over “Uncle Dick” Russell, the doughty and powerful senator from Georgia who had fiercely opposed civil rights bills. Johnson, who, when he entered the Senate, had gotten himself close to the great man and became his acolyte, flatters Russell, telling him, “Hell, I owe everything I have to your good wisdom and generosity and don’t you think for a second I’ll ever forget it.”

Then Johnson tightens the screws:

“Let me ask you something. You’ve finally got your heart’s desire, a Southern President, after how long now?”

“Since 1849.”

“A hundred and fourteen years! So, if you want to blow me outta the water, go ahead and do it but you will never see another one again….”

“So this is election year politics?”

“I’m an accidental President, Dick. I’ve got eleven months, eleven months ‘til the election to establish myself as the man the people have chosen to hold this office. At the end of that time, would you rather have me in the White House talking about civil rights or Richard Milhous Nixon?”

“Well, you of course, but…”

“…There you go! I need you to hold the South for me, Uncle Dick. “Party Unity.” It’s gonna be critical. Lady Bird sends you her love and we’ll expect to see you at dinner on Thursday as usual.”

After dinner, Johnson tells his old mentor that the country and the Democratic Party are changing, and Russell maintains that he will fight hard against a civil rights bill. Johnson responds, softly, “I’m coming for you, Dick. I love you more’n my own daddy but if you get in my way, I’ll crush you.”


That was the real Lyndon Johnson.

But All the Way goes further, showing Johnson giving Senator Hubert Humphrey, who was managing the bill, his marching orders on almost a daily basis, making Humphrey his gopher to the Senate. (Meanwhile, as Johnson actually did, he humiliatingly dangles the vice presidential spot before Humphrey.) The play is about Johnson, so perhaps it’s inevitably a Johnson-centric picture of how the civil rights bill came about. This is all the more understandable when one reads that the play leaned heavily on Robert Caro’s version in his most recent Johnson book, The Passage of Power, which makes Johnson the dominant figure in the bill’s passage.

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President Lyndon Johnson at his ranch in Johnson City, Texas, January 7, 1964

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.

After the southerners began their filibuster to block the Senate from taking up the bill, Johnson pressed Mansfield and Humphrey to hold the Senate in overnight sessions. But they stood firm against him; the greater strain, they understood, would be on the reformers, who would have to keep a majority on hand in case the opposition moved to adjourn the Senate on the grounds that a quorum wasn’t present. Only one or two filibusterers had to be on hand at any moment. (Romantics who call for all-night sessions are lacking some information.)

In an unexpected turn, the eighty-three day filibuster, the longest in Senate history, ended up helping the forces for civil rights. Ferris says, “The prospects for the bill increased as time passed because the country was greatly educated about the issue during the three-month debate.” The pro-civil rights forces firmed up their position and became less and less inclined to compromise with the opponents in order to get a bill. The southerners stood firm in the Alamo.

Johnson deserves tremendous credit for making passage of the civil rights bill his first priority after JFK’s assassination in November, 1963. Kennedy hadn’t made civil rights a priority and hadn’t got very far with a weaker bill—the subject of considerable impatience among civil rights leaders and the impetus behind the March on Washington in August of that year, which John and Robert Kennedy tried to forestall. There were reasons for a Democratic president to hesitate to take the matter on at that time. It was widely believed that such an effort was doomed. Southern Democrats controlled both houses, and held especially strong power in the Senate to bury or filibuster it to death. They were also in a position to retaliate by holding up other presidential proposals.

Moreover, for Johnson in particular, the consequences of losing were daunting: the new president would be seen as a failure, and another likely result would be more unrest. On the other hand, Johnson foresaw that if a bill were passed the Democrats would jeopardize their control over most of the southern states as white voters defected—which did come to pass starting with the 1964 election. But, though Kennedy hesitated, Johnson, for various reasons, barreled ahead.


In his excellent new book, An Idea Whose Time Has Come, Todd S. Purdum shows that Johnson had self-serving as well as high-minded reasons to make civil rights his top priority in his address to Congress days after the stirring funeral pageantry had ended. Johnson was painfully aware of the resentment about how he came to be president—Kennedy had been murdered in Johnson’s home state—and he needed to show that he wasn’t some rube who had taken power under suspicious circumstances. Somehow, the accidental president, who was not known for oratorical skills, had to move the nation out of its grief and forward.

Purdum cites Johnson as saying later, in a powerful demonstration of how his mind worked:

I knew that if I didn’t get out in front on this issue [the liberals] would get me…. They’d throw up my background against me, they’d use it to prove that I was incapable of bringing unity to the land.… I couldn’t let that happen. I had to produce a civil rights bill that was even stronger than the one they’d have gotten if Kennedy had lived. Without this, I’d be dead before I could even begin.

Once committed, Johnson never wavered. He made the occasional public statement about the moral imperative of passing it, and this was significant—the first southern president in modern times calling for civil rights legislation. Most important, he stood firm in insisting that the Senate not weaken the House bill, for two reasons. A major House Republican, William McCulloch of Ohio, had supported the bill but insisted that it not be weakened in the Senate—he had walked the plank and didn’t want it sawed off. This had the effect of strengthening Johnson’s and the civil rights forces’ hand. But also, Johnson wanted no blame for weakening the bill. He was deeply suspicious of his nemesis Bobby Kennedy—it’s not too much to say that the two men despised each other—and in this case Johnson feared that the attorney general would spread the word that he had sold out. David Cohen, at the time a lobbyist for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of outside groups deeply involved in getting a bill, says, “LBJ’s stick-with-it-ness provided critical support for what Humphrey and the bipartisan managers accomplished.”

But essentially, it was Mansfield who was left in charge of the bill. Purdum quotes the president telling Mansfield, “You make those decisions yourself.” It was Mansfield, not Johnson as the play suggests, who turned the management of the Senate bill over to Hubert Humphrey, the fierce proponent of civil rights who was also an astute, well-liked, upbeat, and considerate Senate figure.

The real drama about whether there would be a civil rights bill in 1964 took place not in the Oval Office but within the Senate, most particularly in two intense weeks of negotiations in the office of Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois, which began at the end of April. Present at these meetings that took place roughly three times a week were senators of both parties; officials of Kennedy’s Justice Department, who were deeply involved in the designing and protection of the bill; and on occasion representatives of the Leadership Conference. For a colorful and detailed first-person recollection of how this happened, see a pamphlet, When Democracy Worked, by John Stewart, at the time Humphrey’s legislative assistant, written this year as he watched with dismay the spreading myth of Lyndon Johnson wringing the civil rights bill out of Congress.

The Democrats were blessed with the support of several Republicans, most importantly Thomas Kuchel of California, who was the minority whip. But Dirksen was crucial to obtaining enough votes from conservative Republicans to break the filibuster. Mansfield and Humphrey kept Dirksen informed of their plans—an approach that is unimaginable in today’s Senate. But at the heart of their strategy was the understanding on the part of Johnson and the Democratic leaders that the way to win over Dirksen was not by “arm-twisting” but through his ego: build him up, make him the great statesman. Stewart said to me at the time, as I was covering the bill, “We’re going to put Dirksen in a corner of the garden and bathe him in blue lights.”

It was no sure thing that a compromise could be reached. Dirksen was a true conservative and believed that the feds shouldn’t be telling private businesses whom they had to serve or hire. He was concerned that under the pending bill the federal government could harass individual owners with threats of court orders. The logjam was finally broken with a formulation under which the government could bring a suit only when there was “a pattern or practice” of racial discrimination—a phrase sufficiently susceptible to various interpretations that it mollified all sides.

Once Dirksen was on board and after a few more maneuvers to pacify other Republicans, who worried that he was getting (and gloating about) too much attention, the bill was essentially in hand. Humphrey knew that he had the sixty-seven votes needed to end the filibuster. This was the model for achieving consensus on a highly controversial piece of legislation, a long lost art—in any event virtually impossible in today’s politics.

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Fred Ward/Corbis

Everett Dirksen (lower left), Hubert Humphrey (lower right), and Senate supporters at the end of the civil rights filibuster, Washington DC, June 10, 1964

The brief appearance of Dirksen onstage is one of the big missed opportunities in All the Way. In Dirksen’s day, when word got out that he was about to speak, reporters, aides, and others on Capitol Hill rushed to the Senate galleries. His mellifluous voice uttering florid language was too good a show to miss. But for reasons that mystified me this Dirksen had gone missing from the play. His white pompadour was in place but his language was ordinary and his voice was scratchy. And like so many of the characters in the play beyond Johnson himself, Dirksen was here and gone in a flash. (The failure to master accents and manners of speaking in many of these minor roles was puzzling. Senate southern powers such as James Eastland and Strom Thurmond come off as Easterners who throw in the occasional drawled word. The voice of King is ordinary and flat.)

Most troubling to me, though, was the way in which the play showed Johnson obtaining what were described as the final votes needed to break the southerner’s filibuster. It was the case that Johnson said he was skeptical of Humphrey’s claim of sixty-seven votes for cloture and sought to nail down some additional ones. And so, in the play, he made calls offering a judgeship here, a big water project there—this to get the vote of Carl Hayden of Arizona. (“You vote for cloture and I will personally see that water flowing and your deserts bloom.”) Actually, Hayden pledged his vote only if it was needed—which it wasn’t. Johnson then obtains the vote of another western Democrat by offering to cut him in on the water project. In reality, Johnson’s calls weren’t necessary: seventy-one senators voted for cloture, four more than needed. (Robert Caro writes, “And if Hubert Humphrey had never learned to count, now Lyndon Johnson taught him how.”) Thus, All the Way presents a both squalid and misleading picture of how this historically significant piece of legislation was achieved. It reduces the painstaking, bipartisan process that mainly took place on Capitol Hill to simply a matter of a president tossing out goodies. The 73-27 vote by which the bill was passed indicates that more fundamental forces were at work.

Purdum is a thorough reporter who in his An Idea Whose Time Has Come perceptively relates the backgrounds of the main figures and tells the story straight. Another new book, that has gotten less attention, Clay Risen‘s The Bill of the Century, also challenges the image of Johnson as master of all he surveyed. In a recent article in The New Republic, Risen joined the current war over Johnson’s and the Civil Rights Act, arguing that Johnson was almost peripheral to the passage of the bill. This goes too far. Risen’s own book is more complex and richer than the headlines about it, adding several details that aren’t in Purdum’s account. The book also goes past the signing of the bill to show how, despite some rearguard actions, it was widely accepted in the South. The majority of the local leaders urged compliance; the Justice Department prepared communities for the coming change; civil rights groups urged against disruptive activity to acquire the new rights. Risen adds, significantly, “such efforts would have come to naught had many southern business communities not been eager to put Jim Crow behind them.”

Of course this consensus soon broke down, and was followed four years later by the race riots after the assassination of King and by Richard Nixon’s explicit exploitation of racial tensions to his partisan advantage in his presidential campaign—the first of several Republican candidates to do so. It’s no wonder that people like to return to that brief golden moment when there was bipartisan agreement that the country must be committed to racial justice.

* * *

All the Way’s portrayal of Johnson almost single-handedly selling the civil rights bill to Congress feeds the canard that if only President Obama would operate as LBJ did he could be so much more effective. There are some fundamental flaws with this theory. For one thing, Johnson’s famous “arm-twisting”—his “treatment”—was far more pertinent to his tenure as Senate leader than his presidency. For another, party discipline has collapsed and even if Obama could promise John Boehner to make his mostly small-town Ohio district into the new Byzantium, Boehner wouldn’t be able to extract one more vote from the Republican caucus. Moreover, “earmarks” have been virtually banned on Capitol Hill, denuding senior members of Congress as well as the president of influence they used to have. Budget restrictions and a more vigilant press have made horse-trading almost a thing of the past—or at least far more risky. There’s strong reason to doubt that even the mythical LBJ could get a civil rights bill through Congress today.

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.

Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way is showing at the Neil Simon Theater through June 29, 2014

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