A powerful U.S. senator at the time, Johnson had a commanding, even formidable, presence as both a politician and as a businessman. “When my dad was trying to create the first educational TV station in Central Texas, the first thing he had to do was get Johnson’s permission to open a competing station,” recalls Schenkkan. “He had a meeting with the senator, and my older brother went along, and Johnson gave his blessings. Later he signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 into law. Now, my dad grew up in the Red Hook slums of Brooklyn, and he [served] in the Pacific during World War II. He was pretty tough—a gentleman, but tough. And my brother said that visit with Johnson was the only time he’d ever seen our dad look intimidated.”
Schenkkan also remembers his family was “all the way with LBJ” during the Democrat’s 1964 run against the Republican senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, who had struck fear into many Americans by suggesting nuclear weapons be used in the Vietnam conflict. “We really believed the choice was either Johnson or the apocalypse.” However, Schenkkan shared, as a teenager, his generation’s popular, much-caricatured image of President Johnson as a warmonger (“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”), a crude good-ol’-boy who showed his surgery scars to the press and lifted his pet beagles by their ears, and as a stiff public speaker, whose awkwardly formal addresses to the nation won over few hearts. Years later, as a playwright of historical sophistication and bold narrative reach, Schenkkan saw in Johnson’s sudden rise to ultimate political power and his precipitous fall (he lived only another four years after his 1969 resignation), a historical saga worthy of Shakespeare—“a beautiful arc, dramatically.”
Pulsing with immediacy and adrenaline, All the Way (and at least the first, unfinished act of The Great Society, which I heard in a reading at Seattle Rep) is more akin to a Shakespeare history play (and to such fast-paced, in-the-trenches British political chronicles as James Graham’s This House and David Hare’s Stuff Happens) than to standard-issue bio-dramas of American political leaders (like the made-for-TV film LBJ: The Early Years).
“LBJ was always driving, striving, and there was such an urgency to the times,” says Schenkkan. “A play about these things has got to pick its skirts up and move!”
THE TWO-PART WORKS COVER THE TUMULTUOUS PERIOD BETWEEN 1963, when Johnson ascended to the presidency and reassured a traumatized nation reeling from the loss of Kennedy, and 1969, when he announced he would not seek a second elected term in the office. It depicts head-on Johnson’s aggressive approach to enacting legislation that sharply divided Congress, especially his fellow Southern Democrats, dubbed Dixiecrats—many of whom, Schenkkan points out, later left the party and became part of Nixon’s Republican “Southern strategy.” The Great Society tracks, step by step, how an enlarging military engagement in Southeast Asia (which LBJ inherited from Kennedy, and was initially ambivalent about) hijacked his attention and bitterly divided the nation.
Both swiftly paced plays are underpinned with historical fact. Surrounded by an acting ensemble seated onstage as “witnesses” throughout, on a set backed by a leaderboard ticking off important dates and a projection screen for video footage, the character of Johnson is hunkered down in his office as he wheels and deals, frets about his rivalry with Robert Kennedy and his campaign against Goldwater, presses and compromises with such famous movers and shakers as Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, Alabama governor George Wallace and leading legislators who are foes, friends or both.
“I think the play gives a very insightful depiction of how Johnson got the Civil Rights Bill passed,” says LBJ cohort Temple, noting that it demonstrates skills LBJ forged during his 12 years in the U.S. Senate, where he served as Democratic Leader. “He had a feel for how the Congress worked, and how to work with a member of Congress—it took some bargaining, cajoling, browbeating. Sometimes it would just be flattering. For instance, he told [Republican senate leader] Everett Dirksen that if he voted for the Civil Rights Act, it would someday be known as the ‘Everett Dirksen Act.’”
It was also essential to Schenkkan to show the ferociously opportunistic side of LBJ, who, to achieve his goals, was capable of “brutal things, just crushing people.” In a wrenching scene in All the Way, we see Johnson cut loose longtime aide and surrogate son Walter Jenkins. After Jenkins’s arrest for propositioning a man in a restroom was covered by the press, LBJ feared he would become a political liability.
The play also depicts Martin Luther King Jr.’s more reluctant acceptance of the resignation of an important civil rights aide, Stanley Levison, whose past Communist Party membership Hoover had used to pressure both President Kennedy and King. In fact, MLK’s challenges as a leader, trying to create consensus between old-establishment civil rights advocates like Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and impatient black-power activists like Stokely Carmichael, provide a fascinating parallel in the play to LBJ’s task of finding common ground between progressive politicians and rabidly racist legislators.
Schenkkan had a mountain of material to dig into when researching Johnson’s presidency—reams of speeches, a revealing archive of privately recorded White House phone calls, news footage and reports, FBI files, and so on. Yet he says only about 10 percent of the dialogue is quoted from the public record or other historical sources—the rest is invented. Schenkkan strenuously objects when the term “docudrama” is applied to his LBJ epic. “I’m not a historian, and I’m not a documentarian. I’m a dramatist,” he stresses. “I imagine things, and at times play fast and loose with history. I’m telling a particular story from my own point of view.”
“I think it’s really clear that this is not a documentary but a dramatization of a character,” seconds Paulus. “In that sense it’s like the way Shakespeare dealt with the kings and political figures of England. This is a play, wherein a writer is illuminating through his personal imagination the epic nature of this president.”
Just as he got some blowback from those Kentuckians who took exception to the way their state was portrayed in The Kentucky Cycle, Schenkkan knows his version of LBJ may be different from how others have seen him. “When you tell these stories that have so many stakeholders involved,” he muses, “you’re never going to please everybody. And I’ve found that stories often differ from teller to teller, and they change over time.”
And what did this theatrical storyteller learn about a former Texan president, in the process of framing his own version of the saga? “I have a much more comprehensive and nuanced view of LBJ now. I was surprised by how vulnerable he was. He had terrific insecurities, and could be paralyzed by a fear of failure. He never forgot he was a poor boy from the Hill Country, who graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos, Tex.—not Harvard. He also had a terrific sense of humor, and was a great mimic. He could maneuver the political world, but in a way that could be so tone deaf. He could be extraordinarily tender and solicitous, and also extremely cruel.”
In the end, Schenkkan wants an audience to consider LBJ in context, and contemplate his mistakes as well as his remarkable achievements. “Too many of us throw up our hands at social injustice,” he says, “but Johnson did something about it—and it was from the heart. We can ask ourselves, what lengths do we want our leaders to go to in order to accomplish great things? None of the people we admire for such deeds is a saint.”
Seattle Times theatre critic Misha Berson writes frequently for this magazine.
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