Mythology shrouds our greatest presidents, occluding clear understandings of their intricacies. For no president does this pose a greater problem than Lyndon Johnson. We think we have a handle on him—the raw ambition, the animal physicality, the gaping insecurities—but for the most part, we’re just redrawing the cartoon. Even Robert Caro’s magisterial volumes give us LBJ in stark chiaroscuro, not a bright, diverse palette of color.
The promise of All the Way, the new Broadway play starring Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad” is that it will add depth, color, and texture to our picture of LBJ, turning the caricature into a three-dimensional portrait. No medium realizes character as well as stage drama; before our eyes, a skilled actor can extract a trove of motivations, neuroses, fears, and hopes from within his part. The extraordinary story of Johnson’s first year of president—as he claims the Kennedy mantle, launches the War on Poverty, passes the Civil Rights Act, secures the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and wins a historic landslide election—is rife with opportunities to plumb LBJ’s depths. Why this play fails to do so is a curious question.
To its credit, All the Way gives Johnson his due as one of the giants of twentieth-century history. The Baby Boomers who insisted that the blunders of Vietnam should negate the triumphs of the Great Society finally seem to be losing control of Johnson’s reputation. (With his usual tin ear for politics, The New York Times’s Adam Nagourney recently depicted current efforts to reassess LBJ as merely of a spin job by the Johnson family—akin to the dishonest campaigns waged by the likes of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter to whitewash the awful record of their presidencies.) In All the Way, playwright Robert Schenkkan, following Caro, locates LBJ’s triumphs as president in his legislative genius. And he locates that legislative genius, in turn, in Johnson’s intuitive psychological command of his interpersonal relationships—the ability to massage each player in the intricate process of lawmaking into doing his part in carrying out the president’s will.
Cranston certainly brings to life Johnson’s fabled “Treatment”—one thinks of the frequently quoted words of LBJ’s early biographers Rowland Evans and Robert Novak: “He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling. From his pockets poured clippings, memos, statistics. Mimicry, humor, and genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless.” Here, too, Johnson is rangy and kinetic, handling and manhandling his colleagues, splaying his legs out, prowling the stage.
The only problem is that this aspect of Johnson’s personality, this hallmark of his leadership, is so well-known as to be a cliché. His mastery of Congress—physical, psychological, and strategic—is legendary and often pined for. Indeed, nothing has done more to revive LBJ’s historical reputation than Barack Obama’s comparative ineptitude in managing Congress. When Cranston as Johnson tricks Georgia Senator Richard Russell into holding the Southern segregationists’ fire on the civil rights bill, or wins the support of Republican Leader Everett Dirksen by flattering his puffed-up ego, the audience smiles or laughs—not, however, because these routines reveal something new about LBJ but, on the contrary, because they confirm precisely we already believed and admired about him.
All the Way likewise rehashes other clichés about Johnson. It is stuffed thick with cornpone. LBJ can barely utter a sentence that doesn’t contain a goofy or vivid Southern idiom or a raunchy story. Rarely does more than five minutes elapse before we hear yet another threat to slice off somebody’s balls. The resort to shopworn tropes, moreover, mars other roles too. Brandon Dirden, as Martin Luther King, never switches out of pulpit mode—even in his private conversations, he talks as if he’s bellowing from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
More troublingly, the narrative itself lapses at times into lazy and misleading stereotypes. Days of uncertainty about the attacks on a pair of American destroyers off the Vietnamese coast—the Gulf of Tonkin incident—are compressed into a crude, conspiratorial, even slanderous insinuation that LBJ sought a resolution for a free hand in Indochina purely for election-year purposes. Later, Walter Reuther, the great labor leader, is rendered as little more a seedy bagman, when, on Johnson’s orders, he threatens to cut off King’s funding to force civil rights leaders to accept a compromise over which Mississippi delegates to seat at the 1964 Democratic convention. In these places and others, the playwright, unsure of his history, falls back on popular culture conventions.
Plays about presidents, especially those from the recent past, are exceptionally hard to pull off. We already know these men—or think we know them—through their constant media exposure. No matter how good, an actor’s on-stage rendering of a particular president—whether Johnson, Kennedy, Bush, or someone else—can never really compete with or supplant our impressions of that politician accumulated over many years, through television, radio, film. With some presidents, like Nixon, actors descend into cheap mimicry, which makes for a diverting experience but forsakes insight or revelation. The best performances manage to get us to leave our seared images of the president to one side for the time being, to make us forget the real-life figures they aim to depict. But then, paradoxically, we may fault the performances for their lack of verisimilitude, for their departures and deviations from the historical script we instinctively want them to follow.
All the Way seems to have delighted the critics, and for good reason. It’s an inherently absorbing story, often funny, and, occasionally, even its notes of tragedy ring with authenticity. Its huge cast of characters, most of them famous personages—Hubert Humphrey, J. Edgar Hoover, Walter Jenkins, Roy Wilkins, Bob Moses—moving through a series of rapid scene changes keeps the action moving at a brisk clip. But I strongly suspect that this piece of theater has generated excitement among the political class not because it forces us to take a fresh look at Lyndon Johnson and politics of civil rights but because it spares us from having to do so.
David Greenberg, a contributing editor at The New Republic, is a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University.