Political junkie alert! You can get a fix in Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson at the American Repertory Theater. (We were lucky to be taken, along with two other couples, by dear friends celebrating their anniversary.)
A.R.T.’s new production All the Way starts right after this towering figure’s ascension to the Presidency following assassination of John Kennedy. In an intense three hours (one 15-minute intermission), the play captures some of the essential strands of Johnson’s complex and powerful character.
With a couple of dozen actors, some playing multiple roles, All the Way shows the accidental President’s wheeling and dealing to get the 1964 civil rights law passed and change the course of this country, all in the context of LBJ’s campaign to get elected in his own right later that year. With a multi-media backdrop, including a countdown to the election, All the Way is driven by the force of Johnson’s good ole boy southern style and his calculation of how doing good will help him do well electorally. Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston provides a riveting portrayal of LBJ, who”broke good” (on civil rights) until he “broke bad” on the Vietnam War, an event prefigured by a small subplot on the contrived Gulf of Tonkin incident.
Two significant omissions were portrayals of Bobby Kennedy (who hated LBJ and whom LBJ hated) and Barry Goldwater (his Republican opponent in ’64, referred to but not incorporated otherwise into the script.) Observers of the period will marvel at all the secondary story lines that are cleverly included: the abusive power of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the divisions in the civil rights movement, Freedom Summer and the Mississippi murders of Mickey Schwerner, James Cheney and Andrew Goodman, the presidential aspirations of Alabama Governor George Wallace, the segregationist efforts of members of Congress from the Deep South, even the “men’s room” scandal involving LBJ aide Walter Jenkins.
Johnson was crude and often unprincipled, but a masterful wielder of power. As one of our party observed, Johnson knew how to form alliances on an issue-by-issue basis, even if his partners on one piece of legislation were his opponents on the next bill. One can’t help wondering how he would have managed today’s irrational Republican hatred of Barack Obama and their holding hostage the debt ceiling bill to the repeal or delay of the Affordable Care Act. Congress has changed since the ’60’s. Reds and blues no longer socialize. They no longer even negotiate. The Tea Party wing of the GOP is out to destroy Barack Obama and, indeed, government itself. Are there LBJ-like backroom efforts in the White House to use power to achieve the President’s goals? They might not be pretty, but it would be reassuring to think someone knew how better to use the tools of the Presidency.
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