50 Years a Slave to Vietnam

playbillFiftieth anniversaries of historic events tend to revive memories of those old enough to recall them, as well as stoking interest in those who may have no inkling of their importance. Last year’s anniversary of JFK’s assassination was met by the mass publication of several books and novels, including Steven King’s massive “11/22/63” and Bill O’Reilly’s derivative “Killing Kennedy,” and an untold number of television retrospectives. The 50th anniversary of D-Day in June of 1994 brought similar attention to that historic invasion that helped turn the tide of World War II.

2014 brings us the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s crusade to enact a Civil Rights bill while running for election against sunbelt conservative Barry Goldwater and, for a while, Southern-fried race-baiter George Wallace. And with this milestone, the popular interest in LBJ has piqued once again. The New York Times ran a lengthy article recently titled “Rescuing a Vietnam Casualty: Johnson’s Legacy” in which Johnson’s daughter Luci bemoans the Vietnam War’s shadow across LBJ’s other achievements. And the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin will run a big Civil Rights Summit in April to commemorate the bill’s passage. Meanwhile, new biographies and historical treatises are pouring out.

This past week I saw “All the Way,” the new Broadway play written by Robert Schenkkan currently in previews at the Neil Simon Theatre, and starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ. The two-act play opens in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination and proceeds quickly to Johnson’s most pressing concern – getting elected for real in the coming 12 months. He decides the time is right to enact a comprehensive Civil Rights bill (good for capturing black votes, not so good for Democrats trying to keep a lock on the South) and enlists the support of numerous influential members of Congress as well as the Negro constituency that has grown impatient (and concerned about losing their idol JFK to a Southern good ole boy). The adroitness with which LBJ plays the Machiavellian master is mesmerizing, and funny. (Sidebar: LBJ needs 25(!) Republicans to break a filibuster – and gets it! Imagine such a thing happening today.)

Cranston is masterful in the role of the 36th president, towering bully one moment, insecure former poor boy from the Texas Hill Country the next. LBJ is the central character of course, but right next to him in completing the story are Martin Luther King (Brandon Dirden) and J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean), both of whom manipulate and are manipulated by Johnson.

I haven’t seen a play this good, this completely compelling in many years. The story is multi-layered and intricate, building up LBJ’s political prowess while revealing his inherent insecurity over the possibility of losing. Cranston’s performance is a triumph; within just a few minutes you forget you’re watching Walter White. Cranston’s transformation into LBJ is immediate and sustained. The rest of the cast is highly polished as well – in fact most of the players take on multiple roles. In addition to portraying Hoover, for example, McKean also plays Sen. Robert Byrd and a grave-digger. Betsy Aidem plays Lady Bird Johnson, Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham and Rep. Katherine St. George.

In addition to bringing many one-time household names to life (Robert McNamara, Stokely Carmichael, Hubert Humphrey, Ralph Abernathy), “All the Way” develops the character of Walter Jenkins, LBJ’s faithful personal assistant. At a time of despair over the seeming demise of the Civil Rights bill, at a point when LBJ considers dropping out, Jenkins comforts LBJ with kind words. LBJ, a man with two daughters, tells Jenkins he is the son he never had. Later, just weeks before the 1964 election, Jenkins is arrested for “disorderly conduct” with another man in a public restroom. This was an incident I had never heard of, and it’s inclusion is critical: the speed and callousness with which LBJ discards the man is devastating. And audience sympathy for LBJ is subsequently diminished, as it came to be in real life after the details of the Gulf of Tonkin affair and the LBJ-directed bugging of King came to light – two elements foreshadowed in the play.

As the play wraps with the election-night celebration of Johnson’s victory in a landslide over Goldwater, all you can think about is the tragedy of Vietnam and King’s assassination that loom in the coming years. Expect the 50th anniversary of those milestones to capture attention when the time is right.

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