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The Full Johnson

May 2024
6min read

Down with the debunking biographer,” Lyndon Johnson wrote in his college newspaper in 1929. “It now seems to be quite a thing to pull down the mighty from their seats and roll them in the mire. This practice deserves pronounced condemnation. Hero worship is a tremendous force in uplifting and strengthening. Humanity, let us have our heroes. Let us continue to believe that some have been truly great.”

All his life Lyndon Johnson wanted desperately to be numbered among the truly great; in fact, he told an aide during his Presidency that he wanted to be “the greatest President of them all,” greater than “the whole bunch of them.” But in the years since his death he has less often been revered than rolled in the mire by historians and biographers, for whom the memory of the blood and betrayal of Vietnam has been allowed to blot out everything else Johnson achieved in a political career that spanned more than three decades. Many of their books—most notably The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro’s best-selling demonography—seem almost to have been written backward, relentlessly searching out the roots of Johnson’s supposed villainy rather than chronicling his life as he actually lived it, unfolding forward, with all options open, the outcome always in doubt. Since monsters are ultimately less interesting than men, the results of all this retrospective moralizing, for the most part, have been disappointingly self-fulfilling.

Television was as cruel to Lyndon Johnson as it was kind to John Kennedy. The eerie detachment that often disconcerted those who encountered JFK’s chilly blue-eyed stare in person somehow perfectly suited the little screen. Kennedy was our first real television President, and not even Ronald Reagan’s finest performances in the same role ever quite matched his.

There was never anything detached, anything cool, about Lyndon Johnson. Every inch of him seems to have been fully engaged every moment of every day—and far into the night as well, as his sleep-deprived aides often complained. The real Johnson was too big, too loud, too crude, too driven, ever to settle comfortably into our living rooms, and the palpable speciousness of the “presidential” persona LBJ insisted upon adopting for televised occasions—slow-walking, slow-talking, as dolorous as a funeral director—only fed our distrust of him. We knew that Johnson had to be a phony.

There is, therefore, an especially nice irony in the fact that “LBJ,” a fourhour television life to be shown on PBS on September 29 and October 1, is far fairer toward him than most of those who have sought to capture him on paper. The man who made it is David Grubin, the much-honored film maker whose hour “The Wyeths: A Father and His Family” about the artist N. C. Wyeth and his talented offspring, which aired on the Smithsonian World series on PBS five years ago, is, for my money, one of the ten or fifteen best film biographies ever made. In that program Grubin—and his collaborator, the historian and biographer David McCullough—deftly uncovered the complexity roiling just beneath the too tranquil surface of an outwardly happy family.

With Johnson, Grubin faced something like the opposite challenge: finding the real man behind the troubled, turbulent Texas politician we all think we know. The resulting portrait is a triumph, I think, unblinking but evenhanded, and fascinating from first reel to last. The Lyndon Johnson whom Grubin shows us is complex, contradictory, greatly gifted, and hugely capable, driven by decent instincts and great dreams for himself and his country. “Do something we can be proud of,” LBJ exhorts a crowd in 1964, as he calls upon his listeners to help him “free thirty million Americans from the presence of poverty. Help the weak and the meek and lift ‘em up and help them train and give them an education where they can make their own way.”

He is also heedless, deceitful, venal, unscrupulous, egomaniacal, and, as warfare in the inner cities of America and the jungles of Southeast Asia simultaneously threatens to drive him from the White House, something frighteningly close to paranoid.

The prologue to the first program, which takes LBJ all the way from the Texas hill country to the White House, sets the tone for all four hours and provides a much-needed reminder of the great heights to which Johnson climbed before he fell so far: LBJ waltzes blissfully with his wife at the 1965 inaugural ball, overwhelmingly elected President in his own right, eager to get on with the building of his Great Society.

Film presents unique challenges to the biographer. Johnson was always at his best behind closed doors, applying what Clark Clifford has called “the full Johnson” to those he needed to enlist in his cause. No one ever filmed that Johnson in action, and so to evoke him, Grubin shows us a sequence of stills of LBJ looming over diminutive Sen. Theodore F. Green of Rhode Island while we hear a host of bemused witnesses—more than a dozen of them—recalling Johnson in action. “It was like being under a waterfall,” Johnson’s press secretary George Reedy says. John Connally recalls LBJ’s monomania. “His whole life was politics,” and in all their years of friendship, he says, Johnson never read a single book.

Time truncates things for the film maker too, and even over four hours broad swatches of Johnson’s life have had to be left out. Although Sam Rayburn, for example, appears at least three times in the first hour—grinning good-naturedly as his overgrown protégé plants a wet kiss on the top of his bald head, striding to the White House alongside the newly elected majority leader in 1955, rising to his feet to cheer as Johnson’s name is put into nomination during the 1960 Democratic Convention—he is never identified by the narrator. There simply wasn’t room enough in this telling for Johnson to have had two mentors, and his struggle to make himself a plausible national presidential candidate by maneuvering civil rights bills past his second one, Sen. Richard B. Russell of Georgia, was held to be more important. I missed Rayburn, but I can’t think of a single sequence I would have jettisoned in order to make room for him.

Grubin and his colleagues have uncovered some extraordinary early footage: the young congressman swelling with pleasure at being allowed simply to stand beside his hero, FDR, in 1937; Johnson and his wife, newly arrived in Washington, waving and blowing kisses to the camera like any pair of tourists near the Capitol he would soon dominate as few men ever have; and a sequence of Johnson campaigning for the Senate in 1948 that evokes as no words ever could the frenzy with which he sought the public approval that gave meaning to his life. Standing in a reception line in his shirt sleeves, he pumps hands and chews gum and pulls voters past him at an assemblyline pace; when babies and pretty girls are in temporarily short supply, he cheerfully kisses several startled old men; and wearing a shoulder harness that allows him to bellow into a big, bulbous microphone that bobbles in front of his mouth while both hands are free to claw the air, he seems not so much to be appealing for votes as to be yanking them, one by one, out of the Texas sky.

LBJ’s rise and fall is tragedy in the classic sense, and even the most inveterate Johnson hater will be moved by this TV version of it.

It is not easy to make films—or write books—about politicians once they have made it to the White House. Unless one is careful, the President-elect vanishes behind his new desk to become The President, an institution presiding over an era rather than a human being struggling just to hold his own. It is the special strength of this program that LBJ, the human being, remains always at center stage. We are made to experience his Presidency as he experienced it: working hard to overcome the resentments and suspicions of Kennedy loyalists; persuading his white fellow Southerners the time had come for civil and voting rights; passing out fistfuls of pens that signified passage of the bills meant to build his Great Society—education, housing, national parks, highway beautification, automobile safety, consumer protection, Head Start, Upward Bound, Job Corps, Neighborhood Youth Corps, Medicare, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and public television itself.

And we watch helplessly with him as the world beyond Washington stubbornly refuses to behave the way Capitol Hill behaves. Out there favors are forgotten, issues defy compromise. Everything goes sour. Big-city blacks, apparently ungrateful for all that he has done for civil rights, burn down their neighborhoods. College students, for whom he has provided federal loans, accuse him of child murder. The North Vietnamese prove immovable despite both American belligerence and American blandishments. (To the end Johnson dreamed of luring Ho Chi Minh into a room so that they could somehow “cut a deal.”) In the face of all this, Johnson’s own insecurities, his utter ignorance of the wider world, his apparent inability to separate truth from fiction, and his unwillingness to level with the people who elected him all combine to bring him crashing down.

Lyndon Johnson’s rise and fall is a tragedy in the classic sense, and in David Grubin’s sure hands, even the most inveterate Johnson hater will be moved by this television version of it.

Grubin’s “LBJ” kicks off the fourth season of The American Experience series on PBS. When the series began in the autumn of 1988, there were a good many people, inside and outside the television community, who doubted that a series of historical documentaries fashioned by disparate and independent film makers could possibly last very long.

Judy Crichton, the executive producer of The American Experience , is now at work with her colleagues on the series’ sixth season. It is evidence of their success that it is hard now to imagine public television without it.

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