How Pop Culture Is Re-Evaluating Lyndon B. Johnson's Legacy

Now rivetingly played by Bryan Cranston on Broadway, the 36th president is being remembered for his political skills and domestic achievements, not just his escalation of the Vietnam War.
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Evgenia Eliseeva / AP

Fifty years after his greatest electoral and legislative triumphs, Lyndon Baines Johnson is getting a worthy reappraisal in, of all places, a Broadway production: All the Way, written by Robert Schenkkan and starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ.

Adorned with prosthetic earlobes and two-inch shoe lifts, Cranston has transformed himself into the outsized physical stature of Johnson, and provides theatergoers with a brilliant portrayal of America’s 36th president. Onstage and surrounded with a large and fine cast of characters of that era—from Lady Bird Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. to Sen. Richard Russell and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara—the action gives the audience as near to a feeling of what it must have been like to experience Johnson close-up as they are likely to get in any artistically inspired setting. The standing ovations that Cranston receives from audiences in the sold-out Neil Simon Theater are for his powerful representation of the man, but inevitably, this play inspires an examination of Johnson that he deserves—and has largely not yet received.

Johnson’s domestic accomplishments—including the passage of civil-rights acts and hugely important social programs including Medicare and Medicaid—thus far have been overshadowed by his escalation of the Vietnam War. The conflict split the country deeply, and has had political and policy reverberations that endure to this day. With his backing of the Tonkin Gulf resolution to retaliate against the North Vietnamese, Johnson was indelibly marked in the public mind as a duplicitous protagonist responsible for tragic consequences on the battlefields and at home. The anti-war movement, and the sweeping upheavals in the inner cities culminating in devastating riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., drove Johnson from office. His last years on his Texas ranch before his death at 65 were lived in relative obscurity—especially striking, given that his years in public life were so tumultuous. Even Richard Nixon in unique disgrace after Watergate had a higher profile in his post-White House years, releasing a succession of respectable books and submitting to interviews.

Perhaps the most significant contributor to the gradual resurrection of interest in Johnson has been Robert Caro’s monumental biography of him, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, with four volumes already published and a fifth in preparation. Caro’s decades of commitment to his subject and the breadth of his research have provided a work of historical resonance that will be read for generations. While Johnson’s own presidential memoir, The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963–69, published in 1971, had little critical and commercial impact, LBJ did leave an extraordinary record of his White House years in the hundreds of hours of tapes he made of countless telephone conversations, unbeknownst to those on the other end of the line. The tapes can now be accessed through the Johnson Presidential Library, and some of the most fascinating are available in commercial versions. The portrait of Johnson that comes through in this invaluable cache is riveting: a politician whose destiny was failure because of the war, but who also succeeded in shaping policies in the domestic arena through unsurpassed political skill.

In this age of Washington’s extraordinary dysfunction and stasis, Barack Obama seems to be paying a price that will blight his legacy. By contrast, LBJ’s ability to establish the range of programs known as the Great Society should rank in American history somewhere near the New Deal. But FDR also led the nation in a world war that the Allies eventually won. The tragedy of Johnson’s life was that his war was destined to be lost, and he sensed it would be.

Cranston, who at 57 is about the age Johnson was in his White House years, has become a major star because of his five seasons as Walter White, the chemistry teacher turned meth dealer on AMC’s hit series Breaking Bad. That acclaim may well have been a significant factor when Schenkkan and the director, Bill Rauch, chose him. The three-hour saga—which covers the 12 months from November 22, 1963, when Johnson ascended to the presidency, to his election in November 1964—is unusual as theater: It has a documentary adherence to the events as they unfolded, especially the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but it also conveys the innermost feelings of the immense personality at its center. In an interview with Sam Tanenhaus of The New York Times, Cranston said, “I wanted to play LBJ because he is the King Lear of modern theater in this play.” Although not nearly the physical size of Johnson, Cranston, with the benefit of make-up and a posture that puffs out his chest, fills the stage with a presence that is uncannily like the Johnson we know from photo imagery, accompanied by a voice timbre just like the one on the tapes and his public oratory.

Johnson’s use of wiles and guiles in the early years of his presidency to drive his legislative program through Congress is the underlying theme of the play, and the message is clear. If only Johnson had been persuaded not to engage the Vietnam War with the same energy that he deployed in his domestic initiatives, he would rank among the great presidents. LBJ had grown up poor, and identified with those Americans who needed the government to help them. All the Way is mainly about what made Lyndon Johnson so vital a figure in our modern history, a man of vast capacities who, for all his flaws and personal tics, made the most of our messy democratic process.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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