Last week, Robert Schenkkan’s new play, The Great Society, opened at the Arena Stage in Washington. This riveting sequel to the Tony-award winning All the Way, about the Lyndon Johnson presidency, is a haunting piece of theater for liberals to watch in February of 2018, when President Trump and the Republican Congress have been swinging a political wrecking ball at Barack Obama’s legacy.
The two plays capture an important lesson about presidential history: that it is possible for the country’s top leader to be an incredibly effective policymaker yet fail politically at building a governing coalition that outlasts them. The costs of this kind of political failure are severe because it leaves everything a president built open to attack. It also leaves little room for continued growth. LBJ saw that happen when Richard Nixon took office in 1968, and now Obama is witnessing the same thing, even worse, with President Trump.
Policy victories combined with political failure is the story of President Johnson that The Great Society captures so well. In the first play, Bryan Cranston brilliantly captured the energy and ambition of LBJ in 1963 and 1964. Broadway audiences were treated to a rollicking performance as they saw Johnson use all the political cunning that he gained during his years in Congress to push a historic civil-rights bill through the House and Senate. Johnson had an instinctive feel for the way that his former colleagues worked. Through carrots and sticks, Johnson figured out a way to move warring sides to the point of compromise. “I got all kinds of federal programs in mind on health, education, literacy, jobs, you name it,” Johnson says in the play. “We’re gonna change this country, top to bottom!”