All the Way (with LBJ)

All-The-Way_650All the Way, the Tony-Award-winning play focusing on Lyndon Johnson’s first year as President, demands a bravura performance by its lead actor. In the staging of this play that I have just seen at St. Louis’ Repertory Theatre, Bryan Dykstra delivers—dominating the stage, just as the real LBJ took command of Congress in his effort to pass some of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th Century.

The play is not a documentary, as playwright Robert Schenkkan reminds us in his introductory notes. He has taken considerable dramatic license to alter the chronology of some events and to imagine conversations that may never have occurred. But, thanks to the audiotape system in the Oval Office, the playwright did not have to invent everything. From the now-public tapes, we know that Johnson used his Oval Office telephone as a communications weapon, calling everyone, at all hours, to wheedle, cajole, pressure, arm-twist, bully and horse-trade—often using barnyard language and coarse analogies that redefined “presidential.”

Some conversations in the play may be edited versions of the tapes, and some may be entirely fictional, but the basic facts are correct: Lyndon Johnson, self-described in the play as an accidental President, seized his moment, using the power of the Oval Office and his prodigious political skill to pass the 1965 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

And in the early days of his Presidency—the time period covered by All the Way—it worked. Johnson had honed his bargaining skills during 24 years in as a U.S. Congressman and Senator, and as the political protégé of the powerful Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, who is a featured presence in the play.

When watching political dramas, it’s tempting to see the connections to current events and then to conclude that nothing ever changes. In this case, though, one of the lessons learned is that things actually have changed—but not necessarily for the better.

As he made civil rights legislation his top priority, Johnson used everything he had to get his way. What’s different here is that horse-trading worked—or perhaps more fundamentally, that political horse-trading was even possible. Johnson wheeled-and-dealed both with Republicans and with members of his own Democratic party—particularly those from Southern states, who opposed civil rights legislation that would alter their traditional “way of life.” But at least they were willing to talk and deal. We haven’t seen much of that in recent years.

In the end, Johnson won the battle—managing to get the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts passed—but he lost the war. “We just lost the South,” Johnson said. And he was right: After 1965, Southern Democrats began to see themselves as alienated from the Democratic party, and eventually, their once-Democratic states went Republican. [An appropriate realignment, many would say.]

One of Johnson’s lesser-known achievements not mentioned in the play is the Immigration Act of 1965.  [I’m not faulting the playwright for this omission: It’s a play, not a historical document, after all.] But given today’s anti-immigrant climate in Congress, that piece of game-changing legislation is worth noting. Before it, U.S. immigration policy was decidedly ethnocentric, giving almost unlimited access to immigrants from white, Anglo-Saxon and European backgrounds, while imposing strict quotas on people from Asia, Central and South America, Africa and the Middle East. The 1965 act—signed by Johnson with the Statue of Liberty as backdrop—removed the quotas and leveled the playing field. Passed as what was seen as an extension of America’s new-found spirit of civil rights, the law still stands as the framework for present-day immigration policies. Sadly, it’s very hard to imagine such a welcoming, open-arms bill getting through Congress today–even if it had behind it the kind of politically driven, strong-arm, force-of-nature president we see in Lyndon Johnson in All the Way.