Bryan Cranston, LBJ, and Today

Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th President of the United States, had what many consider to be one of the rockiest administrations in the history of the U.S. presidency. From his ascension to office upon the assassination of President Kennedy, to the riots in Maryland and the South, to the cacophonous Democratic Convention of 1964 and the escalation of the Vietnam War, Johnson had so many challenges to contend with that some may forget his Great Society.

Earlier this month, I caught one of the last showings of Robert Schenkkan’s play, "All the Way," at the America Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. The show, which is poised to move to Broadway sometime this winter, focuses on the life of Lyndon Johnson from the time he assumes the presidency to when he wins the election of 1964. It captures in raw detail the various emotions, paranoias, capabilities and demagogue-like tendencies of LBJ. Not only is the show extremely well written, the casting was incomparable: Bryan Cranston, fresh off of the Emmy-award winning series "Breaking Bad," played Lyndon Johnson; Brandon J. Dirden was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dakin Matthews played the segregationist yet sagacious Sen. Richard Russell; and Michael McKean was the slick and vendetta-driven J. Edgar Hoover. They starred along with 13 other cast members playing, collectively, 35 roles.

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The play attempts to capture several story-lines simultaneously: the personal and political demons that plagued Johnson; the civil rights movement led by Dr. King and his confreres; the internal and personal wars waged by J. Edgar Hoover; and the development of Johnson’s Great Society. Given the play's ambitions, it is surprising that it succeeds. The behind-the-scenes politicking of Johnson—attempting to appease his southern compatriots, assuage the African-American vote and to build a better America for the poor because he knew from personal experience the extreme poverty so many Americans’ lived with on a daily basis— shows a man torn by a government not his own, personal demons and the political divisions of the 1960’s. Cranston portrays Johnson as a man willing to do whatever is required to help Americans, who remain strained by political ideologies and disagreements.

The play is surprisingly timely. Consider again Johnson’s Great Society program. With significant help from the late Sargent Shriver, Johnson sought and accomplished the funding of programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. His administration also increased funding for public education, signed the Public Broadcasting Act into law, established the National Endowment for the Arts/Humanities, pursued urban renewal, passed the Voting Rights Act and established the Head Start and food stamp programs.

In her introduction to the show Artistic Director Diane Paulus notes that when "All the Way" was just beginning its run, “the United States Supreme Court announced its decision striking down part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act…suddenly this play…was speaking directly to our own times.” Indeed, when the play opened, it made the current struggles for civil and voting rights very apparent. Now at the close of the play, in the shadow of the government shutdown, so many programs created under Johnsons’ Great Society are being threatened and labeled as non-essential, just as when Johnson inaugurated them.

Programs such as SNAP (Food Stamps), Veterans Benefits, and Medicaid were initially secured with emergency funding at the beginning of sequester. However, as budgets are being slashed many fear for the security of these necessary programs. Head Start programs have already suffered drastic cutbacks and other aid programs have felt similar pains. What does the continuing of these programs mean for Americans?

These programs are now considered essential to domestic prosperity. They are hallmarks of our nation's democratic progress. They free men and women of all races and nationalities, at least in concept, to pursue their ambitions while guaranteeing a safety net that ensures their children will be housed, fed and educated if they fall on hard times. Are there abuses in the system? Does it require reform? Is reform even possible at this point? Yes, yes and yes. Yet the need for reform does not excuse us of our basic commitments. It is unconscionable to cast Americans out of their homes, to deny their children a basic education, to leave the starving in the streets and to neglect the benefits and care due to our veterans, elderly and impoverished. That’s what these programs mean to Americans: a maintaining of sustained condition, equal protection and equal opportunity that make work and education available to all who are willing to pursue their dreams.

This system remains nowhere near perfect, and I doubt that it will be perfected even in my lifetime. There are still so many political, economic and social hurdles to overcome. But as 50 years has shown, and "All the way" reminds us, the change and progress is notable. In a rough political era strewn with resentment and political dvisions, Johnson pursued and won programs unheard of in American history. At the end of the show, Cranston asks the audience if what they’ve seen makes them “squeamish” because “this is how new things are made.” Change is difficult. It’s even more difficult when you know what is right and resentment abounds. Despite all of the challenges facing us today, hopefully we will never forget the responsibility we as Americans owe to one another. 

Nicholas D. Sawicki is an intern at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Vince Killoran
4 years 1 month ago
A preceptive review. In their '86 pastoral, "Economic Justice for All," the U.S. Bishops endorsed many of the programs/approaches in LBJ's "the Great Society." Unfortunately, the "War on Poverty" was "declared, but never fought" as a result of skimpy budgets (due, in part, to the GOP's '66 midterm gains) and the demands for funding the Vietnam War.

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