Sunday, May 22, 2016

All the Way with LBJ

"All the Way with LBJ" was originally the catchy slogan of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson's unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic nomination for president in 1960. All the Way is the title of an HBO TV drama, that aired last night, based on President Lyndon B. Johnson's first year in the White House (following the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963). It is based on Robert Schenkkan's stage play of that name name and stars Bryan Cranston, as LBJ, Melissa Leo as Lady Bird, and The West Wing's Bradley Whitford as Senator (and future Vice President) Hubert Humphrey. It focuses, for the most part, on two pivotal events of LBJ's first year in office - the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, something LBJ accomplished that his predecessor might never have been able to do and the consequent conflicts in the run-up to the 1964 Atlantic City Democratic Convention. 

As LBJ himself famously acknowledged, the conflicts connected with the 1964 Civil Rights Act contributed decisively to the eventual realignment of American political parties. Just as LBJ's forceful leadership on civil rights broke with his party's past history of dependence on the racist "Solid South," Senator Barry Goldwater's vote against that bill broke with the Republican party's long legacy as the party of Lincoln and set the stage for the Republican party to become the new base for race-based political appeals. All of which was critical to the Republican party's recovery from the Goldwater debacle as the Southern-based, white political party it has since evolved into.

The show itself evokes the period and the personalities involved very effectively (and in the process highlights LBJ's intense neediness, as well as the complicated characters and needs of other contemporary political figures). It is a good history lesson for those who don't remember the battle for civil rights (or were just not yet around). It captures the seriousness of the conflict and how deeply rooted racism was in American life - especially in the South. Any honest comparison must acknowledge how far we have come as a country (and how indebted we are to LBJ for that progress). But any honest assessment must also reckon with the lasting legacy of America's original sin and how so much still remains to change in this society where race is involved.

Race aside, the film effectively portrays what politics was like in the mid-1960s, when, for example, filibusters were still for real and conventions were still arenas for conflict and compromise. In retrospect, however, what stands out so strongly - especially in contrast to our contemporary political dysfunction - is how in a time of great division on something so fundamental as civil rights, about which passion was so intense on both sides, still it was possible to make the system work and to produce results. The system still worked at that time, in a way which we can no longer so easily claim today. And because the system could still work, effective leadership was actually still possible.

In contrast, our society today seems no longer able to produce political leaders of the caliber it did then, and our deteriorating political institutions likewise seem almost to guarantee failure in any case.

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