Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Robert Schenkkan’s newest play “All the Way” is set in 1964, when LBJ began pushing the landmark Civil Rights Act through Congress. This weekend Bryan Cranston’s performance as LBJ earned him a Tony, and the play won “Best New Play.” It’s not the only recent piece of pop culture that’s taken a look at the legacy of the 36th president, so a few days before the Tonys, Rico asked Shenkkan what about LBJ’s famous political acumen – and Texas-sized personality – resonates so strongly fifty years later.
Rico Gagliano: There’s your play… there’s the series of non-fiction books by Robert Caro about LBJ… several films in which he’s a character. What is in the ether that makes us so attracted to him?
Robert Schenkkan: I think there are a couple of reasons.
One, I think enough time has elapsed that we are now able to look back at this very passionate – and, oftentimes, traumatic – period in our history, with a little less emotion. Partially, this is being driven by a series of anniversaries. This year, for example, is of course, the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
And I think finally, there’s such a level of frustration with the inability of Congress to function, and I think people look back at LBJ and that historic Congress in 1964 and their amazing length of accomplishments: I think 107 bills, major bills.
Rico Gagliano: Yeah, and the play deals largely with LBJ pushing through the Civil Rights bill. What about him allowed him to get divisive bills through Congress like that, in a way that we can’t seem to today? Because it was a very divisive bill.
Robert Schenkkan: Well, I think there are a couple of things. One, a tremendous amount of practical experience. LBJ had been in the House and then, of course, had famously been Senate Majority Leader. He knew how to get things done, legislatively.
Rico Gagliano: But surely there are people that have seniority right now and know how the game is played.
Robert Schenkkan: Well, yes and no. I don’t think President Obama has nearly LBJ’s practical experience, and I think that matters.
But, LBJ also knew the players and knew them intimately. Politics was all he cared about. The man had no hobbies, he had no other life. He lived and breathed politics, and he made it his life’s work to know all the players – what they needed, what they were afraid of, what their districts wanted. The Johnson treatment — the relentless, ruthless, full-court-press way in which he went about getting things done — is also hard to duplicate. When he set his mind on something, he was very hard to say no to.
Rico Gagliano: In an early scene, you set up this guy’s multiple personalities. He seemed to be able to play all sides of any issue. You actually, specifically, follow up a scene in which he gives a speech advocating for civil rights… with a scene that begins with him referring to someone with the N-word. Other characters are always trying to figure out whether he’s being expeditious or honest at any given moment. What do you think was the honest core of him? MLK asks at one point in the play, “What does Lyndon Johnson really want?” What did he want?
Robert Schenkkan: I think what he really wanted was civil rights, ultimately. He did play a very, very close political game for years, keeping his cards tightly to his chest. To the Dixiecrats, he was a good old boy, happy with the status quo. To the liberals, he was an FDR New Dealer. And when he became President, nobody was entirely sure which of these two camps he really belonged to. But I think he made it clear, very quickly, that civil rights is what he wanted. I don’t think this was the easiest, or even the most politically-opportune choice for him to have made.
Rico Gagliano: Why was it so important to him?
Robert Schenkkan: Well, I think because he grew up in the South. He grew up poor, so he had the personal experience of societal rejection and judgment. But he also taught for a year, the only job he actually had, in fact, that wasn’t about being a politician. He taught for a year – elementary school – in Catahoula, Texas, a border town. His children were all Mexican-American immigrants. He loved these kids. He loved their enthusiasm. But, he would say that for each of these children, there would come a moment where he would see their realization that the world hated them simply because of the color of their skin. He never forgot that.
Rico Gagliano: He, as well as Nixon and Kennedy, taped a lot of his phone conversations and a lot of his meetings, and I heard a radio show where I heard some of those tapes, and I recognize some of LBJ’s actual words showing up in your dialogue. What was your favorite bit of dialogue that you pulled from reality?
Robert Schenkkan: Oh, gosh. There’s the famous tailor scene, which shows up on Youtube…
Rico Gagliano: You want to describe that? That’s exactly what I was thinking of. You want to describe that for people? Keeping in mind that this is a family show?
Robert Schenkkan: Well, he’s working with his tailor, getting new suits made. And he’s very… explicit… and blunt in his description of how these pants should fit him.
Rico Gagliano: In a certain place, let us say.
Robert Schenkkan: It’s very amusing. But it’s not my favorite thing. Actually, my favorite thing–and I was stunned when I read this – is an exchange between LBJ and the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. LBJ actually asks Hoover – who we now know, of course, was a completely closeted homosexual– “How do you know when someone is a homosexual?” And Hoover schools him. And to listen to that bit of dialogue with what we now know about Hoover is… pretty amazing.
Rico Gagliano: Robert Caro’s book is a four-volume, at this point — and continuing — set about LBJ. It is exhaustively-researched. In your own research, is there anything you came upon that managed to really surprise you? That you hadn’t known before?
Robert Schenkkan: There’s a lot that surprised me. Even though I grew up in Austin and my family had this very casual relationship with then-Senator Johnson regarding public television, like many people I saw LBJ through a very narrow, very personal lens — during the Vietnam War, principally. There was so much I didn’t know, especially on the domestic agenda and on the man’s character. Such a conflicted individual.
I love Bill Moyers’ description of LBJ: “The eleven most interesting people I ever met was Lyndon Johnson”. I think that pretty well sums it up.
Rico Gagliano: All right. Robert Schenkkan, thank you so much for talking to us, and good luck at the Tonys.
Robert Schenkkan: Thank you. It was a pleasure.