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Television Meets History

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Photograph by Cecil W. Stoughton, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

“All The Way,” an HBO biopic of LBJ from his first days of presidency through the election victory of 1964, aired on Saturday to the delight of critics and, one suspects, also most of the viewers. The adaptation of Robert Schenkkan’s Tony award-winning 2014 theater piece is certainly timely, in the fifty-year anniversary sense alone, but it has a lot more going for it.  Jay Roach, who memorably directed Bryan Cranston, star of this film, as Dalton Trumbo in an earlier biopic, here has crafted a Lyndon Johnson true to the life, vulgar and manipulative but in many ways the loyal son of the New Deal that Johnson imagined himself.

What may it mean to people not yet born fifty years ago, most of all to today’s young, economically sunken and political restless population? How do they (or we) understand a political crisis of the two party system in the face of another political crisis, at least as intense? And what do we make, on the Democratic side in particular, of rivals who hearken back to that political era, where they developed their ideas and hardened themselves for an extended upward climb?

It would seem especially difficult for mainstream Democrats, now in a rush to get Bernie Sanders into the concession mode, to imagine a teenage Hillary Clinton as the Goldwater Girl of suburban Chicago, 1964. Respectable Republican suburbanites mostly disdained use of the N Word as evidence of lower class vulgarity. But Barry Goldwater’s insistence that the Constitution forbade “forced” integration of schools and other public facilities had a special resonance for the Country Club set. As suburbs sprouted, racial covenants had sprouted with them way back to the 1920s, marking off large, mostly prosperous living space—especially compared to the tax-starved cities—from the taint of a non-white presence. Hillary Rodham’s own Park Ridge was a prime case in point: 99.9% white in 1960, its residents undoubtedly wished to keep it that way.

Demonstrations across Chicago and its suburbs, in just these years, made social inequality rooted in neighborhood realities an issue that would not go away. Bernie Sanders, working
womenbuhlein Hyde Park for Open Housing, got his political education in organizing here, around this very struggle.  Sanders has looked back on these years with a sense of modest pride.  When Hillary Rodman Clinton surveyed her own past in her memoir, Living History, she recalled her vision of Goldwater as a “rugged individualist,” courageously undaunted by critics. By 1968 and in college, she was most amazingly supporting both Eugene McCarthy and Nelson Rockefeller: she had not yet chosen her path to success.

“All The Way” could easily be accused of placing too much of the action in the White House and too little in the streets. Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar Eric Foner had the authority to say the same of Lincoln, the much-lauded film, and with good reason. But if we do not find Chicago (or either of today’s competitors for the Democratic Party’s nomination, on the scene), we certainly do find Mississippi, and all that it then represented. The murdered civil rights workers, the Dixiecrats from George Wallace to racist southern Senators, are very much present. Against racism, but also against all the compromises proposed by liberal Democrats, we find the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s own Fannie Lou Hamer.

Mostly, of course, it is LBJ, above all his the mix of his political skills with his personal vulgarity, interpreted as more quaint than repulsive, from undaunted womanizing to demanding Hubert Humphrey continue their conversation while the president is relieving himself with evident satisfaction. Cranston as bigger-than-life Johnson is inevitably the best thing in the production, although there is a lot to say for veteran TV star Melissa Leo as Lady Byrd, in her real life the shrewd businesswoman behind LBJ’s rise. He wheels and deals as he gets the Civil Rights Act passed and prepares himself first for the 1964 election and next for the Voting Rights Act. He’s a righteous figure in public and a scheming rascal in private, as any viewer can grasp.

Most vividly, the Democratic Party itself is seen to be, as it is now,  in crisis, a mirror of the crises facing the country. Those who bemoan the deep fissures certain to be revealed in the upcoming Philadelphia convention might ponder as they watch “All the Way,” how urgently the convention crises of 1964 and 1968 were both inevitable and necessary. Unity, in other words, would have demanded an unprincipled, undesirable compromise. They will also see how unwilling powerful Democrats were to move forward without the threat of impending political catastrophe. (Hubert Humphrey is seen here as LBJ’s flunky, an ambitious but weak, even spineless figure.) They might even remember that Franklin Roosevelt himself gained the 1932 nomination amidst a brokered convention.

Of all the possible lessons, here is an intriguing possibility: that public vulgarity and bad personal behavior may not actually work against a candidate. They certainly didn’t work against LBJ. This would be a serious blow against Clinton supporters who seem sure that a Donald Trump is so dreadful that women of America will draw back in horror and rush to pull the lever for the alternative. It would also be a blow against mainstream media presentation of Trump, almost ceaselessly fixated upon his personality foibles. Today’s readers/listeners who get their news from the Comedy Channel are used to four-letter words and accompanying gestures, which is to say they are indifferent or worse to appeals for propriety.

And here is another vexing point driven home by the HBO production, indirectly if not directly: Barry Goldwater is the hawk who threatens to bomb Vietnam in the manner than HRC has offered to wipe Iran off the map, and LBJ’s counter to the threat of confrontation all the way to nuclear war with the Russians is….a stepping back from the armed-to-the-teeth quest for global domination.

LBJ did not exactly oppose the corporate agenda. But coming out of the Depression, his own childhood poverty and the New Deal experience, he genuinely had a vision of a “Great Society” (the two-word phrase was used by fourteenth century English radicals, rallying around the translation of the Bible into the vernacular), a very different place from the Corporate Agenda America in which we so obviously live today. What will this mean to young people wondering how the burden of severe economic decline will ever be lifted, how stunted careers and ballooning college debts can somehow bring the middle class lives promised for hard work?  Bernie is saying the words, more at least than any major party candidate in memory. That may well not be enough. But the inevitability of tumult, the need for changes as large as those of the 1960s, is something very much on the minds of the young. “All the Way” helps bring the issues to the surface.

Mari Jo Buhle is a feminist scholar and author of Women and American Socialism. Paul Buhle is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch.

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