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‘All The Way’ With LBJ — Did He Break Bad, Too?

President Lyndon Johnson rejecting a call to halt the bombing of North Vietnam in  1968. (AP)

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Updated 9/11: The American Repertory Theater announced today that the run of “All The Way,” directed by Bill Rauch, is sold out. A limited number of standing room tickets will be sold on the day of each show — in person only and only one ticket per person — at the A.R.T. Ticket Services Office. There will be no standing room for previews, Opening Night, or the final performance. The production begins previews on Sept. 13, opens Sept. 19 and runs through Saturday, Oct. 12.

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Do you find yourself, given the partisanship in Washington, wishing for the golden days of the 1950s or ‘60s when Democrats and Republicans were able to hash out their differences with civility and respect?

Careful what you wish for. As Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan makes clear in “All The Way,” those golden days were incredibly tarnished, even when you look at the great accomplishments of the era. We’re talking about Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th president of the United States, and the subject of the play that begins previews at the American Repertory Theater Sept. 13 and opens Sept. 18. It runs through Oct. 12, but it’s an increasingly difficult ticket.

Bryan Cranston (AP)

Bryan Cranston (AP)

We’re also talking about the man who will be taking the stage as LBJ, Bryan Cranston, who has recently wrapped up that other little gig he had – “Breaking Bad.” Cranston has deservedly won three Emmys for playing Walter White, the family man who had (has?) a talent for cooking methamphetamine and, as it turned out, for killing any number of folks whom he perceived as a threat.

Don’t worry, I don’t know how “Breaking Bad” ends and neither does Schenkkan, who would rather see it play out along with the rest of us. But we do know how it ended for Cranston’s more recent incarnation, LBJ. Not well.

“All the Way” is concerned with the beginning, from the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination that propelled Johnson into the White House to his 1964 electoral landslide victory over Barry Goldwater. But of much more concern to the play is Johnson’s passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act. Not that “All the Way” spends a ton of time on Johnson’s heroics. His brutality didn’t approach Walter White’s, but his Machiavellianism and ruthlessness are front and center in “All The Way,” whether dealing with Martin Luther King Jr (Brandon J. Dirden), Hubert Humphrey (Reed Birney) or J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean).

Here, in an edited interview, is what Shenkkan had to say about LBJ and the man who plays him.

Robert Schenkkan

Robert Schenkkan

Ed Siegel: Why Cambridge rather than a larger city like New York?

I wanted another chance to work on the play, to refine some scriptural elements and some production elements. They do such good work at A.R.T. … and they have exceeded all my expectations. And [director] Bill Rauch is very comfortable at A.R.T. , given his background. [He’s a Harvard graduate.] Boston is a great theater town, it really understands theater. Boston is also a great political town. It’s the second favorite sport, I hear, maybe the first.

And how did Bryan Cranston get involved?

We needed a certain stature, a certain profile, and I’ve been a huge fan of his, really since “Malcolm in the Middle.” The range from Mr. White to that hapless father is really amazing. He brings a certain intelligence, a certain ferocity, a chameleon acting ability, a good sense of humor, all qualities LBJ possessed. Again, as with A.R.T., he has passed all my expectations. I think he’s going to be breathtaking.

Are you a “Breaking Bad” fan?

A huge fan. I think it’s brilliantly written, beautifully cast and it is really kind of immaculate. “The Wire” is maybe my favorite television and this comes a close second. The writing, the characters, it’s like a Russian novel or a Greek tragedy. I haven’t seen the last two episodes, so don’t tell me anything.

I guess he hasn’t told you how it ends.

He’s such a pleasure to work with, very dedicated. He brings a great intensity and focus to his profession. He’s certainly willing to talk about the show, but doesn’t interject anything and wouldn’t let any secrets out. And I don’t want to know, I want to have the pure viewer experience.

Jack Willis won raves as LBJ in the world premiere [at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland] and is an A.R.T. veteran. Was any thought given to him doing it here?

Jack’s a phenomenal actor and is going to play LBJ in the world premiere of “The Great Society” in Ashland. He made a commitment to Ashland where he’s playing Lear right now, so it didn’t work out for a number of reasons, but none of those reasons were a lack of respect for him or a reflection of his portrayal of LBJ.

(Here’s a taste of Willis in the role:)

OK, LBJ. Martin Luther King is obviously torn between conscience and political necessity, as you say in a stage direction. But at the end of the day, most people would say he’s a man of conscience. What about LBJ?

That’s a really interesting question. Ultimately it depends how you look at 1968 and how you interpret his decision not to seek reelection. I personally believe that it was an act of conscience. It came from a place of self-awareness that he was the primary architect of the war and it was in the best interests of the country if he didn’t run, that there would be a better chance for a negotiated settlement. Tragically that didn’t happen for a variety of reasons.

LBJ is such a complicated man, but the play focuses on that one year, 12 amazing months in a political career. You see him working on behalf of civil rights, but violating ethical and moral standards in order to meet his goals, chief of which is to get reelected. But I think that ultimately the passage of the Civil Rights Act was an act of conscience. He bet the ranch on it and it absolutely cost him politically, with friends, his political base and he knew it would hurt the Democratic Party. As it did.

But it’s complicated. We as the audience root for him when he’s working for civil rights and take great pleasure in his lying, bullying, all of that, the audience cheers him. When he uses the same tactics in his own reelection, it’s not so clear. What this play is about ultimately is the morality of politics, power, where do you draw the line in terms of intentions and action. How much leeway does a good intention give you to violate the law? The question is not without import today.

Lyndon Johnson discussing civil rights in 1964 with Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, Martin Luther King Jr. and Whitney Young. (AP)

Lyndon Johnson discussing civil rights in 1964 with Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, Martin Luther King Jr. and Whitney Young. (AP)

You mentioned Martin Luther King. I wanted to emphasize a side of him that doesn’t get nearly enough recognition. The man was an extraordinary politician in his own right — to keep in line all the factions of what we call the American civil rights movement, to keep them together while working simultaneously on very hard-edged negotiations with the white political structure, I don’t think that gets nearly enough attention. There was a lot of compromise, a lot of sacrifice, but along with the oratory, he was a shrewd politician with a great instinct for the moment and a great dealmaker. He kept what we think of as the civil rights coalition together.

And no one was able to keep it together after his death.

No one could.

J. Edgar Hoover and Lyndon Johnson. (AP)

J. Edgar Hoover and Lyndon Johnson. (AP)

How tempted are you to write a sequel based on ’68?

I am actually revising the sequel, “The Great Society.” The world premiere will be at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival next summer, directed by Bill Rauch, taking us from 1964 to 1968.

There’s a temptation to say that LBJ was something of a tragic figure who could have been one of the great presidents in history except for Vietnam. Does that square with your thinking?

I do think he’s a tragic figure, I do, and I agree with assessment that if you could just separate out his domestic achievements he would have been thought of much differently. But he bears a tremendous responsibility for Vietnam, you can’t diminish that in any way. JFK and Dwight Eisenhower bear responsibility, too, but LBJ’s lying and escalation of the war are part of his legacy. He had said that he left the woman he loved, domestic politics, for that bitch of a war. But I’m pleased to see new thinking emerge about LBJ and the ‘60s … The programs that emerged had a tremendous effect. Medicare, Medicaid, civil rights. They changed the country in a better way, they changed the way we think.

So yes, he was a tragic figure because he knew. He was a shrewd man, a smart man, he knew what the consequences of Vietnam were going to be.


More on “All The Way” and “Breaking Bad”

Radio Boston interviews Bryan Cranston
Jimmy Fallon spoofs “Breaking Bad”
Robert Schenkkan on playwrights and history

Comments

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  • fun bobby

    so promoting a play is more important than reporting that the NSA illegally funnels info about American citizens to the DEA who then lies about it? keep up the solid journalism ‘BUR

    • callmebc

      What that looks like is that in the course of their general surveillance for potential terrorists, spies and general threats to national security, NSA has regularly stumbled across more mundane illegal activities, as well as grey-level activities in regards to national security like anything involving the Mexican cartels (which are much more like large paramilitary organizations than drug rings), and international gun smuggling. The thing you’re referring to is a covert division of DEA called “SOD — Special Operations Division. According to Reuters, which broke the story, SOD was indeed formed in 1994 to help battle the cartels and ended up being composed of a couple of dozen agencies that include the FBI, CIA, NSA,
      IRS, and DHS.

      One of the problems with this setup is that if the NSA or CIA uses classified methods to trace activity from a cartel to, say gunrunning in Arizona, or a drug ring in Nebraska, that generally cannot be used in courts (CIA agents or NSA analysts never testify in public courts.) So the information is then handed off to domestic security agencies like the FBI and DEA, which are then suppose to figure out a way build up a more legally acceptable case that leaves the CIA and NSA out of the picture. This might seem worrying, liberty-wise, but there hasn’t been a good alternative solution for dealing with international criminal organizations that have grown powerful enough to thwart the efforts of even governments like the U.S. to take them down, even when they have operations on U.S. soil.

    • fun bobby

      um that is irrelevant. it matters not if this is effective. throwing out the 4th and 5th amendments would make law enforcement much easier. that does not make it right. clearly it is not even effective if they have been doing it for 20 years and we still have not won the war on drugs. also this has been used domestically not only against foreigners. what they are doing is wrong and there is no excuse for it. it disgust me that anyone would try to defend such a practice. if our rights are meaningless why not just move to Russia or north korea or china?

    • callmebc

      “Um” yourself — sorry, but circumstances are never irrelevant, and I was mostly pointing out what those circumstances were. I didn’t say it was OK, but people don’t seem to realize how difficult it’s been for even governments to deal with the cartels.

    • fun bobby

      actually they are. none of our rights have any caveats about circumstances.

      “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

      seems pretty straight forward. does not say “unless it would be easier to ignore it or ignoring it would help you to fight drug cartels”

      likewise this seems pretty straightforward and without exception.:

      In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense

      nothing in there to the effect of “unless the govt has secret evidence gathering techniques they do not want to reveal”. how can one confront a witness that is a secret NSA spook? how can one confront a witness when they lie about who the witnesses are? how can one’s council provide an adequate defense if he gets lied to by the govt?

      the right to confront a witness against you is a cornerstone of all western legal systems and a very basic right. this from Wikipedia:

      The Confrontation Clause has its roots in both English common law, protecting the right of cross-examination, and Roman law, which guaranteed persons accused of a crime the right to look their accusers in the eye. In noting the right’s long history, the United States Supreme Court has cited Acts of the Apostles 25:16, which reports the Roman governor Porcius Festus, discussing the proper treatment of his prisoner Paul: “It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man up to die before the accused has met his accusers face-to-face, and has been given a chance to defend himself against the charges.” It is also cited in Shakespeare’s Richard II, Blackstone’s treatise, and statutes.[2]

      the drug cartels thing is BS. no matter how many of our rights are infringed or how many of our principals we throw out the window we cannot ever stop the drug cartels in that way. there is only one way to do that and that is to end prohibition entirely. that would be the right, just, and legal way to solve that problem easily and inexpensively.

    • callmebc

      I noticed a long time ago that people who quote sections of the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights amendment to it, not only actually know the least about it, but also are generally completely unaware of how courts have “interpreted” it over then centuries since and how U.S. government has casually ignored it in the name of “national security.” I’m not here to debate whether this particular instance is wrong or right, but just the circumstances, which actually make for far more justification than what has done in the past on matters of traditional liberties.

    • fun bobby

      that’s funny because I have noticed that people who begin their arguments with bizarre ad hominem putdowns tend to be narcissists.

      while your backhanded attempts to imply that you are credible and I am not are amusing, is your argument that these violations of our civil rights are in fact “justified” violations of our rights or not? perhaps you could come up with some case law to support you assertion? what’s your point in mentioning circumstances?

  • Oliver Wendell Holmes

    If Roger Stone’s contention in his new book proves true; that LBJ was the mastermind in the plot to kill JFK, then the author will need to spend considerably more time in script revision. In fact he may want to scrap it altogether, and start over.

    • Robert_Morrow

      LBJ murdering John Kennedy is beyond question now. The only question is did he murder MLK and RFK, too. The King family certainly thinks LBJ was in on the MLK murder.

      ABC News: “Do you believe that Lyndon Johnson was part of the plot to
      kill your father?

      Dexter King – on national TV in
      1997 with the entire MLK family sitting around him: “Yes, I do.”

      ABC NEWS: “What’s
      more, Dexter King believes the plot went all the way to the White House.”
      (See Dexter King’s remarks as to who it was he believes was behind his father’s
      assassination — at 1:03:10).

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=097u5blYeaE

    • Oliver Wendell Holmes

      O.K., so let’s say LBJ was a key figure in the JFK, RFK, and MLK murders.
      The bigger questions-and ones most pertinent to current events, is Who was/is behind the scenes pulling the strings that still need to be protected, even today?
      The fact that what records that weren’t destroyed pertaining to the conspiracy, are still being withheld illegally certainly points in George H.W. Bushes direction, the scion of an evil dynasty. And since there is no statute of limitations in cases of murder, and he’s still alive, it strongly suggests that a trail of succession followed, that has been put in power from that moment on, in 63.

    • Robert_Morrow

      GHW Bush – CIA in 1963 – supported by all the same groups as LBJ- Texas oil, CIA, CFR, Rockefellers. Very likely in on JFK assassination. Makes absurd statement that he can’t remember where he was when JFK was assassinated. Bush was in it or he can walk you through the whole thing A to Z.

      Years later, when he was running for President, George would claim that he never made the call. Documents were then produced that refreshed his memory. He also claimed that he did not remember where he was the day John F. Kennedy was killed- “somewhere in Texas,” he said. George Bush is possibly the only person on the planet who did not recall his whereabouts that
      day, although his wife clearly remembered their being in Tyler. She said that at the time of the assassination she was writing a letter in the beauty salon and that they left
      shortly after hearing the news. They flew to Dallas en route to Houston, and in Dallas they had to circle Love Field several times while the second presidential plane was taking off to return to Washington, D.C.

      “The rumors are flying about that horrid assassin,” Barbara wrote in her letter. “We are hoping that it is not some far right nut, but a ‘commie’ nut. You understand that we know they are both nuts, but just hope that it is not a Texan and not an American at all.”

      George and the three other candidates vying for the GOP Senate nomination suspended campaigning for
      several weeks but resumed after the first of the year.

      [Kitty Kelley, "The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty," pp. 212-213]

  • callmebc

    We have trouble sorting out and making up our minds about what’s really happening with current events, never mind those from 45 years ago.

    • Oliver Wendell Holmes

      Yes, today’s world is extremely muddled in lies, spin, and disinformation, making it hard to sort through-there is no disputing this. However partly how it got this way, is because the country dropped the ball back then 50 years ago, when it allowed criminals to get away with the most heinous of crimes-murders, which have helped shaped all events occurring subsequently.
      If we are to ever get back to a time when honesty, selflessness, and other virtues are extolled, instead of exploited by our leaders, it is so import to uncover the truth of what happened n those seminal events of the 60′s, starting on Nivember 22, 1963.

      The justice dept. is still flaunting a recent ruling by the courts which orders it to relinquish the remaining documents, that it has been holding for as much as 50 years, in violation of the freedom of information act.
      If the documents that pertain to the truth are still in tact, and made available, Then facts that establish what George H.W. Bush’s role during this time may be established.
      The fact that he still lives, and there is no statute of limitations on murder, strongly points to why these documents are still sequestered.

    • callmebc

      Many terrible things were done covertly in Central America under Reagan and then Bush Sr.(although if you were relatives or friends of the victims, it was wasn’t that covert….) and when Clinton became President, he quietly ended all that nasty shenanigans. So why didn’t Clinton try to score political points with that, especially since he too had to deal with hostile, obstructive and none too bright Congressional Republicans? The same reason why Obama had to quietly subdue his criticisms of Bush Jr. and the Iraq War — when Bill Clinton was elected President, he *became* the President, meaning that he took on a much greater responsibility of representing the country, not just in current events but in terms of past events as well. So imagine if Clinton fessed up to not just how Reagan and Bush Sr. oversaw CIA operations that blatantly supported brutal, right wing guerrilla groups like the Contras in order disrupt national elections because of some vague, if not utterly nonsensical U.S. policy? That would have unleashed floodgates of investigations, nationally and internationally, and calls for very expensive reparations. (As it was, the World Court in 1984 ruled in favor of Nicaragua over its complaint about U.S. activities within its border and actually ordered the U.S. to pay war reparations, which the U.S. responded to by basically simply blowing off the court’s decision.)

      In Obama’s case, he was handed two wars that were not had been badly mismanaged, but the bigger of the two, Iraq, had been started based on lies and used the 9/11 attacks as a cover to implement some long wished for regime change in Iraq, namely disposing of Reagan’s old friend, Saddam Hussein. Imagine the consequences of Obama publicly fessing up to how all those American soldiers that died or were severely wounded in Iraq did so for no good reason whatsoever? Imagine the lawsuits alone from such an admission? As President, he couldn’t do that, and that’s really the case and has been the case for all world leaders, from Prime Ministers to Kings and Queens for quite some time now, to put it mildly.

  • Robert_Morrow

    Here is Lyndon Johnson’s legacy. If you want to get quickly “up to speed” on the JFK assassination, here is what to read:

    1) LBJ: The Mastermind of the JFK Assassination
    by Phillip Nelson

    2) The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ by Roger
    Stone

    3) JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why
    it Matters by James Douglass

    4) Brothers: the Hidden History of the Kennedy
    Years by David Talbot

    5) The Dark Side of Camelot by
    Seymour Hersh

    6) Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty by
    Russ Baker

    7) Power
    Beyond Reason: The Mental Collapse of Lyndon Johnson by Jablow Hershman

    8) Operation Cyanide: Why the Bombing of the
    USS Liberty Nearly Caused World War III by Peter Hounam (LBJ engineered the
    attack on the USS Liberty)

    9) Inside
    the Assassinations Records Review Board Volume 5,
    by Doug Horne

    10) Watch
    “The Men Who Killed Kennedy – the Guilty Men – episode 9″ at YouTube
    -

    best video
    ever on the JFK assassination; covers well Lyndon Johnson’s role

    11) Google
    the essay “LBJ-CIA Assassination of JFK” by Robert Morrow

    11) Google
    “National Security State and the Assassination of JFK by Andrew Gavin
    Marshall.”

    12) Google
    “Chip Tatum Pegasus.” Intimidation of Ross Perot 1992

    13) Google
    “Vincent Salandria False Mystery Speech.” Read every book & essay Vincent
    Salandria ever wrote.

    14) Google
    “Unanswered Questions as Obama Annoints HW Bush” by Russ Baker

    16) Google
    “Did the Bushes Help to Kill JFK” by Wim Dankbaar

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