LBJ: A Man Caught in the Crux of History

by Kenneth Rayman on May 30, 2018

As my Russia presentations evolved to add imagery and an explanation to my personal generational view of Russia itself, I use politics only as a concept that relates to history.

“My first experience of Russia as an “enemy” was of a 6’5” boxer, not a bomb or a political idea. I didn’t know what a nuclear bomb or communism was but I sure knew that boxer could turn me into a pile of goo.” I sometimes elaborate on that a little further. I tell the audience, “it was the same with America’s presidents as a kid. I didn’t have a clue as to what Democrat or Republican meant. What mattered to me, reading the encyclopedia, was what happened during their term from a historical perspective and any funny quarks about the person themselves. Party was just a letter by the person’s name, an (R) or (D) or in the distant past (W).”

With Lyndon Johnson, though, I feel history’s gravity on his legacy; I saw two movies recently that play to that childhood narrative devoid of political interpretation, “All The Way” starring Brian Cranston as LBJ, and “LBJ” starring Woody Harrelson as the 36th President. Both men in my opinion were perfect for their role as Lyndon, as, though I never watched Breaking Bad, Brian is known for his rough, strong, and unapologetic character portrayal as is Woody. But both films differed in their subject matter; Brian’s film was about the passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964 in conjunction with the re-election campaign that same year while Woody’s film was about the transition of power and the position Lyndon found himself in as Vice President and the sudden succession to the Presidency through tragedy.

Seeing the man’s torment from people calling him an opportunist, his own history coming back to haunt him legislatively yet knowing, personally and professionally, after Kennedy’s Civil Rights stance was put forward that times were changing and change needed to happen. He knew he was the right man for the job providing the connection to deeply held beliefs that would need that Southern touch and finesse to navigate. He aspired to the presidency yet felt hindered by his role and the personal distrust of Bobby Kennedy. He was in shock at the way the job came to him and felt the burden of the country, the power brokers in the back room questioning his motives, and his own party wondering how he would handle the domestic issue of the day (one side thinking they had a surefire way to torpedo any effort, the other wondering how a Southerner championing Civil Rights would be interpreted to guarantee a win).

The man I grew up learning about was a proud Texan and pushed a thing called “Great Society” forward with programs to help everybody (education, health, suffrage, etc.) but the coolest was that he loved Fresca so much he had a fountain installed in the oval office. I saw the clip of him announcing he would not seek or accept the nomination of his party for another term but as a child I never understood why. Learning that he was plagued with nightmares after the Vietnam involvement escalated and how personally he took the reports of “his boys'” deaths on the battlefield showed me a man of deep connection but resigned to the place history had given him; that of a man who knew he’d be remembered for his failures rather than the good he did. When he retired to his Texas ranch he let himself go in terms of his health and gained weight. I also heard a story about the fact that he had quit smoking in the White House for his health but on the plane ride home to Texas immediately lit up a cigarette and when questioned about it said something to the effect of, “I just gave everything I have to the American people, I’m doing something for myself now.”

Everything about this man’s legacy, to me, is not about his policies or programs that to this day have a impact on our daily lives or the political debates at the kitchen table, but that of a man thrust into a moment in history that demanded more of himself and he knew he had the gumption to do it. To me this was proven most when, being urged to form his own path as President, he remarked, “Let us continue…” in regards to Kennedy’s legacy. He was also remarkable to show such human concern and compassion first and foremost for Jackie during that traumatic day and would allow her to stay in the White House after he took over.

A personal interest article this may be, rather than a widespread message, but I wanted to share a post about a deeper meaning in history that connects me to something other than an ideal or ethical construct.

Besides this movie featured here, if interested in learning more, you can watch “All The Way” starring Brian Cranston, or the History Documentary, “24 Hours After: The Kennedy Assassination” which tells the minute by minute story of that fateful day in Dallas.