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Git ‘er done

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There is something to be said for, even in politics and maybe especially in politics, getting something useful done.

Maybe that’s the through line of LBJ, the latest movie about Lyndon Johnson (the last being the HBO play translating starring Bryan Cranston). This one, now in theaters – albeit not that many, and maybe not for long – stars Woody Harrelson as a reasonably convincing but still somewhat kinder and gentler LBJ than the one many people have known, or written of. If you miss it in theater, catch it on streaming.

The movie, well made and well acted (Jeffrey Donovan’s John Kennedy was a nice turn), covers the period from just before the 1960 election, when Johnson was still Senate majority leader, to his first few months as president.

The time span covers the same run as the last volume in Robert Caro’s many-volume biography of Johnson. As Caro has pointed out, the books put on display different threads, some light and some dark, of Johnson’s life. The great book centered on the 1948 Senate election, for example, showed Johnson at his least sympathetic; the most current (The Passage of Power) is one of the brightest, showing him effectively and usefully taking and and using presidential power. It showed him assuming leadership at a moment of crisis, and using his newfound clout to push through important civil rights legislation that had eluded earlier presidents, including Kennedy. It was not a story of Vietnam; Johnson would mire himself in that soon enough, but not quite yet.

This new movie tells much the same story as the last Caro book, and gets most of the basics right. It misses here and there. It overstates the degree to which civil rights legislation was a central goal (at that time) for the Kennedys. (It also turn Bobby Kennedy into a spoiled brat, which in spite of his own rough edges he never was; and it understates Johnson’s own role in their often-bitter relationship.) It misses a chance to more clearly show the legislative power of the South by depicting Senator Richard Russell, the leader that contingent, as rawer and rougher than the smooth and courtly man (albeit staunchly segregationist) actually was.

But the movie’s through line is sound. From early on, it made the point that Johnson, rough though he was, understood politics and power and getting things done in a way the Kennedys did not. The Kennedys were far more presentable. But Johnson got things done.

The whole of the Johnson story is immensely complex, which is why Caro has taken so many big books to tell it (and isn’t done yet). But this part of it, even recognizing Johnson’s other flaws, should not be forgotten. Good can come out of politics. It should not be a dirty word.

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