Yesterday’s New York Times featured Sam Tanenhaus’ fulsome preview of the new Broadway production of “All the Way,” Robert Schenkkan’s play about Lyndon Johnson’s push for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Times piece calls it “[t]he story of a ruthless president who got things done — without blinking at the costs and compromises . . . ”
The production stars Bryan Cranston, late of “Breaking Bad,” who read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream” in preparation for the role. But, the Times piece says, he didn’t get to do all the research he wanted.
An authority he has yet to consult, though not for want of trying, is Robert Caro, the biographer who has spent nearly 40 years chronicling Johnson’s life. Mr. Cranston read “Master of the Senate,” the third volume in Mr. Caro’s monumental cycle, for clues to his legislative prowess.
The Shrinking of Lyndon Johnson
He wasn’t the arm-twisting, indomitable genius of Robert Caro’s imagination
A few minutes after he signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Hubert Humphrey, who had led the fight for its passage in the Senate, with a copy of his signing speech. On it, the president wrote, “without whom it couldn’t have happened.”
Johnson wasn’t one to share credit easily, but he understood a simple fact about Washington: Humphrey—and the dozens of other people who made the bill happen—would be relegated to a footnote, and history would give credit to the man who signed it. And he was right. Three days later, The New York Times credited Johnson as “the man who pushed [the bill] through Congress.”
But that, Clay Risen writes, is largely myth. (Risen, by the way, is an editor at – wait for it – The New York Times and the author of the forthcoming The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. We’re guessing he did not edit Tanenhaus’ piece.)
This is the reality, according to Risen:
Johnson had many legislative achievements during his presidency, but on the Civil Rights Act, he was largely ignored by his Senate allies and rebuffed by the recipients of his bear-hugging affection. The real work was performed by a long list of senators and representatives, their staffers, and a dream team of Department of Justice men who included Robert Kennedy, Nicholas Katzenbach, and Burke Marshall—not to mention civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., who built immense moral momentum behind the bill.
Not exactly “All the Way” with LBJ, eh? As we said, somebody at the Times should do more reading.