To memories dulled by the passage of time, Lyndon Johnson seems like a bumptious interloper on the smooth passage between Jack Kennedy’s understated elegance and Richard Nixon’s dark suasions. He seems undereducated, flat-footed and trite, overmatched and undone by the Viet Nam war. We think of him as a minor character, pitiable, perhaps.
Robert Schenkkan knows we’re wrong.
“What do you say we take up a collection and send every one of those clowns in Congress to All the Way, Robert Schenkkan’s jaw-dropping political drama about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Herculean efforts (and Pyrrhic sacrifices) to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed,” proposed Variety’s Marilyn Stasio after watching the New York production. “Johnson was famously crude, rude, and ruthless. Schenkkan, a Pulitzer Prize winner…packs all that into his rich character study…He’s a big man, putting on a big show as the born politician who doesn’t hesitate to use every trick in the book to get results.”
The Lyndon Johnson who stalks the stage in All the Way, which opens at Arena Stage on April 7th, is a man superbly qualified to be President — a brilliant, original thinker; a master strategist with profound insight on the men and women around him; a gambler with an impulse toward compassion but an instinct toward self-preservation. He is a man with giant flaws to match his giant personality.
There is a man who largely agrees with Schenkkan, and who knows what he’s talking about — because he spent part of his professional life observing the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, sometimes from a vantage point no more than ten feet away.
Imagine that you are a journalist, and at the age of thirty-one you are soaring to the peak of your profession. You’ve already covered Alan Shepherd’s historic ride into space and Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the United States; you’ve already covered both candidates in the 1960 election; you’re now the White House Correspondent for the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company. You’re in a motorcade, and the press bus is only eight car lengths behind the Presidential limousine.
You are in Dallas. It is November 22, 1963.
Yes, Sid Davis, riding aboard the press bus in the Dallas motorcade, heard the shots clearly and saw the commotion up ahead. He saw the crowd of well wishers, now frightened by gunfire and dispersing in all directions, a father lying on top of his child to shield it from danger. JFK’s limo was gone, speeding toward the nearest hospital, Parkland Memorial.
“You a reporter?” a man in a white Cadillac asked Davis. “I’ll get you to Parkland.” They took off like a rocket. Davis got to the hospital in time to hear President Kennedy pronounced dead. He was filing his story and then, suddenly, a White House official whisked him off to Love Field in an unmarked police car to witness the new President sworn in.
Davis was one of the three reporters selected to witness the swearing-in and report back to the remaining 50 White House Correspondents who could not attend the ceremony due to space limitations on Air Force One. The others were Merriman Smith of United Press International and Charles Roberts of NEWSWEEK.
“What I saw was a man who had his wits about him,” Davis says now, fifty-two years later. “He was reasoned. He was calm, even though an enormous weight had dropped on him, the presidency. He was compassionate toward Jacqueline Kennedy in her awesome grief, placing her beside him as he received the oath. LBJ was taking charge. In those moments of terror and sadness he was now President. The Associated Press would write of that remarkable scene aboard Air Force One: ‘it was as though a giant hand had reached out and soothed the heart of a grieving nation.’ I’ve never forgotten those words.”
But it was Lyndon Johnson in the months and years after that day that fascinates Schennken — and Davis. As White House correspondent, Davis had formed some impressions of Johnson, but had no idea that he was the dynamo he turned out to be.
“I knew he was a Senator and had been Majority Leader, but I did not know how strong-willed a person he was, or how strong a leader he was. Seeing him in his role in the Senate, I think we all were impressed with what a great parliamentarian he was, but I had no idea he would embrace the whole country the way he did, and move forward the way he did.”
Schenkkan emphasizes the wily and shrewd Johnson, but something else about LBJ impressed Davis: his compassion. Lyndon Johnson, Davis says, showed compassion in ways both great and small.
“We had witnessed an event at the Smithsonian that he presided over,” Davis recalls. “It was the dedication of a scientific project, and on the way home, in the rain, walking down Constitution Avenue, there were four of us reporters. The Presidential limousine pulled up beside us, on the President’s way back to the White House. The car stopped. LBJ rolled the window down, poked his head out and invited us to ride with him to the White House. And then he invited us to have a drink with him up in the family quarters.”
It was 1965, and Johnson had recently been elected to a full term on his own. The Vietnam War was among problems on his plate. “And we talked, and the first subject was about his war on poverty legislation. He said ‘ do you know, you have to have an education today to get a job pumping gas? You got to be able read and write, handle credit cards, computers. That never happened before.’ So that’s why he said the Job Corps is important, that’s why he said training these young unemployed kids is important.
“And that meeting in the family quarters of the White House lasted quite a while. It was well after darkness when LBJ took us across to the Lincoln bedroom. He told us about how he visited the Lincoln bedroom often at night, sits on the bed, calls the Situation Room, and asks ‘how many of my boys didn’t come back today?’ So you ask me whether he was compassionate, yes he was, indeed, no question about it.”
But what about LBJ’s infamous “credibility gap” — his oversized reputation as a manipulator, which made people skeptical of his most ordinary pronouncements? In Schenkkan’s play, supporters of the Civil Rights Act fear that Johnson will abandon them at the last moment, while opponents hold out hope that he will manage to gut the bill before it is passed. Davis, though, was never a skeptic.
“I believe caring about the poor, the disenfranchised, ran deep in LBJ. If you look at how he grew up you can see he was once poor, and he knew what being poor is about. I never doubted the commitment. I know there were times during his early political career where his votes weren’t on the side of the civil rights movement. But as he said, early in his life, his responsibility was as a Congressman, and when he became President he represented all the people and he’d spell it, P-double-E-P-U-L. Now he had a lot more power and he said, ‘I aim to use it’.
“You had to be a reporter around the White House to see and feel the electricity in ’64 and ’65 when the two major civil rights bills passed over the objections of many of LBJ’s southern friends.”
In the Senate, Lyndon Johnson was part of the Southern Caucus, but he had deeper roots than that, Davis observes. “If you look back at Lyndon Johnson’s life, teaching… Mexican-American children, going to that school in Cotulla, Texas and how devoted he was to them…I heard [historian] Robert Caro [who has written the definitive biography of Johnson, four volumes and counting] tell a story that Lyndon Johnson was asked by the janitor at that school, a young black man…if LBJ would teach him how to read and write. And late in the day, when school was over- with, LBJ sat on the little front stoop of that schoolhouse in Cotulla and taught the young man how to read and write.”
Davis read something himself that reinforces Caro’s story. “There’s a letter in the LBJ Library from Lyndon to his mother where LBJ asks if she can afford to send him several dozen toothbrushes as Christmas gifts because his students don’t have the money. LBJ was then 20 years old.
“So I think it was always there. I don’t think it was a Johnny-come-lately thing with Lyndon Johnson. When you look at the speeches he delivered, standing in the well of the House, saying ‘we shall overcome’…he was always compassionate.”
Johnson may have been motivated by high ideals, but he preached self-interest. “LBJ would make speeches to young people. People in their thirties and forties who were raising families and he would try to explain Medicare…down to what it meant for these individuals. To those not sixty-five years old yet, he would say, ‘Medicare is for you. You don’t have to pay your mom or dad’s medical bills. And that frees you to put your children through college.’ I saw him do that many times.”
The long view – LBJ’s place in American history
Let’s go back to Stasio’s review, which contrasted LBJ’s ability to get things done to Congress’ present lassitude, to LBJ’s advantage. The Caro biographies are best-sellers, and All the Way‘s Broadway box office was through the roof (It holds the record one-week haul for a non-musical: $1,425,001). Is the current interest in Johnson a product of American unhappiness with lack of leadership today? Mr. Davis?
“Yes, I do think so. It’s in both the Legislative and the Executive Branches. For instance, the Speaker of the House of Representatives inviting a leader of a foreign country to address a joint meeting of the Congress and he doesn’t inform the President. Then the foreign leader speaking in the Capitol, kicks the President in the pants over the Iran Nuclear deal. My take is that there would be a price to pay for that House Speaker if LBJ were President.”
LBJ was a fierce enemy if crossed, but he’d rather make a friend than an enemy. He kept the line of communications open between the White House and Congress, between Democrat and Republican, Davis says. And he made people feel better about themselves.
“The legendary Liz Carpenter, who was Mrs. Johnson’s press secretary, once said that LBJ stretches you,” Davis says. “He enlarges your opinion of yourself, makes you taller than you are, and he overwhelms you. It’s the LBJ treatment. Flattery was another LBJ political tool.”
In fact, Davis believes that Schenkkan shows us the real Lyndon Johnson. “I think the play captures Lyndon Johnson. I think it does, to a great extent, tell you about his tenacity. LBJ would hold what we called ‘Walk N Talk’ news conferences around the White House driveways, the press corps surrounding him as he pitched his programs. He’d say ‘you have to educate before you legislate,’ and then delve into a promotion for his voting rights bill or some other. He was ‘twenty-four seven’ long before the words became a way of life.”
Davis went on to have a brilliant career as a journalist. He became Washington Correspondent for Westinghouse, and then Vice President and Washington Bureau Chief for NBC News. In the late eighties, he became Director of Programs for the Voice of America, supervising a staff of 1400 who broadcast in forty-two different languages. He did that for ten years.
“I’ve enjoyed every one of my jobs,” he says.
But what is Sid Davis’ final analysis of Lyndon Johnson?
“My guess is he will be [considered] outstanding [by historians]. If you want to look at an effective President, his Parliamentary skills were, I think, among the best in history, perhaps the very best if you look at the civil rights bill victories, Medicare and so many others. He changed America.”
I want to acknowledge and thank superagent Diane Nine (Diane Nine, President, Nine Speakers, Inc., A Full Service Entertainment Agency) for arranging my introduction to Mr. Davis.
In this video produced by WTVR CBS 6, Mr. Davis describes the tragic and astonishing events of November 22, 1963.