The American Experience: Season 4, Episode 1

LBJ: Part 1 - Beautiful Texas (30 Sep. 1991)

TV Episode  -   -  Documentary | History
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Award winning filmmaker David Grubin profiles one of the most controversial U.S. presidents, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who rose from obscurity to the pinnacle of power, only to suffer ... See full summary »

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Title: LBJ: Part 1 - Beautiful Texas (30 Sep 1991)

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Episode credited cast:
David McCullough ...
Narrator
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Joe Cervetto ...
Himself / Christopher Columbus (archive footage)
John Connally ...
Himself
Robert Dallek ...
Himself
Homer Dean ...
Himself
Ronnie Dugger ...
Himself
Lewis Gould ...
Himself
Lady Bird Johnson ...
Herself
Luci Baines Johnson ...
Herself (archive footage)
...
Himself (archive footage)
Wilbert Lee O'Daniel ...
Himself (archive footage)
James Jarrell Pickle ...
Himself
Lynda Bird Johnson Robb ...
Herself (archive footage)
...
Himself (archive footage) (as Franklin Delano Roosevelt)
Coke Robert Stevenson ...
Himself (archive footage)
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Award winning filmmaker David Grubin profiles one of the most controversial U.S. presidents, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who rose from obscurity to the pinnacle of power, only to suffer disillusionment and defeat. Witness the events that brought LBJ from Texas to Washington, the White House, and a landslide election in 1964. Follow his triumphs in passing a wave of social legislation then his downward spiral which ends in withdrawal from politics. This is the first of two parts. Written by Anonymous

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30 September 1991 (USA)  »

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A Man Who Couldn't Run.
14 November 2010 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

This splendid series on a handful of American Presidents is available in a boxed set from PBS. They run about four hours apiece and cover much the same ground but, since I've watched four episodes now, in addition to Lyndon B. Johnson's, I've noticed some minor differences. They give different degrees of emphasis to the subject's home life, for instance, and the circumstances of his childhood. Woodrow Wilson's personal troubles almost had me sobbing in my beer. Some episodes use reenactors and others stick with photos, newsreels, and talking heads. And, of the episodes I've seen so far, Johnson's is the only one that actually had me believing that the most powerful man in the world could be an object of pity.

The program wastes little time on Johnson's childhood. He was born into a poor family -- no electricity or any of that high-falutin' stuff -- and his father died early and his mother seems to have had little influence on him. I suspect the writers might have missed a chance here. I may not have cared much about Johnson's family of orientation but the values of West Texas seem to have played a major part in the crises he experienced in office. This region has a culture of honor, where a man doesn't back down or "cut and run." Anyway, Johnson goes on to become a Congressman from Texas, then a Senator, then an extremely effective majority leader, then a Vice President, then President, then owner of a large ranch back in the Texas hills from which he emerged.

All of that is common knowledge but still some of the details are fascinating. Take Texas politics, for instance. Johnson makes his campaign trips in a helicopter that circles over each tiny rural town advertising his arrival. (This is in 1948. Nobody has seen a helicopter before. Not even on TV, because nobody has TV.) Ballot box stuffing is taken for granted. And in his race against somebody named Coke Stevenson, the win in a few hours seems inevitable for Johnson. Then his campaign gets a phone call from the Texas Minister of Elections or whatever the title is. How many votes do you expect Johnson to win by? The campaign manager lets the expected number slip out. Now Stevenson knows exactly how many more votes he needs. And at the last minute Stevenson stuffs just enough ballots to win. Johnson is furious but he can't ask for an investigation because his own stuffed ballot boxes will be brought to light. What can Johnson's argument possibly be -- yes, we both cheated but he cheated BETTER than I did?

Johnson was responsible for the most important civil rights legislation passed since the Civil War and it was applauded everywhere outside the South. Then he went on to destroy his presidency by pouring all of his political capital into a war that, it became increasingly clear, could not be won without prohibitive cost. The President was out of his depth. He thought he could deal with Ho Chi Min the way he dealt with political opponents, a bit of stick and a bit of carrot. If you quit fighting us we'll give you money enough for your own Great Society, otherwise we continue bombing. It didn't work because Uncle Ho didn't want Johnson's money; he wanted a unified Vietnam under his control.

Also interesting was Johnson's habit of finding the eyes of the person he was speaking to and looking directly into them, close up, close enough to violate the other's personal space, close enough to smell breath and see blemishes and stubble. Johnson was six feet, four inches, and if the other speaker looked downward, Johnson had to bend over, tilt his head sideways, and peer up at the other's face. Talk about intimidation!

Johnson's entire life had been built around politics and when he refused to run again he ran his ranch the way he'd run the country, using that conspiratorial, persuasive drawl on some hardware store owner to get that new sump up to the ranch a little more quickly. He grew his hair out to Beatle length. Sometimes at dawn he would crawl into the spare bed in Doris Kearns Goodwin's cottage, when she was interviewing him for her biography, and confide his deepest feelings.

I said I felt pity for the guy and I do, though I didn't when he was in office. He was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in a country of no particular concern to American interests. But -- he REALIZED this, and he suffered because of it. His nightmares woke him up. He micromanaged the war to avoid damage to hospitals, schools, and churches. He often called the situation room at two in the morning, when the casualty reports came in. The anxiety finally broke him, and the legacy he's left is not that of the Great Society but the man who led us into a war that should never have been fought -- because he couldn't bring himself to "cut and run." So he chose simply not to run.


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