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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This biography of Lyndon Johnson isn't exactly complete. While it
focuses strongly on his political life, MANY important parts of his
early life are oddly omitted. I am no expert of Johnson, but I
recognized that they missed two interesting things (and probably many
more, since his life up to about age 25 was vague in this film). First,
after completing college, he was a school teacher and principal at a
school for Mexican-Americans--a VERY interesting pedigree that might
help insight into his later work for civil rights. Second, the film
jumped from 1941 to 1948--completely omitting WWII. Johnson was an
officer in the US Navy and was an important liaison. He also received a
silver star citation under VERY suspicious circumstances considering he
really wasn't exposed to much action and those around him were
undecorated. While perhaps they didn't have a lot of time to devote to
them, not mentioning them at all was just odd.
Instead, the film follows the political manoeuvrings of Johnson. He apparently was a VERY political man--a guy whose number one goal seemed to be political power and whose core beliefs were VERY malleable to say the least. He campaigned as a New Deal liberal--practically a socialist. And, he later campaigned as a conservative Southern Democrat!! And later, he championed the important civil rights legislation of the 1960s! Talk about running a gamut!
This film is divided into two main parts. Part one covers his career up to his assuming the presidency after the assassination of John Kennedy. Beginning with his winning a seat in the House of Representatives in the 1930s, he worked his way up to the Senate (after losing his first attempt) and ultimately to the vice presidency and presidency. Along the way, he was the master arm-twister--an old fashioned politician who knew how to use political muscle and was the master of the deal. His skills as a politician are the main focus of this episode. In this regard, the documentary is first-rate. It provides insight into his life in politics and seems to indicate there really wasn't a life outside of it, as Johnson was always ON--and had no interest in books, hobbies or anything other than his all-consuming job.
In this second portion, Johnson has just become president and details his VERY active agenda. Three main themes are explored: the civil rights movement, the Great Society and his bringing US combat troops into the Vietnam War.
His efforts getting the Civil Rights Acts enacted is the high point of his presidency. These occurred very early into his administration and marked a HUGE change in Johnson's public actions on behalf of civil rights. Early in his career, he aligned himself with the Dixiecrats--a group of Southern politicians who opposed ANY changes in the status quo and who hated the mention of civil rights for blacks. Now, he did an about-face and with his force of personality was able to push for these much needed laws.
Johnson's 'Great Society' consisted of various laws that he championed to make life better for America's poor. Spending for social programs greatly increased and Johnson promised an end to poverty. Oddly, the program really didn't explore this further--and didn't discuss the rather dubious benefits, high costs and huge increase in the scope of government with this well-intended program. HOWEVER, hold on--this will be addressed in the second episode.
The vast majority of the show centered on Vietnam. The film took a very pragmatic and jaded view of Johnson sending combat troops into this war. It seemed to say that Johnson's main reason was to help win the 1964 election--a way to seem tough on communism and out-flank his opponent, Barry Goldwater. So, tens of thousands of dead soldiers and millions of dead Vietnamese to help re-elect the guy?! And, while it helped him to win the election, it killed his political career once the war escalated further.
It's really hard to understand Johnson. In some ways he's incredibly decent. You can't ignore his work for civil rights and while the Great Society was, in hindsight, a very mixed bag, it's intentions were good. But the war...how can this be reconciled with these other humanitarian gestures? And, I am sure, many felt confused by this odd dichotomy. A great man and a horrible man rolled into one.
Overall, a very good but imperfect biography. I guess I am just expecting too much, as a film as complete as I'd want it to be would be a heck of a lot longer!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
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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