Five Notes for Watching ‘All the Way’

LBJ's first year as president offers a window into the political future

Brian Cranston, as LBJ, signing the Civil Rights Act. (Courtesy of HBO)
Brian Cranston, as LBJ, signing the Civil Rights Act. (Courtesy of HBO)
Posted May 20, 2016 at 1:25pm

The movie adaptation of the Robert Schenkkan play “All the Way ,” which premiered Saturday on HBO, may be just the televised tonic required for people within the congressional orbit already suffering election- year burnout.  

The film chronicles the first year that Lyndon B. Johnson (played by Bryan Cranston) served as president. Half a century later, in this surreal season of toxic campaigning that’s not leavened at all by substantive legislating, the story illustrates how accomplished politicking can be harnessed in the service of ambitious policy-making.  

In other words, the movie may give Washington insiders a nostalgically potent reminder of why they’re in the business they’re in.  

Related:  LBJ Civil Rights Gambit Set Stage for Modern Maneuver It’s a vivid history lesson — and one that may prompt more curiosity about the politics, personalities and legislative ambitions of Congress in LBJ’s heyday.  Here are five observations about that time:  

Is That All There Was? The focus of the film’s first half  is LBJ’s intense crusade, in balky collaboration with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Anthony Mackie), to win enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964  — arguably one of the pre-eminent legislative milestones in American history, and by itself enough of a laurel on which the 88th Congress could rest.  

What is absolutely astonishing — especially given the gridlocked expectations of today — is how much else was accomplished in the presidential election year of 1964. Some of the bills were swept into law as tributes to their original advocate, the late president John F. Kennedy. But plenty were pushed indefatigably by Johnson who was able to bring his boundless energies and consummate legislative tactical acumen to enact a broad range of economic, social and foreign policies — including, of course, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that gave de facto congressional permission for the Vietnam War.  

The Great Society got off the ground with laws enacted in 1964 including an $11.5 billion cut in personal and corporate taxes; a tightening of rules governing securities trading; a package of 10 new anti-poverty programs;  establishment of the food stamp system; new federal subsidies for building hospitals, housing and mass transit networks; strengthened pesticide regulations; aid for nursing education; a boost in benefits for disabled veterans; a sprawling foreign aid package; a separate effort to ship surplus grain overseas; higher wages for laborers on federal projects; a major pay raise for both the military and federal civil servants; a boosted timetable for the race to land Americans on the moon; and the preservation of more than nine million acres in national wilderness areas.  

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The Class of ’64: The dramatic tension is generated in the movie’s second half with Johnson worrying about his prospects of winning the presidency in his own right less than a year after assuming the Oval Office. In the end, his concerns were misplaced.  

His victory remains one of the greatest landslides in presidential election history. He garnered a record 61 percent of the popular vote, defeated GOP Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona by 23 percentage points (the fourth-biggest margin ever) and won 486 electoral votes. Nonetheless, his path to victory prefigured the deep internal divisions over race that has hobbled the Democratic Party since.  

His team’s ultimately unsatisfied drive to make peace at the 1964 convention between the two delegations from Mississippi, one integrated and the other all-white, foreshadowed the South’s transformation to become the heart of the GOP. Take the five Deep South states that LBJ lost: That year, their congressional delegations were totally Democratic. Today, there are eight Democrats, all African-American House members, and 40 Republicans.  

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The Running Mate: There’s no role for the vice president in the film, because its time frame dovetails with a period when there was no  vice president.   In early 1965 Congress set to work writing the 25th Amendment, under which a vice presidential vacancy is filled with a presidential pick approved by both the House and Senate  

The decision on whom Johnson would name as his running mate provided some of the only real suspense at the convention in Atlantic City.  The eventual choice, which he announced to the delegates himself, was the influential liberal Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota (Bradley Whitford).  

He’d been the front-runner all along, although during the spring the White House had floated several other options. In order to keep Humphrey on tenterhooks to the very end, LBJ summoned him to the White House for a final job interview hours before the announcement — along with a decoy alternative, Sen. Thomas J. Dodd of Connecticut.  

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Senate combatants, memorialized:   It’s a rare movie with more than six speaking parts for towering figures in the 20th century Senate. And this film focuses plenty of attention on two of them, the principal combatants on the floor over the civil rights bill.  

Just eight years later, senators struck a great self-referential compromise by naming a prominent part of the Capitol complex after each of them. The first Senate office building, opened in 1909, was named for Richard B. Russell (Frank Langella), a Democratic senator from Georgia from 1933 until his death in 1971 and Johnson’s most influential frenemy on the Hill. The second building, opened in 1958, was named after Everett M. Dirksen (Ray Wise), the Republican minority leader who was a crucial LBJ ally on civil rights and an Illinois senator from 1951 until he died in 1969.  

Related:  How the Capitol Turned the Day JFK Died
Missing Kennedys: Although the film opens with the death of the 35th  president, and his brother the attorney general was LBJ’s defining political rival, neither appears on camera. Nor is there a part for their brother Edward M. Kennedy , in his second year as a Massachusetts senator as the action unfolds.  

Still, those months were bracketed by two dramatic events in the youngest Kennedy’s life. He was the presiding officer the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, when reports first reached the Capitol that JFK had been shot.  And six months later, just hours after voting to pass the Civil Rights Act, the private plane taking him to his state party convention crashed in western Massachusetts. A broken back hospitalized him for months, but without any overt campaigning he still won his first full term that fall with 74 percent of the vote.  

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