There is a moment in the biopic LBJ, which hits theaters November 3, when President Lyndon Johnson is struggling to pass the Civil Rights Act. He reminds aides that only he can bridge the gap between the well-meaning but ineffectual Kennedy administration holdovers and the Southern Democrats who threaten to kill the legislation. He boasts that he is the only one who speaks both languages — Harvard and Southern — and he’s absolutely correct: It took a racist Southerner to push through a landmark civil-rights bill.
That fascination with the two faces of Johnson — a genuine racial progressive who at the same time made many racist statements that would end almost any politician’s career today — informs LBJ throughout. It’s too bad Woody Harrelson’s LBJ is wearing distracting drugstore makeup (enormous ears and nose), and even more unfortunate that director Rob Reiner keeps cueing up mawkish, syrupy music on the soundtrack. But Harrelson gets close to the essence of this dynamic, irascible, essential figure, making the film a fine introduction to a president far more consequential than the man he succeeded.
Johnson reluctantly took his place by John Kennedy’s side in the 1960 campaign, agreeing to run for vice president and take what he saw as a substantial demotion from his job as the indomitable Senate majority leader, only after asking his aides how many previous vice presidents had become president. “Ten out of 36” comes their answer in the movie. Those odds strike Johnson as not too bad.
Focusing on the years 1959–1964, the film checks in on Johnson at his wheeling-and-dealing peak in the Senate, barking orders to his tailor, berating staffers, and keeping track of whip counts. Running for veep alongside a man he didn’t like, JFK (Jeffrey Donovan), Johnson had to swallow his pride, and Reiner uses that grudging resentment to find a dark comedy in the events of November 22, 1963. Johnson, feeling like a sideshow when forced to ride in a car with liberal Texas senator Ralph Yarborough (Bill Pullman), grinds his teeth as the day begins. Hours later, he will be taking the oath of office on Air Force One.
For liberals such as Reiner, Johnson has to be a source of anguish. The Civil Rights Act could not have passed without his energy and his ability to leverage both the martyrdom of Kennedy and his own well-earned reputation as a good old boy. It wasn’t the enlightened Harvard-trained Northerner but the cussing country bigot who turned out to be the man Democrats needed. “I’ll have them n—–s voting Democratic for 200 years,” Harrelson’s Johnson says. Even now the remark, which first appeared in a 1995 book by Ronald Kessler, sounds amazingly cynical and nasty. How could such a man be in any sense a friend to African-Americans?
Johnson, played with so much cagey mischief that he’s a cousin to Harrelson’s character in Natural Born Killers, adroitly portrays himself as an opponent of racial equality in conversations with Georgia senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins), but when he’s talking to Robert Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David) and other JFK allies he sounds completely on their side. Among the Kennedy men, he starts making a reference to blacks as “ni-,” then stops himself and says, “-groes.” In another scene, he tells the following joke: “What did Abraham Lincoln say after waking up from a three-day bender? ‘I freed the what?’” Not the “who,” but the “what.” Credit must be given to Reiner for not softening Johnson’s abrasive personality. This was the way LBJ talked, and thought.
A solid script by Joey Hartstone finds funny, irreverent interludes in a period when the nation was still dazed by Kennedy’s assassination. Driving by the Lincoln Memorial for a moment of what you expect to be the usual hushed awe that accompanies any glimpse of the monument in movies, Harrelson’s Johnson instead blurts out: “This is your f—ing mess I’m cleanin’ up.” LBJ may have a lot of corny touches, but it’s a lively movie compared to, say, All the Way, the HBO movie about the passage of the Civil Rights Act that starred Bryan Cranston as a more sober and earnest Johnson.
The film winds up being a 90-minute masterclass in politics as praxis rather than theory, and as such it serves as an implicit indictment of President Obama. What wouldn’t Democrats give to have had a period of whirlwind progressive action in 2009–2010, when they controlled both houses of Congress and the White House? Yet Obama, all professorial detachment and calm, disdained the arm-twisting and back-slapping in which Johnson reveled. Obama made speeches; Johnson made deals. When it came to political language, Obama spoke Harvard, and only Harvard.