All the turbulence buffeting the current presidential political season seems like a breeze compared to 1964, even if some similar partisan ill winds swirl.
Lyndon Baines Johnson, thrust into the presidency following the November 1963 assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, quickly found himself fighting domestic wars on two major fronts: battling a right-wing Republican (Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater) for election while twisting the arms of fellow southern Democrats and other lawmakers to pass landmark civil rights legislation.
All the while, perhaps the toughest Washington force for Johnson to control was himself – a bawdy, relentless and passionate personality obsessed by power, plagued by self-doubt and ultimately driven by a strong sense of right and wrong.
It’s the stuff, not only of key 20th Century U.S. history, but of Shakespearean drama.
Playwright Robert Schenkkan, aided by a top-notch starring performance by Bryan Cranston, proved as much on Broadway two years ago with “All the Way,” which chronicled Johnson’s 1964 odyssey. Now a movie version is set to land on HBO Saturday, at a time when we could use an example of some good breaking out of gridlock-inducing political rancor.
The small screen version of the story, which gets its title from Johnson’s campaign slogan (“All the Way with LBJ”), also comes amid a spate of high-quality TV dramas offering sharp perspectives on relatively recent history. FX’s "American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson” tackled mid-1990s racial divisions that pack a contemporary resonance. Ditto for HBO’s “Confirmation,” which revisited the 1991 Clarence Thomas Senate hearings.
HBO also excelled in giving another recent Broadway show the TV movie treatment, buoyed by Audra McDonald’s bravura channeling of Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill.”
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“All the Way” has attracted the public attention of President Obama, who turned 3 the summer Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with Martin Luther King Jr. among the onlookers. Obama, a big fan of the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” has shown himself more attuned to the power of the popular culture than any president since Ronald Reagan.
In a recent conversation with Cranston, for a New York Times story, Obama made a telling comment that spoke to Johnson’s unrelenting ambition. His White House predecessor, Obama said, was “hungry for the office in a way that I wasn’t.”
Cranston, proving his “Breaking Bad” run was no fluke, infused his stage rendering of Johnson with the intensity Obama referenced, bringing the portrait painted in Robert Caro’s ongoing Johnson biography series to life.
If Cranston is half as good as in the movie as he was on Broadway, “All the Way” stands to be a winner in an election year in which the verdict on the big race of the day is still blowing in the wind.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.