After an agonizingly slow ride on the local train to New York, through a string of Connecticut towns, some blighted, some not, with the detritus alongside the track piling up more and more as we approached the Big Apple, we arrived at our final destination, the Neil Simon Theater's Broadway play, All the Way, where the masses of the city's theater-going public, middle class and upper middle class, pack them in night after night in the 1,500-seat space. We had come to see my wife's nephew play George Wallace against Bryan Cranston's LBJ. Of course, Cranston was practically the whole show, displaying his traits as one of the great mimics of our time.
Bryan Cranston is from an ordinary, one might even say typical, background: California, two boys, broken family, father an actor manqué. His LBJ is a bit squiggly, as he doesn't have the president's height and mass ("Son they're all my helicopters," once famously boomed Johnson on a visit to Vietnam). However, Cranston's artificial earlobe extensions help as a match-up to LBJ. Indeed, his impersonation of Johnson is superb and manifestly a result of long research and reflection.
I have never been a fan of Texas macho (and I must admit that the feeling has been reciprocated) -- from LBJ to Charlie Wilson to George W. Bush. I don't include Bush 41 in this category, and I recall a meeting with the then VP and a major Middle East player, who remarked to me as we were leaving, "Why can't they all be like that?"
What All the Way shows is how LBJ wheedled and threatened his way to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964, without which we might have had to wait another generation for significant black enfranchisement. This long and deep play covers the first year of LBJ's assumed presidency, and much of playwright Robert Schenkkan's attention is focused on black-white relationships. For me, it provides a different impression of LBJ: a difficult childhood, the Indian threat, the father's failure in business -- out of which LBJ emerges as a president who accomplished something in the service of a good cause, and in the process, as Cranston intones near the end of the play, losing the South for the Democratic Party. Hardly a display of self-interest.
Mr. Schenkkan is supposedly writing a sequel play which will cover a less happy period in Johnson's presidential life -- Vietnam -- where LBJ exhibited a different kind of motivation, as in admittedly not wanting to be the first American president to lose a war.
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