Movie review: LBJ (2017)

Like Jackie, the storyline in LBJ radiates from the assassination of JFK. The movie looks backwards to when Lyndon Baines Johnson was at the height of his political power as the majority leader in the Senate, his race against JFK for the Democratic nomination, and the hours before JFK’s death.

Woody Harrelson does an excellent job portraying LBJ (or at least the stereotype of LBJ). I was a bit fixated on his makeup job as it seemed…a bit odd. Harrelson played LBJ as the rather crude figure that he cut and who desperately wanted others to like him even as he seemed to go out of his way to be unlikeable. (At one point, one of his loyal minions mutters in reaction to his actions something to the effect that no wonder people don’t like him.)

Johnson’s power in the Senate is legendary and the movie shows this. He is always scheming and conniving, twisting arms for votes, or seeking compromise to maintain or nurture relationships. In one instance after he agreed to give a lucrative contract to a company in Georgia in order to court Senator Russell, someone balked at the idea of giving the contract to a company with such racist practices.

But Johnson gained a concession from Russell: the company would hire African-Americans as engineers. Johnson explained that it is “better to have him [Russell] inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”—his version of “hold your friends close and your enemies closer”.

But the movie also shows a rather neutered Johnson as vice president to Kennedy. He is cut out of discussions and relegated to posts where he could not be effective. His political skills were wasted as vice president.

Why did Johnson agree to be vice president? That didn’t seem clear to me. Johnson was a calculating man, but I doubt that he could predict his rise to the presidency through the assassination of JFK.

Johnson seems to become himself, a leader who knows instinctively what to do, after an aide announces the death of JFK. He takes to the new role naturally. He calls former presidents and VIPs in government, seeking to gather as much knowledge as possible, to build coalitions, and to cement relationships. He is now back in his element.

But then we see his self-doubt. What is his presidency to be about? JKF’s men clearly want Kennedy’s legacy to be fulfilled. In what is probably the least satisfying bit of the movie, LBJ, a life-long southern Democrat (= anti-civil rights) makes a sharp turn to the left and embraces what will become his New Deal legislation.

Why did he make such a radical ideological left-turn? The movie suggests a comment from Lady Bird during self-doubt that he suffered early in his presidency. What would he be known for? He could claim execution of Kennedy’s vision.

I do not understand this as his reason for taking up the liberal mantle. By doing so, he betrayed his fellow southerners. Was it part of a calculation for getting elected in his own right? If so, then he indeed played the long game.

He ended up giving us the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start. Liberal reform from the most unlikely of sources: a Texan Democrat when the southern Democrats were a racist bunch.

But then how could such a political pro so badly miscalculate his Vietnam strategy? LBJ seems to be a contradiction. A southern Democrat but supporter of civil rights. A man who so desperately wanted to be liked but insulted those around him in words and deed. LBJ doesn’t answer these questions but shows you the stereotypes (true or not) of the man. A political animal hated by many.

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