LBJ (The American Experience)

Dir: David Grubin, 1991. Starring: Lyndon B. Johnson. Documentaries.
LBJ (The American Experience)
Whether it’s the Kennedys, Nixon, or FDR you can’t go wrong with any of the thoroughly epic political biographies produced by PBS for their American Experience television series. To understand the turbulent sixties no documentary gives a better overview than the exhausting, yet exuberant, Lyndon Johnson bio called, simply enough, LBJ. Johnson’s life was full of both contradictions and surprises; in the end he both represents and played a major hand in both the best and worst legacies of the decade.

The film unfolds in four hour-long chapters. Episodes one and two cover a lot of ground: LBJ’s early years as the son of a Texas politician, his marriage to Ladybird, and his wins and losses in the rough world of Texas politics. He became a grand deal-making charmer first in the House of Representatives and then in the Senate. His humbling run as JFK’s vice president ended after those gunshots rang out in Dallas simultaneously throwing history a curve ball and making Johnson the president. Finishing Kennedy’s term he out-Kennedyed the Kennedys by passing loads of important legislation and was overwhelmingly reelected by the American people. And that’s when the second half kicks in, covering those disastrous last four years and beyond as his amazing social triumphs were overshadowed by the escalating war in Vietnam—a war which he inherited but naively continued to send the country deeper into.

The son of a Texas politician, Johnson was born into politics. Early in his career, and like his father, he was a Roosevelt New Dealer. As race became the central issue in the South, though, he jumped on the segregation band wagon, even if it was a half-hearted attempt to win votes from the yahoos. He took pride in helping to bring electricity and running water to the poorest and most rural parts of the state. In a nutshell, that seemed to sum up Johnson—he was a rare politician who loved the game but liked accomplishing things even more.

Becoming vice president to the much younger Kennedy was a hard pill for Johnson, the Senate big dog, to swallow but he was a loyal Democrat. He felt out of place with the administration’s Eastern intellectuals and he completely clashed and detested JFK’s brother Bobby. At first, after Kennedy’s death he stuck to Kennedy’s programs and took them a step further. Kennedy was much more cautious, whereas Johnson wasn’t afraid of a fight. He fully embraced the civil rights movement, falling under the spell of Martin Luther King’s charisma (for further viewing see the brilliant documentary Citizen King). It wasn’t just that Johnson passed the two biggest pieces of civil rights legislation ever; it’s that he completely twisted arms doing so. He was even willing to alienate the huge Southern wing of the Democratic Party (which still reverberates today, as now the South is mostly dominated by Republicans).

Not only did Johnson completely go out on a limb for civil rights, he dedicated his second term to create his “Great Society,” pushing through bill after bill to help the poor (creating Head Start and Medicare). If the story had only ended there he’d be just behind Roosevelt as the greatest liberal wet dream ever. Unfortunately, though, even with the civil rights bills, racial tensions moved out of the South, as Watts and other urban areas erupted in violence. Johnson was comfortable dealing with Southern ministers, but he was lost in the new era of black power. Even worse was the Vietnam War, which started under Eisenhower and was continued by Kennedy and Johnson. Using American military power to prop up a corrupt South Vietnam puppet government intensified as Johnson continued to make misstep after misstep slowly losing the confidence of much of the country even as he lied over and over about America’s presence there. (For further viewing check out Errol Morris’s harrowing documentary The Fog of War on Johnson’s Vietnam mastermind, Robert McNamara.)

Vietnam made Johnson lose his will for the fight and so he didn’t seek another termas president. After the assassination of Bobby Kennedy opened the doors for Nixon to take office, Vietnam got worse before we eventually lost the war. Johnson went back to his Texas ranch, tortured by his mistakes and what could have been and more or less drank himself to death by 1973.

All of these American Experience documentaries are so well made, with the right balance of archival footage and talking heads that, by the end, you’re a history expert on which ever subject they’ve just covered. They’re much more driven than, say, the slowly paced work of PBS docu-god Ken Burns. LBJ director David Grubin is a pro, having also helmed the equally entertaining FDR and Truman bios. Johnson proves to be an utterly compelling subject—he was center stage for a fascinating era and he got more things right than wrong, but the big mistake was massive. Still, perhaps with the ghosts of the Vietnam War fading we can finally appreciate the great he did for human rights and the country.
Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Aug 24, 2011 6:11pm
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