A Fascinating Sketch of the LBJ White House – Schenkkan’s “The Great Society” at History Theatre


Photo credit by Rick Spaulding.

The first half of Robert Schenkkan’s diptych of plays on the Lyndon Baines Johnson administration, All the Way, premiered in 2012 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It portrays the coarse-talking Texan’s feverish arm-twisting and cajoling to get Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Johnson and civil rights advocates understood that to get civil rights to stick, it would take hard-won legislation to concretize that, rather than executive orders and directives or the proverbial “legislation from the (judicial) bench”. Last year, the History Theatre staged a compelling production of the large cast play and this year they’ve compellingly staged the second segment, The Great Society, which premiered in Oregon in 2014.

The Great Society was the brand name for LBJ’s grand vision to end poverty in the U.S. What was called the War on Poverty was seen by some as a shrewd move to galvanize a skeptical public inclined toward peace as a trade off to support the actual war in Vietnam.

After the historic passage of the Civil Rights Act, largely seen as the official end of Jim Crow—momentous, most definitely—the Democrat president promoted various far-reaching social programs to enable his vision. The play, The Great Society, shows how the considerable spending necessary for this agenda competed with the spiraling military budget for the Vietnam War.

The wonderful Pearce Bunting returns to the History Theatre to play LBJ again. Schenkkan’s version of the man has been compared to a tragic protagonist in Shakespeare. And this is no overstatement. The comparison is credible and masterfully achieved by Schenkkan.

In service of this challenge, Bunting lives into the President’s larger-than-life personality magnificently. He has robustly seized the Texas drawl, the rhythms, the gruff, brusque, and caustic personality, the phrasing, and never shies away from the man’s crude way of talking, which was actually more extreme than the current White House occupant. Bunting also mines the vulnerability of the “great man” to poignant and even moving effect at times.

Like Shakespeare’s historical plays, there are numerous characters in Schenkkan’s diptych. Therefore, one cannot expect every character to be fully rounded out. This shouldn’t be considered a flaw. In historical bio-drama, it is artistic license to winnow the full essence of one supporting or minor character so that it is adjusted for the sake of the overall impression of the main character. The protagonist is the focus after all. This is something Schenkkan does deftly.

Historical plays and films cannot be expected to be like a magisterial book such as those written by Barbara Tuchman, Robert Massie, and David Halberstam. Nonetheless, there will be a point of view in a play or film which if not forthright, exudes from between the lines. Even a great biographical stage musical like Styne, Merrill, and Lennart’s story of Fanny Brice, Funny Girl, Shakespeare’s historical marvels, Antony and Cleopatra and the Henry VI trilogy, and the biopic film gold standard of Franklin J. Schaffner’s Patton and Nicholas and Alexandra are still one perspective or a particular set of perspectives each. Therefore, one hopes conscientious audience members will go on to do their own research.

Schenkkan necessarily writes many of his characters as little more than stick figures in broad strokes. Alabama’s anti-integration governor George Wallace is rendered as purely villainous—little is said about how he arrived at the positions he held. Wallace was actually a populist Dixiecrat who at one time had notable black support. One has to wonder, what the heck went wrong? Josh Carson, in the spirit of the writing, plays the role with a fitting undercurrent of mendacity.

Photo credit by Rick Spaulding.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey (a genial Andrew Erskine Wheeler)  is rendered primarily as an unabating virtue signaler for civil rights. However, Humphrey was far more complex. In reality, he wisely cultivated good relations with conservatives and he would lose the presidency by one of the slimmest margins in history in 1968 against Nixon, who, as Schenkkan relates, thwarted Vietnam peace talks as a devious ploy to beat Humphrey.

Humphrey, also having held farmers and ranchers as his base, would have been outraged if a fellow Democrat had referred to them as “deplorables” in order to curry favor with civil rights activists. He was a man of all the people and was what was referred to once upon a time, as a classical liberal. For years, Humphrey was the very voice for civil rights, as well as the traditional family farm, among elected politicians. Had he actually succeeded Johnson, many suspect he would have had the ability to unite the nation in the face of the ferocious divides of the 1960s.

In part two, Martin Luther King is no longer contrasted with black moderate like Roy Wilkins, who is a crucial figure in part one to paint King as the centrist above the fray. However, in part two, King, passionately portrayed by Shawn Hamilton, is shaped as a man drawn into justifications of the militant Black Power movement. Indeed, The Great Society definitely portrays that movement as militant. The dialogue and vocabulary of Stokely Carmichael (a fiery Darrick Mosley) and other black characters serves as a jolting example of how ideological rhetoric has a way of shaping human personality. (This is also exemplified well in the recent film, 7 Days in Entebbe.) One can understand, however, that young black male citizens didn’t have military deferments that wealthier and connected white males did. Therefore, black men were drafted in great numbers, as were poorer and working class men of all other races. This large scale unfairness logically fueled the Black Power movement. An unintended consequence of Johnson’s neglect?

For the intents and purposes of both parts one and two such shorthand is necessary so that the production which runs almost three hours as it is, can keep the audience in its seats. And to be sure, The Great Society, briskly and lucidly directed by Ron Peluso, never drags; nor do you need to have seen All the Way beforehand.

Kathy Maxwell’s marvelous and wrenching projections report the number of dead and injured American soldiers during the course of the play’s times span from January 1965 when LBJ was inaugurated after his November 1964 landslide victory until the aftershocks of Humphrey’s defeat by Nixon in the 1968 election. Maxwell perhaps creates the best 1960s footage concept for any Twin Cities production ever. The reason I say this is that so often, ’60s iconic footage is used like a kind if wallpaper for any number of shows. Maxwell, however, leaves a vivid imprint on the audience in relationship to the action in stage.

As the play progresses Johnson is seen as living in a bubble, away from clear indications of the war’s astronomical costs that he had no excuse not to have been aware of and to have dealt with in a timely way. One of the most unsettling ideas that the Schenkkan dyptich puts forth is that LBJ was so distracted by his civil rights agenda that he neglected getting a grip on the war.

Charismatic Eric Knutson gives a strong performance as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and is able to infuse some texture despite the thinly written role. The cabinet member is placed within the drama as a gnawing reminder of what LBJ is neglecting but by the same token, as history tells us, McNamara was catastrophically wrong in his own right. The Johnson policy of massive scorched earth bombing remains to this day as an horrific symbol of U.S. militarism gone mad. (Indeed, Nixon conducted the same later in Cambodia, also horrific.) This points out that Schenkann’s panoramic approach doesn’t do justice to the McNamara relationship. This policy is mentioned but not examined. Again, that’s the problem with panoramas, as splendid as they may be to behold.

Johnson apologists often go general and say that Eisenhower and/or Kennedy got the U.S. into Vietnam and that Johnson inherited it. Therefore, we should be soft on our assessment of him. However, that too convenient view seems designed to absolve the man. This view also seems to be inherent with Schenkkan. For example, he gives peculiarly short shrift to the Gulf of Tonkin controversy, which was the Aug. 1964 incident that forwarded American involvement in Vietnam. This was a full ten months after JFK’s assassination and is considered to have been the conflict’s fateful turning point. (What we now rightly called the Vietnam War was often referred to in the Johnson and the following Nixon years as the Vietnam Conflict.)

Kennedy was very much at odds with the hawks around him. And there were hawks in both parties in those days. And for good reason, communist proliferation of the planet wasn’t just a mere paranoid fantasy. It was real. Sure, they sometimes overdid it, but the record shows their concerns were profoundly legitimate. And on that point, let’s not forget the gays carted off to the Soviet gulags and Asian prison camps.

That said, Johnson was the opposite of Kennedy regarding the hawkish military figures around him. Unlike JFK, he didn’t question and stand up to their supposed wisdom nearly enough like the previous two Commanders in Chief. Where Ike knew how to keep them in line, and Kennedy assertively countered them, LBJ, like previous Democrat President Truman, gave them lots of free rein and too little hard assessment. In the role of General William Westmoreland, Peter Thomson plays the part with fittingly fine military polish, but the actual man held staggeringly racist views of Asians as is demonstrated in the Oscar-winning documentary Hearts and Minds. However, to what degree was LBJ, the Great Civil Rights President, ironically and perhaps subconsciously exploiting this?

At points in the play Johnson is intermittently flummoxed by the notion that the war’s costs are actually skyrocketing, sending the nation into unprecedented debt, and his reactions are grimly humorous. As played by Bunting, LBJ actually seems incredulous about this, which is laughable and frankly, it’s scary that a president wouldn’t have been on top of that. But one can imagine that LBJ may have actually been just that off base in his perceptions. Here’s where the Shakespeare analogy makes astounding sense.

Moreover, Schenkkan, like certain other LBJ experts, is tellingly evasive of some major elements in the Johnson story. This factors into the play’s representation of Johnson’s Attorney General, Robert Francis “Bobby” Kennedy (RFK), who is dramatically imbued by the playwright, as the president’s nemesis. Randy Schmeling plays the role as written convincingly but there is nothing in the script that reveals just why RFK, ever the alert watchdog, was so threatening to LBJ.

The Kennedys, like anyone who followed politics at that time, would have known of Johnson’s various scandals which dated back to the Box 13 ballot stuffing controversy in the ’40s to Bobby Baker’s influence-peddling which compelled the Senate to investigate Johnson’s financial activities in the 1950s. No wonder JFK had his doubts, but he was up against the wall. Texas had a lot of electoral votes and Johnson’s south-southwestern ruggedness and Disciples of Christ religious affiliation populistically offset Kennedy’s Catholicism (an impediment at the time) and New England sophistication which was generally (and irrationally) perceived as effete.

However, things came to a head when President Kennedy assigned his AG brother to investigate a grain storage and land fraud scandal involving Billy Sol Estes, as well as JFK’s Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman (who was cleared). The Estes situation was a sword of Damocles hovered over Johnson’s head by RFK. Johnson smolderingly resented the brothers for that.

One hears about the Kennedy and Johnson alliance resembling oil and water in style, but there was genuine animus between them that had to do with Johnson’s history of corruption which the playwright doesn’t explore. It wasn’t just a mere personality or regional cultural clash.

Of course, one can certainly point to serious Kennedy foibles, but that’s another story. Or perhaps it would be better said “that’s another epic”. And to be sure, The Great Society is a whoppingly “durned” good theatrical experience, big in style like Texas itself. And one cannot expect an historical play or film to satisfy all sides. That would be absurd. Schenkkan admirably engages the intellect of any audience watching and that’s a good thing obviously. After you see it, and I hope you will, do some of your own research. It will be scintillating.

Note on women’s roles: LBJ operated in a male-dominated mileu. Women were not major players and Schenkkan rightly depicts that, though he makes some effort. Jamila Anderson gives a touching performance as Sally Childress, an African-American Johnson staffer, whose son was killed in Vietnam, movingly given time in Maxwell’s projections. Jennifer Blagen’s First Lady, Lady Bird, is very likable as Schenkkan has written her, and given that as a little boy I always saw the woman as a warm grandmother figure, as did many young kids in the ’60s. Blagen captures that nicely but the marriage was forged in ambition considerably, with lots baggage, and that’s not covered here. Also, having actually once having been in the presence of Muriel Humphrey, I got a chill watching Patty Matthews in the role. She is utterly uncanny!

The Great Society
Through Oct. 28
History Theatre, 30 East 10th St., St. Paul

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