While John F. Kennedy may have been one of the most charismatic American presidents of the twentieth century, representations of Lyndon B. Johnson have been far more frequent in American television and media, especially in recent years. In part, that’s because Kennedy’s image and charisma seems so complete that any representation is bound to fall short. In part, it’s because the quandary within which Johnson found himself – stepping out from the shadow of Kennedy’s charisma – is perhaps more compelling as a source of dramatic conflict. More recently, however, the end of the Kennedy administration, and the beginning of the Johnson administration, has become a touchstone in trying to explain the current political climate, whether in the form of Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, which details the days and weeks following the assassination in Dallas, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, which focuses on Johnson’s efforts around the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or even David Fincher’s House of Cards, whose protagonist, Frank Underwood, was clearly modelled upon Johnson.
All of these texts are interested in Johnson as a transitional, or contradictory figure, both responsible for continuing Kennedy’s Civil Rights vision and implementing the approach to Vietnam that would culminate with the Nixon administration. In each text, too, Johnson’s time in office is presented as the genesis of the present political moment, and of the gradual complicity and convergence of liberal values with the conservatism that they once defined themselves against. What makes LBJ a little different from these films is that it presents Johnson as consciously setting himself up as this transitional figure from the start, playing both sides against the middle to espouse an essentially managerial form of political ideology. In that sense, LBJ presents Johnson as the first post-political, or post-party, President, anticipating Trump in his apparent disregard for the niceties of party politics, and his willingness to thwart the demands of his own party if the occasion seems to demand it.
That opportunism results in one of the more venal depictions of Johnson committed to the big screen, with Reiner and Harrelson introducing LBJ amidst a torrent of vulgarities that initially plays like a backdated version of Veep, as we’re taken from one baroque scatological pronouncement to the next. For the most part, Harrelson is also made up to look just a little more grotesque than necessary, as if to capture LBJ’s notorious obsession with self-image, as well as his anxiety at being compared to Kennedy’s charisma and physical charm. As the film portrays it, all that status anxiety is encapsulated in the fact of being vice-president, just as his massive complex about Kennedy is only enhanced when he has to step into his shoes. Contemptuous of most people around him, but also desperate to be liked, he’s a “sensitive man with an enormous ego” – as Kennedy puts it – who often plays as a distant ancestor of Trump, resorting to petty tantrums whenever he gets anything less than universal acclaim.
In many ways, that abject depiction of Johnson works quite eloquently to capture the barely submerged dismay, deflation and rage of a liberal establishment that was on the verge of enacting Kennedy’s dreams, only to find themselves having to contend with Johnson as president. Indeed, so massive is Johnson’s fixation on Kennedy that at times it almost feels as if the assassination was a manifestation of Johnson’s own desire – and that’s certainly how the remainder of the Kennedy administration reads it – with Reiner pointedly using his catch-phrase that “power is where power goes” in the moments before the motorcade makes it way into the heart of Dallas, and as a preface to those fateful seconds on Elm Street. While LBJ is not exactly a conspiracy thriller, it is a kind of a companion piece to JFK, as the title would suggest, suffused with an awareness that the death of Kennedy played a key role in empowering a new kind of conservatism in American politics, even if those vested ideological interests didn’t actually pull the trigger or commit the crime themselves.
Within that situation, Johnson emerges as a transitional figure, caught between the future envisaged by Kennedy and the long twentieth century that we now know culminated with the present administration. As a result, there’s a profound sense of exhaustion to LBJ, as the enormous charismatic vacuum left behind by Kennedy feels like a prophecy of the next half-century, especially in the hours and days immediately after the assassination, when Johnson starts to move into his predecessor’s more domestic and personal spaces. Yet that only enhances Johnson’s anxiety as well, as he senses that Kennedy’s absence will ramify more than his presence ever will, forcing him to fall back upon his Southern heritage, and his somewhat anomalous position as a Southern Democrat, to broker himself a new kind of political identity. In quite an original move, a significant chunk of LBJ takes place during Johnson’s vice-presidency, when he was still sorting out this identity, eventually lighting upon the ingenious and strategic decision of claiming that he was necessary because the Kennedys didn’t speak Southern, and the South didn’t speak Kennedy, and thereby setting out to prolong Civil Rights for as long as possible to make himself invaluable to the president as a point of mediation and compromise between North and South, right wing and left wing.
Given that this is the key strategy Johnson uses to cement his authority as vice president, it therefore feels somewhat disingenuous when he decides that one of his platforms as president will be to carry on and fulfil Kennedy’s Civil Rights agenda. In fact, for the majority of LBJ Johnson is framed as an enemy of Civil Rights, advocating compromise and “realism” at every turn, while always framing his arguments against Civil Rights in terms of specious appeals to democratic rationality, claiming, variously, that it is undemocratic, that it is un-American, that it denies freedom, that forced integration is just another form of slavery, and that the Kennedys are hypocrites for trying to advocate for it in the first place. It’s during these scenes that the scatological vulgarities of the opening act recurs – in one scene, Johnson is actually discoursing on Civil Rights while wiping himself on the toilet – which is perhaps why this opposition to racial equality is the part of his character that really sticks.
The second half of the film, by contrast, details Johnson’s movement away from this position, thanks in part to his conversations with Richard Russell, played by Richard Jenkins, who initially sees Johnson as a Southern ally, but gradually alienates him with a vision of the South, and an opposition to Civil Rights, that Johnson realises is not realistic for his managerial and pragmatic form of politics. In one of the most chilling scenes, Russell, along with a confederacy of other powerful Southern leaders, hail the assassination of Kennedy as a visionary moment for granting America her first Southern president since the Civil War, hailing Johnson by greeting him as the leader that they have been waiting for ever since the end of slavery. At the very moment at which he is poised to continue Kennedy’s Civil Rights mission, then, Johnson faces more pressure than ever to return to the values of the Civil War either, explaining why this confederacy describe his regime as “the reconstruction era all over again” once their Southern figurehead fails to live up to their expectations of him.
In some ways, these are the most powerful moments of the film, as Johnson gradually senses that his agency and meaning as a Southerner – and as a moderate-conservative – has somehow become displaced from what he once thought it was, and is indeed destined to grow more displaced over time. It’s from this growing disorientation with his own identity as a Southern Democrat that his eventual support for the Civil Rights Bill stems – at least as the film presents it – rather than from any real change of heart or liberalisation of policy, since Johnson is never really presented as anything other than a pragmatist and manager here, just as his fear of being remembered as a mere pragmatist and manager is what drives his insecurity and anxiety over the later stages of the film. Ironically, it’s only when he passes the Civil Rights Bill, and fulfils Kennedy’s vision, that he is able to traverse Kennedy, although, in another twist of irony, the first big gesture he makes on his own terms is to promote the war in Vietnam, an agenda that lies just beyond the final purview of the film.
Yet while the final act of LBJ might be quite critical of Johnson, the emotional register doesn’t quite match up with it. No doubt, Johnson is presented as an opportunist, but there’s also a sense here that his blustering disregard for others was what was actually needed to pass Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill – or, what amounts to the same thing, that Kennedy’s death was needed for the Civil Rights Bill to be passed, and for Kennedy’s own vision to be supported. That sense that Johnson’s actions “balanced” or “fulfilled” the void left by Kennedy’s death was a fairly common perspective during the centrist 90s, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the film also comes to something of a 90s Hollywood ending, closing with a rousing, feel-good speech, part eulogy to Kennedy, part inaugural address for Johnson, that feels more attuned to the Clinton administration than the Trump administration, not least in its assumption that right and left can be united in a moderate and managerial philosophy of political leadership. In a weird kind of way, then, the film finally displays its baby boomer leadings, giving in to LBJ’s self-mythologising despite itself, and effectively endorsing his sequel to Kennedy’s iconic “Let us begin” – “Let us continue” – despite the fact that the discontinuity between the two couldn’t be clearer, and has only continued to widen before arriving at the massive gulf between their two heritages today.