Cub political reporters, if they are lucky, are told the great big secret about covering Washington D.C. soon after they arrive: it is not that the workings of government are opaque necessarily, or that politicians dissemble, or that sources are hard to come by.
Rather, the great secret of covering the federal government is that politics is often really, really boring.
Which makes it a little odd then that the biggest show on Broadway this season is All The Way, a theatrical biopic about Lyndon Baines Johnson, starring Breaking Bad hero Bryan Cranston.
The play picks up where 2012’s great legislative drama, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, left off. It is 100 years later, and once again a major piece of legislation that is supposed to inch the nation closer to its founding principles is bottled up in Congress. This time, it’s the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which enshrined the promise of the 14th amendment and that Johnson, like Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln, lies, schmoozes, charms, threatens, sets allies off against one another in order to pass.
Johnson tells Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham on the phone that “I hear that sweet voice of yours and I’d like to be like one of those young animals on my ranch—jump a fence!” and convinces her paper to call anyone who attempts to block the bill a racist.
“I think we can manage that, Mr. President.”
Richard Russell, the Democratic senator leading the segregationist wing of the party, is threatened over pork chops; Cutty Sark is poured for pro-segregationist congressman Judge Smith. The names of wives and children are remembered and asked after, and of course the president will attend Ms. Graham’s press association luncheon. Hubert Humphrey is employed to hold the liberals together as if his job depended on it; when that fails, J. Edgar Hoover is instructed to get the wiretaps rolling. Reluctant lawmakers are able to secure their friends ambassadorships and judgeships; Arizona gets California’s water. “The Texas Twist,” it is called, and it convinces everyone to settle for a political half-loaf; liberals lose a section on voting rights but get Humphrey as vice president; civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., get the promise of a war on poverty; segregationists, in addition to whatever home-state pork they are plied with, are tamed by the possibility of a President Bobby Kennedy.
All of this is supposed to be nostalgia for the days when politicians actually got something done, aided by scotch and pork, literal or otherwise. And, of course, a rebuke to our current politics and especially our president, who seems unable to prod a bee to buzz. This has been the animating spirit behind Lincoln, which was read as an implicit jab at Obama. It is supposed to explain the fascination with House of Cards. This theory has so infected the water that Barack Obama accosted acclaimed LBJ biographer Robert Caro at the White House (in Caro’s telling, at least) to explain why that era was different than this one.
The president is right, of course: LBJ’s famed ability to cajole was greased by large majorities in the House and Senate, a reservoir of good feeling after the death of President Kennedy, and a public that was broadly engaged in politics but not nearly as well-informed.
And still—an auto-bailout, a health care bill, a stimulus, the regular lifting of the debt ceiling, defense and budget deals. All (presumably) without the wiretapping of political opponents.
There is a moment, about 30 minutes in to All The Way, that it looks as if the play is going to turn into this kind of clichéd current events parable. Cranston is Johnson as Phil Hartman was to Bill Clinton, and the play billboards his profane, Hill-Country approach to the job, utilizing every known cornpoke Johnsonism (“The crotch down where your nuts hang is always a little too tight”) in case anyone out there misses the point that this is real and this is how you get stuff done. This is the Johnson that tells Humphrey (in case there is, in LBJ’s words, “an idiot child” out there that still hasn’t cottoned on to what this play is about) “That’s the problem with you liberals—you don’t know how to fight. You wanna get something done in the real world, Hubert, you’re gonna have to get your hands wet.”
Well, aye-aye there, pardner.
But soon enough the history lesson falls away in place of the real human drama, and All The Way becomes one of the most scorching productions to appear on Broadway in a long, long time. Some of this is because of the excellent staging and direction by Bill Rauch that brings the 1964 convention to your seat, and a cast that has nearly everyone playing three or four parts at once. And some of why this play succeeds so well is because of a parallel drama occurring as LBJ secures votes for the Civil Rights Act: that of Martin Luther King keeping his fragile coalition together in the face of a more aggressive approach favored by Stokely Carmichael (played with brilliant intensity by William Jackson Harper, making his Broadway debut) and Bob Moses (played by the equally brilliant Eric Lenox Abrams, who is also making his Broadway debut and who nearly steals the show.)
Unfortunately for King, he lacks Johnson’s ability to twist arms or trade favors. He can only give in to the youngsters’ demands by persuasion, and is mostly at their mercy. Also unfortunate for King is that he is played by Brandon J. Dirden, who seems to have one speed for the Reverend, so every line of dialogue from King is in preacher mode. You half expects him to wake up alongside Coretta or whatever blonde admirer Hoover has found him with and pronounce aloud the “Dream” he had the night before.
The work could alternatively be named “1964.” It begins with Johnson flying back from Dallas after the assassination of Kennedy, and ends with him victorious on election night 11 months later. If it were Lincoln it would end after the first act, with Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act and ponderously telling Humphrey that they have lost the South for a generation. But it goes on, into Johnson’s obsessive tracking of that prediction in the early electoral success of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace, to his bungling of the early years of the Vietnam War, a war which, in playwright Robert Schenkkan’s telling, is Kennedy’s business, and one that Johnson sees as important only as it relates to the size of the victory. The Civil Rights movement is threatening to become undone by violence, and members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party are demanding to be seated at the ’64 convention, Civil Rights Act or not. Johnson is left, like another one of Caro’s subjects, Robert Moses, looking on at those who have benefited from his good work and wondering, “Why aren’t they grateful?”
If Cranston is an unconvincing Johnson of the Texas Twist, he is magnificent as the paranoid Johnson convinced that everyone hates him and wants to see him fall. And from the side, with the lips and ears elongated, the resemblance is uncanny. At almost three hours long, one can be forgiven for wondering if All The Way will show ’64 in realtime, but the play propels forward on the strength of its own energy towards the election. I hardly heard a single seatback squirm.
It is a lot to take in. The plagued year is packed with capital-E Events—from the murder of three civil rights activists to the defection of Strom Thurmond to the GOP (and with him, most of the rest of the white South) to King’s Nobel prize. One can be forgiven for being a little out of breath by the end of it. I for one can hardly wait until 2044, when it should be curtains up on The Cornhusker Kickback: The Story of Hope and Health Care in Obama’s America.