The Full Johnson

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Time truncates things for the film maker too, and even over four hours broad swatches of Johnson’s life have had to be left out. Although Sam Rayburn, for example, appears at least three times in the first hour—grinning good-naturedly as his overgrown protégé plants a wet kiss on the top of his bald head, striding to the White House alongside the newly elected majority leader in 1955, rising to his feet to cheer as Johnson’s name is put into nomination during the 1960 Democratic Convention—he is never identified by the narrator. There simply wasn’t room enough in this telling for Johnson to have had two mentors, and his struggle to make himself a plausible national presidential candidate by maneuvering civil rights bills past his second one, Sen. Richard B. Russell of Georgia, was held to be more important. I missed Rayburn, but I can’t think of a single sequence I would have jettisoned in order to make room for him.

Grubin and his colleagues have uncovered some extraordinary early footage: the young congressman swelling with pleasure at being allowed simply to stand beside his hero, FDR, in 1937; Johnson and his wife, newly arrived in Washington, waving and blowing kisses to the camera like any pair of tourists near the Capitol he would soon dominate as few men ever have; and a sequence of Johnson campaigning for the Senate in 1948 that evokes as no words ever could the frenzy with which he sought the public approval that gave meaning to his life. Standing in a reception line in his shirt sleeves, he pumps hands and chews gum and pulls voters past him at an assemblyline pace; when babies and pretty girls are in temporarily short supply, he cheerfully kisses several startled old men; and wearing a shoulder harness that allows him to bellow into a big, bulbous microphone that bobbles in front of his mouth while both hands are free to claw the air, he seems not so much to be appealing for votes as to be yanking them, one by one, out of the Texas sky.

LBJ’s rise and fall is tragedy in the classic sense, and even the most inveterate Johnson hater will be moved by this TV version of it.

It is not easy to make films—or write books—about politicians once they have made it to the White House. Unless one is careful, the President-elect vanishes behind his new desk to become The President, an institution presiding over an era rather than a human being struggling just to hold his own. It is the special strength of this program that LBJ, the human being, remains always at center stage. We are made to experience his Presidency as he experienced it: working hard to overcome the resentments and suspicions of Kennedy loyalists; persuading his white fellow Southerners the time had come for civil and voting rights; passing out fistfuls of pens that signified passage of the bills meant to build his Great Society—education, housing, national parks, highway beautification, automobile safety, consumer protection, Head Start, Upward Bound, Job Corps, Neighborhood Youth Corps, Medicare, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and public television itself.

And we watch helplessly with him as the world beyond Washington stubbornly refuses to behave the way Capitol Hill behaves. Out there favors are forgotten, issues defy compromise. Everything goes sour. Big-city blacks, apparently ungrateful for all that he has done for civil rights, burn down their neighborhoods. College students, for whom he has provided federal loans, accuse him of child murder. The North Vietnamese prove immovable despite both American belligerence and American blandishments. (To the end Johnson dreamed of luring Ho Chi Minh into a room so that they could somehow “cut a deal.”) In the face of all this, Johnson’s own insecurities, his utter ignorance of the wider world, his apparent inability to separate truth from fiction, and his unwillingness to level with the people who elected him all combine to bring him crashing down.

Lyndon Johnson’s rise and fall is a tragedy in the classic sense, and in David Grubin’s sure hands, even the most inveterate Johnson hater will be moved by this television version of it.

Grubin’s “LBJ” kicks off the fourth season of The American Experience series on PBS. When the series began in the autumn of 1988, there were a good many people, inside and outside the television community, who doubted that a series of historical documentaries fashioned by disparate and independent film makers could possibly last very long.

Judy Crichton, the executive producer of The American Experience , is now at work with her colleagues on the series’ sixth season. It is evidence of their success that it is hard now to imagine public television without it.