Why is Lyndon B Johnson abruptly prevalent in pop culture?

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With a Broadway hit-turned HBO film and a Woody Harrelson movie to come, LBJ is abruptly back at the forefront of Americas consciousness and how we view him says a lot about our own times

Most historical cinemas uncover more about the time the latter are stimulated than the epoch they illustrate, so when a single historical figure has a sudden culture renaissance, its got to mean something important. Consider the case of LBJ. In the last few years, Lyndon B Johnson has been ubiquitous in our culture: on the stage, the silver screen, and even on Tv. He popped up in The Butler and Selma, and received a small but important mention in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Look of Silence. Most famously, Bryan Cranston won a Tony award for playing LBJ in Robert Schenkkans All the Way . The Broadway play , now an HBO movie that premiered last month, holds the key to understanding why the 36 th chairperson has abruptly become relevant again. Its an effort to reclaim Johnsons legacy from that of a cold-hearted politician who escalated the Vietnam war to a master negotiator who, through Washington insider-ism and sheer ingenuity, willed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into existence.

And yet any time you try to pigeonhole Johnson, he slips out of your comprehend. All the Waycaptures him in all of his frustrating complexity, and his contradictory nature lets his meaning to ebb and flow with hour. Even in the last few years since he has enjoyed this newfound cultural relevancy he has become a political football. His legacy, so integral to our understanding of todays racial politics, has once again become a matter of debate, and several film-makers have sought to understand our era by exploring his.

Even our current president cannot resist this temptation. Merely after All the Way opened in the spring of 2014, Obama spoke at a three-day festivity of the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Recounting some of Johnsons most famous words, he asked that if a chairperson cant stand up for his values, What the hells the presidency for? Obama also explicitly compared the passage of the Civil Rights Act to his Affordable Care Act. The timing could not have been accidental not for a chairperson so attuned to pop culture. As All the Waywas reclaiming the legacy of LBJ, Obama chose to remind Americans, as his presidency neared the beginning of the end, of his own hard-fought victories. When one critic wrote that All the Way is a portrait of a man who constructed the most of our messy democratic process, comparisons to Obama, who has navigated perhaps an even more divisive political era, are inevitable.

The achievement depicted in All the Wayhas a natural through line to Obama. Without the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we would almost certainly never have elected a black chairperson. But the idea of a white chairman who passes meaningful reforms for black Americans is not so easy to swallow today. Its a depiction of a white savior, that lightning-rod of an archetype that has become a symbol not only for Hollywoods inability to create meaningful for roles for black performers but also our societys failures to allow the black community to be champs of their own liberation.

Lyndon B Johnson shakes Martin Luther Kings hand at the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Photo: Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

In 2014 s Selma, director Ava Duvernay illustrated Johnson as an obstacle to civil right who constantly preached patience to Martin Luther King, while the president sought other legislative priorities. This proved to be a contentious point, as former LBJ aides and historians emerged to refute her narrative. In a Washington Post op-ed, Joseph Califano Jr accused the film-makers of taking dramatic, trumped-up license with a true narrative. In his eyes, the cinema falsely portrays Johnson as being at odds with King. Critics have speculated that the dispute was created by a rival studio to dim the cinemas Oscar opportunities, but, in retrospect, it seems like an unavoidable reaction. Duvernays critical portraying of Johnson seems designed to subvert the white savior archetype. Is it any astound that some white people complained?

All the Waytakes a middle ground between saviorism and condemnation. On the one hand, its focus on Johnsons effort to pass the Civil Rights Act, as opposed to his escalation in Vietnam, could be read as a festivity by means of omission. By focusing only on his biggest achievement, in other words, it inherently praises him. Yet it also exposes his flaw. He employs racist slurs in private but runs publicly to legislate the most important point civil right legislation since Reconstruction. He is a confident political operator, but also riddled with doubt and anxiety. He is a bully when the situation calls for it, but away from the political battlefield, he discloses a painful vulnerability.

Perhaps in the time since All the Wayhas been adapted into an HBO movie, another meaning to Johnson has emerged. In an election year, All the Wayscans as a plea for subtlety in our read of our political leaders. In a hyper-partisan epoch in which legislators are viewed either as a saint or a devil, All the Waybravely rejects such a narrow view. Instead, it is a portrait of that rarest of political icons: a complicated human.

You can even read the Johnson depicted in All the Wayas an amalgam of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In an early scene Johnsons first in the Oval Office since presuming the presidency he displays a coarseness and insensitivity to rival the presumptive GOP nominee. He fires a secretary and taunts her on the way out for not having enough meat on the bone. Johnson giggles at negro comedian Dick Gregory for his public criticism of him, then complains that his shoes make him look like a dago undertaker. Then, of course, there is his utter absence of discretion when it is necessary to his body. He tells his tailor to leave room for[ his] nutsack and, famously, holds meetings with key friends while sitting on the lavatory.

Anthony Mackie as Martin Luther King, director Jay Roach and Bryan Cranston as Lyndon B Johnson on the set of All the Way. Photograph: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/ AP

His sexism, racism and lewd behaviour may have induced him an outlier among White House residents, but he was, in many ways, the consummate insider. All the Waydispenses with these personal flaws in the early scenes and instead homes in on his expert political maneuvering. To pass the Civil Rights Act, Johnson use every trick in the Capitol Hill playbook: he threatens, cajoles, glad-hands and more. Democratic partisans could see the film as a defense of Washington insider-ism as a means to passing meaningful reform. Its clear that Johnson could not have achieved these victories without the years he spent building relationships in the House and Senate. In other words, All the Waymakes a case for a Hillary Clinton presidency.

Its as if Johnson is a human Rorschach test. Any effort to apply a singular meaning to him will inspire counter-arguments, which means that depictions of LBJ in our pop culture are unlikely to end anytime soon. Afterward this year, another biopic, this one titled simply LBJ will be released, with Rob Reiner directing and Woody Harrelson starring. We also await the fifth (!) volume of Pulitzer prizewinner Robert Caros biography of Johnson. In the end, perhaps the question is not why he is suddenly so relevant, but rather what took these artists so long to discover the dramatic and political potential of an American figure so complex, so dramatic and ultimately, perhaps most importantly for our epoch, so pliable.

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