18 May 2002 | rmax304823
A history book written by the losers...
In some ways the most dramatic illustration of the bifurcation of American society during 1968 is presented in this movie and then gone in the blink of an eye. LBJ is watching a series of TV broadcasts excoriating him. Among the clips is one of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who states that he (who had been silent on Vietnam for so long) can now no longer keep from speaking against violence and against the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, his own government. It's difficult to imagine Johnson recovering from King's speaking out. Blacks had been among his most resolute supporters for years. LBJ liked them and sympathized with them and they responded in kind. I did some minor canvassing for Eugene McCarthy earlier that year and was surprised to find that every black family I spoke to politely turned away my arguments. It didn't matter to them that they felt Vietnam was draining resources that were needed for domestic programs, or that the disenfranchised were suffering disproportionate casualties. (Know how many sons of Harvard died in Vietnam? Guess.) They fully supported LBJ because of his unyielding and thoroughly courageous stand on civil rights, as the issue was then called. How King's change of heart must have hurt him.
The movie as far as I can tell is pretty accurate. Inevitably, characters come and go, and the story itself is complicated enough to be occasionally confusing. If you want a more thorough analysis of how to go about letting slip the dogs of war, try Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest."
The acting is fine, with no one's performance outstanding. Frankenheimer's direction, with its drumbeats, hand-held camera, and fast editing of protest marches, recalls his "Seven Days in May." The script sometimes comes up with lines that are a little too epigrammatic to be swallowed whole.
LBJ's passionate commitment to the solution of domestic problems is carefully laid out, and it was real. His forte as a politician was in manipulating others in order to get his way and, minor earlier malfeasance aside, his way was one to be admired. What the film soft pedals or leaves out entirely is a side of his character that was really and truly vulgar and exceedingly unpleasant for subordinates. You didn't have to be a wuss to feel uncomfortable when, as a highly educated senior aide, LBJ would call you into the bathroom for a conference while he was taking a dump. The tongue lashings that Jack Valenti alone endured would fill up a marine boot's schedule for his entire stay on Parris Island. He was also an egomaniacal blowhard, and there is little of this in the film. While still Vice President, he ran into Russel Baker, at that time White House reporter for the NY Times, grabbed him by the arm and pulled him into his office, shouting, "You -- I want to talk to YOU." He harangued Baker for half an hour, accusing the press of lying about his lack of power, of being outside the loop, as VP. Midway through his tirade, Johnson buzzed in his secretary, scribbled a note and handed it to her, then took up where he left off. When a weary Baker finally stumbled back into the hallway, another reporter said: "Do you know what it was he wrote on that note to his secretary? It said, 'Who is this I'm talking to?'"
A bit of this side of LBJs character might have gone some distance in explaining his gradual and reluctant commitment to war. He was the kind of guy who could not admit that he was beaten, a tragedy really, in the same way that Hamlet was a guy who could not make up his mind. It wasn't just that his advisers misled him. It was that he couldn't bring himself to back down. This is one of the things that worried me when I heard our next president from Texas say, "My mind is made up, and I'm not going to change it, because I'm not the kind of guy who changes his mind." (No? Hold on to your hats, boys.)
You come away from this movie filled with a genuine pity for LBJ who, in Vietnam, had got hold of his baby. He really had little choice but to resign. When he did, he went to his ranch and manipulated local merchants so they put his order for an oil sump on the fast track, using the same friendly but conspiratorial tones that he had once used in running the country. He grew his hair out to Beatle length, crept into Doris Stearn's guest room in the mornings in order to have someone to talk to, a lonely man. A tragic story, well done.