On Thursday, President Barack Obama joined other dignitaries at a civil rights summit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signature accomplishment as president — passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And in a nod to the shoulders that he stands on, Obama said, “I have lived out the promise of LBJ’s efforts.”
But some Americans, particularly those who lived through LBJ’s presidency, wish that President Obama not only reaped the rewards of President Johnson’s leadership but also led more like him. And to that point, I recently attended the critically acclaimed Broadway play “All the Way,” in which “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston portrays the president during the year in which he struggled and eventually triumphed in his efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act.
Seeing the production, two things became obvious: Cranston will get a Tony Award nomination for his performance, and the president he portrays is very different from the president we have today. After I saw the production with a family member who lived through the civil rights movement, she couldn’t help remarking about how different Johnson — one of the presidents she admires most — is from the current president, whom she also admires greatly.
And she also couldn’t help wondering if things today might be different if President Obama had a little bit more of LBJ in him, so to speak.
“All the Way,” and the countless historical accounts and documents it is based on, make it abundantly clear that Johnson wasn’t someone you’d typically call a “nice” guy. But he was a man who got things done. He would employ charm when necessary, asking allies and adversaries about their wives, children and hobbies if he thought it would advance his agenda. But in the next breath he would threaten to cripple them financially or politically if it meant the difference between getting a piece of legislation he cared about passed and not.