I had seen all the other presidential biographies by this filmmaker when I watched this one about LBJ, and so I had high expectations going into it. David Grubin's biographies of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, and Truman are all really good; and so I was thinking this one would be good as well. It turned out to be as good as I expected, but it's also one of those films that stays with you - not because of an inspirational lead character, but because of a complex lead character who can't be reduced to simple descriptions. As my dad once said, he's like the Shakespeare character who is neither totally good nor totally bad, but somewhere in between. Thus, for me, he is someone that I like to have a love-hate relationship with. I remember what I like about him, and I remember what I hate about him; and I can't put either one aside. They're both too powerful and both too real; and in both ways, he is a constant source of fascination for me. He was a terrible president; but unlike Jimmy Carter, he was an interesting man, and one that I find myself thinking about more often than you might expect.
Lyndon Baines Johnson
I was not always this way - I had my opinions about LBJ, which were mostly confirmed by this film; but I didn't find him a very interesting man. Yet after this film, he became quite fascinating, like a character you get to know from literature and still don't know what to make of him. No matter how many times you familiarize yourself with him, he always manages to surprise you - sometimes for good, sometimes for evil, but always unexpected. That's the way I feel about LBJ.
LBJ taking oath of office aboard Air Force One (just hours after Kennedy assassination), 1963
Many of the filmmakers, too, have a love-hate relationship with him. However, I suspect their reasons for it are somewhat different from mine. Filmmakers at PBS tend to be liberal; which in the case of LBJ means that they dislike his foreign policy and like his domestic policy. His domestic policy mostly consisted of liberal economic policies like the Great Society and War on Poverty; policies which have proven in hindsight to be among the most damaging in American history. The economy during the Carter years was worse than the economy of LBJ's time, but LBJ did more long-term damage, by expanding the size of government to a degree not seen before, and not seen again until the advent of Barack Obama. You'd have to go to the Obama administration to find domestic policies more damaging than LBJ's, and that's really saying something.
LBJ signs the Poverty Bill, 1964 (a.k.a. the Economic Opportunity Act)
To be sure, the man was a terrible president. On the foreign policy front; he was the man most responsible for getting us into - and then subsequently losing - a war. The war was, of course, Vietnam; and his policies about Vietnam no longer please anyone. Those who opposed the war blamed him for getting us into it and throwing away so many lives; and those who supported the war blamed him for losing it, and thus making those sacrifices in vain. No one today is satisfied with his policies, nor should they be - the man was about as incompetent on foreign policy as anyone we've had in our history. In fact, I'd go so far as to say he's the worst foreign policy president in our history. Even Obama isn't as bad in this area as LBJ.
Ho Chi Minh
The documentary points out that LBJ once offered Ho Chi Minh what amounted to a Great Society - you leave South Vietnam alone, and we'll spend millions of dollars on both South and North Vietnam to eliminate poverty and stop hunger. Regardless of the folly of the Great Society, I might have supported such a plan if I'd thought it would save South Vietnam without war; but it's obvious to anyone who's studied this that Ho Chi Minh was not going to take this offer anyway. Ho Chi Minh didn't want a Great Society, he wanted control of Vietnam - all of it - and he was willing to kill thousands of innocent people to get that control. It's unpopular among liberals today to criticize the communist world, but these are facts that were glaringly obvious to many, and which were totally lost on LBJ. As the documentary says, he wasn't the sort of man who could get the feel for another culture: When traveling abroad, he would dress in his American clothes even in places where it made him stick out like a sore thumb; and he quite simply didn't understand anything outside of the Texas he grew up in. He knew American politics and he knew the American legislature, but he didn't know anything outside the United States; and that was why he misread Vietnam so badly.
Operation Rolling Thunder, 1966
Vietnam War protest, 1967
He was a brilliant president at getting the legislation he wanted through Congress, though. All of those years as President of the Senate gave him a sort of genius in the wheel-and-deal of political negotiations, and he got through an astonishing amount of legislation through twisting arms and making deals. Sadly, though, most of the legislation he got through was misguided at best; and his accomplishments in this area are thus tainted by results - bad results. But there is one area in which he succeeded brilliantly, and that was civil rights. He managed to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress; thus doing more for the rights of African-Americans than any president since Lincoln. This is why it's difficult for me to totally hate the man; because even with his massive failures in other areas (and they were massive), he has some major substantive accomplishments to his name. He was a good man, if a somewhat naive one, and some of that comes through in this film.
LBJ signs Civil Rights Act, 1964
LBJ signs Voting Rights Act, 1965
This is why my feelings about him are so mixed. He could be as nice and charming as an angel, and as angry and volatile as a devil. The man had so many sides to him, which was not lost on the makers of this film; and thus, the film stays with you to a degree other films do not. You're always trying to decide whether or not you love him or hate him, and your opinion can change quickly when moving from one part of his presidency to another; but you're never trying to decide whether or not he's interesting. The very fact you're thinking about it shows that he's fascinating; and whether you love him or hate him, you will never again lack an opinion on the subject - you'll be thinking about LBJ more often than you might expect. You'll think back on this movie more times than you'd think you would.
LBJ photo-op in visit to Vietnam, 1966
As one of the commentators in the film said, "I liked him more when I was with him than when I was thinking about him." This commentator was not a member of LBJ's administration, but a number of the other talking heads were; and they, too, manifest a love-hate relationship with LBJ. They, too, can't make up their minds how they feel about him. The black guy in his Cabinet says he felt a great mixture of emotions when LBJ was voted out of office. Happiness and sadness, this guy said - "mostly sadness, I guess." And even if you hate LBJ for his Vietnam War policies, you can't help feeling sorry for him when he's disgraced and broken by the war, and when you see the terrible effect it took on his career - namely, ending it. This is among the most dramatic films that PBS has ever made, and so you'll be thinking about it a lot if you decide to watch it.
Good man? Bad man? You may never decide; but you'll be tantalized with the desire to do so if you watch this film. It's emotionally draining at times - and ultimately, something of a tragedy - but sometimes those are the films that stay with you the most. If you watch this film, you'll never see LBJ the same way again.
DVD at Amazon
Can be viewed online at PBS website
If you liked this post, you might also like:
John F. Kennedy movies
Cold War miniseries
Richard Nixon movie