LBJ: The Early Years (1987)

This one is for my father, still in awe of President Johnson, whose inauguration he attended, and can never learn enough about him.  We may not always agree on what makes for the most interesting history, but I learned from him to keep trying because someday, I might just figure it out.

Lyndon Johnson is one of the more peculiar choices for a miniseries, and “LBJ: The Early Years” is a peculiar miniseries, though fascinating.  George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, they make sense as they were larger-than-life legends who lives in extraordinary times (though admittedly, Lincoln’s reputation may be a bit more mixed if natural causes killed him).  John Kennedy?  He’s miniseries gold and we barely have to touch his politics.

Movie stars, kings and queens, captains of industry, war heroes, this is what we’re used to in a miniseries.  Johnson was, beyond doubt, not only a remarkably astute politician, but also served the country when it was once again threatening to come apart at the seams, though this time less literally.  Still, what most people will remember about Johnson is taking the oath of office on an airplane with Jackie Kennedy in her bloody suit and then not being able to stop the war in Vietnam (to be fair, we can also credit Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon and Ford as the other Commanders-in-Chief who had their hands in the Southeast Asia pot, Johnson’s was the most stuck inside).

Hell, even John Adams at least rubbed elbows with Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and a host of European bigwigs to earn two miniseries for his efforts.  Lyndon Johnson is certainly no Van Buren or H. Harrison, B. Harrison, Chester Arthur, Tyler, Taylor, Hayes or Coolidge, but then again no president after the invention of the camera, the moving picture, audio recordings or on-demand media consumption could be.  Is Lyndon Johnson deserving of miniseries attention that tends to adore melodrama and spectacle or is this just too damn weird an experiment?

Certainly the Lyndon Johnson we meet in 1934 is not dour, mumbling or angry, as always seemed to be the case while he was president.  No, indeed, as played by Randy Quaid, he’s a whirl of excitement, figuring out the halls of power as a Congressional secretary, though he already has a friend in the legendary Sam Rayburn (played to irrepressible perfection by Pat Hingle).  Eager Lyndon tells Sam he’s proposed to the daughter of a noted Texas mover and shaker, but he hasn’t had an answer yet.  “It’s hard putting words into other people’s mouths,” he gushes.  “Don’t be so sure, Lyndon, I’ve been doing it for years,” Rayburn replies.

Of course, we know who the said possible fiancee is, one of the most unequivocally beloved national figures in all of American history, Claudia Taylor.  Oh, wait, we should probably start calling her Lady Bird (especially since Patti LuPone starts chewing the scenery from the onset, and a Southern accent giving her the perfect opportunity to drop all those pesky consonants she’s detested throughout her career).  Even soon-to-be-Papa-in-law Boss Taylor finds Lyndon exciting, especially when Lyndon declares that he wants to marry his daughter that day, a Saturday, when it’s impossible to get a license, though Lyndon confesses he has a lot of strings to pull.

Still, Lady Bird is the voice of reason, a role she never relinquished.  She isn’t exactly thrilled at her beau being interested in politics, saying, “since you do have so much drive and ability, it seems like a waste not to put it to use in a more respectable way.”  He’s proud of that fact, but when Lady Bird compares the situation of them hastily eloping to “Claudette Colbert as some madcap heiress running off with the chauffeur,” Johnson slams on the breaks to complain about her snobbishness, especially when he will have them “in the thick of things…maybe even seeing history being made.”  He’s a confident daredevil, and the scene of their wedding is a hoot.  In the span of mere minutes, he’s reminding a the minister about “special postal rates” he got him and since his friend didn’t know Lady Bird’s ring size, he brought all available rings from Sears.  Lady Bird tries to protest, Johnson speeds ahead of her, but ultimately, Lady Bird is in firm control.  When the proceedings grind to a halt because the minister is worried Lady Bird isn’t exactly ready, she takes her time while everyone stands waiting and with a small smile and a flutter of the eyes, she agrees, the only force that could possibly stop Lyndon’s tornado of a personality.

Meeting Lyndon’s family is another jolt to proper Lady Bird.  Lyndon’s mother warns her that she will have to share him with “many, many people.”  Lady Bird remarks that, “Lyndon told me he had not settled on a career,” but his steely mother replies, “Lyndon has always known his destiny.  Greatness is stamped on him like a mark from heaven.  I only hope that he has prepared you for your role.”  That would give a girl pause, now wouldn’t it?

The Johnson’s hightail it to Washington, where they hit the Capitol before their home.  Lady Bird delights in watching Lyndon maneuver his Congressman, this office and just about everything else, until the Congressman’s wife (Frances Conroy) jumps in to remind him he’s “a common secretary.”  Raising her pitch, she gets in a lot of digs he hopes his bride doesn’t hear, the worst of which is “poor white trash.”  Oh, and she has more news–he’s being fired.  Other men might go home disgraces, but Lyndon pledges to go “so high, no one can ever look down on me again.”

Temporarily defeated, grouchy Lyndon is back in Texas, where Lady Bird is happy with a quiet existence and hopefully a family.  “You can’t say we ain’t been tryin'” he snaps at his wife.

Three years of boredom and unhappiness come to an end with the best news possible: someone’s death!  Well, not just anyone, a Congressman!  Lyndon dashes over Judge Wirtz (Barry Corbin), the area’s big player, to announce he wants the seat.  It’s not going to be so easy, because the Congressman’s widow wants the seat and a lot of other men too.  “But I’m the smartest,” Lyndon protests to doubt from Wirtz, “I’m the tallest.”  Johnson is convinced that “the farmers in the country, they are my natural constituents,” and they will vote for him.  He’s quite impassioned about his “people,” though Wirtz brings up another problem: Johnson needs $10k to “sit at the table.”  “That’s an awful lot of money,” Lady Bird notes warily.

Okay, we’ll pause here for a moment.  As “LBJ: The Early Years” is not a long miniseries, because, let’s face it, few of our nation’s leaders would be granted that much network time (HBO’s “John Adams” benefitted from the luxury of paid subscribers). In roughly 30 minutes, we’ve seen just two things: Johnson’s drive and Johnson’s wife (although he treats them both the same).  This is the easy part.  Johnson is still wide-eyed and lacks cynicism.  He might as well be a middling Virginia planter or a country lawyer because miniseries versions of Washington and Lincoln also start off this way, to establish character.  But, Washington and Lincoln only became, at least on public record, even more single-minded in their zeal for fairness, honestly and the good of the country, so their character traits will only deepen.  What’s fascinating about Johnson as a historical figure are the less savory aspects of his career.

In other words, can the schmaltz and move it along, because right now, this could be a movie about any politician.

As if this is directed by Preston Sturges, Lyndon and Lady Bird start stumping, beginning with a dusty series of shacks that can’t even be called a town, where Lyndon’s father lives.  When Lyndon worries that the Congressman’s widow will win the seat, his father advises him, “she’s an old woman.  If she knows there’s gonna be a fight, she won’t run.  Announce now before she does, she won’t run.”  Lyndon hops up onto the bed of a truck, his father summons the extras and Lyndon’s candidacy is official.  Lyndon makes up a speech on the spot, pitting these poor people against the wealthy (from the East Coast, naturally).  One grubby man tells Lyndon it’s not going to happen.  “That’s horse manure,” Lyndon retaliates, folksy and energetic, immediately connecting with the crowd.  He adds one detail to the end that would be a constant for the rest of his life, making the Mrs. known to all.  The crowd supplies the final detail, chanting his name with that of the beloved FDR.  Signs reading Roosevelt and Johnson make it seem as though they are running together, certainly not a bad thing during the Depression.

The cash problem is solved by a phone call to Lady Bird’s father.

As predicted, since Lyndon got there first, the widow declines to run and we get a montage of speeches and newspaper headlines as Lyndon literally barnstorms (lots of poor towns) and Lady Bird realizes shaking hands wearing white gloves is not a good idea.  Lyndon pushes so hard he ends up with severe stomach trouble, but he never loses his colorful speech, as he instructs an assistant to hand out so many leaflets the people will be “wiping their asses with a picture of me.”

Lyndon is about to make a big speech, but he’s doubled over in pain.  He berates Lady Bird for not wearing enough lipstick, for her taste in clothing and for not actually speaking to the people, snarling that, “women vote too, you know.”  Chalky white and barely able to stand up, Lyndon passes out before he can even utter a word.  When he wakes up in the hospital, Lady Bird gives him the news that he’s now a Congressman.  “They did it, Bird, they came down from the hills for me,” he gushes, referring to all those dirt farmers who were the backbone of his campaign.

Back to Washington, back to Sam Rayburn and back to wheeling and dealing, despite being a freshman Congressman with no actual power.  Judge Wirtz advises him to meet with a group of men with deep pockets, as “an effective politician has to be flexible.”  Johnson works himself to the nub, expecting the same of his staff, stopping his frantic pace only when his father dies.  It turns out that Papa owed thousands of dollars, but his widow protests that it was only because he refused no one a financial favor.

It’s here we get another big clue that Lyndon is changing.  After an argument with Lady Bird about getting out of politics, he’s reminded by Judge Wirtz that he doesn’t have to pay his father’s bills.  In one sentence, Lyndon says he can’t not repay the good people AND it would look bad politically for him to do so.  He can either use his money to pay off his father’s debts or for a reelection campaign.  Judge Wirtz reminds him of the fat cats who still have the money he needs, and he gives in.

The Johnsons attend a Virginia party for swells where Lyndon, again castigating his wife for her lack of lipstick, demands that she mingle herself and do some charming.  Lyndon is introduced to Alice Glass (Morgan Brittany), a DC hostess who is as glamorous as Lady Bird is frumpy, or “looking like a hound dog caught in the briars,” as her husband puts it.  Lyndon and Alice flirt over a game of pool.  It gets so obvious that even Lady Bird is afraid of it.  It takes Sam Rayburn to calm her down, assuring her that Lyndon loves her, though admitting it won’t always be an easy life.

Flush with cash, Lyndon is able to live up to a campaign promise and provide electricity to his constituents, even if bringing Alice and Lady Bird to the celebration of it is probably not the best idea, especially since Lady Bird is pregnant (though her mother-in-law is put out by not knowing–“you must never hide anything from me,” she admonishes).

There is a knock-down-drag-out battle between husband and wife because Lyndon wants to refine and redo her, which she refuses.  He says she’s “gypped” him out of the perfect political wife by being dowdy and shy.  She only wants a stable home, so Johnson is being made over himself by Alice.  Naturally, and this is where we are reminded this is a miniseries, when one is happiest or most nonchalant, tragedy intervenes.  Lady Bird miscarries, and as Lyndon arrives at the hospital, a particularly angry Sam Rayburn bluntly tells him, “you let that woman go and you’re a bigger fool than I thought you were.”

By 1948, things have certainly changed!  At their big mansion, a campaign fundraiser for Lyndon’s Senate run is in full swing.  Lady Bird is now wearing bright chic colors and effortlessly gliding through the guests in a charm assault.  It’s here she conquers her last hurdle, public speaking, because Lyndon has not arrived yet and people are asking about him.  Very nervous when she walks up to the microphone, she’s an instant hit when someone in the crowd asks where Lyndon is.  “That’s what I’d like to know every night at dinner,” she quips.  Getting into it, she’s upstaged by an arriving helicopter which bears Lyndon and a megaphone.  The crowd loves it.  “Don’t that just sound like the voice of God,” a particularly dazzled woman wonders aloud.

There’s an even bigger surprise when the Johnsons are asked for a family picture.  Both daughters are brought and Lyndon insists that the African American nanny be in the photo as well, as he considers her a member of the family.  Judge Wirtz is horrified, but the press sticks to politics.  The election is so close that it’s thrown to the state legislature, apparently a gaggle of stereotypical yahoos who don’t even remove their hats or chewing tobacco to be there.  Johnson is accused of “voting irregularities.” During a break, Johnson and his opponent actually get into fisticuffs.

The vote is going to be close and each side need every delegate, including drunks that are found and forced to attend.  It’s 28 to 28 and one abstention.  The abstainer is asked to vote and she says, “to hell with both of ’em,” leaving it up to a drunk Johnson’s people are trying desperately to get inside the hall. He votes for Lyndon, now Senator Lyndon Johnson from Texas.

Ever the hothead, when a Senate parking attendant tells him he can’t park where he wants because those spots are for Senators with seniority, Lyndon brashly tells him to watch the car “while I go inside and get me some.”

By 1955, he is in the same parking spot, and it has his name on it as he’s the Majority Leader.  He’s not shy about hitting on his secretary, but he also secretly pays an aide’s mother’s hospital bill.  As far as politics, he insists on censure of Joe McCarthy, though the White House refuses to take a stance.  This is where JFK makes his first appearance (Charles Frank).  Lyndon is crude, smokes as he eats and all but pimps out his secretary to Kennedy.  The two deal the old-fashioned way, trading a committee position for a vote on a bill, “an exercise in raw power,” Kennedy says, before Johnson warns, “you better suck up and suck up good.”  This is a man who owns the Senate and everyone in it.  He’s a workaholic who manages a phone and listens to aides reading information, not to mention dealing with Lady Bird and the kids.

Ranting on the phone, Johnson has a heart attack.  He makes for a grouchy patient, except to his mother, who literally feeds him pudding with a spoon, much to his wife’s annoyance.  “All of the Johnson men die young,” he reminds Lady Bird on a walk about the property, announcing that he’s resigning his seat and retiring.  He is full of “morbid talk and self-pity,” as per his wife, finally breaking down, not just for herself, but for the citizens of the country.  She fumes so much that he retorts, “I’m gonna take you down a peg or two, woman.”  “I can hardly wait,” is her caustic but firm response.

It works and he heads back to the Senate, where the entire gang crowds to watch him re-emerge.  Will he be easier on them?  “What the hell are you all looking at? Did somebody die around here?  Stop standing around like some cows and let’s pass some legislation,” he bellows, to cheers and bravos from his 99 fellow Senators.  Nobody is more thrilled than Lady Bird.

Enter the Kennedys, en masse.  We’ve met JFK, but now Bobby (James F. Kelly) and Joe Sr. (Kevin McCarthy) show up.  Bobby refers to Johnson as a “cynical power-hungry hypocrite” and a “moral eunuch” as he’s expressing his hatred.  John feels better about him, but the three can’t figure out if he will run in 1960 or not.  Should he run as an opponent to John, Joe Sr. clucks, “then we’ll show those cowboys what the Kennedys are made of.”

Talk about your bizarre scenes, the one between Bobby Kennedy and a longtime Johnson housekeeper is a corker, though something of a misstep since the miniseries has never played it coy, but is brash, like its central character.  It’s this scene where the creators want us to remember Johnson had a terrific record on Civil Rights.  Not only is she treated like a member of the family, she’s consulted on politics and seems to know how the government runs better than Bobby, who snidely asks if Lyndon’s Civil Rights stance is simply because he wants to be President.  “It’s Congress that make the laws, the President just recommends them,” she says matter-of-factly, cutting off Bobby at the knees.  When Lyndon enters, he hammers it in further.  “Rich men have servants, I have employees,” he growls.  Okay, point taken, Johnson’s position on Civil Rights is assured, at least according to this tale.

Continuing the miniseries’ gleeful assault on the Kennedys, Bobby is then taken hunting by Lyndon and his cronies.  Bobby misses a deer on purpose, but knocks himself in the head with the gun’s kickback.  Point taken.

Lyndon aims to ram the Civil Rights bill through Congress, no matter what.  Begging and pleading don’t sway Lyndon, but one Senator asks, “since when did Texas start leading the nation in rights for Nigras?” Uh oh.  Lyndon slowly marches up to the man, grabs him by the lapels and relates a story with increasing anger and passion.  Once again, it’s Sam Rayburn to the rescue, telling Lyndon to drop Civil Rights and work on his campaign for President, but Lyndon doesn’t feel Kennedy is at all a threat, at least not until it’s too late.  As the convention anoints JFK with the nomination, Lyndon is sanguine in front of everyone, but alone with Lady Bird, he reveals the truth, blaming himself for not following his father’s advice of “seize the moment.”  “Those damn Kennedys,” he scowls to end the scene.

Lyndon has premonition that he will be offered the Vice Presidential on the ticket.  The Kennedy people can’t believe they have done it and the Johnson people are aghast.  Everyone is convinced that Sam Rayburn will make sure Lyndon doesn’t accept, and he does…until he’s asked what will happen if Nixon becomes President, which changes his tune and he supports the idea.  Just then, Bobby shows up, forced to talk while Lyndon pees.  He’s there to ask Lyndon to refuse the Veep slot that was offered to him, but now Lyndon is committed and refuses to step aside.

JFK and Lyndon should be playing nice in public, but Bobby decides to upstage Lyndon immediately. As the crowd chants, Bobby grabs his brother’s hand and treats the moment like his own triumph, with Lyndon looking uncomfortable, but unable to do anything about it.

Once they win, Lyndon is completely marginalized (forced to wait in the outer office for John until Bobby comes out, ignores seeing him and tells his secretary to cancel the Vice President’s meeting) or given the crap assignments John doesn’t want, like greeting a delegation from Asia and looking utterly ridiculous.  In fact, Lady Bird has more to do with a beautification program that would become her hallmark.  He pours out his frustration to her, with such gems as “just ’cause I got an elephant hide, don’t mean I can’t feel pygmy darts.”  Lady Bird urges Lyndon to try harder with Bobby, throwing a party where the two of them can be together while Lady Bird entertains the guests.

It was a lovely thought, but it doesn’t work.  Lyndon launches into a tirade about what John should be doing, all of it good sense, but Bobby is unmoved, thinking Lyndon is just out for more power.  Lyndon denies it, saying he just wants to help and “you have nothing to fear from me,” assuring Bobby he doesn’t want to be President.  The end result is the two are further apart than ever.

Initially, Lyndon refuses to go to Texas with JFK, but realizes he’s needed and agrees to go.  He declares himself “fed up” by how he’s being treated by the administration.  He intends to tell JFK he will not run with him again in 1964.  He’s self-pitying, so leave it to Lady Bird to remind her husband of all the amazing work he’s done over 25 in public service.  And for a bit of goo, Lady Bird tells him how much he’s done for her.  Nobody wants to see even pretend Lyndon and pretend Lady Bird making out on the bed.  By the end of the scene, Lyndon is actually content to get out of politics and his desire to “get to the top.”  “The only thing I’ll have left is you,” he coos to his wife.  He confesses how much he needs her.

Even if history didn’t tell us what was about to happen next, the rules of the miniseries would.  No one stays content and peaceful for long, especially after a lengthy speed that revels in such feelings.

We are spared a reenactment of the assassination, going right to the madness at the hospital.  Everyone waits, but when an aide comes in and refers to Lyndon as Mr. President, it’s all clear.  Lyndon makes level-headed decisions, refusing to let the press be told until he’s on Air Force One using its better communications systems, since half the cabinet is out of the country and decisions must be made.  Lyndon also insists on taking the oath of office before leaving Dallas because he does not want any of the decisions made to be in question.  He then insists the body and widow of his predecessor be on the plane.

When Lady Bird offers to help Jackie change her clothes, Jackie utters her most famous line, “I want the world to see what they’ve done.”

As Lyndon is about to take the oath of office, Jackie comes in to stand next to him in one of the most famous moments in Presidential history as he becomes the 36th President of the United States.

“LBJ: The Early Years” is certainly brave, although considering we go all the way to 1963, just a decade before his death, I would say it’s “LBJ: The Early and Middle Years.”  That’s brave about it is that the creators found enough story to stack up against such giants as Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt or Kennedy.  It actually downplays his astounding Congressional record and focuses more on the man, and even stranger choice.

However, it all pays off, mainly because of the acting.  Randy Quaid is absolutely committed to his performance, his best by far.  He doesn’t do a Johnson imitation, and he’s not even made up to look like Johnson until the end, but he conveys Johnson’s wild and erratic nature.  Patti LuPone, the very definition of bombast, takes it down many notches and is wonderful as Lady Bird.

History is always a basis for entertainment as long as it’s done well.  This is done well.  Very well.

Categories: Historical Miniseries

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