When Bill Rauch asked Robert Schenkkan to write a play for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's American Revolutions history series, Schenkkan knew right away he would write about the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson.
"There's something very Shakespearean in the size of the man," Schenkkan says in a phone conversation from his home in Washington. "His incredible energy, ambition and desire for power, a theme Shakespeare deals with a lot.
"There's also something Shakespearean in the arc of his life, his rise from humble beginnings to power and, of course, the relinquishing of the throne."
"All the Way" will open July 28, with previews July 25 and July 27, in the Angus Bowmer Theatre, directed by Rauch, OSF's artistic director. It focuses on the time between Johnson's rise to the presidency with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 and Johnson's landslide election to another term less than a year later. Schenkkan says that brief period was a "hinge point" in American history.
"It's an incredibly rich period politically," he says.
It was a year that saw the Johnson-engineered passage of the first of two major landmark civil rights bills, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which essentially outlawed segregation. The year also saw the covert lead-in to what would become the Vietnam War.
And it saw the realignment of the nation's political parties, with Southern, anti-civil-rights conservatives abandoning their historical allegiance to the Democratic Party en masse and switching to the Republicans. Johnson is said to have remarked that the civil rights legislation would cost the Democrats the South in elections for a very long time, and history has proven him right.
"He clearly recognized the political cost to the party that he loved," Schenkkan says. "It's a measure of the man's stature to pay that price to do the right thing. There are many criticisms to be made of Lyndon Johnson, but his record on civil rights is spectacular."
The politically skilled Texan had been chosen for the vice presidential slot by the Kennedy people at the party's 1960 convention in part as a way of controlling or neutralizing the ambitious Johnson.
"I think the vice presidency was his version of hell," Schenkkan says.
If it was, it was a hell he was released from by the events of Nov. 22, 1963. Schenkkan thinks Johnson realized he had a narrow window of opportunity, and was so focused on civil rights and other goals that he wasn't above Kennedy, who hadn't had much success moving his agenda through Congress.
Schenkkan has a bit of family history with Johnson. His father was a public broadcasting pioneer who had to get LBJ's blessing before he could open a PBS affiliate in Austin, Texas, the site of Johnson's flagship commercial station. LBJ was agreeable and even became a supporter of public broadcasting, helping to establish the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
LBJ had a dark side as well. The consummate wheeler-dealer, he was not above stooping to power. He would coax, cajole, wheedle and threaten to get what he wanted. He pushed through Congress in August 1964 the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, based on misrepresenting a dubious incident, that gave him the power to escalate the covert war in Vietnam into a big war by introducing American combat troops (he later said privately the North Vietnamese would have been shooting at whales for all he knew).
"It was the seeds of his destruction," Schenkkan says. "He quite consciously lied about what had taken place. It was a political decision to prevent Goldwater from outflanking him on the right, and it set us off on a tragic road."
But Schenkkan's work is a play, not a docudrama, with themes of political power, its acquisition, its costs, the moral qualities it provokes. What are a playwright's obligations to history?
"I don't pretend everything a character says was actually said," he says. "I reserved the right to invent dialogue, rearrange chronology, create or combine characters. But one has an obligation to be truthful to the core of these individuals.
"You can't have LBJ do something completely counter to the man. But there's still plenty of dramatic leeway for a story that is honestly revealing of the man and his character."
Schenkkan feels the theme of political power, which obsessed both Shakespeare and Johnson, is particularly resonant now, including the "sausage-making" side of politics, or how stuff gets done in Washington.
"All the Way" (the title is taken from the campaign slogan "All the Way With LBJ") is a sprawling epic with nearly two dozen characters. Schenkkan, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Kentucky Cycle" covers two centuries and dozens of characters and runs six hours, clearly likes a big canvas. So is "All the Way" about the big picture, or about LBJ the man?
On the one hand, there is history in the making.
"I think LBJ was weighing an enormous calculus of politics," Schenkkan says. "He'd had a serious heart attack. He knew the clock was ticking. He'd heard death's wings and was afraid he'd die. This lent spurs to his ambition."
On the other hand, there's the portrayal of an enigmatic man who could be manipulative and even brutal, but who had a huge and vulnerable need to be loved.
"I think," Schenkkan says of the play, "it lives in both worlds."
As a Shakespearean subject should.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at email@example.com.