Whether you admire him or despise him, President Lyndon Baines Johnson looms larger than life in American history.
Johnson's contentious and nation-changing first year in office is chronicled in "All the Way," a play by Robert Schenkkan commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for its American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle. It debuted Saturday in the Angus Bowmer Theatre.
Directed by festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch, "All the Way" will have you at the edge of your seat and haunted by its images long after you leave the theater.
Johnson wasn't a statesman. He was a politician in the true sense of that word. His goal was power and winning at any cost.
Johnson was successful because he had an uncanny ability to read his adversaries. He unfailingly knew when to use honeyed persuasion, bullying bombast or outright extortion to get what he needed to achieve his goals.
Johnson biographer Robert Caro says, "Johnson's ambition was uncommon — in the degree to which it was unencumbered by even the slightest excess weight of ideology, of philosophy, of principles, of beliefs."
Johnson styled himself a Roosevelt "New Deal" Democrat. But he could have played a canny political game with the Civil Rights Act, much as John F. Kennedy had done. There was nothing in Johnson's past that predicted strong-arming revolutionary social programs through Congress.
Johnson is responsible for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Great Society initiative and the War on Poverty. His legislative programs created Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, the Head Start preschool program and the Job Corps. He dramatically changed American society, and much of our present political discourse involves the continuation, expansion or dismantling of these programs.
Schenkkan had immense amounts of raw material — oral history transcripts, film footage, newspaper coverage, memoirs — to provide descriptions of events and actual dialogue. What he did with this voluminous historical record is truly astonishing. He has created a compelling docudrama, filled with action, conflict and vivid portrayals of historical figures.
Likewise, Rauch's staging (with scenic design by Christopher Acebo and striking video projections by Shawn Sagady) effectively recreates the time and place. His deft handling of the complicated story line turns this production into a swiftly moving, hard-edged revelation of how history is made by people with extraordinary vision and overwhelming ego.
Johnson is played by actor Jack Willis, who gets the man's baleful scowl and egocentric dismissive demeanor down to the letter. It is a bravura performance of Johnson's cajoling, bluster, scorn and self-pity. You simply cannot take your eyes off Willis on stage.
Schenkkan and Rauch don't attempt to analyze Johnson's character or motives. What you get here is the unvarnished, rough-hewn, outrageous and nasty Johnson.
"All the Way" recounts Johnson's strategy to pass the Civil Rights Act with a minimum of compromise and his subsequent struggle to hold on to the Democratic nomination for president in the 1964 election. (Johnson, of course, became the "accidental" president when Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.)
We watch Johnson get the Civil Rights Act through the House of Representatives and the Senate, using procedural maneuvering to move the legislation out of committee for a full chamber vote and raw arm-twisting to gain supporters to pass the bill on the floor. Johnson's chief ally in this struggle is the liberal Sen. Hubert Humphrey, played by Peter Frechette in a wonderful performance as the principled senator who becomes Johnson's fall guy. Johnson's opponents are the Southern Democratic segregationists, including his former mentor, Sen. Richard Russell Jr. of Georgia (Douglas Rowe), Rep. Howard "Judge" Smith of Virginia (David Kelly), Sen. James O. Eastland of Mississippi (Mark Murphey), Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina (Peter Frechette) and, of course, Johnson's outspoken political rival for the nomination, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama (Jonathan Haugen, in a wonderfully droll performance of the strutting, bantam bigot).
Concurrently, we see the debate between the three factions of the civil rights movement over support for Johnson's bill: the conciliatory, "by-increments" NAACP leader, Roy Wilkins (Derrick Lee Weeden), the more militant Bob Moses (Kevin Kenerly) and Stokely Carmichael (Wayne T. Carr) of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee; and the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King Jr. (Kenajuan Bentley) and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Tyrone Wilson). Bentley and Wilson are uncannily accurate in their portrayals of these two men. They have the movement and the speech cadences just right. Bentley, in particular, is haunting as the conflicted King.
We also watch the wily byplay between Johnson and oily FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Richard Elmore), each using the other's weaknesses to further his own goals.
Schenkkan, Rauch and the superb actors of the repertory company give each of these figures his own life, his own story. Christopher Liam Moore is particularly moving as Johnson's longtime, trusted aide, Walter Jenkins, who is callously and summarily thrown under the bus when a scandal threatens Johnson's campaign.
With its powerful examination of power and morality, I wish that OSF had opened "All the Way" earlier in the season. This play is a reminder of where this country was politically in the 1960s and why we still are fighting the same battles today.
"All the Way" is relevant this campaign season and will be long after the election of 2012 is decided.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.