I’ve always regarded Lyndon Johnson with mixed emotions. He ruined his legacy with his horribly misguided Vietnam policies, of course. But domestically he wanted to be a benevolent Big Daddy — a compassionate liberal whose instincts found fruition with his Great Society programs along with his support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. I know that Johnson’s rural-type manner always reminded me of my paternal grandfather, an earthy guy who hailed from Kentucky and spoke with a drawl. LBJ was also known to be crude in certain ways and I suspect that deep down he probably had less than fully enlightened attitudes toward blacks. But I’ve never believed he was a patronizing racist who didn’t take blacks all that seriously and who pushed for the Voting Right Acts only when he was politically forced to. But that’s how Johnson is more or less portrayed in Ava DuVernay‘s Selma. Tom Wilkinson‘s LBJ offers a few shadings and nuances, but mainly you remember his disagreements with Martin Luther King (i.e., David Oyelowo) and his saying “not now” and dismissively patting King’s shoulder in the Oval Office.
Last Friday (12.26) a Washington Post op-ed piece by Joseph Califano, Jr., President Johnson’s top liaison for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969, called bullshit on Selma‘s portrayal of Johnson. “The film falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself,” Califano wrote. “In fact, [the] Selma [demonstration] was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted — and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him.”
I’m no LBJ scholar but I was surprised to see Wilkinson’s Johnson tell J. Edgar Hoover to use the MLK sex tapes to pressure King into backing off. I know that Hoover told Johnson about King’s philandering (and that he might have played portions of the tapes for him) but I’ve never read that LBJ used them to make things uncomfortable for King, and I frankly doubt that he did that.
Naturally DuVernay is disputing Califano’s piece on Twitter. “The notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw-dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so,” she tweeted. She also wrote that “folks should interrogate history. Don’t take my word for it or LBJ’s rep for it. Let it come alive for yourself.”
I tried to do that today by reaching out to three LBJ historians — Robert Caro (author of four LBJ biographies and now working on a fifth), Robert Dallek (“Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President,” New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), and Ronnie Dugger (“The Politician: The Life and Times of Lyndon Johnson,” W.W. Norton, 1982). Nobody got back in time but I almost got to Dallek, who was taking a walk when I called and reached his wife. Then I called back a few times….nothing. Then his wife, a nice lady, finally picked up after the sixth or seventh call and said her husband doesn’t want to talk to me. Nice guy! I asked her if she would mind asking him if he could help me with phone numbers for Dugger or Caro. She did so and I could hear him ask “what?” She repeated the request and the 80-year-old Dallek derisively sneered “noooo!”
Come to think of it Johnson wasn’t portrayed all that attractively in Lee Daniels’ The Butler either. In my review I observed that Daniels had portrayed LBJ “as a coarse buffoon who craps in front of assistants — Doris Kearns Goodwin was a source on this alleged tendency — and repeatedly uses the term ‘nigger’ with cavalier indifference. I’m not saying that the Southern-born Johnson didn’t use that term among his white political cronies (and yet I doubt even that happened), but to suggest that he threw it around blithely in front of African-American subordinates is a crude caricature.”
I think there’s just something overly white and Southern and drawly about Johnson in the view of black filmmakers, and they can’t help seeing see him as a metaphor for racist attitudes of the ’60s, even if the record shows that Johnson was in fact courtly and gracious and entirely respectful in his dealings with civil rights leaders and guys like Roger Wilkins, etc.
“For the truth about Johnson, the Voting Rights Act and Selma, listen to the tape of the LBJ-MLK telephone conversation and read my numerous reports to the White House, which have been on the LBJ Presidential Library Web site for years,” Califano wrote.
“All this material was publicly available to the producers, the writer of the screenplay and the director of this film. Why didn’t they use it? Did they feel no obligation to check the facts? Did they consider themselves free to fill the screen with falsehoods, immune from any responsibility to the dead, just because they thought it made for a better story?
“Contrary to the portrait painted by Selma, Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. were partners in this effort. Johnson was enthusiastic about voting rights and the president urged King to find a place like Selma and lead a major demonstration. That’s three strikes for Selma. The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.”
Here’s my original review of Selma.
Fron a January 1965 call between Johnson and King:
President Johnson: There’s not going to be anything though, Doctor, as effective as all of them voting.
King: That’s right. Nothing…
President Johnson: That’ll get you a message that all the eloquence in the world won’t bring, because the fellow will be coming to you then instead of you calling him.
King: And it’s very interesting, Mr. President, to notice that the only states that you didn’t carry in the South, the five Southern states,have less than 40 percent of the Negroes registered to vote.4 It’s very interesting to notice. And I think a professor at the University of Texas, in a recent article, brought this out very clearly. So it demonstrates that it’s so important to get Negroes registered to vote in large numbers in the South. And it would be this coalition of the Negro vote and the moderate white vote that will really make the new South.
President Johnson: That’s exactly right. I think it’s very important that we not say that we’re doing this, and we not do it just because it’s negroes or whites. But we take the position that every person born in this country and when they reach a certain age, that he have a right to vote, just like he has a right to fight. And that we just extend it whether it’s a Negro or whether it’s a Mexican or who it is.
King: That’s right.
President Johnson: And number two, I think that we don’t want special privilege for anybody. We want equality for all, and we can stand on that principle. But I think that you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders and you yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination where a man’s got to memorize [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow or whether he’s got to quote the first 10 Amendments or he’s got to tell you what amendment 15 and 16 and 17 is, and then ask them if they know and show what happens. And some people don’t have to do that. But when a Negro comes in, he’s got to do it. And we can just repeat and repeat and repeat. I don’t want to follow [Adolph] Hitler, but he had a…he had a[n] idea…
President Johnson: …that if you just take a simple thing and repeat it often enough, even if it wasn’t true, why, people accept it. Well, now, this is true, and if you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana, or South Carolina, where — well, I think one of the worst I ever heard of is the president of the school at Tuskegee or the head of the government department there or something being denied the right to a cast a vote. And if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio and get it on television and get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it every place you can, pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but follow — drive a tractor, he’s say, ‘Well, that’s not right. That’s not fair.’