Lyndon and Martin at the Movies
In this 50th anniversary year of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, a new film directed by Ava DuVernay tells a version of the story of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which focused national attention on the plight of blacks in the south.
I say “version” because controversy has arisen over DuVernay’s portrayal of then President Lyndon Johnson and his support for action on the voting issue where blacks were almost universally blocked from registering to vote.
Johnson, in the film, comes across as a generally nasty, pushy sort.
That sounds right on the money but many say that Johnson was different on the voting issue and that using the stereotypic “Lyndon pushing you into a corner” is off the mark here.
Robert Caro, the LBJ biographer of note, has always said that Johnson was motivated by two chief characteristics: ambition and compassion.
If the two traits went head to head, ambition would always win.
If Â however, ambition was sated he could be daring in his pursuit of compassion for the disadvantaged.
Martin Luther King, Jr., is superbly portrayed by David Oyelowo.
King stands up to LBJ (and anyone else) in his call for aggressive and immediate legislative action.
We see MLK with his warts, too, including self-doubt, ambivalence and the damage inflicted on his marriage by leaked tapes of his philandering.
Apparently no one expects King to be perfect but LBJ must be.
(LBJ was a prolific philanderer in his own right.)
King is portrayed as a tortured leader surrounded and buoyed up by an Â extraordinaryÂ team ofÂ lieutenants.
In that sense, Selma is not a “King film” but rather a story about a visionary guiding an unstoppable legion.
The Last Word?
When defending a demi-god, in this case a liberal one, the strategy is always to cry foul at the slightest hint of negativity in order to keep the bar high.
Raise enough hell and people will just says it’s not worth it.
It often works but sometimes it doesn’t and it is especially powerful when the viewpoint is first person.
Here’s Arthur Schlesinger who worked for both Kennedy and Johnson:
“There is nothing more dangerous, so far as I can see, than being accepted by Johnson as one of his own. I think he has been meticulously polite to those in the White House whom he regards as Kennedy men. But, when he starts regarding them as Johnson men, their day is over. He begins to treat them as Johnson men, which means like servants. This is what is happening to Pierre Salinger. Of all the Kennedy people, he seemed to make the transition most easily – which meant that LBJ began shouting at him, ordering him around and humiliating him just as if he were Jenkins or Valenti. Teddy White told me a terrible story in which Johnson made Salinger eat a plate of bean soup at a White House luncheon out of pure delight in the exercise of authority. As soon as people become Johnson men, he seems to stop listening to them and to use them only as instruments of his own desires.”
[Schlesinger, Journals, p. 225]
or George Reedy who served as LBJ’s press secretary:
“There was no sense in which he could be described as a pleasant man. His manners were atrocious- not just slovenly but frequently calculated to give offense. Relaxation was something he did not understand and would not accord to others. He was a bully who would exercise merciless sarcasm on people who could not fight back but could only take it. Most important, he had no sense of loyalty- at least, not the kind of loyalty I learned on the Irish Near North Side of Chicago, where life was bearable only because people who had very little in the way of wordly goods had very much in the way of mutual trust. To Johnson, loyalty was a one-way street: all take on his part and all give on the part of everyone else- his family, his friends, his supporters.”
[Reedy, p. x]
Being peeved about LBJ’s portrayal in Selma is to miss the real man by a country mile and to be reminded that often in life it is better to simply soldier on rather than invite a closer examination.