Arts

Television: The unseen agony of charmer LBJ

When Lyndon Baines Johnson stepped down as US president in 1969 he was regarded as a calamitous monster by American liberals. His reputation was tarnished by Vietnam; his own party preferred to forget him. So the flattering portrait in the TV movie All the Way (Sky Atlantic) reflects a recent change in attitudes – and Bryan Cranston’s electric performance almost rehabilitates the old fox.

Almost. We get to see Johnson the joker and charmer, though the flattery was as violent as being roughly licked by a Great Dane. But we also see a man whose paranoia extended even to his own family. “You’re against me just like all the rest,” he whimpers to his wife, simply because she demands that he get out of bed.

Johnson’s condition was half psychotic, half rational. The movie reminds us that he only became president in 1963 thanks to the assassination of Jack Kennedy, so he was acutely aware that he was where he was by chance rather than public choice – and that the public could dump him in the 1964 election.

On one side of him stood radical protesters demanding racial equality. On the other were southern racists demanding the status quo. Johnson had a strong affinity for the dispossessed, so his instinct was to lead the country into the bright light of civil rights. But he knew that meant leaving his native South behind – and the pain of that decision is beautifully conveyed.

All the Way is a meditation on the morality of power: how much bad would you be prepared to do to get a little good done? To satisfy conservatives and pass civil rights, the film suggests, Johnson reluctantly signed off on the Vietnam War. That so many contemporary liberals have forgiven LBJ for this deal with the Devil shows how time is a healer – but also their own lack of scruple. They, too, are desperate to win; desperate to chalk up some victories against the Republican Party. Hence they have nominated Hillary Clinton – an admirer of Johnson and a firm believer in moral ambivalence.

I hope America doesn’t end up going all the way to hell with Hillary just as it did with LBJ.