There are few bigger political foils to Donald J. Trump than Lyndon B. Johnson.
As president, the first major piece of legislation Johnson signed was the Clean Air Act of 1963, a federal law designed to curb air pollution. The last was the Gun Control Act of 1968, which provided for stricter regulation of interstate firearms trafficking. In between, Johnson passed the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare and Medicaid, and the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965, which abolished quotas by country, thereby ending decades of discrimination against non-European immigrants to America.
The 45th U.S. president, on the other hand, has signed into law several pieces of legislation that appear to place fossil fuel interests ahead of environmental ones, e.g. doing away with the Stream Protection Rule and more recently, reconsidering a mining ban near the Grand Canyon; claimed the recent massacre at a Texas church, where a heavily-armed gunman shot and killed 26 people with an AR-15 assault rifle, was “not a guns situation”; defended the character of “many” neo-Nazis in the wake of their march on Charlottesville; and has repeatedly attempted (in vain) to institute a travel ban targeting Muslims.
In that weren’t enough, Johnson grew up poor in a tiny farmhouse in rural Stonewall, Texas, and slowly but surely worked his way up the government ranks, while Trump was born to a mega-rich real estate baron in New York City, and had zero political experience prior to assuming the nation’s highest office.
“He’s the polar opposite of Trump,” Woody Harrelson says of Johnson. “It’s not just the agenda, either. He actually got things done. If you look at his legislative record, he’s second only to FDR,” adds Rob Reiner.
I’m seated with Harrelson and Reiner in New York to discuss their new film LBJ, a biopic of the former president that traces his journey from being abruptly thrust into the presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy to his passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the face of heavy dissent from the Southern Democrats, in particular Senator Richard Russell, here played by the Oscar-nominated actor Richard Jenkins.
Harrelson underwent several hours of prosthetics application each morning to transform into the 36th president, and while the facial mods are at times a bit jarring, he does a fine job of imbuing his fellow Texan with a sense of humanity—long a staple of Woody’s onscreen turns, from Cheers to The People vs. Larry Flynt and beyond—as well as a wicked sense of humor. After all, LBJ was notorious for his fascination with his penis and balls, as evidenced by audio of the president advising his tailor to alter his pants so that they could accommodate his giant testicles (a version of which is included in LBJ), or the following passage from Robert Caro’s 2002 biography The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate:
“He early became fabled for a Rabelaisian earthiness, urinating in the parking lot of the House Office Building as the urge took him; if a colleague came into a Capitol bathroom as he was finishing at the urinal there, he would sometimes swing around still holding his member, which he liked to call ‘Jumbo,’ hooting once, ‘Have you ever seen anything as big as this?’ and shaking it in almost a brandishing manner as he began discoursing about some pending legislation.”
When I mention LBJ’s fascination with his penis to Harrelson, he cocks his head back in laughter. “The guy in the oval office now is a vulgar guy publicly. At least with Johnson, he was private about his vulgarity. It came out later that he would say this, that and the other thing, but he was a real statesman. When he went out there, the way he comported himself was very important to him,” he says.
Harrelson tells me about a conversation he had while prepping for the role with journalist Bill Moyers, who served as Johnson’s White House Press Secretary from 1965 to 1967, that further underlines the differences between LBJ and DJT.
“LBJ used to come out and give these speeches and seemed very stiff and dignified,” Harrelson says. “Moyers said that one time he went out and for whatever reason he didn’t have it together. It was a very improvised performance, he was going, and the place really started going off. Everyone thought, finally, he’s gone off-script. In their eyes, it was his best performance ever and he saw the way the crowd reacted. He came off stage and told [Moyers], ‘That will never happen again.’ He didn’t feel like it was dignified.”
Both Harrelson and Reiner are aware that their “dignified” take on LBJ, which also features Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lady Bird Johnson and Bill Pullman as Senator Ralph Yarborough, comes at a time when Johnson and his “Great Society” policies are all the rage onscreen. There was Liev Schreiber’s take in The Butler, Tom Wilkinson in Selma, John Carroll Lynch in Jackie, and Bryan Cranston—both on Broadway and the subsequent HBO film adaptation—in All the Way.
LBJ was originally discussed as a “six to ten hour” miniseries, according to Harrelson and Reiner, chronicling the entirety of the towering Texan’s life. But they ultimately decided to narrow the focus to that first fraught year of his presidency, and maintain that their film is slightly different, providing a commentary of sorts on congressional gridlock, and standing as a monument to bipartisanship.
“He was raised in government and had tremendous knowledge of the process,” Reiner says of LBJ, describing how he moved his way up the ranks from congressional aide to House Representative to Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate to Vice President to POTUS. “There was a real understanding and respect for what American government was. He understood it. And very few politicians have as great a knowledge as he had of the nexus between government, politics, and policy. They’re three different things, and he had to put all three of them together to get things done.”
“If we were to do a big biopic of LBJ, it would be ten hours,” he adds. “But we wanted to cover this sliver of time, from the time Kennedy arrives at Love Field to the time Johnson gives his speech in front of the Joint Session of Congress. We wanted to examine the assumption of power, who Johnson was, and the sides of him that were brought out during this really testing time period of his life.”
Eventually, our conversation touches on the wave of sexual-assault allegations that have upended Hollywood, beginning with movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who stands accused of sexual harassment or assault by close to a hundred women, including several top Hollywood actresses.
“I’ll tell you what: It’s almost inevitable that you’ll be asked about two scumbags. The other would be the president. I don’t want to talk about either one of those scumbags,” says Harrelson. “His path is assured. His comeuppance is happening. Fuck it, he’s in his grave.”
As for the legacy of Lyndon Baines Johnson—and the film’s bipartisanship message—both actor and filmmaker firmly believe that, despite the sharp divide in Congress, there will one day be a president who can bring together politicians on both sides of the aisle.
“I think we can. It’s going to take someone with a tremendous amount of skills in government, politics, and policy,” offers Reiner.
“It would probably also have to be someone who came up through Congress, and who really knows all these guys. He’s hung out every day with this guy, that guy, and no matter what party line he’s able to communicate with them and get shit done.”