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Commentary: Why movie ‘LBJ’ is a needed reminder about the presidency

The film “LBJ” resurrects fading memories of the strength of the presidency when the Oval Office was occupied by a hard-working person with a clear agenda. Coarse and brutal at times, Lyndon Johnson harnessed the power of persuasion to the benefit of this nation.

The screenplay by Joey Hartstone, with LBJ’s fellow Texan Woody Harrelson in the title role, casts Lyndon Johnson in favorable light, ignoring the tragedy of Vietnam.

This film focuses on John F. Kennedy’s calculation that the selection of his running mate would secure the South in his contest against Richard Nixon; a wanting-to-be-loved Johnson’s conflicts with the disrespectful Robert F. Kennedy; and the new president’s successful pursuit of Civil Rights legislation.

MOVIE REVIEW: ‘LBJ’ shows us a fraction of the man.

Johnson is the workhorse, cajoling, buttonholing, lapel-tugging, late-night-calling. Exhausted in the wake of JFK’s assassination, he works through the night calling friends and adversaries (including RFK and Ted Sorenson in the irresolutely defiant Kennedy camp) to bring them aboard his administration.

He labored just as tirelessly to build a governing coalition in Congress, confronting and neutralizing his friend Sen. Richard Russell, D-Ga., the leader of the segregationists, wooing Republican Leader Everett Dirksen, and conducting the friendly intimidation of his successor, Sen. John Tower, R-Texas. Johnson didn’t dispatch or discard with insults opponents in the other party; he saw them as future allies.

The story of LBJ may be largely lost on today’s political leaders, the self-regarding individualists in Congress and even the Texas Legislature who – as an article of partisan faith — do not reach across the aisle.

Harrelson hilariously captures LBJ’s grossness in calling his tailor to request “more room” in his pants for allegedly outsized genitalia. He breezily conducts business with aides while sitting on a toilet, door open. He threatens to amputate the private member of an aide who is inexact in counting votes.

LBJ’s demanding and forceful style, his inside-out knowledge of legislation, and willingness to meet every challenge speak to the enormous energy and willfulness of a president whose reputation will grow with the years.

President Trump has all of the grossness — remember him pulling out his waistband to point to his private parts? – with few of the results. Trump will sit at a Roosevelt Room conference table – flanked by Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan – extolling the virtues of a piece of legislation he obviously knows nothing about. His nervous gaze constantly drops to a talking points card prepared by his staff.

Former LBJ aide Joseph A. Califano said in a speech years back, “We who served him saw that Lyndon Johnson could be brave and brutal, compassionate and cruel, incredibly intelligent and infuriatingly stubborn. We came to know his shrewd and uncanny instinct for the jugular of both allies and adversaries. We learned he could be altruistic and petty, caring and crude, generous and petulant, bluntly honest and calculatingly devious — all within the same few minutes. We saw his determination to succeed, to run over, or around, whoever or whatever got in his way.”

Think of the legislation LBJ signed during his 62 months in office: the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, the Higher Education Act of 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Gun Control Act of 1968.

As he approaches the end of his first year, Trump has no legislative accomplishments. He failed on repeal-and-replacement of Obamacare, and the GOP tax plan he championed now precariously faces the Senate.

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Johnson worked hard and had a clear agenda. His assaults on adversaries had purpose. Trump is lazy and has no perceivable agenda. His assaults on adversaries and friends are schoolyard taunts tweeted early in the morning. He is mean without purpose.

We should take pride that LBJ rose from Austin’s 10th House District to become senator, vice president and president, producing more legislation that improved the lives of Americans than any president since Franklin Roosevelt.

LBJ has been in history’s doghouse for too long. While Vietnam will forever haunt his legacy and animate his critics, against the context of today’s governance by impulse, Johnson’s Great Society accomplishments show impressive presidential leadership.

Oppel is a former editor of the American-Statesman.

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