Editor's note: A previous version of this story erroneously said Lyndon B. Johnson was forced to resign in 1969. LBJ chose not to run for re-election in 1968.
Leave it to a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright to find something epic about a controversial figure in U.S. history.
“When we say somebody is ‘Shakespearean,’ he really was that,” says Robert Schenkkan about President Lyndon B. Johnson. “Outsized, not just physically but in his virtues, his vices, his ambition, his hunger, his success, his failures, in his flaws and ultimately, in his tragedy."
And that’s what made LBJ such an appealing protagonist, Schenkkan says. The Seattle-based dramatist, who won the 1992 Pulitzer for “The Kentucky Cycle,” has written two plays about the spectacular triumphs and failures of the 36th U.S. president.
“All the Way” earned Schenkkan a Tony Award earlier this year. Seattle Rep is presenting the work along with Schenkkan’s “The Great Society” beginning Nov. 14.
Each play includes dozens of characters to tell the political drama of LBJ from 1963, when he ascended to the presidency after the assassination of JFK, up until he decided not to run for re-election in 1968 following the turmoil of Vietnam.
Schenkkan grew up in Johnson’s home state of Texas. He remembers being a young boy caught up in LBJ’s fiery charisma.
“I was 11 years old in 1964 when LBJ beat (Barry) Goldwater, and the ‘accidental president’ became the real president. And I remember participating in that election. I did volunteer work down in Austin. I had stickers on my books: ‘All the Way With LBJ.’ That was the campaign slogan.”
Schenkkan’s father actually worked in public broadcasting and that meant interacting with then-Senator Johnson. There are stories that the young Schenkkan actually met Johnson, though he doesn’t remember.
But he remembers how dramatically his views about Johnson changed over the years. When Johnson escalated the US involvement in the Vietnam War, Schenkkan had an older brother who was approaching draft age.
“Then 15 years later, I’m a young man with a young family trying to be an artist in this country and becoming aware of the social network, the programs that are helpful to me and the realization that these had their genesis in ‘The Great Society’ and his (Johnson’s) progressive legislation. So that gave me another perspective,” Schenkkan says.
Johnson’s vast agenda of domestic policies, from civil rights legislation to anti-poverty programs to arts and culture and education initiatives is his lasting legacy.
“The society and social programs we depend upon and take for granted in some cases really are the results of the Great Society programs,” Schenkkan says. He quotes Joseph Califano, LBJ’s head of staff for domestic policy: “Joe says, ‘We really live in Lyndon Johnson’s world.’”
Schenkkan says as the years have passed, now is a good time to reevaluate LBJ. “I have a very complicated relationship with Lyndon Johnson.” Morality, power, the brutality and anguish of politics — these are themes explored in both works.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned “All the Way.” The late Jerry Manning, Seattle Rep’s artistic director, commissioned “The Great Society.” Seattle Rep is the first country to present both plays in rep.