President Obama Hosts a Screening of Selma

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

9 things I wish people understood about Lyndon Johnson.

Tim Roth, who plays George Wallace in the film, was on his way to the White House screening of the film Friday when TMZ asked if the film’s team has been in poor spirits since Oscar nominations were announced Thursday.Thompson was responding to the recently announced Oscar nominations where all 20 acting nominees are white, something which hasn’t happened since 1998.

To take advantage of the discount, a student in grades 9 – 12 can show his or her student ID or report card at the box office of any of the following participating metro-area theaters, and get free tickets while they last.The new movie “Selma” looks at Johnson’s role in the civil rights movement, and a new book by Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer, “The Fierce Urgency Of Now,’’ demystifies LBJ’s role in passing the laws that came to define the “Great Society.” Both are a much-needed corrective to our historical memory of LBJ, who is often depicted as a master politician, capable of cajoling members of Congress into bending to his will.For decades, Lyndon Johnson was reviled as one of the worst presidents in American history, the person who brought the nation into the disastrous war in Vietnam. The Martin Luther King Jr biopic Selma was generating heavy Oscar buzz for director Ava Duvernay, who would have been the first black woman nominated for Best Director, but was nominated only for Best Picture and Best Song and snubbed in the director and acting categories. “Oh sure, the Oscars are supposed to be colour and gender blind,” wrote Ruby Hamad for Daily Life. “And to maintain this illusion, they will, every now and then, toss a few nominations and even the odd statuette in the direction of people of colour and women. During his presidency, Congress passed a huge agenda of domestic legislation — which he called the Great Society — that included Medicare and Medicaid, civil rights and voting rights, a War on Poverty, food stamps, immigration reform, federal aid to elementary and secondary schools, higher education funding, environmental regulations, and much more.

But more often than not, these shows are little more than an exercise in white, male privilege.” The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon pointed out why the Selma snub matters: “It’s certainly possible that a large body of cinema experts simply thought the elements of American Sniper were powerful than those of a film that The New York Times called ‘a triumph of efficient, emphatic cinematic storytelling’ — a film that is not just stirring but which is quite possibly the most relevant movie of 2015… released on the heels of racial turmoil in Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York.” Zelizer’s excellent book goes deeper and shows how much of Johnson’s success was the result of big legislative majorities in Congress and strong public support for his liberal initiatives — not his larger-than-life personality. Bursting the “great man/president who can change history” myth about Johnson is long overdue; the notion of an omnipotent president distorts Americans understanding of how the legislative process works — and how little power the president actually has, particularly on domestic policy. Some may consider singling out Selma to be unfair to the Academy; as Mark Harris points out comprehensively on Grantland, there were major issues with Paramount’s positioning of the movie.

In the narrow confines of Congress, he was — as his biographer Robert Caro puts it in “Master of the Senate” — a brilliant student of not only legislative minutiae, but also of the needs, wants, and political constraints of his fellow senators. In his desperation to move forward with his legislative agenda, Johnson made several dubious decisions — both at home and abroad — that ultimately destroyed his presidency and irreparably damaged his party. There were entirely straightforward reasons that Selma may have found itself missing out on major nominations that had nothing to do with its subject matter; there’s also the matter of taste, which cannot be discounted.

In a delicately wrought scene in which Coretta Scott King calls out her husband about his infidelities, some of the teenage girls reacted with a chorus of “oooohs.” DuVernay sets the tone for her portrayal of Lyndon Johnson as patronizing and skittish on civil rights in the first scene between the president and Dr. Voters en masse may just have preferred the less visceral Imitation Game or the sweetly twee Grand Budapest Hotel or the bombastic Birdman, three of the five movies that kept DuVernay’s work out of the Best Director field. (And, in further fairness to the Academy, Birdman’s director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, is Latino.) But the problem — and it is a problem — of Selma’s general exclusion from Oscar’s party is bigger than Selma itself. With Republicans on the defensive — and reasonably cooperative — and two years before midterm elections, Johnson had a small legislative window with which to operate. L.B.J. stands above a seated M.L.K., pats him on the shoulder, and tells him “this voting thing is just going to have to wait” while he works on “the eradication of poverty.” Many of the teenagers by me bristled at the power dynamic between the men. Although there were areas where Johnson disagreed with liberals before becoming president, such as with his hesitant embrace of a strong civil-rights bill to end segregation, LBJ was still a product of the New Deal.

Even before he came around to throwing his support behind strong civil-rights legislation, Johnson had gained a deep sensitivity to the plight of the poor and the problems of racial injustice through his own personal experiences in Texas and his work in government. But there would be a cost: a lack of attention to execution; a failure to cultivate the necessary constituencies to sustain the programs that were created; and a lack of monies devoted to Johnson’s domestic vision. Without the one prestige movie from 2014 starring a black performer, the acting categories had no other credible nominees; without a nomination for Ava DuVernay, the field was all-male by unthinking default. Over and over, LBJ promised more than he could possibly deliver, which only added to his ever-expanding “credibility gap.’’ As a legislative battler, Johnson viewed politics in crude, transactional terms, where political support could be traded for a parochial benefit that he, as president, could provide. (This was a man, after all, who believed that he could convince Ho Chi Minh to give up his fight for a unified Vietnam in return for a Tennessee Valley Authority for the Mekong Delta.) That approach might have worked in the Senate, but among the American people it was a harder sell. What few examples this year of art by and about women and nonwhite people fell from the race for reasons, some of which were perfectly understandable.

Increasingly Americans came to see the rapid pace of change that Johnson was shepherding into law as harmful to their own interests, which produced a political backlash, first in midterm elections in 1966 and later in 1968.-M.L.K. relationship and was “much more slanted to Johnson.” Hollywood has done that with films like “Mississippi Burning,” which cast white F.B.I. agents as the heroes, or “Cry Freedom,” which made a white journalist the focus rather Denzel Washington’s anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko. Top Johnson aide Jack Valenti told Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, that L.B.J. aspired to pass a Voting Rights Act from his first night as president.

Valenti said that his boss talked to him about it the night of J.F.K.’s assassination in the bedroom of Johnson’s house in D.C., The Elms, before the newly sworn-in president went to sleep. Believing that his domestic agenda could not be sustained if he didn’t show sufficient hawkishness on Vietnam, he began the journey down the slippery slope of war in Southeast Asia, even though most of the country opposed escalation. As Senate Majority Leader, Johnson constantly interacted with the main proponents of these causes, usually warning them that there weren’t yet enough votes to pass their bills.

Even as strident opposition to the war grew in the Democratic Party, he made no effort to patch up the rifts, convinced that liberals would eventually support him in a reelection battle against Richard Nixon. Johnson’s view on how the politics of national security worked — developed in the 1950s during the time of the “Who Lost China?’’ debate and at the height of Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist excesses — were practically unchanged by 1968. Republicans railed against President Truman — who decided he wouldn’t run for reelection — for allegedly “losing” China to the communists in 1949 and for the stalemate in Korea.

Filmmakers love to talk about their artistic license to distort the truth, even as they bank on the authenticity of their films to boost them at awards season. What Johnson lacked are skills so often derided in American politics today: a willingness to change course or to factor in new evidence and political realities into his actions. In the fall of 1967 when Johnson and the war were increasingly unpopular; when Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy directly challenged him for the Democratic nomination; when the military situation in Vietnam appeared to increasingly be a stalemate; when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was telling him it was time to get out of Vietnam, Johnson stayed the course — and tried to convince Americans that there was in fact a light at the end of the tunnel on Vietnam. He moved with such speed and vigor in large part because he knew just how short his window for legislating would be and how he depended on the right conditions to achieve success.

DuVernay had plenty of vile white villains — including one who kicks a priest to death in the street — and they were no doubt shocking to the D.C. school kids. After the 1966 midterm elections, when the conservative coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans regained their power, Johnson was far less effective.

While it is true that King wanted to move much more quickly on voting rights than LBJ and that the movement forced the president’s hand through the marches, they were both on the same page in terms of objectives. In recent years, there has been a nostalgia for the ways in which Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen got along with the Democrats. While Republicans worked with the administration on civil-rights bills in 1964 and 1965, they did so under intense pressure from civil-rights activists and religious leaders.

While it’s true that Republicans were not as obstructionist as a whole as they are today, it is important to remember that partisanship was still powerful. Johnson could be heard in lengthy conversations with legislators, activists, and members of the cabinet, bullying or seducing them to accept his positions. Often, discussions about Johnson’s response to race riots in Watts, Newark, and Detroit — that usually started in response to police confrontations with neighborhood residents — center on his frustration with the African Americans who were involved. In several conversations after the Watts riots in August 1965, Johnson told advisors that unless the government did something about high rates of unemployment, housing discrimination, narcotics and crime, and the dilapidated condition of the inner cities, it was unrealistic to expect that this kind of violence would stop.

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