Rob Reiner's 'LBJ' Pays Tribute To A President The Filmmaker Once 'Hated'

Oct 30, 2017
Originally published on October 30, 2017 3:26 pm

The new film “LBJ” chronicles the career of President Lyndon Johnson, from his term as President John F. Kennedy’s vice president to his push to pass a landmark civil rights bill.

For director Rob Reiner it was a chance to showcase an achievement by a president whose term was overshadowed by the Vietnam War — something Reiner himself protested against. Reiner (@robreiner) joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to talk about LBJ — the man and the film.

Interview Highlights

On how his opinion of President Johnson has changed over time

“Not only did I not like him, I hated him. I was of draft age during that period, and I was against the war. For moral and legal reasons, I felt it was wrong, and I hated him because he could send me to my death. I could get drafted. And so, I had a certain view of Lyndon Johnson when I was young, and as I’ve matured, and I’ve now spent a lot of time in in politics, in government — I had a government job in California for seven years — I started to understand and appreciate what he was able to accomplish domestically and how difficult it is to get legislative accomplishments through.”

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On the political context of the film and its relation to the present

“You know, there have been a lot of great movies made about the civil rights movement and about race relations, but it’s all of a sudden bubbled back to the surface because of the person we have sitting in the Oval Office. This issue, which we thought we were on a glide path toward, you know, racial harmony, is now unearthed again because of the man who is giving racism a voice.”

On Johnson’s upbringing in the South and its influence in his politics

“He came from a very, very poor area in West Texas, the hill country. So this was in his DNA. He never viewed himself as a Southerner. He thought of himself as a Texan and a westerner. He was more than happy to assume the southern mantle as a way of brokering deals between the, you know, the racist South and the liberal North. And he passed a civil rights bill long before this. It was a watered-down version, but he did get it passed. Then when Kennedy passed away, he looked at it, this is as an opportunity to actually do what he had wanted to do for a long long time which is to create the Great Society, attack poverty, the war on poverty, and he was able to do it. He understood that you can’t pass legislation until it’s ready. And he fought like crazy against Kennedy to not put this bill on the floor because he knew it would die. But at a certain point he understood that you could get it passed. And to think that, you know, well it was all done for political expediency is a crazy idea because he knew that if he tried to get the civil rights bill passed, he would lose the South. He was going to spend all that political capital. No politician is willing to put their entire presidency on the line unless they actually believe in it.”

On Johnson’s personality, and how actor Woody Harrelson portrays him

“What I tried to get out of this guy — he’s a very complex person. He’s almost Shakespearean, Johnson. You know, mixed with this incredible bravado, arm-twisting bull in the china shop, he has a sensitive side. He’s very insecure about his abilities, his looks, whether or not people are going to love him, like they love the Kennedys. And Woody brings a humanity and a sense of humor and all of that, plus, you know, the bull in the china shop, and he makes it a full-rounded character.”

On screening the film for Johnson’s daughter

“We showed the film at the LBJ Library a while ago, and Luci Baines was there, and I was so nervous about her seeing it because I thought, ‘Oh my God, you know, there’s her father up there, and her father’s relationship to her mother.’ And so, right after the screening, we went up on stage to do a Q&A, and I said, ‘Before you ask us any questions, I just have to know, what does Luci’ — she was sitting in the front row — and I said, ‘What do you think of this? I have to know.’ And she stood up — she’s very formal — she stood up and she said, ‘The man I saw on the screen tonight was the man I knew.’ And that, to me, was all the validation I needed. We had captured her father.”

On Johnson’s legacy

“There’s no question it’s tragedy, because had it not been for Vietnam, he would have gone down as one of the greatest presidents of all time. Nobody had a greater domestic legislative achievement than him, except for FDR. But you can’t take Vietnam away. It’s there. And so that’s what makes it tragic.”

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