If we leave partisan politics off the table, perhaps most, if not all latter day presidents forfeited ethics for the sake of ambition. Perhaps they were all so ravenous to get elected they cut loose any friend (however dear) who might be a potential liability. Perhaps their supposed acts of altruism were just strategically motivated grandstanding for the sake of expediency. “All the Way,” Robert Schenkkan’s theatrical biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, is extremely unflattering, though to Schenkkan’s credit, includes just enough tender moments to pass for complication. Johnson has long had the reputation as a salty old dog (which you could possibly spin as transparency) but by the time this nearly three hour drama concludes, his insufferable qualities leave us conflicted at best.
Beginning with JFK’s assassination and ending with LBJ’s election following his term as interim Commander-in-Chief, Schenkkan goes to great lengths to put Johnson’s rise to success in historical context, including key players such as Hubert Humphrey, Senator Dirksen, Robert McNamara, Strom Thurmond, J. Edgar Hoover and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Events such as Freedom Summer, The Vietnam War and Civil Rights legislation are dissected in terms of Johnson maintaining his constituency without losing traction to George Wallace or Barry Goldwater. The details and intrigue come at us fast and ferociously, and it’s an exhilarating (if somewhat prolonged) experience. Beowulf Borritt’s set, consisting entirely of columns and white marble make for an ironic contrast to the scurrilous fights, betrayals and extortion that run amok as Johnson grabs and gropes his way through the campaign gauntlet. Borritt has constructed a temple for a candidate who values the profane over the sacred.
There’s something about All the Way that verges on equivocation. Fairly early in the proceedings, Johnson concedes he has no qualms about scruples, if they get in the way of his campaign. So it’s not as if he has any character to lose. If he seems corrupt, you could say that you can only fight sharks by becoming one. If Johnson seems cynical or obnoxious or vulgar you could say at least he’s not a hypocrite. Yes, we are privy to Johnson’s moments of profound sorrow and confusion, which is probably All the Way’s most resilient strength. That and Johnson’s blustery, shocking wit. But if he compromises everything of value in his life to keep the oval office, what has he truly gained? In the end, All the Way seems to raise the same rhetorical questions as any other political fable.
All the Way played at The Dallas Theater Center from March 3rd-27th, 2016, at The Charles and Dee Wyly Theatre at ATTPAC. 2400 Flora Street, Dallas, Texas 75201. 214-252-3923. www.dallastheatercenter.org