Run Time: Two hours and 57 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Right out of Shakespeare's playbook
1963. An assassin’s bullet catapults Lyndon Baines Johnson into the presidency. A Shakespearean figure of towering ambition and appetite, the charismatic, conflicted Texan hurls himself into Civil Rights legislation, throwing the country into turmoil. Alternately bullying and beguiling, he enacts major social programs, faces down opponents and wins the 1964 election in a landslide. But in faraway Vietnam, a troublesome conflict looms. In the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright’s vivid dramatization of LBJ’s first year in office, means versus ends plays out on a broad stage canvas as politicians and civil rights leaders plot strategy and wage war.
On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, and Lyndon Baines Johnson becomes president. With the country still in shock, Johnson moves to shore up confidence by vowing to carry on the Kennedy legacy. In an address to Congress, he dedicates himself to the passage of the Kennedy civil rights bill that is languishing in Congress. Liberal Democrats, like Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, are surprised: LBJ is best known as a consummate political operator, certainly not an idealist. Is this move for real? LBJ moves to reassure Humphrey, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders like the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins that he is serious about passing the bill.
Southern politicians, such as Sen. Richard Russell, Sen. James Eastland and Rep. Howard Smith are also concerned. Their Southern Caucus seeks to preserve segregation at all costs, and they are startled that LBJ, a Texas native, has taken this stand. Russell, LBJ’s mentor and close friend, seeks to reassure them that the president is just appeasing the liberals but will gut the bill, just like he did with the 1957 Civil Rights Act.
What follows from January to July 1964 is an intrigue-filled battle as LBJ attempts to pass the bill. Russell and Eastland, who hold powerful committee chairmanships, try to stall it. In a series of deft gambits, LBJ outmaneuvers them. At the same time, King and other civil rights leaders are furious that voting rights are not part of the bill and argue about what to do. Activists like Bob Moses and Stokely Carmichael come up with the idea of Freedom Sum-mer; sending hundreds of white and Negro volunteers to Mississippi to register voters. Wilkins fears a bloodbath, but King supports the bold plan.
In the midst of the civil rights bill battle, LBJ also has to run for election in November—only months away. Within the Democratic Party primaries he faces a threat on the right from George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama. Meanwhile, the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi puts him in the difficult political position of alienating Southern politicians and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover by forcing an investigation. He must also deal with Hoover’s smear campaign against King.
Ultimately, things come to a head during the Democratic National Convention in August, when the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party seeks to seat Negro delegates as part of the otherwise all-white Mississippi delegation.
As the election approaches, LBJ tries to steer a middle course between achieving civil rights goals while holding together the Democratic coalition with Southern segregationist Democrats to get elected.