Interview Robert Schenkkan - March 24, 2014

Kelly Candaele interviews Robert Schenkkan

Interview Robert Schenkkan - March 24, 2014

April 13th, 2014 reset - +

PLAYWRIGHT ROBERT SCHENKKAN sat directly behind House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi last month when she attended his new Broadway play about President Lyndon Johnson. According to Schenkkan, she laughed at all the political jokes.

Pelosi brought members of the Democratic National Committee to the play, All the Way, as part of a conference in New York, but perhaps also to remind them of how a skillful practitioner of presidential power goes about it. In an email from her Washington office, Pelosi told me that the “theater of politics” that Schenkkan recreated depicted the “legislative virtuosity” Johnson drew upon to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Schenkkan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his play The Kentucky Cycle, is fascinated by what he sees as the “cycles of history,” how progressive reform and then conservative retrenchment seem to dialectically grind their way through American history. Some of the themes of The Kentucky Cycle deal with the personal and social costs of violence and oppression, and the way the sins of the past unexpectedly but invariably erupt into the present. In this new play the themes are history and power, the sausage-making of the legislative process, and the impact of Johnson’s cunning and will.

In Robert Caro’s fourth book in his series of volumes on Johnson, The Passage of Power, he writes that, yes, power corrupts, but that what is equally true is that “power always reveals.” Someone who desires power must hide their aims for fear of being blocked by competitors. But upon obtaining power, the need to conceal is lessened and, Caro writes, “the curtain begins to rise.” All the Way throws the curtain wide open, revealing the distinctive manners and passions of a consummate political animal.

David Goodman, whose brother Andrew was murdered by the KKK in June of 1964 along with James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, has also seen All the Way. In the play, Johnson is depicted dealing with the political and moral implications of the murders. Speaking by phone from New York where he runs The Andrew Goodman Foundation, dedicated to the memory and work of his brother, David Goodman describes the play as “one hundred percent accurate.” This week, 50 years after the Freedom Summer that inspired Andrew Goodman to go south to register voters, he reflected on his brother’s death and on Johnson. “My mother went to visit Johnson in the White House two days after Andrew was killed,” he said. (The three bodies were not discovered until 42 days later.) “She came back with a feeling of what an extraordinary man Johnson was. Certain people would think he was extraordinary in a good way and others extraordinary in a bad way. He was what he was.”

I spoke with Schenkkan in a long morning conversation by phone. He was at his home in Seattle, having just returned from New York, where he had spent months with Breaking Bad actor Bryan Cranston — who plays President Johnson — and other cast members, polishing his play. We talked about the uses of power, political morality, the Civil Rights movement — part of a longer conversation we have had over the years about politics and popular culture.


I have worked with and around politicians for decades. Some carry around a book called The 48 Laws of Power as if you could learn to acquire and exert power by following a blueprint. It seemed that Johnson had a book on power in his head. He was able to see the playing field of power like no one else — like a great quarterback sees the football field.

Absolutely. All he cared about was politics. He lived and breathed politics 24-7. The greatest legislative minds of the time were his mentors, and very consciously his mentors. He would come into a situation and immediately gravitate toward the alpha male and do whatever it took to get in his good graces and then just absorb everything. And one of his great abilities was his ability to retain this information and the psychological, social, and political information about all the players in his head. He knew everybody, and he knew them intimately. He knew what they wanted; he knew what they didn’t want; he knew what they were afraid of. He knew what their peccadillos were, which was part of why he was so successful. The other part was that he was relentless in the application — the so-called “Johnson treatment.” Flattery, threats, humor, camaraderie, terror. I love this quote of Joseph A. Califano Jr. (special assistant to the president, 1965-1969): “The Lyndon Johnson I knew was brave and brutal, compassionate and cruel, incredibly intelligent and infuriatingly insensitive, with shrewd and uncanny instinct for the jugular of his allies and adversaries.” I don’t think LBJ gets credited for as great a native intelligence as he had. He knew how to find the weak spot, and then he would exploit it.

Many Americans have ambivalence about power — for good reason. That ambivalence is built into our political system. Even so, throughout our history our presidents have used power consistently and often ruthlessly. Maybe it’s simply too difficult to look at power clearly, to actually acknowledge how it has been used. But Johnson was clearly not ambivalent about obtaining and using power.

I think the national ambivalence toward power has a number of sources. One is the checks and balances built into our system that ensure — or attempt to ensure — that power can never be centralized in any one place for too long. You live with the anxiety that while you may have the hammer today, it’s possible that tomorrow you could be a nail. LBJ was certainly aware of the vagaries of power. He believed that it was important to do everything you could and to use everyone around you in order to further your goals. But at the end of the day there would come a reckoning and power would recede and you would lose your effectiveness. And it didn’t matter how good a politician you were, it was just impossible to control the game all the time. I think he was keenly aware of that. And it is part of what drove him and made him a remorseless task driver on all those around him. He knew that you had a limited amount of time as president to achieve, and you had to make hay while the sun shines.

Some of what you deal with in the play is the relationship between politics and morality. What is the cost of power and the cost of getting things done? I think of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (Moral Man and Immoral Society) where he writes about the necessity of coercion and conflict if you are going to take politics and social progress seriously. There is a certain amount of corrupting of oneself that takes place in order to obtain power, which very often continues once you have it. Politics is not a place where moral purity does you much good if you want to accomplish something important.

I’m very interested in this subject, and I think looking at Johnson is a great way to explore that. What I’ve tried to do in the play is to focus on individuals close to and around Johnson, both allies and adversaries — sometimes one, sometimes the other, and sometimes both — who can also then reflect to the audience yet another aspect of this whole issue of ends and means and the morality of power. My approach with Dr. King for example — when most Americans think about Dr. King, they think about Dr. King the martyr or Dr. King the orator. These are fair ways to think of him. But he was also a very gifted politician, and I don’t think he gets nearly enough attention paid to that aspect of his career. It’s very interesting to look at Dr. King, who we think of as espousing or establishing a benchmark at this time of how one should function in society, and simultaneously watch him wrestle with some very thorny issues of a political system that depends upon the ability to make a deal and to compromise oneself. He struggled with this constantly.

With Hubert Humphrey we see another aspect of this. He was the leading liberal of his day and the most significant player in the white power structure in terms of civil rights. Yet he recognizes after 1960 that the way the presidential political system has shifted — that without money you just can’t get elected president. So he attaches himself to LBJ and makes this deal to become his vice president. It’s not at the end of the day a good thing for Senator Humphrey. And at the center of this all is LBJ, and we as an audience watch him deploy the full panoply of his toolkit in service of a cause that I would say that almost all of my audience would likely support, the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. We laugh and we are charmed and we cheer for LBJ as he lies and bullies and manipulates and threatens and does what he has to do to get this bill passed. Then in act two, when his focus is almost all about his upcoming election as president, we see him employing the same tactics. Now we stop laughing and begin to feel very uncomfortable. Yes, he is almost certainly without question from a progressive standpoint a much better option than Barry Goldwater. But does that justify everything that he does? It’s hard to feel comfortable about that. So it hopefully puts the audience in this place where they really have to confront these decisions and ethical dilemmas and think about their own relationship to political power and its exercise in this country.

A suspicion that some people have toward people with extreme ambition is that they are trying to fill up something that is missing or lacking inside them. In the play you portray Johnson as someone who had desires for respect and love that were impossible to fulfill, particularly for a living politician. These emotional objects of desire are simply out of reach.

I don’t offer nor do I subscribe to any single causal agent in Johnson’s immensely complicated psyche. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography, which takes a psychological and almost Freudian look at Johnson, is fascinating. But yes, this was a man who was obviously deeply affected by his father’s failure in politics and then in business. Also by the poverty and want he grew up with and the social stigma that accompanied it. As a young politician moving through Washington circles he was certainly keenly aware of how uncouth and lacking in resources his background had been. He consciously sought to improve and better himself, but he remained intensely insecure.

I think the thing that most demonstrates this is that the Johnson that most people are familiar with today is the boring, pedantic public speaker. He was so difficult to listen to and so easy to mock. But what is interesting about that is that it was a performance. The private Johnson, by all contemporary accounts, was exactly the opposite. He was a live wire with an electrifying persona. He was the funniest guy in the room, who you couldn’t take your eyes off of, and a great raconteur and a dead-on mimic. So what explains the discrepancy? Well, Johnson felt that people would not think of him as presidential, so he adopted this persona whenever he spoke, which he thought made him look and sound presidential. Of course it had quite the opposite effect for most people. It used to make his speechwriter and press secretary crazy because it was so terrible. As shrewd a politician as Johnson was, the fact that he couldn’t see past the failure of what he was doing in this stylization is indicative of just how profound the insecurity was.

A civil rights leader who is not in the play is Bayard Rustin, who I thought of in relation to the questions of power that you explore. Every schoolkid knows the quote from Lord Acton that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But the other side of that is something Rustin wrote about in his influential essay From Protest to Politics, where he pointed out that the absence of power also corrupts. Lacking access to power diminishes people materially and very often emotionally.

No question that to be disempowered actually deforms. Your options and capacities are severely limited. All of your natural ambitions and talents are deformed and crushed. So the desire for power I don’t see as intrinsically evil.

There is, as in all things, a balance to be achieved. Dr. King thought about and wrote a lot about how the absence of power had deformed his people — that to the white world these seemingly irrational bursts of violence directed at inner-city neighborhoods by the residents was mystifying, but not to anybody who paid any attention to the complete sense of frustration and lack of investment in one’s life. This is the feeling of being disconnected completely and utterly powerless. No one was more aware of the ticking clock in this regard than Dr. King. It’s why he worked so hard. Like LBJ, he also felt there was a limited time to get these things done. That’s why especially after the success in 1965 of the Voting Rights Act there is no resting on his laurels. He immediately turns his attention to the North and the urban ghettos, where sadly the American civil rights movement meets its Waterloo. But it was that recognition — that even though the law had been changed, the calculus of actual power exercised in daily life had not. By passing the law and by publicly recognizing this injustice you had raised everyone’s expectations, and that was a dangerous thing because that sense of powerlessness had been building for such a long time. There was such a load of historical pain and righteous fury that was ready to erupt.

LBJ could not understand this. He saw this in very practical terms of the need to consolidate, the idea that “You can’t get too far ahead of people.” Simultaneously, Dr. King is playing a little bit of the same role within his own movement with a younger generation, which had grown increasingly frustrated with the notion of nonviolence and the idea that the federal government is really going to be the solution. Stokely Carmichael and Bob Moses recognized very accurately that power needs to be assumed at the local level, and that’s what they set out to do. Stokely does that in Alabama with the creation of the Black Panther Party. It’s an attempt to create a political institution through which African Americans can acquire and exercise power at the level where it most matters, which is locally.

There is a kind of political nostalgia that if you can just convince people to think “rationally” or appeal to people’s hearts, that that’s the relevant place to direct your energies. But Rustin in particular made the point that it was the social, political, and economic institutions that needed to be confronted and contested. Let the evolution of the heart flow from that.

It’s not that LBJ didn’t understand that. He was operating on a different timetable. He was trying to maintain his power base and coalition simultaneously. It’s fascinating to look at why the civil rights movement succeeds in Alabama and fails in Illinois. In part it’s because in Alabama the racism was legalized — it was legislative. You could attack it that way and change the law and then build out a series of financial incentives that would force institutions — schools, hospitals, government agencies — to obey the new law or they would lose their funding. In the North, that’s not how racism worked. Racism was every bit as pernicious, but it wasn’t legalized like Jim Crow. Black people in Chicago could vote, and they could own property, but even without actual segregation laws, they couldn’t buy property in most neighborhoods or even safely travel through those neighborhoods. Schools were completely segregated. Real power was absent. There were a handful of laws in place to prevent this kind of behavior, but they were widely ignored and unenforced. Mostly, though, racism functioned quietly through a series of “understandings,” a complex web of relationships and traditions. It made it very difficult to attack. I think James Bevel described the frustration of fighting Richard Daley’s machine as like “punching a pillow.” You couldn’t get to the “heart of it.” And the appeal to humanity — the appeal to best interests — ran right up against people’s fundamental insecurities about my home and my job and my neighborhood. Sadly the American public wasn’t nearly as ready as one would like to have thought.

I’ve been working with the Industrial Areas Foundation recently — the organization that Saul Alinsky founded in Chicago. They place a good deal of importance on anger as important in politics. They make a distinction between anger that is merely lashing out against adversaries and anger that is strategic and political. Anger in this sense is a way of transforming a relationship with another person in an equitable way. In his book Pagan Virtue, John Casey writes that anger implies a readiness to confront, so therefore a certain level of self-esteem. Since we see a good deal of Johnson’s anger in the play and the anger of Stokely Carmichael in the scenes where he is confrontational with King and with others, what are your thoughts on anger as it relates to politics?

Anger tends to get a negative connotation as something one should avoid. It’s not a pleasant emotion. But in fact it’s a healthy emotion, properly expressed and directed. That is, it needs to be directed toward the actual source and needs to be expressed in a way that is likely to make a positive change in the relationship that is the source of discontent. I think Johnson felt keenly the privation of his youth and the sense of societal shame that accompanied that — that somehow to be poor was to be a failure, and to be a failure not because of society but because of your individual character flaws. This is the commonly held and frequently espoused notion that the poor are really just lazy, and that if they would only work harder it wouldn’t be a problem. So government needs to stop helping the poor because we are just abetting this intrinsic laziness, and what we need to do is provide the proper motivation, to withdraw any of this support, and that will then force them to be gainful.

That’s not how LBJ saw it. He thought — he felt it so keenly, the pain and anger of it — that the individual needed to be supported and that that anger needed to be channeled. Califano tells again a very revealing anecdote. The weekend he goes down to meet LBJ for the first time, and they are driving into town in Johnson’s big Cadillac, they pass what we would now describe as a homeless man on the road, and Johnson points to the individual and says to Califano that “the thing you need to remember as long as you work for me is that the difference between that guy and you and me is this much,” and he puts his thumb and forefinger together. He was tremendously frustrated at those conservative forces in society who were all too willing to believe that poverty was a character flaw and had nothing to do with societal and institutional organizations, or nothing to do with racism. Even after he passes the 1964 and ’65 Civil Rights Bills he immediately says, “You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe you have been completely fair.” He felt keenly his own sense of injustice and righteous anger about racism and about poverty.

And Dr. King was all too painfully aware of the potential for violence within his own community as a completely understandable response to centuries of inhuman treatment and brutality. Eventually Dr. King and Stokely will split over the proper way in which those emotions should be channeled. Dr. King will continue to preach the doctrine of nonviolence, but he will also evolve from a purely racial standpoint to a class viewpoint — that the issue in America isn’t really so much race — race is obviously an issue — but that the real issue is class. Whereas Stokely and the Black Power movement will eventually reject the notion of nonviolence as just not working. Part of what they felt was that black people needed to claim that part of themselves that was angry — acknowledge it and embrace it because it was righteous. Then the question became, of course, how does one express that? This is where things got complicated. The white power structure reacted with terror at the very notion.

Another playwright, Václav Havel, has written about power in a different way. He wrote about the “power of the powerless,” a moral solidarity in the face of very entrenched and dangerous interests who had the power to hurt you, jail you, and even kill you. This aspect of power is asserted even in the absence of access to the traditional levers of political power. By rejecting the official ideology and existing power structures you offer a daily rebuke to that oppressive situation.

I think from the very beginning — to speak in blunt racial terms — the enslaved African constantly fought back. It’s a myth that slaves who were brought over here in bondage and then forced to work created a system that was very successful. In fact the system just up until the Civil War had become so heavily laden with institutions to maintain power because the enslaved were fighting back in so many ways. This opposition could take the form of literal insurrections on a daily basis. There was also reluctance and covert resistance to doing what one was told. It was a way of maintaining one’s dignity and individuality and community when all three were under such unrelenting and brutal assault. So there is a situation where anger and the struggle of the powerless against a crushingly overbearing system manifests itself covertly in very small ways and in large and blunt ways as well.

In 1964 the situation was certainly an improvement over 1804, but for many African Americans living in either the rural South or urban North, their sense of power was extremely constrained. Genuine power was found and expressed in predominantly all-black institutions like the church.

There are some people who say that Obama doesn’t understand power. And if they are a Democrat, they often add, “Like Johnson understood power.” The assertion is that if only Obama understood power like LBJ, he would get more done. Certainly in public he has retained an image of calm and restraint. For good or for bad he is in control of his emotions.

One way of looking at that aspect of Obama is that he is keenly aware of how threatened many white Americans are by powerful black Americans. I might personally feel that he carries this to an extreme, but this sense that for him to appear to be angry is to immediately incite or inflame these terrible stereotypical racial ideas that are still potent — because we see the opposition try to work that. My position with Obama is not that he is not angry, but the part of LBJ that I wish that Obama possessed is the individual who really knew and took profound satisfaction in the legislative notion of governance. That is, you have to know these people. You have to know them intimately because getting anything done requires their buy-in. So Obama’s coolness has been a real handicap. He has simply not been involved enough on a personal level with the important legislators, and as a consequence his very good legislative agenda continues to languish. This is not to take anything away from the hard-core, radical, and self-destructive part of the GOP toward anything having to do with Obama and the Democrats. But I feel that even within the Democratic Party there are Democrats who ask, “Is the president paying attention? Does he know what’s going on?” LBJ was known for many things, but he was famous for being involved in everything and every detail of everything. Sometimes it wasn’t such a good thing but mostly it was. People really worked hard because they feared the wrath of God, and things got done as a consequence. In Obama’s coolness — in his keeping himself apart and depending upon the experts and policy wonks to get things done without really riding herd on them — it has created a terrible situation for himself and his party that could have been avoided.

You have written plays about large themes within American history. Your play The Kentucky Cycle also asked your audience to think about some big issues within American history and the cycles of history and how they play out over time. James Baldwin wrote that history does not refer just to the past but that we “carry it within us, and are unconsciously controlled by it.” So place your play within the broader arc of American history.

I’m certainly interested in our relationship to our history, our recognition of it, or our refusal to look at it. I’m interested in the way that history is constructed and shared and shaped consciously and unconsciously. The function of story can be an extremely useful and beneficial device, and story can be a kind of poison that corrupts, corrodes, and injures. I’m interested in the evolution of social movements over time and this idea that we don’t just exist in the moment, but we exist in this continuum that is constantly evolving and flowing. Change, while it may not feel that way, is constant and inevitable. There are ways we either embrace that or resist that.

Power is our response to that feeling. It’s an attempt to bend these forces to our will, to feel that we are not just along for the ride but that we are masters of our own fate, that we can control the otherwise seemingly irrational and ungovernable forces of our lives. I’m also interested in the idea of time moving in a cyclical movement — not just linearly but in cycles. It’s easy to observe this in politics. Societal pressure builds and builds until it can no longer be contained. There is an explosion of anger from those who have not held power, leading to dramatic political change and control of government. An attempt to reshape society takes place that feels fairer or more just. And then there is a counter response to that and a struggle to either resist it entirely or resist the pace of it. Then gradually things lock up again, and the cycle begins again.

In 1964, it is such a clear year of transformation, of explosion, of decades-long anger and sense of powerlessness reaching a critical point where it no longer could be contained. Johnson’s and Dr. King’s gift is that they helped the country channel those forces in a way that took us forward. It was almost an impossible task to lead the country out of what it had been toward something that we hoped it might become. It’s a little naive that some thought the forces of conservatism and reaction wouldn’t be as strong as they were. Oftentimes these things hinge on the narrowest of margins. Nixon beats Humphrey at the end by the narrowest of a percentage point. The “what ifs” are so numerous and poignant and often painful.

It sounds like you are grappling with a theory of revolution or reform. So I have to ask you if you think that history is heading in a particular direction — like Francis Fukuyama?

The big question about history is whether we have already so destroyed the environment that we have rendered history moot. Have we set in motion forces which can no longer be contained, which will lead to an environmental catastrophe?

As smart as Johnson was, he was unable to extract our country from the disaster of Vietnam. This doesn’t seem to me to be a question of power per se but the inability to think beyond the sometimes constraining concepts of “honor,” geopolitical fear, and perhaps even a certain understanding of “manliness,” all parts of his makeup and the thinking of his advisors. The inability to adapt destroyed him politically and emotionally I think.

I do think that LBJ’s failure in Vietnam resulted from a complicated collision of misunderstandings and a narrowness of vision on his part and that of his advisors. The Cold War was still very much alive, and everybody in power still tended to perceive the world in Manichaean terms. But in Vietnam, the inability to separate a legitimate Nationalistic impulse on behalf of the Vietnamese from a worldwide communist conspiracy constantly led to a failure to appreciate the actual political dynamics at play.

And yes, LBJ was certainly moved by his own concerns about “honor” (I will not be the American president who loses Southeast Asia), “Fear” (you remember how they hammered Truman over China), and even a certain idea of masculinity. LBJ never claimed to be a foreign policy expert, but from the beginning he tended to treat Vietnam as a domestic political issue. First as a threat to his reelection. Then, in the mistaken belief that if he just offered the Vietnamese the right combination of carrot and stick, he could make a deal with them in the same way he could make a deal with almost anybody.

At one point he floated the idea of a Vietnamese version of the Tennessee Valley Authority. After all, a hydroelectric project is what brought Everett Dirksen on board to vote for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Very few people in the administration understood what was actually at stake for the North Vietnamese, and those who suggested something other than the party line in Washington were very quickly isolated or even dismissed. As a result, LBJ created a kind of echo chamber in the White House, which only reinforced his own mistaken beliefs.

So what have you learned about power dealing with Broadway and Hollywood?

As in politics — everybody loves a winner.


Kelly Candaele is a journalist, filmmaker and elected official in Los Angeles.