Former LBJ staffers assess Cranston’s Broadway performance of their boss

Actor Bryan Cranston stars as Lyndon B. Johnson in Robert Schenkkan’s Broadway play ‘All the Way’ at Neil Simon Theatre. Directed by Bill Rauch. (Courtesy ‘All the Way’/The Washington Post)
Columnist March 11, 2014

Like Walter White morphing from meek family man to unrepentant meth lord, Bryan Cranston transforms so completely into Lyndon Johnson that, for those who knew the 36th president, Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre is a time machine.

The critical buzz around Cranston’s portrayal of Johnson in “All the Way” is that the actor is impeccable in the role. Anyone who watched Cranston in “Breaking Bad” knows his talent range. Yet only those who knew Johnson can say with authority how fully Cranston embodies Johnson.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

So we reached deep into our Rolodex to find people who worked in the Johnson administration to survey about how well Cranston does.

Joe Califano, Johnson’s top domestic policy aide, saw the show on opening night. So did Doris Kearns Goodwin, a historian who worked in Johnson’s administration as a White House fellow, helped the president write his memoirs, and wrote her first of many books about her conservations with him.

When Cranston shouted a command on stage, that familiar formidable tone shook Califano, transporting him back nearly 50 years. “I’ll tell you there were moments when I thought I was actually looking at him or hearing him,” Califano said.

It’s hard to distinguish whether Cranston “has taken over Johnson or Johnson’s taken over him,” he said. Cranston “went from ‘Breaking Bad’ to breaking good,” he added.

For Califano, who reasons he ate more meals with Johnson than his own family in those years, Cranston perfectly captures Johnson’s intensity — his anger, his frustration, his humor, how he’d bark an order while doing five other things simultaneously.

“Thank God LBJ kept those tapes,” Goodwin said of the telephone conversations mined to tell the complete story of Johnson’s political process in the early years of his presidency.

Johnson “comes alive in this,” she added. “When he’s on stage,” she said of Cranston, “it’s just magnetic.”

Cranston captures Johnson’s mannerisms, such as using physical proximity to intimidate, she said. Much of the play shows Johnson on the phone, “which is exactly the right way to capture him,” she said. “The phone was the instrument of his power.”

Lloyd Hand, who first worked for Johnson in the Senate and then in the White House, has yet to see the show, but a cadre of former Johnson officials have planned a reunion in New York to see it together in mid-May.

A “Breaking Bad” fan, Hand initially could not reconcile Walter White — a character with “no redeeming qualities” — playing someone Hand held in such esteem.

Hand hopes the play, which focuses on Johnson’s domestic achievements, serves to revisit his boss’s legacy beyond the Vietnam War.

Larry Levinson, who was Johnson’s deputy counsel, also has yet to see it but has heard the same feedback from Johnson alums about Cranston’s “unerringly perfect performance.”

“The buzz from Austin on this is that it is an enormously helpful portrayal . . . a most accurately interesting portrayal,” he said.

But what would Johnson, with his well-documented ego, think?

Johnson would have loved being portrayed on Broadway, Califano said.

Afterward, he probably would have pulled Cranston aside, drawn him in close and offered a few pointers.

Spoils alert

Fifteen former presidents of the American Foreign Service Association — the State Department employees union — called on the Senate on Monday to reject the nominations of three Obama mega-bundlers for ambassadorships, saying the trio represent “a continuation of an increasingly unsavory and unwise practice by both parties.”

In an unusual and pointed letter, the former AFSA chiefs said the three nominees — George Tsunis (for Norway), Colleen Bell (Hungary) and Noah Mamet (Argentina) — have been “subjected to widespread public ridicule, not only in the U.S. but also abroad,” after their Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings, during which they showed limited knowledge of the countries to which they’d been nominated.

Bell and Tsunis were approved by the committee in February, though Tsunis got through on a party-line vote of 12 to 6. The nominations are pending in the full Senate. Mamet is awaiting his committee vote.

In their letter, sent to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and 11 other senators, the former union presidents said the trio’s performance — and the subsequent firestorm it sparked — had “severely impaired” their “effectiveness as U.S. representatives . . . from the start.”

The former AFSA presidents cited Teddy Roosevelt’s observation that “the spoils or patronage theory is that public office is primarily designed for partisan plunder.”

Don’t make ’em like Teddy anymore . . .

Called for icing

The National Security Council has a lot on its plate these days: The crisis in Ukraine, the civil war in Syria, instability in Iran — and White House beer distribution.

President Obama sent two cases of his home brew down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Canadian Embassy to make good on an Olympic hockey bet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which the Loop reported Monday. The international matter was so delicate that his National Security Council was tasked with ensuring its safe delivery.

We checked in with Caitlin Hayden, the NSC’s spokeswoman, to find out why beer delivery fell under their purview.

“Clearly the Obama-Harper beer bet is a significant diplomatic commitment between the United States and our neighbor and NATO ally, Canada,” Hayden told the Loop.

“As such, the National Security Council staff here at the White House believed it was important to oversee the full implementation of this bilateral commitment to ensure a strengthened relationship with the Government and people of Canada.”

Obama and Harper bet a case of beer on two Olympic ice hockey matches. Team USA lost both.

Gary Doer, Canadian ambassador to the United States, poured a little salt on the hockey wound.

“Canadians are not only known for their hockey skills but also their great taste in beer,” Doer told us by e-mail. “This White House beer will now face the ultimate test with the prime minister of Canada.”

Hayden said the White House staff had hoped they’d be the ones downing an icy Molson. It wasn’t to be this time, she said, but she put their allies to the north on notice: In a rematch “all hockey bet options would be on the table.”

They could really raise the stakes and bet the Keystone pipeline?

The blog: washingtonpost.com/intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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