Seeing two plays in one week is not only rare for me, it almost never happens. This week the two plays I saw were about the tactics and personalities of two presidents.
One play, “Camp David,” at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., concerned the Camp David Accords between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The other, “All the Way with LBJ,” in New York City’s Broadway was about the Civil Rights Act and the 1964 election.
Most of both audiences were people from the Builder Generation (the generation that ended in 1945) and older Boomers (the generation born from 1946-1964). Those of us in the Boomer generation remember both events and also the presidents and how they shaped our country and our generation. It was not just nostalgia that filled the audiences of both plays; it was a longing to understand how both events happened and to put our new hopes and dreams on President Obama and future presidents.
Our generation’s wishes are not yet over, and we want leaders who can get things done. Johnson got things done. Despite the Vietnam War, he molded much of society into the legacy we have today. Carter, a Sunday School Bible teacher, believed that he was doing the Lord’s business and that belief fueled him though dark days of the Camp David summit.
People are complex, and our upbringing and times make us who we are. For President Johnson’s character, which was played by Bryan Cranston, he was influenced by his early days as teacher, and Jimmy Carter by his Christian belief and religious training. This leads to the question that was asked when I was a high-school student: “Do men make history, or does history make men?” It’s an interesting question, and both of these plays certainly make the answer to that question more uncertain. Both of the presidents in the plays had major timely issues that they attended to. Did either of them have to? Certainly not. President Carter could have let the Egypt-Israel conflict continue to simmer. He could have left the presidency and not suffered a bit because of it. President Johnson could have taken a more cowardly approach and punted the question of civil and voting rights down the line.
What is fascinating with both presidents is that they chose to take difficult issues and put stature of the office of president behind what they wanted to accomplish. For better of worse, both used the force of their personalities, as well as their wives, to further their political goals. Like a good musician, both Johnson and Carter used who they were, the force of their personalities as their instruments to accomplish their goals.
Johnson used his Texas-sized story telling and arm wrestling to make people afraid of him. He lied when he needed to. He used carrots and sticks to get senators, as well as political leaders like Martin Luther King and Walter Ruther to get people behind them. He used this prowess to help pass legislation or to control the 1964 Democratic Convention. He is portrayed as pitting people against each other and simply saying that something was agreed to when it wasn’t, but it worked. Sadly, he also supported J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI at a time when he knew the FBI was collecting information about the private lives of others, including the Martin Luther King.
If either play is even remotely accurate (there is plenty of historical information and interviews that back up the reality of the two dramas), then it is a fascinating look at the two first ladies. They both took traditional roles in public and even in private, making sure their husbands dressed appropriately and serving tea but getting their two cents in while supporting their husbands. Would the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Camp David Accords have taken place without them? Most likely they would have, but having a supportive spouse who agrees with and supports the goals of the president can’t be forgotten. It can and was crucial to the process of peace and moving legislation forward.
In our now 24-hour news cycle and instant information on the Internet, we forget that real progress takes time and that people are not one-dimensional. People, and especially leaders, are who they are for many reasons. It is an understanding of the personalities, goals and emotions of the people involved in bending history that might lead to other breakthroughs.
We need this now, this understanding for our hard issues of the day from the Keystone XL Pipeline to Ukraine, Syria and South Sudan among other tough and seemingly intractable problems.
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