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November 14, 2014 at 6:15 AM

LBJ events should steer Seattle toward a greater society

Seattle is being treated to a flourish of LBJ activity, and I can’t get enough.

Lyndon B. Johnson was a man of great ambition, bold vision and stark contradictions. (L.B.J. Library)

Lyndon B. Johnson was a man of great ambition, bold vision and stark contradictions. (L.B.J. Library)

Much of the hoopla is focused on 2014 being the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which President Lyndon Baines Johnson was instrumental in passing.

School children are taking up the subject, as Seattle Times colleague Jerry Large wrote Thursday. But some historic figures have as well.

Last week, former Gov. Dan Evans was joined by Gary Gayton, a delegate to LBJ’s first White House Civil Rights Conference, and Stanley Barer and Gerry Johnson, former assistants to U.S. Sen. Warren G. Magnuson, for a discussion about the 36th president at the Seattle Central Library.

And starting tonight, the first of two Robert Schenkkan plays about LBJ will be performed at the Seattle Repertoire Theater through Jan 4.

The first, “All the Way,” is a Tony award winner that explores Johnson’s maneuverings to enact the Civil Rights Act. That starts today.

A host of political operatives back East raved to me about the Broadway production featuring “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston earlier this year.

The second play, “The Great Society,” is a Schenkkan world premier exploring how LBJ’s attempt at ending poverty in America was undermined by the war in Vietnam. It opens Dec. 5.

I’ll see both.

Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th president of the United States. (Jimenez Cruz / AP)

Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th president of the United States. (Jimenez Cruz / AP)

For me, Johnson was a multidimensional president of immense contradiction. Though raised amidst the racist attitudes of his time, the rural Texan was responsible for codifying full citizenship for a group of people the U.S. former Supreme Court once declared “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

But more than anything, LBJ was a dealmaker. During last week’s library panel, Gerry Johnson recounted a quintessential LBJ moment.

Having been cornered in an elevator by then-Senate Majority Leader Johnson, Vermont Sen. George Aiken tried to distract LBJ by mentioning that he admired his colleague’s cufflinks.

“Johnson immediately took them off and gave them to him,” Gerry Johnson said, adding that Aiken later recounted: “I get the e-ffing cufflinks and Johnson has me.”

There are also infamous tales of Johnson unnerving people by speaking to them while he sat on his Oval Office toilet.

He could be coarse, but LBJ used those zany tactics to pass the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act of 1968, and put the first African Americans on the U.S. Supreme Court and in a cabinet post.

You won’t find colorful, effective politicians like him prowling the corridors of American power anymore.

But we can certainly enjoy the stage productions and reflect on a time when America nearly went all the way with LBJ.

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