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The Great Society

By Alexander Harrington

What follows are (slightly adapted) excerpts from Harrington’s play about “the unquiet presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson.”

Cast of Characters

Lyndon Baines Johnson, President of the United States
Jack Valenti, Special Assistant to the President
Richard Russell, Senator from Georgia
Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense
J. William Fulbright, Senator from Arkansas
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President of the South Christian Leadership Conference
Bayard Rustin, Adviser to Dr. King
Hubert Humphrey, Senator from Minnesota, later Vice President of the United States
Strom Thurmond, Senator from South Carolina
Everett Dirkesn, Senator from Illinois, Senate Minority Leader
Wayne Morse, Senator from Oregon
Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady of the United States
Nicholas Katzenbach, Successor to Robert Kennedy as Attorney General of the United States
George Wallace, Governor of Alabama
Seymore Trammell, Aide to Governor Wallace

(The White House Swimming Pool. Johnson is on stage wearing a bathrobe, Jack Valenti enters with Richard Russell also wearing a robe)

VALENTI: Mr. President, Senator Russell is here. (he exits)

RUSSELL: Mr. President …

JOHNSON: Dick, of all the people in the world, you’re the last one needs to call me “Mr. President.”

RUSSSELL: I love you like a son, but I revere the office. So – so, long as you occupy it, I just can’t – can’t call you anything else.

JOHNSON: Whether you’re saying “Mr. President” or “Lyndon,” there’s no voice I’d rather hear.

RUSSELL: I just thank God you’re the one – you’re here to guide the country through this – through this tragedy. Your speech was just perfect – can’t agree with what you said ‘bout civil rights – but it’s just what the country needed.

JOHNSON: I’m going to need your counsel more than ever, Dick. Now ‘bout that civil rights thing – gotta tell you. This time I’m not going cavil, not gonna compromise. Gonna pass it just as it is. You get in my way, Dick, I’m gonna run you down. Want you to know that because I love you and I owe you.

RUSSELL: But … come … sir .. you – you always been willing to compromise. Majority Leader, you compromised in ’57 and ’60.

JOHNSON: Couldn’t break a filibuster then. Can now.

RUSSELL: I thought you compromised ‘cause you cared ‘bout the South.

JOHNSON: Dick, you and I both know there are two things that are going to let the South share in the prosperity of this country: air conditioning and integration.

RUSSELL: Well – well, forced mingling of the races may bring prosperity, but it is not going to bring peace. The North just lies – just lies to itself that it doesn’t have a race problem. Every time a Negro tries to move into a new neighborhood in Chicago – well, sir, there’s a riot. You force us to mingle and, sir you got a thousand Chicagoes below the Mason-Dixon.

JOHNSON: Education and jobs will put a stop to that.

RUSSELL: Education and jobs cost money. Mr. President – Mr. President, I beg you – don’t – just don’t spend away this nation’s wealth.

JOHNSON: You know I respect your fiscal wisdom, Dick, and I will listen to you on spending – may not always do what you tell me – but I will listen. On civil rights, I’m not giving an inch.

RUSSELL: Mr. President, we will fight to the last ditch.

JOHNSON: This time that ditch is gonna to be segregation’s grave.

RUSSELL: It won’t only cost you the South; it will cost you the election.

JOHNSON: So be it. Now, take off your robe and let’s get in that water.

(Aide enters with McNamara in swimming trunks and a shirt and Fulbright wearing a robe)

VALENTI: Secretary McNamara and Senator Fulbright.

JOHNSON: Bob, what the hell you got on?

MCNAMARA: You asked me to go swimming, sir.

JOHNSON: That may be the way they swim in Cambridge, but that’s not how we do it in Texas. You wear trunks in Georgia, Dick?

RUSSELL: No, sir.

JOHNSON: Bill, that how they swim in Arkansas?


(Johnson drops his robe and is naked)

JOHNSON: Everything’s big in Texas, Bob.


(A conference room in the White House. Martin Luther King and Bayard Rustin are waiting.)

KING: Well, this is very soon – very – for him to be giving us an appointment. I think it’s a good sign.

RUSTIN: It would seem to be.

KING: And the speech … the speech was encouraging.

RUSTIN: President Kennedy spoke beautifully – he did not do anything. At least not until Birmingham.

KING: But he is a southerner …

RUSTIN: Who owes his political career to Senator Russell. You may be too young to remember this Martin, but in 1949 freshman Senator Johnson delivered his maiden speech in a southern filibuster of President’s Truman’s civil rights legislation. Senator Johnson spoke very eloquently about “we of the South.”

KING: And he just … eviscerated the civil rights bill in ‘57.

RUSTIN: He claimed that he had to weaken the bill to avert a filibuster. And he did. But I wonder – and I’m not the only one – did he dilute the bill to appease the South or did he pass the bill to appease Northern liberals? He wanted the nomination and a Democrat cannot get the nomination without the liberals.

KING: (looking around nervously) Roy Wilkins says you never know whether he’s going to lift your heart or your wallet.

RUSTIN: He is mercurial.

(Enter Johnson with Hubert Humphrey)

JOHNSON: Gentlemen.

KING & RUSTIN: Mr. President.

JOHNSON: Doctor, good to see you again – I’m sure looking forward to getting know you better.

KING: It will be an honor, sir. Allow me to introduce Bayard Rustin.

JOHNSON: I understand you’re the wizard behind this summer’s big march.

RUSTIN: Thank you Mr. President.

JOHNSON: I don’t think you’ve met Senator Humphrey.

HUMPHREY: Bayard and I have met, Mr. President.

JOHNSON: Well, that don’t surprise me – Hubert’s friendlier than a whore when the fleet’s in – (to King) I’m sorry, doctor, I forgot I was with a man of the cloth – do you forgive me? My mama would never forgive me for talking like that in front of a preacher.

KING: No need to worry, Mr. President.

JOHNSON: I bet you know Hubert –

KING: I most certainly do, and I’m not even in the navy.

HUMPHREY: And I don’t charge.

JOHNSON: I like a preacher who can get a little blue now and then. Why don’t we all sit down?

KING: Mr. President, your speech was a great comfort to the nation

JOHNSON: Well, I did what I could. It’s an awful load I’ve got to carry.

KING: We were all very heartened by what you had to say about the civil rights bill – very heartened. You were, Mr. President, very much right when you said that the greatest possible tribute to President Kennedy would be passing his civil rights bill.

JOHNSON: It ain’t going to be easy.

KING: It is very hard, Mr. President, very hard … and I hope I am not overstepping my bounds to say, sir, to say that as hard as it is … and I know that the difficulty, the particular difficulty of the Senate, has made it necessary to compromise in the past …the filibuster puts you in a very difficult position … And , you see, sir, the Attorney General said some things about privately-owned accommodations that … that indicated that President Kennedy might … entertain … weakening the bill.

JOHNSON: We’re not changing a comma.

KING: I beg your pardon sir …

JOHNSON: We’re not changing a comma.

RUSTIN: Mr. President, we want a strong bill, but we are realistic. We understand very well that in the legislative process, you start with a bargaining position, and then you negotiate, you agree to concessions.

JOHNSON: Nothing that’ll weaken the bill.

KING: Is it possible? Do you think you can cut off a filibuster without significant changes?

RUSTIN: Sir, the Southern caucus is not going to roll over.

JOHNSON: They sure as heck ain’t. (to Humphrey) Now, Hubert, it’s only right you’re gonna manage this bill – you’ve been fighting for this since ’48 – only don’t screw it up. You liberal bomb-throwers make good speeches, you have big hearts, you believe in what you stand for, but you’re never on the job when you need to be – you spread yourselves too thin making speeches to the faithful.

HUMPHREY: Damn it, Mr. President, I’d be angry if you weren’t so damned right.

JOHNSON: Better hold round the clock sessions.

HUMPHREY: Mr. President, you know my respect – my admiration – my awe for your legislative skills, but I have to say – with all due respect – that round the clock sessions just don’t work.

JOHNSON: We gotta wear ‘em down, Hubert.

HUMPHREY: No offense, sir, but you tried it in ’60 and it didn’t work – we were the ones that got worn down. They call a quorum, and if 51 Senators aren’t there, they get to go home. They want as few people there as possible, so most of them get to stay home and sleep – but we have to keep over 40 of our guys there all night.

JOHNSON: Well, how are we gonna get them to stop talking?

HUMPHREY: We’re gonna let them talk for a good long while. We’re gonna let the other senators get real sick of them.

JOHNSON: That ain’t gonna beat a quorum call.

HUMPHREY: We’re setting up two platoons of 25 each of civil rights Democrats; Tom Kuchel has 16 Republicans – we’ll have the Democratic platoons plus smaller groups of Kuchel’s Republicans on rotating duty – no more than ten minutes away from the chamber. So, we’ll always be ready for a call.

JOHNSON: You’re gonna need more than Kuchel and the country club liberals – you’re gonna need almost the whole damn Republic – sorry, Reverend – the whole Republican caucus, and that means you need Ev Dirksen – you drink with Dirksen, you talk with Dirksen, you listen to Dirksen.

HUMPHREY: Hell, I’ll kiss his ass on the Capitol steps – sorry, Reverend.

JOHNSON: You’re gonna have to do more than kiss his backside – you’re gonna have to give him a piece of the action.

HUMPHREY: But, you said no changes.

JOHNSON: You’re gonna have to be real subtle – let Dirksen rewrite language, change a few technicalities, but he can’t change anything of substance. Still, he’s gotta feel he’s made a contribution.

HUMPHREY: That’s a tall order, Mr. President – Dirksen’s no fool.

JOHNSON: He ain’t no fool, and it is a tall order – it’s show time, Hubert. You’ve been talking about this for 15 years – now you gotta deliver. (to King) Now, Doctor, you gotta lean on the Republicans.

RUSTIN: But if the bill is President Kennedy’s …and yours, sir, the Republicans will think that they are damned if they do and they are damned if they do not. If the bill passes as it is, the Democrats will be the party of civil rights.

KING: The Republicans may not believe Negroes will vote for them if President Johnson gets the bill through; however they need white clergy. The majority, the majority of religious leaders are on our side. If, every Sunday, they preach on the moral imperative of civil rights, on the justness of the bill – if they do this in Republican states, that will put a lot of pressure – a lot of pressure on Republican Senators.

HUMPHREY: Doctor, what do you think of getting clergy to come to Washington?

JOHNSON: That’s great thinking, gentlemen. Seems like we got ourselves a battle plan.

KING: May I be frank with you, Mr. President?

JOHNSON: (pause) Go right ahead, Doctor.

KING: I am very heartened … very happy ... that you want to get this strong bill through intact. … I am struck by … I admire your determination to pass the bill. Now, if you don’t mind my saying so, sir … your record in the Senate on civil rights was … well, mixed.

JOHNSON: Doctor, I think you’ll recognize these words: “Free at last! Free at Last! Thank God almighty, free at last!”

Lights down

(The Senate dining room; Russell, Fulbright, and Strom Thurmond are seated at a table)

THURMOND: Well Dick, be careful what you wish for – Lyndon’s President – happy?

RUSSELL: Yes, I am; but I will be happier when he wins the election in November.

THURMOND: You gotta be shittin’ me, Dick. If Lyndon gets this bill through – and, goddamn it, he will – I’m switching parties.

RUSSELL: Strom, since the War Between the States, no one has even dreamed a Southern president could be elected. When Lyndon gets elected in November, the wounds of that godforsaken war will be healed – the South will be welcomed back into the national fold.

THURMOND: The hell it will – Lyndon’s bringing back Reconstruction, and, goddamn it, people are gonna take up arms and fight.

RUSSELL: Strom, I do not take kindly, no sir, to disloyalty to the United States – or – or to the Democratic Party.

FULBRIGHT: Strom, we’ve got to face facts; we’re fighting a losing battle. It’s time to move on.

RUSSELL: Strom, I’m afraid Bill’s right. I’ve known for a long time that the rod was coming. It just breaks my heart that it’s Lyndon’s got to wield it – but – but, better from his hand than any other.

THURMOND: Oh yeah? Jack Kennedy didn’t even know how to use the damn rod.

FULBRIGHT: Bobby knows how to use a stick.

THURMOND: But Bobby don’t know Congress – we could have beaten this thing if it was the Kennedy boys behind Humphrey.

FULBRIGHT: We couldn’t beat this if it was Harold Stassen behind Humphrey.

RUSSELL: You’re right, you’re right – but only in part, Bill. There’s no way in hell, no sir , that we can muster the votes to kill the bill – but – but, we can filibuster long enough to get Humphrey to agree to amendments to make the bill less … offensive. Now, the key to keeping the filibuster going is getting Senator Dirksen to keep the Republicans from voting to cut off debate

THURMOND: Ev’s a politician – he knows which way the wind’s blowing – he’s gonna wanna get a little piece of that do-gooder glory.

RUSSELL: He may be a politician, but – but he’s a Republican politician – he believes in free enterprise. Well I – I think we can make him see that it is just socialism for the government to force a business owner to … to serve someone he just doesn’t want to serve or to … to hire someone he doesn’t want to hire.

(Everett Dirksen enters)

RUSSELL: Speak of the devil and he shall appear. Though – though as an orator, you speak with the tongue of an angel.

DIRKSEN: Oh Dick … please. How are you Strom, Bill?

RUSSELL: No, I mean it, Ev – you know, first – first, your voice is so resonant – you never – never raise your voice, still, the whole chamber – we hear every word. I swear the stage lost a great Shakespearean – a great Shakespearean when you took up politics. And your speech last Wednesday – so well-crafted – every word – every word – just beautiful. You must have been working on that for days.

DIRKSEN: Oh Dick, I don’t write speeches; I just make notes.

THURMOND: You gotta be shittin me, Ev – your speeches are just too damn polished.

DIRKSEN: Now, I know you gentlemen didn’t invite me here to sing my praises – though it doesn’t hurt.

(a waiter comes up to the table)

DIRKSEN: A steak medium and a Sanka.

(the waiter exits)

DIRKSEN: I think this has something to do with civil rights.

RUSSELL: You come straight to the point – that’s another praise I can sing.

DIRKSEN: It’s going to pass, Dick. You know, sometimes you just can’t stand in the way of history.

RUSSELL: I know it, Ev. You are a very wise man to see that we have reached a … a … historical watershed.

THURMOND: Historical watershed, my ass!


RUSSELL: But I find it hard to believe that a committed … champion of liberty, like you, would let it pass as it is. It just – it just makes a mockery of the Constitution – it just tramples – tramples on the rights of the States and of business. Socialism is what it is.

DIRKSEN: Oh Dick, I agree with you. I do not like the fair employment provisions or the provisions regarding privately owned accommodations.

RUSSELL: There was no doubt in my mind that you would find that objectionable.

DIRKSEN: Oh, I do, I do. And I do intend to propose amendments to protect the American businessman … and to protect all our citizens … and the states from unwanted Federal intrusion.

RUSSELL: And Ev, what I find most disturbing – most disturbing is that people – citizens can be convicted of criminal contempt without a jury trial.

DIRKSEN: Well Dick, we know why that’s in there – white juries in the South won’t convict in civil rights cases.

RUSSELL: Ev, you are not telling me that you are willing to sacrifice the right to trial by a jury of our peers to so-called “civil rights” for Negroes?

DIRKSEN: No, Dick, I am not. I am just saying I understand the illness even if I don’t approve of the treatment. I will introduce a jury trial amendment.

RUSSELL: You are a champion of freedom, Ev.

DIRKSEN: Oh Dick, you’re blowing smoke up my ass, and it feels very good.

RUSSELL: Do I understand then, Ev, that neither you nor the … uh … reliable members of your caucus will vote to impose cloture until your amendments are guaranteed?

DIRKSEN: I think that’s a reasonable assumption, Dick. But we’ll get amendments – Lyndon loves a compromise. He’s like me – he’s a legislator, not a moralist.

Lights down

(Humphrey’s office; Humphrey and Wayne Morse are on stage)

MORSE: I don’t see why we’re going to Dirksen’s office – we’re the majority – he should come to you.

HUMPHREY: Wayne it doesn’t matter where we meet Dirksen – we can meet him in a nightclub, or at the bottom of a mine, or in a manhole – it doesn’t make a bit of difference as long as we meet with him – and as long as you play your part.

MORSE: I’ll be so radical and intransigent, I’ll make Lenin look like Mr. Peepers.

Lights down

(Dirksen’s office; Dirksen is on stage; Humphrey and Morse enter)

DIRKSEN: Gentlemen, it was very nice of you to come. I hope this wasn’t too inconvenient for you.

HUMPHREY: Ev, I may be managing the bill for the majority, but right now you’re the belle of the ball.

DIRKSEN: Aw shucks, and I don’t have a thing to wear. Please sit down. I have to admit, my patience is wearing thin – my god, we’ve been debating this for almost a month.

HUMPHREY: It is tiring.

DIRKSEN: You know I share many of their concerns, and I have tried to work with them to craft amendments, but they’re just not serious about compromise. Mike Mansfield and I have drafted a jury trial amendment that I think guarantees enforcement of civil rights, but it protects individual liberty. And Dick, he just scoffs at it on the Senate floor.

HUMPHREY: That was just terrible, Ev, just terrible – the disrespect – just shameful.

DIRKSEN: And that is why I want to sit down with you and work out something that is fair to the South and … can I be blunt with you gentlemen – that I can sell to the conservative members of my caucus.

HUMPHREY: You know when it’s time to be a statesman, Ev.

DIRKSEN: All right, so we’ve got a jury trial amendment settled.

HUMPHREY: Brilliantly …

DIRKSEN: Now, let’s talk about fair employment and privately owned accommodations.

MORSE: Hubert, you told me those weren’t on the table.

HUMPHREY: Now, Wayne, calm down and listen to the minority leader.

MORSE: The president said, “Not a comma.”

DIRKSEN: Senator Morse, I truly appreciate your passion for civil rights – but, you see, we have to protect the civil rights of the states and of the American businessman.

MORSE: The right to deny jobs, the right to piss separately, the right to lynch.

HUMPHREY: Wayne, just listen to the Senator.

DIRKSEN: Now, before the attorney general goes rushing in and charging people with discrimination in either accommodations or employment – well, I think we need to set the bar a little higher. I want concrete proof of a clear pattern of discrimination.

HUMPHREY: Certainly I understand your concern, Ev. The problem is people down South have found ways around the ’57 and ’60 laws. So, we have to balance your concern about due process and business rights with our concern about …

MORSE: This is a goddamn sell out!

(He storms out)

HUMPHREY: You see what I’m up against, Ev.

Lights down

(The Oval Office. Johnson is on stage; Dirksen enters)


DIRKSEN: Mr. President, you’re playing this just masterfully. You have them all fooled, you really do – Mansfield, Humphrey, even Dick Russell. They genuinely believe you’re not going to accept any compromise. All right, Mr. President, you can tell me – when are you going to spring the surprise?

JOHNSON: What surprise would that be, Ev?

DIRKSEN: Mr. President, I’m a fellow artist – you can trust me not to let anything slip.

JOHNSON: There is nothing to let slip, Ev.

DIRKSEN: Mr. President, I want to be your moon, shining with your light. I want a hand in the deal.

JOHNSON: There is no deal, Ev.

DIRKSEN: Mr. President, you of all people know that laws are not made without compromises.

JOHNSON: I understand that you and Mike crafted a nice little compromise on jury trials.

DIRKSEN: Thank you, sir, I’m quite pleased with it. But the South is going to need something more before they end debate.

JOHNSON: They’re not going to end debate. You are.

DIRKSEN: Cloture?

JOHNSON: Uh huh.

DIRKSEN: Cloture has only been imposed once in the last 35 years.

JOHNSON: We live in historic times, Ev.

DIRKSEN: Well, Mr. President, I am willing to help. But it’s not only the South that will require changes before ending debate.


DIRKSEN: I’m sure you realize that I cannot countenance the degree of federal involvement the bill imposes on business. The Republican Party is the party of free enterprise.

JOHNSON: You’re also the party of Lincoln.

DIRKSEN: Mr. President. I don’t understand. When you needed to, you danced to Dick Russell’s tune - you gutted the ’57 Civil Rights Act. Why the change?

JOHNSON: The times have changed, Ev.

DIRKSEN: But the Senate hasn’t. You’re not going to get a bill unless you make a deal.

JOHNSON: There will be no presidential intervention. This is Congress’s show – the glory goes to Mike and Hubert and you.

DIRKSEN: Mr. President, what do you call not letting Mike and Hubert compromise if not presidential intervention?

JOHNSON: What’re you talking about? Did I stop Mike when he made a jury trial deal with you?

DIRKSEN: That’s not enough for my caucus.

JOHNSON: You tell your caucus they’re either the party of Lincoln or they ain’t.

DIRKSEN: Mr. President, you, of all people, know better than anyone that each Senator has his own agenda. There are members of my caucus who don’t give a damn about being the party of Lincoln.

JOHNSON: Ev, as one legislator to another, if some of your guys don’t care about giving people a fair shake and they don’t care about history, I’m sure you can find something they do care about. Ev, you can go down in the history books as a slick operator or you can attach your name to a historic piece of legislation.

Lights down.

(A room in the White House quarters; Johnson is sitting, Lady Bird enters)

LADY BIRD: Belovéd?

(Johnson is silent)

LADY BIRD: You made history today.

JOHNSON: We just lost the South for a generation.

LADY BIRD: That may be true, belovéd, but it had to happen. No one in the Democratic Party before you had the courage to risk it.

JOHNSON: Truman did.

LADY BIRD: He didn’t succeed in ending segregation – you have.

JOHNSON: I helped beat Truman on that one.

LADY BIRD: He would have lost that fight whether you helped the South or not.

JOHNSON: They’ll say this was Kennedy’s bill.

LADY BIRD: No, they won’t. You got it through, not President Kennedy.

JOHNSON: Everybody wants me to give Bobby the VP spot.

LADY BIRD: Is that such a bad idea?

JOHNSON: Goddamn it, Bird, I guess you want that little shit on the ticket, too!

LADY BIRD: I was just asking …

JOHNSON: You always say the wrong goddamn thing! You think Jackie said shit like that to Jack? You think Ethel tells Bobby, Johnson’s a better president than you’d be?

LADY BIRD: Lyndon, I never for a second said Bobby Kennedy would be a better president than you – you are putting words in my mouth!

JOHNSON: Why do the goddamn liberals hate me so much? I went all out to end segregation – will they give me credit for it? No – they’ll say I’m a crooked wheeler-dealer. I’m gonna get people who are hungry jobs, and education, and a hand up. Will they give me credit? No, they‘ll make jokes about me being a goddamned hick. Bobby worked for Joe McCarthy; Jack wouldn’t vote to censure McCarthy because papa Joe loved McCarthy’s ass! Jack was a fuckin’ middle-of-the-roader – but liberals love Jack and Bobby. I’ll deliver the agenda they’ve been pining for since Roosevelt died, and they’ll still hate me ‘cause I’m not a fuckin’ Kennedy.

LADY BIRD: Why do you care so much about a bunch of snobs? The people will be grateful for what you’re doing.

JOHNSON: I don’t know, Bird, I don’t know – these are tough times. This nation needs someone to bring people together – I’m just not that man, Bird. The coloreds can’t trust a white Southerner – the South hates me now – I just can’t lose Texas in November; everybody will laugh at me – I just can’t run, Bird; I just can’t face that.

LADY BIRD: Belovéd, because these are difficult time is exactly why the country needs you. No one else could have gotten that bill passed. And, as for bringing people together – if, by some miracle, President Kennedy had gotten that bill through, do you think he’d keep the loyalty of Dick Russell?

JOHNSON: People loved President Kennedy – they don’t love me. People love Bobby – they don’t love me.

LADY BIRD: I love you.

JOHNSON: What the hell does that matter? You got to – you’re my goddamned wife…I wanted LBJ to mean something to people, like FDR. But it’s JFK’s the new FDR.

LADY BIRD: Look at the polls – your popularity is soaring.

JOHNSON: It’s not because I’m me, it’s because I’m not Barry Goldwater. And what about foreign policy, Bird? That’s not my area, never was.

LADY BIRD: Was there ever a President who knew everything – foreign policy, defense, economics? You have advisers, belovéd – you tell me how smart Bob McNamara and McGeorge Bundy are. Dick Russell advises you – there is no one wiser about foreign affairs

JOHNSON: But, Bird, this Vietnam thing … I don’t think it’s worth fighting for, and I don’t think we can get out. What the hell is Vietnam worth to me? What’s it worth to this country? I don’t think most Americans know much about Vietnam, and I think they care a hell of a lot less. But if I were to withdraw, the communists will overrun South Vietnam, and people’ll say LBJ turned tail and handed America its first defeat, and there is no doubt in my mind Congress will bring articles of impeachment. But what the hell is it worth? I was looking at this sergeant of mine this morning – and he’s got six kids in the military, and he’s bringing me my things, and I’m thinking I’m ordering his kids in there, and I’m thinking what the hell for?

LADY BIRD: Does anyone know what to do?

JOHNSON: Mike Mansfield and Wayne Morse would like us to pull out. Bill Fulbright is for giving it a little more time, but he’s leaning toward pulling out. Dick would prefer we get out, but he’s not comfortable with us breaking our commitments.

LADY BIRD: Well, beloved, Dick and Bill are the two wisest men in foreign affairs this country’s got. If both of them think we should get out, maybe you should consider a withdrawal.

JOHNSON: Neither one of them is certain. Dick’s worried about the message it sends to NATO. Bob McNamara – the smartest goddamn man I know – don’t think we should pull out – Mac Bundy don’t. Besides we’d hand the election to Goldwater, and he’s talking about using low yield nuclear weapons on Vietnam.

LADY BIRD: If you need a reason to stay in the race, that’s it.

JOHNSON: In fact, I’m worried that he’ll use our restraint against us. He’s saying we should take the war to the North. If we’re gonna win this election, we’re gonna have to make a show of strength.

LADY BIRD: What are you going to do?

JOHNSON: Mac Bundy thinks we should start a bombing campaign against the North to pressure them to knock off their support for the Viet Cong. Nothing big – very gradual, very selective. But, we do anything without provocation, the Russians and Chinese – not to mention Mansfield, Morse, and Fulbright – will be all over us. If the North Vietnamese would just tweak us, I could hit back and steal Goldwater’s fire.

Lights down

(The Oval Office; Johnson and Humphrey are on stage; King enters)

KING: Congratulations, Mr. President, Mr. Vice President,

JOHNSON: Heck naw, the congratulations go to you – Nobel Prize – dang, your folks must be proud – the lovely missus, your pappy, your mammy, your kids – what am I saying – the whole nigra people must be just busting.

HUMPHREY: I should have gone with you – felt right at home – we’ve got plenty of Norwegians where I come from. Did they make you eat lutefisk? Boy-oh-boy is that stuff nasty!

KING: (To Humphrey) I was spared. (To Johnson) Sir, the congratulations are yours. The largest majority in history. You did not back away from civil rights, from your great accomplishment. You did not pander or temporize, and the people – they put aside their blindness and anger. This is a great victory for the forces of progress and a defeat for the forces of retrogress.

JOHNSON: Ninety six percent of the nigra vote – I just hope I prove worthy of their trust. Now, tell me, Doctor, would you say your people voted for me or against Goldwater?

KING: They voted for the man who shepherded through the nation’s first comprehensive anti-segregation law.

JOHNSON: But we didn’t get to the crux of the matter, did we? Voting’s the key. The ’57 law was supposed to take care of that, but court cases ain’t enough; we need Federal registrars. I want to put registration in the post office. Postal worker’s Federal, but he comes from the community, so they can’t say I’m sending in the Gestapo. But the postman don’t register nigras, I can fire him. You get all your people voting, white politicians’ll be kissing your ass – sorry, Reverend. Hell, you’ll elect colored politicians. I’ve already got Attorney General Katzenbach preparing language for a bill. The greatest achievement of my administration, as I said to folks yesterday, was the passage of the Civil Rights Act – but this will be bigger because it will do more.

KING: Mr. President, you could not be more right. Until all Negroes can register to vote, we will not, we will not be full citizens.

JOHNSON: We’re gonna get this done, but we’re gonna have to bide our time.

KING: Sir?

JOHNSON: First of all, the Justice Department’s got their plate full enforcing the ’64 law. We don’t want to overburden them.

KING: They’re already overburdened trying to enforce the ’57 act along the with the ’64 act. If you introduce Federal registrars, that will relieve the burden of enforcing voting rights.

JOHNSON: Registrars alone won’t do it – we’ll still have to bring cases – and when we lower the bar, there’ll be a lot more cases. There’s another reason – there’s gonna be a white backlash – it’s started already. Now that you’ve got the Civil Rights Act, Northern whites are getting ticked about the voting demonstrations you got in Alabama and Mississippi – they’re saying, “How much more do they want?”

KING: All the more reason to act quickly before the backlash gets worse.

JOHNSON: Voting rights ain’t the only thing on my plate, and it shouldn’t be the only thing on yours. We got to get medical care for the old and medical care for the poor. How many of your people are poor? How many of them can afford to take care of their sick parents? We gotta get education for people who make less than $2,000 dollars a year – and you know who makes less than $2,000 a year.

KING: Sir, your points are very right – segregation is not the only impediment to freedom – poverty is as grave a problem. But you just said you’re concerned about a white backlash. There’s no backlash against the Great Society’s poverty programs.

JOHNSON: Not yet.

KING: But, sir, you have the largest mandate in history.

JOHNSON: Mark my words, that mandate is gonna to drop by a million votes a month, and in ’66, our Congressional majority is going to shrink. That means we got to get everything done in ’65 and ’66.

KING: Mr. President, if you only have through 1966, won’t delaying a voting rights bill risk denying a voting rights bill?

JOHNSON: Doctor, if there’s one thing I know, it’s timing. I knew we could get a civil rights bill in ’64, but I knew in ’57, we couldn’t beat a filibuster, so I cut the balls off the bill – sorry, Reverend. Now it did something – we’ve won cases under the ’57 law – but the important thing was that the Senate busted its …had its first intimate experience with civil rights. Now, the timing won’t be right for voting rights until the country has had a chance to digest the Civil Rights Act. I promise you, I will get a voting rights bill – I won’t talk you to death like Kennedy – but I will decide on the timing.

Lights down

(Oval Office. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and Valenti enter)

KATZENBACH & VALENTI: Good morning Mr. President.

JOHNSON: Where do things stand in Selma?

VALENTI: King’s put out a national call to the clergy to come down for another attempt tomorrow. I just heard that fifty Protestant ministers right here in D.C. have chartered a plane.

JOHNSON: I know this is wishful thinking, but Wallace hasn’t given any indications that he might do something to prevent a repeat of yesterday’s violence?

KATZENBACH: He’s sent signals that he’d like us to federalize the Alabama National Guard.

JOHNSON: Will he make a public request?

KATZENBACH: No, he wants it to look like we took the initiative.

JOHNSON: Of course he does. That way the duplicitous little turd avoids a bloody mess, claims he fought to the bitter end, and cries Federal tyranny. What about sending Federal marshals? That’ll look better than bayonets.

KATZENBACH: We have to collect them from different states – we couldn’t get enough there in time. Besides, most of these guys are process servers or prison guards – they’ll be no match if Sheriff Clark’s posse decides to get rough.

JOHNSON: If we take over the Guard, Wallace makes me out to be some kind of a dictator. If we don’t , there’ll be more blood, and the civil rights folks will say you can send troops to protect yellow folks in Vietnam, but you won’t send ‘em to protect black folks right here at home. Already, that little shit Bobby Kennedy’s making hay while the blood runs, saying I ain’t acting fast enough on voting rights. Didn’t do a damn thing for three years, and he says I’m not acting fast enough. There’s no dealing with Wallace.

KATZENBACH: I don’t think so, sir.

JOHNSON: King will deal. He needs us; Wallace don’t. Try to get him to call off the march.

Lights down

(The pre-dawn hours of the morning, the living room of the home where King is staying in Selma; Katzenbach and Valenti wait in their coats and hats; King and Rustin enter)

KATZENBACH: Dr. King, I apologize for disturbing you at this hour, but I thought you’d want to know that Judge Johnson has issued an injunction against tomorrow’s march – I’m sure it’s just till he has a chance to consider your petition to restrain the state and local authorities from interfering with the march.

KING: (After silently thinking for a few moments) This is … uh … in response to a motion from the State of Alabama, Mr. Attorney General?


KING: From Dallas County then … or the city of Selma?


KING: Did he issue a statement?


KING: Has the White House been in touch with the judge?

KATZENBACH: Not to my knowledge.

KING: I find it hard to believe that… that Judge Johnson would issue this injunction without anyone petitioning for it and without a word of justification.

VALENTI: I give you my word of honor that the administration has nothing to do with this ruling.

KATZENBACH: I assume that Judge Johnson feels he cannot rule on your petition by tomorrow … or, rather, this afternoon – and so, for the safety of the marchers, he has enjoined the march until he can rule.

KING: He has suspended the rights of free speech and of free assembly.

KATZENBACH: Do you really suspect the man who cast the deciding vote to rule the segregation of Montgomery buses unconstitutional of hostility to your cause?


KATZENBACH: So you’ll call of the march?

KING: We are enjoined from marching because, having been savagely beaten on Sunday, we asked the court to stop our attackers from beating us again? This is like jailing a man for being robbed.

KATZENBACH: Doctor, if you call off the march, the Justice Department will join you as a friend of the court in petitioning for protection for a future march.

KING: Mr. Attorney General, I called this march to show the world that we will not be turned back by brute force.

KATZENBACH: And you know very well from all your experience, from all your victories, that the strongest possible message and the only just outcome is for you to have the law on your side – that’s why you filed that petition yesterday. Judge Johnson is likely to rule in your favor – we will join you as a friend of the court. If you wait a few days you will show the world that you have not been turned back by brute force – in the strongest possible terms.

KING: I have made commitments to all the clergy who have come here. I have put my reputation – my standing in the movement – on the line by endorsing this march – I cannot back away now.

VALENTI: Doctor King, right now I speak for President Johnson – I am delivering his personal message to you. The President feels – strongly – very strongly – that Sunday’s violence disgraced the United States in the eyes of the world. The President’s concern – his overriding concern – is to prevent more violence – violence that will inflame racial hatred – that will threaten stability far beyond Selma. He wants your people to stay at home to keep the peace.

KING: You’re talking to the wrong people – were we the ones cracking skulls? Were the state troopers and the posse bearing non-violent witness? The President is confused about who is in the disgrace business.

KATZENBACH: Did President Johnson deliver an effective civil rights bill?

KING: Yes.

KATZENBACH: Do you doubt his commitment to civil rights?


KATZENBACH: Do you doubt my commitment or that of this Justice Department?


KATZENBACH: And do you doubt my word or the President’s that we will join you in petitioning for your right to march from Selma to Montgomery unmolested?

KING: Not in my mind. But Mr. Attorney General, you have not been a black man in America for three hundred years. We are used to promises. You and the President have given me reason to believe you, but the promise-crammed air has become a bitter meal for Negroes.

KATZENBACH: Doctor, in all likelihood, this injunction is only for a few days – I ask you to respect it.

KING: I have given my word. The hope and dignity of the people who were beaten on Sunday are pinned to this march.

KATZENBACH: This is a federal order.

RUSTIN: Martin, the Attorney General is correct. Our whole movement is constructed around enforcing the Constitution. Our victories have been in the Federal Courts. For you to flagrantly flout a federal court order would be catastrophic.

KATZENBACH: At this moment, Federal court orders are enforcing the ’64 Civil Rights Act.

KING: This is an unjust order.

RUSTIN: Nonetheless, it is Federal.

KATZENBACH: And it is going to be temporary – I know it and you know it.

KING: President Johnson is not the only one with constituencies to appease.

VALENTI: Perhaps you could march a certain distance without being in violation.

KATZENBACH: It is exactly this kind of hairsplitting that segregationists use to get around the law. If you try to find a loophole in this injunction, you undermine your movement and all the work the Justice Department and the courts have done since 1954.

VALENTI: Mr. Attorney General, I’m sure you could use a cup of coffee. (to King and Rustin) Could we impose upon your hosts?

RUSTIN: I am sure they would be happy to show you esteemed gentleman some Southern hospitality.

VALENTI:(to Katzenbach) Sir, why don’t you step into the kitchen?

Lights down

(Lights up on the oval office; KATZENBACH: and VALENTI: enter, the look around)

KATZENBACH: Mr. President?
(Lights up on Johnson in the bathroom on the toilet)
JOHNSON: In here! Come on in!

(Valenti heads right for the bathroom, Katzenbach tentatively follows. Valenti enters the bathroom, Katzenbach stands at the door)

KATZENBACH: We can wait, Mr. President …

JOHNSON: No you can’t, we don’t have the damn time.


JOHNSON: I haven’t been to the can since 7, I’ve had Wallace waiting since 10:30, and it’s almost noon – we’ve gotta kill a few birds with one stone. What’s the news from Selma?

VALENTI: They marched to the crest of the bridge; they knelt and prayed. When they got up, for some reason the state troopers pulled back and opened the way to Montgomery. Then King made the right call: “Let’s go back to the church.”

JOHNSON: The man has political sense. You don’t get done what he’s got done without it.

VALENTI: He took everybody by surprise. The SNCC people were pissed.

JOHNSON: Good. Now he knows how we felt during the shitstorm over the Mississippi Fuckin’ Democrats.

KATZENBACH: I don’t like it – even going as far as he went, he violated the injunction.

JOHNSON: Oh, untwist your shorts, Nick. Judge Johnson ain’t gonna hold him in contempt – he supports the right to march – hell, he supports the right to register. All right, Jack, I want you to monitor the situation in Selma while I’m with Wallace – get going. (He starts to wipe)

VALENTI: Yes, sir. (He exits)

(Johnson stands up and closes his pants and belt)

JOHNSON: All right, Nick, what should I ask Wallace to do?

KATZENBACH: Uh …I don’t know … what do you want him to do?

JOHNSON: All right, make a list–

(Johnson washes his hands, Katzembach pulls a legal pad from his portfolio)

JOHNSON: (Walking into the office) Write down six demands – I don’t give a damn how outrageous they are. (He buzzes the intercom) Send in the Governor. (to Katzenbach) Number ‘em in order of priority.

(An aide enters followed by George Wallace and Seymore Trammell)

AIDE: Governor Wallace and Seymore Trammell (he exits).

JOHNSON: Governor! You know you and Martin Luther King got something in common.

WALLACE: Uh … how …

JOHNSON: You’re the only two people ever wired me for an appointment and released the wire to the press ‘fore I got it.

WALLACE: Mr. President, I meant no disrespect at all …

(Johnson crosses to Wallace and puts his arm around him)

JOHNSON: Forget it, forget it, George, I was just pulling your chain – you don’t mind having your chain pulled?

WALLACE: Uh … no …

JOHNSON: Who does? Who does? (ushering Wallace to a couch) Sit down, it down, George –

WALLACE: This is my aide, Seymore Tram …

JOHNSON: Sit down, sit down, George –

(Johnson sits Wallace on a sofa with soft cushions, and Wallace sinks low. Johnson pulls a rocking chair close to Wallace, and sits. He pulls it closer so their knees touch)

JOHNSON: Well, Governor, you wanted to see me.

WALLACE: (He collects himself) Well, Mr. President, something just has to be done. Law and order are dissolving in Alabama. And why? Malcontents. I mean, sir, look how ungrateful they’ve been for what you’ve given them. I’m not pleased with the so called “Civil Rights” Act, but they should be. They should be dancing in the streets; they should be naming they’re babies Lyndon, but are they dancing? No: they’re marching, stirring up a passel of trouble. And they’re not even from the State. This King, he’s not from Alabama, even when he lived here, came to Montgomery from Atlanta. Educated in Boston; spends a lot of time in New York … with known Communists like that … Levison and that … Rustin, who’s a fairy, too. Most of these people are trained in New York … or, even worse, Moscow. So, this isn’t an Alabama problem; people are crossing state lines to stir up trouble: this is the jurisdiction of the Federal Government, sir, and the Federal Government has to do something.

JOHNSON: Oh, New York, Moscow. What’s Moscow got to do with the right to vote? That’s all they want, George – cast a ballot in a democracy – ain’t nothin’ communist ‘bout that. You want the Federal government to come in and keep the peace? You can’t stop a fever by puttin’ an ice pack on your head – you gotta use antibiotics and get at the cause of the fever.

WALLACE: You can’t deal with street revolutionaries: you can never satisfy them. First it’s a front seat on the bus, next it’s a takeover of the parks, then it’s voting rights, then it’s jobs, then it’s distribution of wealth without work. Never satisfied: look at all the trouble they’re causing you.

JOHNSON: I know, George – you see all them demonstrators there in front of the White House?

WALLACE: I saw them, and I was appalled, Mr. President.

JOHNSON: Those goddamn niggers have kept my daughters awake every night with their screamin’ and hollerin’ night after night. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could put an end to all those demonstrations?

WALLACE: Yes, sir, Mr. President.

JOHNSON: Then why don’t you let the niggers vote?

WALLACE: Well, sir …

JOHNSON: You’re a student of the Constitution – I’ve read your speeches – there aren’t many who use the text like you do.

WALLACE: Thank you, Mr. President. It’s a great document. It is the protection of the States, the only protection they have.

JOHNSON: And somewhere in there it says that niggers have the right to vote, doesn’t it, Governor?

WALLACE: Everyone in Alabama has the right to vote.

JOHNSON: Good – we agree on that, Governor. Now, tell me, Governor, how come the niggers in Alabama can’t vote?

WALLACE: They can vote.

JOHNSON: If they’re registered.

WALLACE: White men have to register, too.

JOHNSON: That’s the problem, George, somehow your folks down in Alabama don’t want to register them niggers. I had a fella in here the other day, and he had not only a college degree but one of them Ph.D.s, and your man said he couldn’t register ‘cause he didn’t know how to read and write well enough to vote in Alabama. Now, do all your white folks in Alabama have Ph.D.s?

WALLACE: Those decisions are made by the county registrars, not by me …

JOHNSON: Well, then, George, why don’t you tell those county registrars to register them niggers?

WALLACE: I don’t have that power, Mr. President, under Alabama law …

JOHNSON: You had the power to keep the President of the United States off the ballot in this fall’s election.

WALLACE: Now, sir …

JOHNSON: You can do that, surely you have to power you have the power to tell a few poor county registrars what to do.

WALLACE: I don’t. Under Alabama law, they’re independent.

JOHNSON: Well, George, then why don’t you just persuade them what to do.

WALLACE: I don’t think it would be that easy, Mr. President; they’re pretty close with their authority.

JOHNSON: Don’t you shit me, George Wallace. You’re goddamned persuasive. Just this morning I was watching you on television. I got three TVs right at the foot of my bed so I can watch all the networks at once. I see something looks interesting, I got a little control I can press to turn up the sound. You can be sure the minute I saw you, I pressed it – and you was attacking me.

WALLACE: Not you, Mr. President, I was speaking against Federal intervent –

JOHNSON: You was attacking me – and you know what? I was almost ready to call for the impeachment of that son a’bitch Johnson. Now, I’m pretty strong-minded, just like them registrars (he leans in to Wallace) Will you give it a try, George

TRAMMELL: Mr. President, voter registration is not the point. We are here to discuss the racial agitators and the growing menace of Communist demonstrators in Alabama.

(Johnson turns slowly to Trammell and stares at him. He picks a pad and pencil up off a table and tosses them on a table near Trammell.)

JOHNSON: Here. Take notes.

(Johnson snaps his fingers and Katzenbach hands him the notepad with the list)

JOHNSON: All right, Governor, here are some other things that’ll turn those demonstrations off in a minute. Announce your commitment to enforce the Brown decision and the ’64 Civil Rights act by desegregating all Alabama public schools – you and I go out there right now in front of them television cameras.

WALLACE: Uh … uh … Mr. President … I wish I … it’s not up to me – I don’t have that power.

JOHNSON: According to you, the Governor of Alabama’s the least powerful man in the State. Okay, how about a pledge of obedience to federal court orders?

WALLACE: As far as in my …

JOHNSON: A declaration of support for the right to peaceful assembly?

WALLACE: Those demonstrators are troublemake…

JOHNSON: Set up regular meetings between Alabama whites and niggers – (turning to Trammell) you getting’ this? (To Wallace) Commit to law enforcement without brutality

WALLACE: Mr. President, I must take exception – those –

JOHNSON: Surely, Governor, you’re opposed to brutality.

WALLACE: Of course, Mr. President, but I fail to see the brutality. Those troopers were just doing their duty.

(Johnson snaps his fingers and Katzenbach pulls a newspaper out of his portfolio and hands it to Johnson, who tosses it near Wallace. Wallace looks at it)

JOHNSON: That looks like brutality to me. George, why are you off on this black thing? Your whole life you wanted to do things for poor folk. You and me got so much in common. We come from farm people – we know what the ups and downs of farmin’ did to our daddies. You’re like me – wanna give folks a fair shake. You know what I’m proudest of in my career in the House, George? In 1938, ’39, I helped bring electricity to the Texas Hill Country. You see, the bigwigs at the Pedernales Electric Cooperative said too few people lived in the Hill Country and …

Lights down

(Lights up on the Oval Office three hours later; everyone is still in the same seats; Wallace and Trammell are visibly overwhelmed and exhausted)

JOHNSON: Now I think it was in 1955, and I was Majority Leader, and the minimum wage hadn’t been raised in six years. Now Ike submitted a bill raising it to 90 cents an hour, and the red hot liberals wanted to raise it to a dollar twenty five. Now the Republicans wouldn’t stand for that. Now we had a version that would raise it to a dollar, but neither the Republicans or the red hots would go for that one. But then there was this moment when a whole bunch opponents of the dollar version of the bill were out of the chamber, but we had a quorum – now what’d you think if I didn’t pass that bill right then and there. Again, doing things for working folks. (looks at his watch) My God will you look at the time! I started talKING: about 1938 three hours ago, and here we are only up to 1955. I better get to 1965 – don’t ya think, George?

WALLACE: Yes, sir …

JOHNSON: Look at what we’ve done for poor folks – we got the Economic Opportunity Act passed; we’re gonna get Federal funding for education; we’re gonna get healthcare for old folks, so they can live with dignity; we’re gonna help people in Appalachia – that means Alabama, George. You can do a lot to help the poor of both races in Alabama. And George, your President will help you.

WALLACE: Mr. President …

JOHNSON: George, will you stop looking back to 1865 and look forward to 2065. What do you want left when you die? You want a great big marble monument that reads “George Wallace – He Built,” or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine board, lying across that harsh, dry, rocky soil that reads “George Wallace – He Hated?”

TRAMMELL: (leaping up) Now, Mr. President! –

JOHNSON: You got that down? Good man. (He stands and guides Wallace up to standing) Now George, you and I are gonna go out there and talk to them reporters. If you can just wait outside a minute, I want a word with the Attorney General.

WALLACE: (extending his hand to Johnson) Uh …thank you again, Mr. President, for taking the time to meet with me.

JOHNSON: (shaking Wallace’s hand and slapping him on the back) No need for thanks – I had fun, George. (shaking Trammell’s hand) I never did get your name.

TRAMMELL: Seymore Tramm –

JOHNSON: You give those notes to my secretary on the way out.

(The intercom buzzes)

SECRETARY (V.O): Mr. President, Mr. Valenti would like to see you.

JOHNSON: (pressing intercom) Send him in.

(Valenti enters)

VALENTI: Mr. President, there’s been a fatal injury in Selma. Two white Unitarian ministers were ambushed coming out of a café where they had dinner after the … uh … abortive march. One of them – James Reeb – is in a coma.

JOHNSON: Fatal? This minister’s gonna die?

VALENTI: Yes, sir.

JOHNSON: Is he already dead?

VALENTI: No, sir.

(Johnson is silent for several moments)

JOHNSON: (to Katzenbach) Nick, you got the voting rights bill ready?

Lights Down

(A Conference room in the White House. Valenti is on stage; a Secret Service Agent enters with Kingand Rustin)

AGENT: No one saw them get out of the car, and there was no one in the corridors.

VALENTI: Thank you.

(Agent exits)

VALENTI: As we discussed, this meeting never happened.

KING: It is understood.

(Valenti opens a door and sticks his head in)


(Valenti stands back, and Johnson enters through the door)

JOHNSON: (to King) You’re making a speech. At the Riverside Church in New York. To Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam.

KING: Yes, sir.

JOHNSON: Don’t take a mind reader to guess what you’re gonna say.

KING: No, sir.

(Johnson collapses into a chair)


KING: Well, sir … I …I understand we do not live in an ideal world … war exists … but … while I hate to say any war is justified … some wars, you can argue … justification … but with this war, sir, it becomes harder and harder every day …

JOHNSON: You’re like all the rest. Fulbright … McNamara, who got me into this mess, now he’s says it’s a mistake, quits the administration. Those kids … they hate me so bad. I was a teacher …ran the National Youth Administration in Texas … and they hate me so bad …

KING: Sir, this is not personal, and I respect …

JOHNSON: You’re gonna support Bobby, ain’t ya.

KING: Senator Kennedy is not running.

JOHNSON: Oh, yes he is. You advising him?

KING: Sir, I …

JOHNSON: He and his brother did squat. They would have comprised away the ’64 Act, but now you love Bobby – and me you piss on.

KING: Sir, this is not about you, it is about human life …

JOHNSON: No, this is about me – you’d never come out against Kennedy, who was so sophisticated, so charming – he talked a good liberal game, but he was fence-sitter – but you come out against the hick.

KING: Mr. President, I respect your commitment … your skill, you’ve made a commitment that no other president has, but this is an unjust war.

JOHNSON: Goddamn it! The Cong are communists. Ho is a communist.

KING: These are poor farmers who are being forced from their land into … “strategic hamlets” …they are ruled by corrupt generals who have no care for their interests.

RUSTIN: Martin, you are naïve. Are the generals corrupt? Yes. Are they brutal? Yes. Is South Vietnam a democracy? Of course, not. But there have been tyrants since the beginning of civilization. The Communists are different; they are like the Nazis. The domination they seek is total, and their methods make the South Vietnamese generals look like nuns swatting naughty boys with rulers. The Soviets don’t just send their opponents to gulags: they send them to asylums with the genuinely insane, where they are drugged and shocked and God knows what else. They brutally crushed uprisings in Berlin and Hungary. The Caligulas and Neros, the KING:s and kaisers and tsars, the generals and colonels pale by comparison.

KING: Ho Chi Minh is not Stalin; he is an independence leader – he is more of a nationalist than he is a communist.

JOHNSON: So now you love Uncle Ho!

RUSTIN: Martin, you do not know what you are speaking of. Ho Chi Minh was a co-founder of the French Communist Party; he worked for the Soviets in Moscow and China; He has killed people in his own movement just because they weren’t communists.

JOHNSON: Listen to your friend Bayard -- the generals may be sons of bitches, but they’re our sons of bitches – we are saving the South from much worse – We – Are – In – The – Right!

KING: Must we sacrifice innocent women and children – and don’t forget about thousands of American boys …

JOHNSON: Don’t you dare question my commitment to our soldiers! I love those boys – I have served, you have not – I love those boys – and when I go there, when I go to Vietnam, they love me.

KING: Must we sacrifice them to the lesser of two evils?

RUSTIN: Mr. President, Mr. President … if you will listen a moment. Your accomplishments are great. You have ended legal segregation. You recognize that the next civil rights front is economic
segregation. From the beginning of your presidency, you have fought to eradicate poverty; you are a champion of the poor even greater than President Roosevelt. It is horrible that this war is
costing lives – no one realizes the horror more than you. It is also costing money. This war is starving the Great Society. It, as Martin says, is a fight for the lesser of two evils. And, sir, I am no foreign policy expert, but I do not think this is a vital front in the fight against totalitarianism.

JOHNSON: Don’t you think I know what this war is doing to the Great Society? I’ve betrayed the woman I love for this bitch war. But what you don’t know is there would have been no Great Society without this war. I mean, yeah, sure, if we weren’t already in there when I got this job, yeah, I coulda done it without the war, but with us committed – I didn’t stand tall, the right would cut my balls off – no balls, no Great Society. But the trick was … the trick was … not to let the war get so big they could say we can’t help the poor, gotta fight this war. So you know, McNamara … limited war … I follow the limited war strategy, keep it from getting too big, but it just keeps getting bigger and bigger … but I’m not licked, yet … we can do it, like I said in the State of the Union .. guns and butter -- richest nation on earth … we can do it.

KING:: Sir, are you saying that this is not about Vietnam, it’s not about communism … it’s about Congress?

JOHNSON:: No. Yes … it’s partly that. But it’s about Vietnam … communists are sons of bitches, not knights on white horses … it’s about keeping our word … it’s about our allies, it’s about leading …

KING: I cannot believe that you had to fight this war to … to get poverty programs, to get Medicare, and … education … and … and even if you did … it is wrong … wrong to send men to their deaths, to bomb people – poor people to help other poor people …

JOHNSON: What about helping nigras? Great Society ain’t just poverty programs, it’s the Civil Rights Act, it’s the Voting Rights Act – I couldn’t let a weak stance on Vietnam undercut any of my legislation.

KING: I do not believe that is true, sir, you’re rationalizing. If it were … if it were true – had I known that, I would have spoken against the war long ago. I will not pay for the rights of Negro people with lives of Vietnamese people, with the lives of American soldiers.

JOHNSON: No, just the lives of nigras. And some white liberals. Who you kidding? You’re in the martyrdom business. The four girls in Birmingham was the price you paid for the Civil Rights Act. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo was the price you paid for the Voting Rights Act.

KING: Reverend Reeb and Mrs. Liuzzo were committed to our cause and knowingly and willingly took risks. But you are sacrificing Vietnamese who have no say in this war – I am not talking about the government of North or South Vietnam or the Viet Cong – I am talking about farmers. And if what you are saying is true, American boys who think they are dying to fight communism are dying for your domestic agenda. And as for the girls in Birmingham – you said, “How dare you” to me? How dare you, sir, compare the death of four girls, who did nothing worse than go to church, to your sending men to their deaths. I did not risk those girls’ lives – they just went to church.

JOHNSON: What about the Children’s Crusade? Sending kids to face Bull Connor’s attack dogs? They capable of taking willing and knowing risks? Don’t get me wrong, most effective thing you ever did. Without Bull Connor siccing the dogs and fire hoses on those kids, no Civil Rights Act.

KING: Mr. President … it is not possible for me to … say anything without it sounding like a rationalization … but … but I think it is obvious that there is a difference between young people fighting for their future and soldiers fighting for a cause they are being lied to about.

JOHNSON: I am not lying – this is about communism – it’s about our word. Doctor, doctor, don’t throw it all away. What you and me done, Martin – it wouldn’t have happened without you pushing from the outside –

KING: It was not me, sir, it was – it is a movement –

JOHNSON: That found its leader – that found its president. A hundred years since reconstruction – it didn’t happen til you came along; it didn’t happen till I came along. We’ve got so much more to do … and time … time … it’s against us – we got to integrate the judiciary – you know, you’re friend Bayard is right, this war … its taking money from the war on poverty … keep on pushing, you just push and push and push for more money for poverty programs …

KING: I am doing that, sir. And I am also going to push and push and push to end this war.

RUSTIN: Which, Martin, which will hurt your work on poverty. If you get involved in the anti-war movement, you get involved with a bunch sophomoric adolescents who make excuses for Stalinist butchers and carry Viet Cong flags – you will lose the support of labor; you will lose the support of many liberals; you will do incalculable harm to our movement.

KING: So be it. If I have unwittingly benefitted from this war, it stops now. If speaking out against the war costs the movement support, that is a price I am willing to pay.

JOHNSON: This conversation never happened. (He exits)

Lights down

(Riverside Church, New York. Lights up on King in the pulpit)

KING: I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: "A time comes when silence is betrayal."

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: "Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?" "Peace and civil rights don't mix," they say. "Aren't you hurting the cause of your people," they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling.

Lights down

PROTESTERS (O.S.): Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today? ! Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?

From July, 2012

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