Film director Rob Reiner didn’t even like President Lyndon B. Johnson when he occupied the Oval Office from 1963 to 1969. The president, who suddenly found himself leading the country after President John F. Kennedy‘s shocking assassination in 1963, embroiled the country in the controversial Vietnam war. Rob Reiner, the director of When Harry Met Sally, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride and more, was still a student during the height of the conflict, which claimed 58,220 American lives.
“I was at draft age and against the war and I only thought of LBJ as someone who could send me to my death,” Reiner tells HollywoodLife.com in an exclusive interview. “It’s only when I get older and involved in politics that I came to appreciate how much [civil rights] legislation he put through. If he didn’t have Vietnam, he would have been one of the greatest presidents of all time.” Reiner’s new film, LBJ, which opens on November 3rd with Woody Harrelson in the title role, focuses on the earth-shattering day that beloved JFK was assassinated, and on the following two weeks as Johnson, a Texas native, assumed the mantle of the presidency and determined to take up the cause of Kennedy’s civil rights legislation, steer it through Congress and get it passed into law.
At the time, this was thought to be an impossible task, due to the unrelenting opposition to giving civil rights to African Americans by the members of Congress from former Confederate states. Not only did LBJ masterfully steer the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress, but he followed it up with the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and The Civil Rights Act of 1968. Reiner’s film gives deep insight into what made this towering [literally 6’4] figure tick — both his consummate ability to produce results in Congress and his deep insecurities and anxieties.
Moreover, the film LBJ couldn’t be coming out at a more fitting time. If there was ever a president who was more opposite to Donald Trump, it was Lyndon Johnson. Johnson spent 24 years in Congress, before becoming vice president. He served in The Naval Reserve during WWII and was a ceaseless champion for civil rights as president. Plus, he, unlike Trump, knew exactly how to make the political system work to get legislation passed. Above all, he believed fiercely in the rule of law and in the separate of the three branches of government. FYI, LBJ also appointed the first black cabinet member in US history, Thurgood Marshall, whom he named Soliciter-General and he later named Marshall to be the first African American justice to the Supreme Court. There is one way that Reiner believes the two men are similar — he’s convinced that LBJ would have used Twitter if it existed in the 1960s. “If he was around now and had access to Twitter, he would use it to get his message across,” says Reiner. “But he certainly wouldn’t be browbeating people in public over it. He would use Twitter as a way to convince people to come to his side.”
So, this is the fascinating man that Reiner and Harrelson bring back to life in sure-to be an Oscar winner LBJ. Reiner also talks about Harvey Weinstein, sexual harassment, Mitch McConnell and more as he answers 5 Key Questions.
1. LBJ was almost the complete opposite of Donald Trump as President. What do you think he would make of Trump?
Rob:” We’re living in a very strange time now. I call it the Kardashianization of America, where people rise to incredible heights of fame without having very discernible talent. It’s famous for being famous syndrome. I think it’s only in this atmosphere that somebody like Donald Trump could even rise to the position that he’s risen to, and I don’t think somebody like him, at LBJ’s time would even be thought of as anybody serious, in terms of getting something done on the political landscape. But Johnson, on some levels, was kind of boorish and a loudmouth and larger-than-life, like Trump in certain ways. The difference is, he had the consummate understanding of the nexus between politics, policy, and government. He understood how government worked and how those three things intersected in order to get things done. You watch this film and you see what a great leader, who understands, how those three things intersected, and you see how government is supposed to function.”
2. How would LBJ respond to a president like Donald Trump?
Rob: “If LBJ was the Democratic leader of the Senate, which he was at one point, he’s just too smart and understands how government works. He’d find a way to roll this guy. He’d roll this guy pretty bad.”
3. What do you think of the Harvey Weinstein situation and will it stop sexual harassment in Hollywood?
Rob: “It may ultimately be a good thing because I don’t know a woman who hasn’t been sexually harassed at some point in her life. When you think about it, women are at incredible disadvantage because there’s no mystery as to why it takes, you know, 10, 20, 30 years for women to come forward on this, because A, they’re not going to be believed, or two, they’re going to say, “Well, they were asking for it.” Or three, they get punished. What is the recourse when the president of the United States overtly and publicly admits to sexually harassing women, and he gets elected anyway? A woman has no recourse. The only way this is going to start taking a different course is if men step up and, first of all, be taught as young guys how to behave, and secondly, come forward when they see some kind of sexual assault or harassment. I think ultimately it’s a good thing. It’s bad for Harvey Weinstein. He’s a disgusting guy. But ultimately this is way beyond Harvey Weinstein.”
4. Would LBJ have come to embrace LGBTQ rights since he felt so strongly about civil rights for African Americans?
Rob: “I think ultimately he would. I mean, certainly not in that time. In that time, everybody in the House and Senate, they were all white men. Women didn’t have the rights that they have. (The Supreme Court case) of Loving vs. Virginia didn’t happen until 1967, making interracial marriages accepted under the law, and homosexuality was hidden, I mean, way, way hidden in our society. He might not have accepted it at that point, but certainly if he was around now, he would embrace any equality for anybody.”
5. What would LBJ think about how Republican Senate Leader, Mitch McConnell, blocked President Barack Obama from filling an open Supreme Court Seat?
Rob: “Well, it’s disgusting. It’s absolutely disgusting what he did. I mean, to not even allow a mainstream candidate, Merrick Garland, who would have been wildly accepted on both sides of the aisle, to not even give him a hearing is a real manipulation of the system. When they give Trump credit for getting Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, Trump didn’t do that. That was done by Mitch McConnell by not allowing Merrick Garland to have a hearing. No, it’s perverting the use of Congressional power. There’s no question about that.”
To see Rob Reiner’s LBJ, head to the theaters Nov. 3 and get reminded about what a truly great president can do for our country.