Follow TV Tropes


Theatre / All the Way

Go To

"What's the point of being President if you can't do what you know is right?"

All the Way is a drama play written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Richard Schenkkan. It covers the first year in the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson, as he is thrust into power following the assassination of John F. Kennedy and struggles to solidify his legitimacy and ensure reelection. This means maintaining the Vietnam War, and most importantly, passing the Civil Rights Act. To do so, we see him charming, threatening, and manipulating such figures as J. Edgar Hoover, Martin Luther King Jr., George Wallace, and Hubert Humphrey. The play has been praised as an engaging and ambitious look at the toll being in politics can take on one's soul.

The play premiered at the 2012 Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with Jack Willis playing LBJ. It later moved to Cambridge Massachusetts in a show starring Bryan Cranston. The latter show eventually made it to Broadway, and was a critical and financial hit winning both the Tony and Drama Desk awards for Best Play and Best Actor for Cranston. All three production were directed by Bill Rauch.

A follow-up, The Great Society (covering the Johnson presidency from 1964-1968), opened at the 2014 Oregon Shakespeare festival, again directed by Rauch and starring Jack Willis. It opened on Broadway in fall 2019, with Brian Cox taking over the role of LBJ.

Steven Spielberg obtained the rights to produce a film adaptation of All the Way, which aired on HBO in 2016 with Bryan Cranston reprising the lead role, Anthony Mackie playing Martin Luther King, and Melissa Leo as Lady Bird Johnson, with Jay Roach directing.

Tropes Associated With All The Way include:

  • Ambition Is Evil: Subverted. LBJ's Inner Monologue makes it very clear from the beginning that he is mainly driven by his burning ambition to become President in his own right and he pulls no punches during the 1964 Presidential Elections. Still, he uses the power of the office to pursue politics which greatly benefit the disadvantaged and the racial minorities and change his country for the better.
  • Bait-and-Switch: Rep. Bill McCulloch who describes himself as a "conservative Republican" who is supportive of states' rights but believes that the Constitution did not mean that only whites can have rights.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: Hoover bugs pretty much every single room Martin Luther King Jr. walks into. Johnson is happy to use the information, but he also thinks Hoover's obsession is bizarre.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: LBJ occasionally delivers monologues straight to the audience.
  • The Chess Master: LBJ is right up there with Frank Underwood in his ability to manipulate the legislative process.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: LBJ's love of profanity is prominently on display.
  • Combat Pragmatist: LBJ uses arcane Senate rules and cuts deals with the Republicans in order for the Civil Rights bill to pass.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Johnson is quite annoyed after giving a stirring speech at his ranch about firsthand encounters with racism as a teacher that all they focus on is him pulling his dog by the ears.
  • Condescending Compassion: Senator Russell at one point agrees that black people have been "put upon" but believes that civil rights isn't the right thing to do.
  • Determinator: LBJ will get the Civil Rights Act through Congress, no matter what. He will win the 1964 US Presidential Elections, whatever it takes.
  • Didn't Think This Through: And how for the Gulf of Tonkin incident. McNamara comes to Johnson and while admitting that his evidence is not rock solid insists on retaliation while the more level-headed Humphrey urges to only respond after he has strong evidence. Unfortunately, McNamara is able to exploit that there was a media leak, and now Johnson will face being perceived as "weak". An exasperated Johnson orders retaliation. All but escalating the Vietnam War for political perception.
  • Enemy Mine: As in real life, Johnson and the pro-Civil Rights Democrats reach out to Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen to secure Republican votes for the Civil Rights Act, allowing a bypass of the filibuster led by Russell and the other Dixiecrat Senators.
  • Establishing Character Moment: After LBJ urges Congress to pass the Civil Rights bill, Humphrey gives a triumphant standing ovation and the segregationists sit back in shock.
  • Feeling Oppressed by Their Existence: The Southern Senators are largely this about black people; particularly Senator Eastland who believes that the Civil Rights bill will lead to the oppression of whites.
  • Forced Out of the Closet: Walter Jenkins after he is caught soliciting sex in a YMCA bathroom.
  • Foreshadowing: During LBJ's victory party at the end an aide approaches him with an urgent message from the US Embassy in Saigon. When he looks at it his expression immediately changes from one of satisfaction to a worried one. As the modern viewer knows all too well, dealing with The Vietnam War will progressively consume and eventually destroy his presidency.
  • Friendly Enemy: Johnson and Russell are friends but find themselves at opposing ends of the segregation debate.
  • The Ghost:
    • Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for President in 1964.
    • Robert F. Kennedy in All the Way. He later appears in a supporting role in the sequel, The Great Society.
  • Hate Sink: Rep. Judge Smith, Senator Eastland and Senator Thurmond spend most of their appearances spouting racism and openly obstructing the Civil Rights bill.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: Johnson is irritated that, after inviting reporters to his home and giving a sincere speech about why he believes in equal rights and the bill he is trying to get passed, the newspapers instead print a picture of him holding up his beagle's ears in an attempt to paint him as an animal abuser.
  • Historical Domain Character: All the characters.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Barry Goldwater is The Ghost, and yet he is implied to be as much of a Segregationist who uses the camouflage of the "Constitution" and "states rights" in his objections. In reality Goldwater, the father of 20th Century American Conservatism was genuinely a strict Constitutionalist that only objected to the Civil Rights Act on the terms of Federal Encroachment. Even in 1964 several prominent Black leaders openly emphasized that they sincerely did not believe Goldwater was himself a racist but his policies were inherently wrong for the Civil Rights movement. Goldwater personally was opposed to segregation and in later life was regarded as progressive for his support of Gay men in the military.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Senator Russell who has been using arcane and obscure Senate rules to block legislation for years is caught off guard when a maneuver is used to get the bill out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
  • Hypocrite:
    • Master blackmailer J. Edgar Hoover is just shocked that LBJ wants to use the FBI for political gain.
    • Russell constantly preaches about etiquette and principles, but he constantly talks about depriving black people of rights while they are performing tasks for him, such as serving him dinner and shining his shoes.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: LBJ's credo.
  • I Just Want to Be Loved: Another theme of the play, that the people who become president aren't happy and secure in the affection they have from friends and family—they desperately need everyone to love them.
  • I Lied: LBJ casually admits to lying to Hoover to get him to act.
    Walter: When did you talk to Senator Eastland about getting Dulles involved?
    LBJ: Oh, I made that part up.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: He may be crass, bullish, and manipulative, but LBJ sincerely believes in equal rights and will raise hell or high water to accomplish equality.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • Johnson at one point yells at Lady Bird to the point where she runs off to cry in the bathroom.
    • King has a woman tell the Democratic committee about her brutal beating and rape in a jail just for trying to register fellow African-Americans to vote. Humphrey, watching on television, is appalled. So is Johnson... because it's going to completely mess up his plans and he calls an unscheduled press conference just to get the news off of her.
  • Landslide Election: The play ends with LBJ winning the largest popular vote landslide in US presidential history.
  • Large and in Charge: Johnson was 6'4" and used it. We see an example of "the Johnson treatment" in the film when he walks into an elevator with a senator who's reluctant to vote for the bill. Johnson doesn't make any implication of a physical threat, but he pens the man into the corner, looming over him, and alternates between talking about the bill and rambling about his cufflinks. When the door opens, he's got the vote.
  • Let Me Tell You a Story: LBJ is very fond of using anecdotes to explain his methodology.
  • Like a Son to Me: Johnson is fond of Walter Jenkins and at one point tells him that he sees Jenkins as the son he never had. This sentiment does not mean he lifts a finger to help when Jenkins is outed as gay.
  • Lonely at the Top: In a moment of weakness, LBJ bemoans the fact that despite trying to do the right thing and bring the country together, everyone he is trying to help hates his guts and wouldn't care if he dropped dead.
  • Loophole Abuse: LBJ uses this to get the bill through the Senate Judiciary Committee.
  • Manipulative Bastard: LBJ will lie, joke, cajole, threaten, discomfort, humiliate, rage, get someone else to stab you in the back, whatever it takes to get you to vote his way.
  • Nice Guy: Hubert Humphrey, LBJ's strongest ally in the Senate and eventual Vice Presidential candidate, often serving as a peacemaker and mediator between the President and the people he angers.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Richard Russell, Jr., is always polite to the black wait staff even though he's fighting to keep them segregated. This notably distinguishes him from his white Southern colleagues who seem to treat black servants as furniture.
  • Noble Bigot: Johnson drops casual N-bombs in private, but clearly believes that segregation is an evil that humanity should grow beyond.
  • Number Two: Hubert Humphrey acts as Johnson's strongest ally in the Senate, which foreshadows him eventually becoming Vice-President in Johnson's second term.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: LBJ's wife, Lady Bird, and Rep. Howard "Judge" Smith.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Invoked by Senator Russel twice, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1964 United States presidential election. Both were huge victories for LBJ, but the Democratic Party lost its most reliable constituency as a consequence.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Martin Luther King in his interactions with various factions of the civil rights movement, having to ease out the differences between the more conservative and radical factions.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Johnson's personal habits are outrageous to the point where they really could not be made up in fiction. Examples include terrifying the daylights out of Humphrey by pretending to lose control of the car and driving into a lake (it's an amphibicar) and then having a meeting while sitting on the toilet.
  • Southern-Fried Genius: Johnson is this, when it comes to legislature and politics.
  • Surpassed the Teacher: Senator Russell taught LBJ most of what he knows about Senate rules and procedure and is not happy when he uses the knowledge to push the Civil Rights Act through Congress.
  • Warts and All: Martin Luther King is portrayed as the stirring idealist, noble pacifist and firm believer in integration and equality. He also must stomach compromising to appease moderate whites, and more radical African Americans who demand more immediate progress. He also is cheating on his wife with members of his congregation. Though LBJ upon discovering this immediately brushes it off as typical behavior of a Southern preacher.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: An issue in the different organizations that make up the civil rights movement. Some of them are wary of taking open actions that will bring down violence from the police, while SNCC believes it's necessary to draw attention to just how bad things are, and that the sight of white volunteers being brutalized will probably increase public outrage and sympathy for them. King mediates and moderates between them.
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    • Hubert H. Humphrey vehemently protests Johnson's decision to use military force in response to the Tonkin incident when it wasn't clear if the Maddox had even been hit.
    • Lady Bird is appalled at her husband for completely abandoning longtime aide Walter Jenkins after Jenkins' arrest for having sex with another man in a bathroom.