“He never knew if his mother would love him or not”

LBJ director Rob Reiner on how making a film about someone can change your mind about who they are.

“He never knew if his mother would love him or not”

Illustration by Jo Yeh

I was of draft age during the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, and I had a certain idea about Lyndon Johnson. All I thought was that he was a guy who was in favor of a war that I wasn’t in favor of: I looked at him through that prism only. I thought of him in a certain kind of two-dimensional way.

As I’ve gotten older, I learned to appreciate what he was able to accomplish—not only Civil Rights legislation but also Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start. When you look at the domestic agenda that he was able to effectuate, it’s extraordinary, and so I started thinking of him in a different light. I saw another side of him.

I got a real insight into his personality, which was way more complex than what you imagine, while reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. There were two things that really struck me. First, despite his tough-guy exterior, Johnson had this recurring dream where he would be paralyzed in a wheelchair. During the 1960 presidential primaries, he kept going back and forth on whether he was going to run or not. He was the majority leader of the Senate at that time, and Kennedy was running, and Johnson couldn’t decide if he wanted to run. There were times when he really would get paralyzed and couldn’t make decisions.

In many cases, the strength he got from his wife, Lady Bird, and how she was able to support him was the thing that got him moving. And once he was moving, he

was like a freight train; he was unstoppable. In those days, we didn’t know very much about a politician’s personal life. So that was one.

The other thing that struck me was his relationship with his mother. She loved him, but there was a condition to it. She loved him when he was doing what she thought he should be doing, but if he deviated from that or veered, she would withhold her feelings. It created insecurity in him. He never knew if his mother would love him or not love him, and he really desperately wanted that love.

People have this view of Lyndon Johnson as being this kind of larger-than-life tough bully. He could twist your arm and get you to vote the way he wanted, but in reality, there was a tremendously soft, insecure side to him. There was a fear of not being loved and at times it immobilized him. For my movie, I wanted to be able to see if I could paint a fuller picture of him than the image I had as a young guy.

The real test came when we had a screening of the film at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, and Luci Baines was there. We finished the screening, and I was a little nervous—I was only interested in how she reacted. Prior to getting to the question-and-answer stuff, I said, “Before we get started, I just want to hear, what does Lyndon Johnson’s daughter think of what she just saw?” She stood up, and she’s tiny and very formal, and she said, “The man I saw on the screen tonight is the man I knew.”

I thought, “That’s it. That’s all I need. I don’t care what anybody else says.” It was the best validation. I was so excited.

Rob Reiner’s LBJ opens Nov. 3.