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What we thought we knew

Our perspectives on life often seem fixed. We have sorted out our thoughts and reactions as we have followed issues, engaged in dialogues, asked questions, studied, opened ourselves to new trends and innovations and integrated our reactions and responses into new mindsets.  

Last week as I watched Bryan Cranston portray LBJ, I experienced a relocation of ideas that had accompanied my comprehension of JFK’s successor.

As an adolescent, I like my peers , was totally enamoured with the myth of Camelot and the fantasy spun of the square- jawed tousle- haired president. In deed we loved the image we saw, imagining ourselves part of the family football on the sunny beaches, shopping with the stylish Jackie, even fantasizing that one day we might travel to Africa as part of The Peace Corps in pursuit of a better world .We believed ourselves a kind of extended family member attached to a presidential lifestyle that formed part of Photoplay or Seventeen magazine in the 60’s.We could be the brightest and the best, exceeding our grasp( what’s a heaven for?). Kennedy’s murder shattered our naivety, distorting a fuzzy dream of ourselves as blossoming boomers, making us cynical, disapproving and angry, no longer anticipating what could be . For after all, because he had been the first Catholic president , we anticipated that since he had cracked open that door, maybe women or black people might enter too. The world had felt rich with possibilities. But perhaps that is the illusion of the young- in any case.  

His death was a blow. I was exiting my Grade 11 French exam when I wondered why there were so many huddled together in corners, weeping, engulfed in tears. 

To take his place was the crude,rude, overbearing Lyndon Johnston. We would recall the pretender to the throne as hovering beside the courageous dazed Jackie as he was sworn in on Airforce One : when Kennedy’s brains were laced across his cavalcade. So my attitude towards the new president was something of resentment. 

He looked too anxious, so patronizing, so patriarchal, hovering. 

However, the LBJ, an adaptation of the Robert Schenkkan play “All the Way,”(2014) on Broadway, resurrects LBJ and for those who are not political aficionados and have not dived beyond the image we thought we knew of the man- the truth is staggering- and impressive. Observing his manipulation of the Southern Democrats to ensure Congress pass legislation for equal rights legislation in 1964 is spell binding. Unafraid to move towards what is right, to coddle, to befuddle,to coach or even demand in a booming voice took savvy and stratagem as he moved the country forward. In days of lynching, false arrests, colour bars, differentiated toilets (some things never change), the man stood strong. His own life from rural poor, teaching Mexicans with no future, and navigating the system with the “ good old boys” from Down South fortified his understanding of how to work the system. In spite of those good ole boys,LBJ began to overcome racial bias. “But for a few brief years, Lyndon Johnson, once a fairly conventional Southern Democrat, constrained by his constituents and his overriding hunger for power, rose above his political past and personal limitations, to embrace and promote his boyhood dreams of opportunity and equality for all Americans”, stated Bill Clinton,May 2, 2012, in discussing Seat of Power, Robert Caro’s book , The Passage of Power in New York Times Review of Books.   

Although this production for television reveals that often money to fund campaigns was the motivation that initiated bold steps, LBJ knew who, where and when, pressing into action without fanfare or niceties what needed to be accomplished. Not cultured, groomed or attractive, LBJ was a role model in crashing barriers. Hubert Humphrey was LBJ’s introspective,also driven, contrast. Quiet almost patronizing, Humphrey worked long hours to fulfill LBJs requests and carry out initiatives. LBJ’s small, closed circle of supports included Walter Jenkins, whom LBJ embraced as a son, found guilty of sex crimes in a YMCA bathroom, and as so a gay man, dismissed from his post. An interesting conversation between LBJ and J Edgar Hoover suggests that perhaps LBJ had suspicions about Hoover’s sexuality as well.

Much like Ken Burns’ work on the Roosevelts, LBJ illuminates political endeavours removing them from back rooms to simplify and demystify for the viewing audience, the inner world of negotiations that are self-seeking, petty, ego boosting but eventually light the way to improved lives. My cynicism re- enforced, I can at least live with the results of the 1964 rights bill and the downfall of George Wallace.Watching the remake of Roots this week substantiates the need for a strong moral conscience to have begun to attack the evil perpetuated on the slaves in the south. Yet many proclaim that bigoted attitude in those parts has been maintained. It’s the truly exceptional person willing to forego popularity and easy relations “ with the fellows” to push forward through the darkness of ignorance. LBJ appears to be one such remarkable politician.

In a nutshell, educating through the media can be an enlightening tool that aids in changing perspectives. Robert Caro, Doris Kearns Goodwin,Arthur Schlesinger, many other authors and presidents themselves write and extend our understanding, yet television makes history accessible as popular culture often trumps reading as the images presented and set in real chambers complete with contextual and even human contexts (such as wives, gardens, etc) go beyond to dramatize events: that we need not imagine and perhaps distort through our unknowing or previous biases.

And that is not to say any production is not shaped by the bias of the production or philosophical bent of any team. What I am saying is that the scenes made vivid, compelling with the heard interchange of the spoken word can engage us in a way that extends meaning. Maybe these visual journalists, the filmmakers of these “ docu dramas “ can propel our learning and re- educate our knowledge of days passed, essential days that turned the world around.

Years back when I taught at Northern Secondary, we chose for the final exam essays that were used to demonstrate students’ ability to apply critical thinking skills. One such piece dealt with “edutainment”, pondering the need to package learning as entertainment thereby appealing to students through funny monologues, jokes, media, etc. I recall scoffing that education might be devalued or made palatable for the sake of the presentation. In my head I harboured the long staid image of the professor at his podium, the students, nodding solemnly, busily scribbling down notes, the room silent, deep in thought. Now I know better: that learning can take place in innumerable venues and of course, in a plethora of ways. Eventually I ascertained this fact from Sesame Street where every minute, Grover, Elmo or Big Bird amazed and pierced our consciousness. No matter the flash of colour, the mispronounced phrase, the juxtaposition of milieu, we were transported to the land of learning and we were tickled enough to hold on to that fresh information. When viewing can be exciting and informative, we might just put down our IPads, watch, listen and THINK about issues that are more than entertainment.

How ironic that in the midst of all that, Donald Trump, first reported in the entertainment section of The Huffington Post, has become the entertainment without the “ edu-“- cation portion; “We announced our decision to put our coverage of Trump’s presidential campaign in our Entertainment section instead of our Politics section. “Our reason is simple,” wrote Ryan Grim and Danny Shea. “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow.”

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