Glaring omissions mar PBS biography of Lyndon Johnson


September 30, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun TV Critic

It's wonderful to look at. The subject matter is epic. And the writing has moments of lyricism that will stir you to your bones.

For all of that, "LBJ," a four-hour biography of Lyndon Johnson beginning tonight at 9 on MPT (Channels 22 and 67), isn't a cause for celebration. "LBJ" is television doing history, and making some big mistakes. When the subject matter is as important to our shared past and sense of who we are as it is in this case, such mistakes are inexcusable.

The major mistake starts with decisions made by writer/producer David Grubin based on whom he did and did not get to participate in the project. The series lists a number of Johnson biographers as its consultants.

Missing is Robert Caro, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer. It's not Grubin's fault if Caro declined to participate, but ignoring some of the terrible things that Johnson did, which Caro documented, is.

Grubin ignores Johnson manufacturing a phony war record to impress voters. He barely mentions Johnson's early years spent in political bed with Texas developers, or Johnson's abuse of the Federal Communications Commission to build a broadcast empire.

The result is that, for all the talk of "seeds sown" in this Shakespearean analysis, we never understand what those seeds of character were. And without that understanding, we can never really comprehend the historical harvest of the adult LBJ -- ranging from the good of civil rights legislation to the bad of the Gulf of Tonkin and Vietnam.

There are other holes in "LBJ." One noticeable absence is Bill Moyers, former Johnson press secretary. I interviewed Moyers about Johnson in connection with a 1989 Esquire magazine profile, and Moyers was a trove of Johnson insight. The absence of Caro, Moyers and others should have been explained to viewers. More importantly, their views -- with or without their presence -- should have been included in the process of triangulation upon triangulation it takes to get at the historical truth of a character as complicated and cunning as LBJ.

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