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Book offers touching, humorous look at LBJ

Some plays are so well-written and fantastically performed that I want to somehow stay in the worlds they have created long after seeing them.

Actor Dan Donohue's critically acclaimed performance as Hamlet in 2010 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival had me rereading Shakespeare's classic.

Actor Jack Willis' masterful portrayal of President Lyndon Baines Johnson in the OSF's production of "All the Way" this season had me picking up a copy of author Mark Updegrove's newly released book, "Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency."

For "All the Way," playwright Robert Schenkkan avoided easy paths to tapping into audience members' emotions. President John F. Kennedy has already been assassinated when the action begins, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy have yet to occur.

"Indomitable Will" fills in these gaps, while also detailing more of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that was the hallmark of Johnson's presidency.

But it is also so much more.

Rather than writing a dry, fact-filled historical time line — a fault of some biographers — Updegrove weaves together an intimate portrayal of Johnson through interview excerpts and oral histories. He ties them together with just enough narrative to clearly set the context for events.

Updegrove, the director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Texas, states early on that he feels Johnson has been slighted by history, and he wants to provide a more well-rounded account.

As Joseph Califano, a special assistant to Johnson, describes in the book, the president was brave and brutal, compassionate and cruel, generous and petty, honest and devious.

"He gave new meaning to the word Machiavellian, as he gave new hope to the disadvantaged," Califano said.

"Indomitable Will" tells us about experiences in Johnson's background that made him truly care about the poor, such as when he worked as an elementary school teacher, organizing sporting events, debates and literary societies for impoverished children of Mexican immigrants.

For playgoers who want to hear more of Johnson's homespun tales and jokes, several are sprinkled through the book, as when Johnson tells of a man who refused to give up drinking despite his doctor's warnings that it was ruining his hearing.

The man explained, "Doctor, I got home and considered it, and I just decided I liked what I drank so much better'n what I heard."

While "All the Way" stops after Johnson's first year in office, "Indomitable Will" continues on to describe Johnson's anguish over the escalating Vietnam War and his growing sense — along with much of the nation — that it was an unwinnable quagmire.

The war, plus his fear that he would suffer a heart attack and be incapacitated or die during his second term, pushed Johnson to declare that he would not accept his party's nomination for another term as president.

Johnson's story has been described as Shakespearean in the way that he was thrust into power by tragedy and also had his own towering ambitions.

But his decision to step down voluntarily was decidedly un-Shakespearean.

Johnson's sense of humor and loyalty to his staff stayed with him even as he prepared to hand the reins of power to incoming President Richard Nixon.

Johnson's special counsel, W. DeVier Pierson, looking for a post-White House job, traveled to California to interview for a position with a prestigious law firm.

Johnson called Pierson in the middle of the interview, saying he needed to talk to him right away — mightily impressing the firm's partners, who cleared out an office for Pierson to take the call in private.

Pierson jumped on the phone to ask what Johnson needed.

The president replied, "Oh, I didn't have anything. I just thought the call might be helpful."

"Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency" is available through local bookstores and online.

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.