At ‘LBJ’ preview, the late president’s family meets his latest on-screen incarnation

From left, former Virginia governor Chuck Robb, Catherine Robb, Woody Harrelson, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s daughter Lynda Robb, Rob Reiner, Lucinda Robb and Lars Florio at the D.C. screening of “LBJ."  Daniel Swartz

WASHINGTON – Rob Reiner has shown his movie “LBJ” to audiences that have included Hollywood heavyweights and influential reviewers. But at Monday night’s screening of the upcoming biopic at the National Archives sponsored by the LBJ Foundation, the director was most concerned about the reaction of just one viewer: Lyndon Johnson’s daughter Lynda Robb, who was seated in the front row, along with her husband, former Virginia governor Chuck Robb, and two of their daughters.

The house lights had come up and the post-movie Q&A session with Reiner and star Woody Harrelson had begun, but before taking the first query, Reiner paused. “First, I just want to hear one word from Lynda Robb,” said the veteran filmmaker, obviously on pins and needles to hear what the former first daughter thought about seeing her father portrayed on screen. “Was it OK?”

“Yes, it was OK,” Robb replied, and Reiner looked relieved.

Later, Robb put a finer point on her review. She loved the way the film depicted her parents’ marriage, she told us, with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lady Bird Johnson offering warm counsel and comfort to her sometimes-self-doubting husband. “She was someone who would tell you the truth about yourself even if it wasn’t what you wanted to hear,” Robb recalled. “It was a marriage where they balanced each other.”

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But what about how the movie captures her father? LBJ’s famously crass tendencies are on full display (in one scene, he uses the bathroom with the door open while conferring with his political aides), though Harrelson’s depiction does get at the man’s charm and complexity.

Robb was slightly more hesitant on this point and told a story about a family friend, journalist William White, who wrote a biography of Sen. Robert Taft. When asked by friends how pleased the Taft family must have been about the book, which won a Pulitzer, White said, “They would only have been happy if I’d made him a god,” Robb recalled. “So it’s like that with family – it’s always ‘Why didn’t you put this or that in there?'”

LBJ wasn’t the only president whose presence was being felt at the screening of a movie that is all about the power of the office. President-elect Donald Trump also loomed large for the audience, which included Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Motion Picture Association of America head Chris Dodd, and a handful of Johnson staffers, including former chief of protocol Lloyd Hand.

Reiner, a longtime supporter of Democratic causes, was clearly stung by the election results, accusing the media of “normalizing” Trump and saying the election revealed racism that had “been papered over in this country.” But in his post-film remarks, he told the audience – using a line from the film – that he hoped today’s leaders would rise to the challenges of the day: “We need someone to have balls the size of a Texan’s.”