TV: Dramas based on LBJ and a Welty story. Johnson's early career - a blend of fact and fiction

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LBJ: The Early Years NBC, Sunday, 8-11 p.m. Stars: Randy Quaid, Patti LuPone, Pat Hingle, Morgan Brittany, Kevin McCarthy. Writer: Ken Trevey. Director: Peter Werner. Lyndon Baines Johnson was a paradox - a poor man who accumulated wealth, a vulgar and insensitive man who sometimes exhibited moments of great sensitivity and gentleness, a dedicated husband who also philandered, a pragmatic politician who sometimes made great stands on principle.

So I suppose it follows that this TV special about his early years in politics is a paradoxical drama.

The ambivalence in his character is shown in graphic detail in ``LBJ: The Early Years'' as the film follows Johnson from 1934, when he was secretary to a Texas congressman, to his inauguration as the 36th President, after the Kennedy assassination.

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Johnson's expert handling of the Dixiecrats in Congress, his feud with Bobby Kennedy, and his masterful assumption of power after Kennedy's death are dramatized vividly and entertainingly.

And despite the many character faults attributed to him, the conclusion of the drama makes clear there was much to admire, as well - especially his successes in passing civil rights legislation.

Randy Quaid portrays the late president with eerie accuracy, at moments giving an excellent impersonation of him and at other times getting to his essence without stooping to mimicry.

Patti LuPone's Lady Bird is not nearly as successful. Too often her characterizations go no deeper than donning the proper wig.

Throughout the drama Texas clich'es and names like Billie Bob and Joe Don pop up like jackrabbits. So do lines that could have been lifted from soap opera, such as: ``I know he's a philanderer, but I love him.''

There's also plenty of LBJ bluff and bluster. When a guard tells junior Sen. Johnson, for example, that the parking spaces are reserved for senators with seniority, he responds: ``Then you just watch my car while I go in and get me some.''

While it is widely acknowledged that LBJ indulged in various kinds of vulgarity in speech and action, these could have been better handled with just a bit more subtlety by the use of innuendo.

The drama is often simplistic in its politic and ingenuous in its human relationships. In fact, it manages to indulge in mythmaking and revisionism simultaneously, thus mixing truth and legend in a blend that often hopelessly fuzzes the historical record.

As a result, some of what was meant to be character revelation comes across as character assassination, as the writer's invented dialogue about intimate relationships gives fictional embellishment to the known facts.

Yet despite its many flaws, ``LBJ: The Early Years'' does succeed in bringing a larger-than-life figure to the screen.

It is recent history in the form of soap opera. But none of TV's soap operas would dare to introduce such a magnificent, mythical, paradoxical character as LBJ. Viewers would consider him simply too unbelievable.

Arthur Unger is television critic of the Monitor.

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