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quicker than things that work. It’s kind of like being kicked in the belly’why’d I write that?!'” The Act Two “pleadings” of the presidents, he says, just went on and on, and his new version is now significantly shorter, and he’s also rewritten the fates of his post-mortem protagonists. The “obstacle” King chose for his dead presidents was nothing less than eternal judgement. As the play opens, Johnson and Nixon meet in a sort of boot-camp anteroom to the afterlife, and must attempt to scheme or argue their way into heaven. Since the play is about political and moral accountability, King added Harry Truman, as the man who had made the unprecedented decision to use the atomic bomb. The playwright then concluded that “three really strong, dogmatic men” was enough; the fourth president is the notoriously passive “Silent Cal” Coolidge, who provides a striking personality contrast and makes no attempt to upstage his theatrical betters. “With Coolidge,” says the playwright, “less is more.” King jokes that he knew all his characters personally, “except Coolidge and God.” It’s certainly true that the subject and these chaiacters are his earned territory. He began his writing ca reer in the forties and fifties as a reporter in New Mexico and Texas, and then drifted directly into politics, spending a decade working for Texas congressmen, first J.T. Rutherford and then Jim Wright. For a brief but illuminating time he was attached to the expansive entourage of Lyndon Johnson himself, including stints on the Johnson and then the Kennedy/Johnson campaign trails. King ambivalently but unforgettably memorialized his meetings with Johnson in vivid eswhich the young political sidehand finds the gumption to defy Johnson’s bullying, and is rewarded with high Texas praise: “You can get kinda salty, can’t you?” In the following years, King’s reputation as a writer grew, in the Observer as well as more high-profile and remunerative venues \(he jokes that he had to twist Ronnie bugger’s arm to get his Observer freelance checks raised from fifteen to twenty-five returned regularly to his favorite subjects in Texas politics, LBJ among them. “The Alamo Mind-Set: LBJ and Vietnam” haranguing his biographers, that may well have been the germ of King’s new play: “Johnson would say, no, no, it wasn’t like that; it was like this. And he would rattle on, waving his arms and attempting to justify himself, invoking the old absolutes, justification: “It’s my nature to tell people what they want to hearI’m a politician!” In today’s prissified political vernacular, ‘King’s conversational “saltiness”the proud remnant of a Texas country childhood worn as comfortably as a pair of old bootscan sound almost antique. The change in the verbal weather may in fact date from the Nixon administration, whose moralistic public face required a rigid decorum, even while its private conferences were laced with expletives-to-bedeleted. For King, all of today’s politicians display the unhappy effects of politics-as theatre”bad theatre.” He argues that while the politicians for whom he labored understood public relations”Hell, we’d meet privately and decide how to answer Question ‘A’ or slide off of Question `13′”today’s political “spinsters” are their own promoters, happy to go on television and describe in detail their own hypocritical machinations: “It’s as though it doesn’t matter if a politician does anything at all, as long as he can make it sound like something.” King remembers House Speaker and LBJ confidant Sam Rayburn predicting that the coming of television would break down the party system, as politicians became convinced they needed neither an organization nor a program, and could go it alone on fund-raising and photoops. “What with TV and PAC money,” concludes King, “you get politicians like Ronald Reagan or Clinton, who didn’t have to build a DICK SWANSON state party, or work their way up through the ranks.” \(Bob Dole, he noted, was an ex ception, an old-style politician still eager to do deals and pass legislation, and his GOP handlers were obviously unhappy with him. He spoke a few days before Dole, as if fulfilling King’s judgement, resigned from the Senate to campaign for pres ident. It was not a tactic that would have been conceivable Whatever they might mean for the country, the new politics are not inspiring to Larry L. King, the writer. For all their myriad faults, Johnson and Nixon seemed larger than lifeoversized figures who could feed the literary imagination. King says his friend, political cartoonist Pat Oliphant \(who did the presidential carcurrent generation of bland politicians has made life increasingly difficult for his profession. “I’ don’t think there will be politicians like this again,” reflected King. “It’s the homogenization of American politics. Maybe I wrote this play partly out of nostalgia for that kind of politics. Who knows.” Asked if he saw Newt Gingrich recently on “The Tonight Show” trying to repair his damaged environmental image by embracing endangered species, King snorts, “Can you imagine Sam Rayburn going on TV and hugging a fuckin’ pig?!” Not hardly. Larry King as saloon-keeper in Hank Williams calling up memories of the Alamo, the Texas Rangers, the myths, and the legends. He never seemed to understand where or how he had gone wrong.” So in The Dead Presidents’ Club, a still-defiant Johnson harangues the Almighty Herself \(another A still-defiant Johnson harangues the Almighty Herself \(another wry justification: “It’s my nature to tell people what they want to hear I’m a politician!” THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5