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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Fifty Years on, David Kleinberg's Hey, Hey, LBJ! Takes a Journalistic View of Vietnam

Posted By on Thu, May 26, 2016 at 5:00 PM

click to enlarge DAVID KLEINBERG
  • David Kleinberg
“I don’t have a background in theater. I’m not a performer,” says David Kleinberg. “It’s all been learned in the last eight years. I think it took 50 years for be to be ready to do it.”

The longtime San Francisco Chronicle editor is speaking about Hey, Hey, LBJ!, a one-man show recounting his experiences in Vietnam in 1966-67 that opens on Friday, May 27 at The Marsh and runs through June 5. Party of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, it’s his second foray on the stage, after The Voice.

“I thought I was going to write something and I did but it never got published,” Kleinberg says. “Fifty years later, I decided to write a play, and I had all this source material.”

He isn’t worried about the corrosive effects of the five intervening decades on his memories, either. “The stuff you’re gonna remember 50 years later is the core, the most important things,” he says.

That’s not to say he’s content dredging up recollections of the ’60s. Kleinberg has traveled to Southeast Asia, to speak with the large American expat community that lives there. (He has also performed the play for Vietnamese audiences.) And much has changed: Still nominally a communist state, Vietnam and the U.S. now enjoy a cordial relationship, with Pres. Obama recently permitting arms sales to the very country it nearly destroyed to prevent more dominos from falling to Marxism.

One wonders if the world needs more bombs in it, but when it comes to America and Vietnam, ironies and contradictions abound. Hey, Hey, LBJ! makes much of the bizarre situations that resulted, especially after a bunker deemed safe gets bombed.

“Mike Wallae was out there to ask why the bunker had no top,” Kleinberg says. “He was told we were in the middle of the base camp, and all the media and dignitaries wanted to convince people we were winning this war, and they took all the tops off to convince people how safe it was … You had a general decorated all the way back to World War II telling us the war was still legal and moral, and Pete Seeger was singing we’re waist-deep.”

As a topic for art, the Vietnam War has attracted its fair share of exaggerators. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, for instance, was hardly verisimilitude.

“I would say what Coppola did was somewhat exaggerated,” Kleinberg says, “but it was bitter entertainment.”

Nailing the spirit is what inspired him to take a few creative liberties himself. Kleinberg’s script has Bob Hope on a USO tour quipping to assembled soldiers that America’s “behind you 18 percent.”

“It’s not necessarily the truth, but it has to be in the spirit of the truth,” he says. “What he actualy said was ’50 percent,’ but it’s a better joke at 18.”

Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency ended in disgrace, and he died a broken man four years and a day after leaving office. But in hindsight, there have been at least two administrations whose reputations have fallen even lower as a result of foreign entanglements. Does Kleinberg think the Vietnam War destroyed Johnson? Does he have any sympathy for the man?

“Absolutely,” he says. “He inherited it and didn’t know how to get out of t it. You could just see the man in anguish: ‘If I put in more boys, there’ll be more killing.’ ”

Hey, Hey, LBJ!, May 27 - June 5, at the Marsh, $20-$25, 1062 Valencia.

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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