The movie, which opens this weekend, focuses on the weeks after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when Johnson becomes president and grapples with trying to live up to the legacy of his predecessor.
“All of the sudden the issue that is at the core of this movie, which is the Civil Rights Act and race relations, has bubbled back up to the surface,” Reiner tells Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM. Trump “is doing everything to divide us again, and I guess we thought we were on a glide path toward racial harmony…and then you see what happens when someone unearths this virulent underbelly of the United States, which is this dormant racism that comes back to the surface. He gives it voice.”
“Hopefully, we are fighting the last battle of the civil war,” Reiner adds.
Woody Harrelson stars as Johnson, in a performance that captures the 36th president’s legendary legislative prowess as well as a tremendously insecure side, one that could “paralyze him from moving forward,” Reiner says.
Reiner was of draft age during Johnson’s presidency, and marched against the Vietnam War. “I hated him,” he says. “Here is a guy who could send me to my death, so I had no interest in wanting to think about him in any other way.”
But as he got older, Reiner got involved in politics, and California state government. “I got to understand a lot more, of what [Johnson] went through and what he was able to do and able to accomplish. You only think about him through the Vietnam War. That is the image you have of Lyndon Johnson, that he took us to war and that is who he was. But there was this incredible domestic side to him. He had this incredible ability to get legislation passed.”
He said that Johnson was “a real deal maker, someone who really [knew] how to make a deal and bring people together. The guy we have now doesn’t have a clue. Not only does he not have a clue, he doesn’t care to learn.”
Reiner’s wife, Michele, is a professional photographer who took the picture of Trump that appears on the cover of the book “The Art of the Deal.” Reiner recalls meeting Trump once, at a heavyweight fight at Trump’s hotel in Atlantic City. Reiner was there with Billy Crystal.
“I have never seen a ego as big as this guy’s. Everything was about him,” Reiner says. “It was all about what he was doing and how successful he was. He didn’t care what Billy was doing, what I was doing.”
He never met Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign CEO and former White House chief strategist, who in the 1990s ended up getting a piece of the returns from “Seinfeld,” produced by Castle Rock. Reiner was partner in the production company.
“He was representing Westinghouse, which owned a piece of our company,” Reiner recalls. “And when we were selling the company, because we were owned by Ted Turner, and when Ted Turner sold the company to Warner Brothers, I guess Steve Bannon wound up getting a piece of the action and he wound up getting a piece of ‘Seinfeld.’ So I have a lot to atone for. I had no idea that we helped Steve Bannon in some way.”
Reiner recently helped form the Committee to Investigate Russia, with a mission to inform (and warn) the public about the threat of Russia interference in U.S. politics. He says that the Russian efforts continue, and pose a threat to the 2018 midterm elections.
Stars for Sign Ups
Bradley Whitford talks about an effort to promote enrollment to the Affordable Care Act, after the Trump administration scaled back funding for this year’s Obamacare outreach.
“PopPolitics,” hosted by Variety’s Ted Johnson, airs from 2-3 p.m. ET/11-noon PT on SiriusXM’s political channel POTUS. It also is available on demand.