Today in history: LBJ declares he will not run again for president
Senator Robert F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson, June 22, 1966 / Yoichi Okamoto, National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimeda Commons, public domain

Fifty years ago, on March 31, 1968, in a nationally televised address in which he largely talked about America’s sense of purpose in the world and the increasing divisiveness within the country over both domestic and foreign issues, President Lyndon B. Johnson ended with a bombshell that threw American politics into a tailspin.

He said: “…I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

Johnson had served as president since November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. He won his own full term in November 1964, handily defeating Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. According to the ten-year term limit on the presidency, Johnson could have run again in 1968 for another four-term term.

The country was in turmoil. Anti-war demonstrators plagued LBJ’s every public appearance, shouting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” By then a national consensus was approaching the conclusion that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable. Privately, historians have determined, Johnson himself had arrived at that understanding but felt constrained by all he had done to build up the war to start backing away from it now.

A common view of his decision not to run again is that he would have faced a strong primary fight from his left flank. Sen. Eugene McCarthy had already launched a presidential campaign the previous fall based on ending the war.

Without discounting the persuasiveness of these arguments, scholar Vaughn Davis Bornet offers a different interpretation in an article, “The Real Reason LBJ Didn’t Run for Re-Election in 1968.”

According to Bornet, the reason is that even as far back as the 1964 campaign, LBJ had sworn to close friends and to his wife Lady Bird that he would never campaign for office again. Lady Bird’s diary entries confirm these conversations. LBJ’s health had been precarious for many years, marked by an appendectomy, episodes of pneumonia, bronchitis, recurring kidney stones, and a 1955 heart attack which killed part of his heart muscle. There was also the stress of inheriting the presidency in 1963 (and he did not have a vice president until he and Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey were elected in 1964).

Several incidents during his presidency, such as colds and chest pains, were never reported to the public, although well known was his gall bladder surgery in October 1965, and the following year’s abdominal and throat surgeries. He also had, according to Bornet, “40 or so skin pre-cancers.”

Bornet makes one small but obvious mistake in his article when he says, “Johnson died before a term beginning in 1969 would have been over!” That is not exactly true. Richard M. Nixon was elected in November 1968, and re-elected in 1972. His second inauguration took place on January 20, 1973, which would have been LBJ’s last morning in office, and Johnson died on January 22, 1973. He might have lived to complete a second term, but more likely he would have been incapacitated before that from one or another of his physical conditions, a prospect that Lady Bird also mentioned in her diary entires of 1967.

After the speech, Lady Bird congratulated her husband, saying, “Nobly done, darling.”

Already by March 31st the year 1968 was turning out to be a tumultuous one. More upset and confusion were yet too come: Four days after the president’s fateful announcement, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; later Robert F. Kennedy; the disastrous Democratic Party convention in Chicago that uneasily settled on Humphrey as the party standard-bearer; and in November, the victory of Richard M. Nixon. And that’s just domestically: There were also monumental events in France, Czechoslovakia, and in the Southeast Asian war.

A generous excerpt of LBJ’s speech, including his famous declaration, can be viewed here.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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