John R. Bohrer: The Time The President Didn't Intervene

Roundup: Talking About History

[John R. Bohrer is an historian of 1960s American politics.]

In the first year of his first elected term, Lyndon Johnson made the presidency look easy. Landmark bills on education, health care and civil rights were flying through Congress. He put a new justice on the Supreme Court, escalated Vietnam and invaded the Dominican Republic. Johnson could do anything.

But he stayed out of New York politics.

In June of 1965, three-term Democratic Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr., turned the city on its ear when he announced he had changed his mind and would not seek re-election. An ideological array of Democrats crowded the field headed for a September primary.

This was no good. Wagner had been a shoo-in for the Liberal Party's endorsement, ensuring the Democrats would keep the thousands of progressives voters who pulled the third party's lever. The Liberals didn't care to wait to see who the Democrats picked, especially when they were being courted by a very viable liberal Republican in Congressman John V. Lindsay.

Now, Wagner was a lame-duck and new New Yorker Robert Kennedy had no chits. All eyes turned to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, home of the only person capable of stopping the Liberals from going with Lindsay.

Johnson was a big mover in New York. Newsweek said he valued the state "second only to Texas as his personal power base." He helped down-ballot candidates with two late '64 campaign swings, beating Goldwater in all sixty-two counties by nearly 2.7 million votes (in a place that spent the prior decade only slightly less Republican than Kansas).

And yet White House aides said the President had no interest in speaking to Liberal leaders, even in private. Lindsay took the Liberal line.

A few months later, Johnson was in town to sign the immigration reform bill at the foot of Lady Liberty. And where did they sit Democratic nominee, five-foot-two Abe Beame? Behind the congressional delegation, staring at the back of six-foot-four John Lindsay's head.

That was OK, though. With the general election just days away, Beame was counting on a big endorsement from the popular Johnson. They had arranged for its delivery at a $100-plate fundraiser with Vice President Humphrey -- there was even buzz that LBJ would phone in to be broadcast over the loudspeakers. Eager reporters met Humphrey at the airport, asking if he came bearing the President's endorsement.

Nope. "Warm regards." John Lindsay spent the next eight years as mayor of New York.

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