The Real Reason LBJ Didn’t Run for Re-Election in 1968

tags: LBJ, 1968, Democratic Party

The author of this corrective piece researched his heavily documented Johnson effort—resulting in the Kansas Press Book The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson (1984)—back in the era 1976 to 1983. He pioneered in use of the LBJ Papers in Austin. Dr. Bornet (soon to be 100) lives busily in Ashland, Oregon and is a frequent contributor to HNN. His new book, “Seeking New Knowledge: A Research Historian’s Rewarding Career” (130 pages) will be out soon.

Let’s begin with a quick summary: President Lyndon B. Johnson inherited the presidency in November, 1963 after the terrible events in Dallas. He ran against Barry Goldwater with great success in 1964. Then he served a full term “in his own right” from 1964 through 1968, stepping down on January 20, 1969 as the presidency changed hands, Democratic to Republican, from his to Richard Nixon’s.

Our concern here is just how did it happen that in the spring of 1968, the President of the United States announced that he would not be running again for president in spring, summer, and autumn, 1968?

Almost any place one looks (except my account of the Johnson presidency!) the answer usually offered is that “the Left” or “Liberals” in the months of February to April, 1968 succeeded in a major goal. They allegedly made sure everybody would be certain that he could never win if he ran in 1968. As Johnson came to sense that, it is said, he found it necessary to abandon any thought, hope, or plan to run because it would be a waste of time—and embarrassing to boot. Several prominent Democrats claimed they were rising toward probable success at the time. (One of them would fail, one would be shot, others would fall by the wayside.) Hubert Humphrey ultimately obtained the nomination and ran an acceptable race—but did not win, against Richard Nixon.

In the years that have passed there has been conjecture as to why LBJ didn’t attempt to run for reelection. It has been easy to speculate that maybe it was the difficulty facing him in obtaining the Democratic nomination that was the problem, not the strength of the Republican Party with its chosen ticket.

Why did LBJ decline to offer himself? The Vietnam War? (Not going well.) Decline of initial enthusiasm for that Great Society? Let’s admit right away that these are extremely important—and relevant—matters to history and for historians.

But what will be contended here, documented, and soon become quite clear (I trust) to one and all, is this: Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson had long since determined (in September, 1964) out loud, and in front of reliable adults, that the campaign of the year they were in (1964) would be The End of LBJ’s Campaigning for office!

That decision, “witnessed” for all practical purposes, would become known and recognized, amply documented in December, 1967, for all practical purposes irretrievably (though not publicly), starting right then. Letters signed and transmitted behind the scenes, written to several top leaders of the day, pronounced the decision of the Johnsons, husband and wife, in a manner allowing for no retreat, change of mind, or finally “stepping up to the plate,” as is said in some circles. Let’s examine some of the evidence.

(Interrupting a moment: This story appeared deep in chapter 12 of my book The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, pp. 283-305. Offered were footnotes, both single and double, 39 in all. Under the circumstances, what is being offered here to HNN is a readable precis of that account, footnotes deleted, but with several important sources clearly indicated within the prose.)

Let’s admit at once that there is ample evidence of growing opposition to any Johnson election to a second full term in 1968. Little would be gained here by reciting it. That year was a dramatic one, to be sure, with assassinations, a convention with street demonstrations, and a highly visible—and audible—left wing of the Democratic Party yelling ever louder in the hope of crushing the incumbent part of the party as soon as possible, forcing it to give up, in advance of evolving events.

The burden here is proving that Lyndon B. Johnson was not physically “well” and then indicating that the fact was quite clear to the Johnsons, husband and wife. It is evident that his poor health needs documenting. Then we need ample evidence that the candidacy of 1968 was abandoned because of health considerations long in advance of the time for announcing.

Let’s see. His appendix came out in 1937. He had “chest trouble” when serving briefly with the Navy, actually, six to eight bouts with pneumonia. By developing bronchitis he qualified for a 10 percent veterans disability pay (applying for it but then rejecting it). A kidney stone was taken out in 1948, and after a Mayo Clinic stone removal in 1955 he wore a brace for awhile.

Pretty well known is the 1955 “infarction” of the heart: death of part of the muscle. (On that, I am surefooted, for mine was 1977.) My death of a quarter of the heart laid me out. LBJ’s made him prepare for death; talk was of retirement, as he stayed in the hospital a month (I, 22 days). Recovery at the Ranch was solid. Still, the recommendation was for “carefully regulated hours of work and rest.”

Unexpected, of course, was inheritance of the Presidency in November, 1963 (and he would have no vice president!). Moving out of the Elms – his home while vice president – LBJ had a very severe cold and a chest condition, but it was kept private. For a time smoking was out, and he had some sort of prescription. Pajamas were worn in part of the afternoons. His diet was carefully supervised. There were massages and enemas (with others commenting), and he routinely avoided shutting doors. An intimate says he concentrated on his physical distress—but one byproduct was hyperawareness of the medical needs of others, ‘tis said. (A reason for Johnson to appreciate Medicare and Medicare?)

It is interesting to read of how comprehensive (and expensive) were the medical costs of Johnson’s government air tours anyplace; people and preparations added up. His physician was promoted to vice admiral, and joint appointments for M.D.s were general. Adjacent medical facilities in Texas got shots in the arm. Three days after the 1965 inauguration LBJ was taken by ambulance at 2:26AM, allegedly with a “cold,” but the VP says “chest pains.” (He is described as “solemn” and “grim,” with “fears and apprehensions.” Was there heart arrythemia?)

There was in 1965 “stomach pain.” There were “night sweats.” In October 1965, ten doctors attended a two-hour operation to take out a gall bladder and kidney stone, leading to “limited activities.” There would be abdominal and throat surgery in 1966. Why bother even mentioning here the 40 or so skin pre-cancers or the eye styes? Or his complaints of “foot trouble.”

While an English biographer noted “recurrent anxieties about his health” rather early, it is clear that President Johnson did survive his elected term, returning to the Ranch as planned. More to the point, he came down with chills and fever on December 16, 1967. Lady Bird offers a graphic description of his indolence and demoralization (my choice of words) in the hospital at the time. John Steinbeck said Johnson was “too drawn and too taunt” just then. Precautions were made routinely for a turn to the worse by the incumbent President.

Detouring to the post-presidency a moment: Johnson died before a term beginning in 1969 would have been over! (Before generalizing on that, one should take account of how LBJ abused his wellbeing in post presidential years: heavy drinking and smoking marked those sad months when that past President’s responsibility was minimum. All in all, there is plenty of evidence that President Johnson in office was often seriously ill, that the public was kept ignorant of many episodes; indeed, that the major heart attack of 1955 was considered a guidepost to the future by some—not all. Now, it’s time for evidence about retirement not to be ignored.

Lady Bird says in her Diary that the decision to run in 1964 (repeat, 1964!) was only made after searching conferences with cardiologists James Cain and Willis Hurst. They wondered if he was up to a full term as President, that is, four years, either psychologically or physically. (I summarize the group’s opinion in my book: “they thought he should try.” Emphasis mine.) That is, he should try to run in 1964!

Time passed. By mid-1967 it was becoming important that the tired and often discouraged man in the White House get ready to make a decision about running in 1968 and (behind the scenes, of course) let key people know. Fortunately, one decision had been made—over again— on Labor Day, 1967. (Governor John Connelly was sick of serving the national ticket by running as governor of Texas. He had to be told.) At the Ranch, pressed by Lady Bird, Lyndon proclaimed: “All right, you’ve been talking about this for a long time, so we’ll make this decision right now and make you happy…. I’ve decided I won’t run for reelection.”

There is little to be gained by tracing LBJ’s hints and warnings from that point on, but one can. What is relevant is how he handled his mandatory, official, notifications. (We’ll even ignore speculating on the significance of the secret study of Johnson’s life expectancy conducted quietly in 1967.) That intimates were given hints by LBJ in that year is merely interesting. What evidence would have deep and compelling meaning for us, today? How do we really know that the totally private decision of late summer, 1964 was still considered compelling as the time for getting ready for a Real Decision (even if behind the scenes) came into focus at or just before Christmas, 1967?

An early communication of consequence was when Lady Bird told the Johnson’s good buddy Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas in May, 1967. (Some readers may have read of the terrible Fortas summer when the top position on the Court escaped him as the President lost. Jack Valenti, dearest of friends, no stranger to life in the White House, had been told even earlier, by quite a bit. It is wonderful to read in Lyndon’s wife’s diary intimate words reinforcing her unqualified faith in the decision early on not to run.

Far more relevant are these actions: James Webb, head of NASA needed a successor to get ready…. So he was told early. Texas congressman Jake Pickle had to know for many reasons; he was told. The time was at hand in autumn, 1967, when the highest of officials had to be advised officially from the top. General Westmoreland was one. McNamara was leaving, he learned, and enroute the General was filled in on facts about Johnson’s health. LBJ candidly discussed “presidents’ health” where talk included the term “invalided.” General Eisenhower was next. (I observed in my book version that LBJ would never have lied to West Point graduates on a matter of this kind.) Ike instantly conveyed what he learned to General Goodpaster, who, advised, says he found it “very revealing” on many matters.

There would seem to be little real gain in moving on at this point to a discussion of exactly how President Johnson chose to reveal to the greater public and to an array of key figures his decision not to run. The time came when it was very late—March, 1968, and the chief executive was weighing all kinds of things: principally just what could he get out of North Vietnam with a conveyed decision that he would no longer be in “that office.”

Need we, having established the truth about the Johnson renunciation of being on the 1968 Democratic ticket, trace any of the events that occurred then and in the more than a half year to come? No; but a quotation from astute Richard Nixon is worthwhile. Late in 1967 he said observantly of the sitting President: “He seemed to be running away from…his policies in public” and failing to generate support. So observed the master politician! Not even knowing the decision had been made, that veteran could sense that something important had been decided on a key matter.

Few, or no, individuals were as close to Lyndon Johnson as Arthur Krim (who would in later years lead Hollywood, but at the time was the guarantor of candidate LBJ’s solvency when seeking election. On March 11, 1968 he selected Hubert Humphry to be President’s Club speaker on April 30. As for Humphrey, sitting vice president, he was told well ahead of time, and Dean Rusk, Secretary of State was another who learned of the truth (though he didn’t believe it).

At the appropriate time the crafty President, seeking to get something out of words and deeds, said to a national audience: “…I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” May I now quote my book on the reaction? “Listeners were incredulous. Eric Severeid and other TV anchormen were at a total loss for interpretations, just as Johnson had hoped they would be. Contrary to what some have alleged, Lady Bird was ‘radiant’; to her Lyndon she said, ‘Nobly done, darling.’ ”

Having (I think) established my main point, that Lyndon B. Johnson was not forced out of running for reelection in 1968, I see nothing to be gained by ruminating about reactions nationally in party circles, or among White House aides. Johnson seems to have thought he could/would have won.

Maybe giving Lady Bird the last word is warranted. In autumn, 1967 she had written in private: with four more years in office for a man in his sixties, “bad health might overtake him…; a physical or mental incapacitation would be unbearable, painful for him to recognize.” (There had been so many visits by Lady Bird to hospitals!)

My conclusion is sturdy: (page 296) “So, Johnson’s withdrawal from candidacy for another term could have been—but clearly was not—due to Tet, the war in general, rival challengers in his party, the protesters, the polls, the ‘system’ working, any alleged mental quirks or supposed tendencies toward avoiding conflict, or the fear of losing.” His key words of summation were used by me in my chapter title, to wit, “I’VE GONE THE DISTANCE.”

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