There absolutely is — Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream: The Most Revealing Portrait of a President and Presidential Power Ever Written — which focuses on exactly those things: LBJ’s oversized personality, deep insecurities, and remarkable rise to power. Robert Caro’s four volumes (and counting) has done this, too, but DKG’s book covers in about 400 pages what it’s taken Caro 4,000 pages and nearly 35 years to write (so far).
Plus, a young Doris Kearns (she didn’t marry Richard Goodwin until 1975) served as a White House Fellow during the Johnson Administration and not only danced with LBJ upon her first time actually meeting him at a White House event, but took the opportunity to criticize the President for the Vietnam War. When LBJ left office and retired to Texas to write his memoir, he asked Kearns to come along and help him put the book together as a researcher and ghostwriter. Like everyone who ever knew LBJ, she found him extremely fascinating and extraordinarily frustrating. As he told her his story in interviews and writing sessions while they built the book, Kearns thought they had one of the most remarkable Presidential biographies ever written because of LBJ’s colorful personality and earthy manner of speaking and explaining things. However, LBJ insisted that his language and prose be cleaned up so that he came across as Presidential. Kearns was disappointed because what we got with The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969 wasn’t any different from the normal, cautious, formal Presidential memoirs we’ve almost always gotten from former Presidents. Fortunately, she used what she learned and experienced while working closely with LBJ to write Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream.
Doris Kearns Goodwin is best-known for Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, and The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga — and rightly so. All of those books are classics. But Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream is always overlooked, and it is one of the best books ever written about a President as a person. It’s exactly what you are curious about in your question.
No, I don’t think anybody could have beaten Richard Nixon in 1972. The man won 49 out of 50 states. LBJ removed himself (as much as LBJ could ever removed himself) from the political process after leaving the Presidency. He would have needed a really good reason for jumping back into Presidential politics so quickly after getting out of politics — on a personal level and politically — and I don’t know that he would have had one. And while I think Johnson would have beaten Nixon if they had faced each other in 1968, I think Nixon would have beaten Johnson if the tables were turned in 1972 because incumbency is such a powerful weapon in Presidential politics. LBJ would have done better than George McGovern had done and Nixon wouldn’t have won 49 states, but I still think he would have lost.
Of course, it’s all a moot point anyway because LBJ was dying in 1972. Even if he had run and had been elected in November 1972, he’d have died in office. As it was, LBJ died two days after Inauguration Day 1973 — Nixon was sworn in for his second term on January 20th and LBJ died on January 22nd.
Through the long telescope of history, then, the ground between Reagan and Johnson appears vast, the distance between two opposite visions from two opposite moments in time. And it is the distance, as well, between two opposite types of men. It is hard to think of two Presidents in modern history, after all, who approached the office more differently than Reagan and Johnson. Johnson was among the most hyperactive executives the White House had ever seen, always seeking to put his fingerprints on every last scrap of administration business no matter how large or small…
…That would never be Reagan — an actor learns early the benefits of a good night’s sleep. From his earliest days in politics, Reagan was supremely confident in his own abilities as an executive. He had come to prominence in a career in which he constantly had to give up control — to producers and directors and studio bosses, to makeup designers and camera operators and press agents, to critics and millions of anonymous strangers who would form consequential opinions of him as they watched on distant screens. When he began his political career in the mid-1960s, he took to the disaggregated life of a political candidate quickly. Most first-time candidates struggle to adapt to the existence in which they must surrender control of their lives to other people. Reagan had been doing it for years. He understood an important distinction that Johnson never grasped: being in control and being successful aren’t always the same thing…
Each was a gifted performer and raconteur who could captivate an audience. But they excelled in different settings. Johnson was best in person. He was overwhelming, always, and his conversations hummed with transactional momentum. He told involved and engaging Texas tall tales, but he usually told them in order to drive home a pertinent point. He made use of his large girth and six-foot-three-inch frame. All the clichéd metaphors of politics — glad-handing, buttonholing, back stroking, arm twisting — were things Johnson actually, physically did in order to get his way. His greatest asset was his intuitive sensitivity to human emotion, his unmatched ability to spot people’s highest ambitions and their darkest fears. Even Alabama Governor George Wallace, one of the twentieth century’s most notorious racial demagogues, found himself mesmerized by an impassioned Oval Office conference with Johnson in the midst of a tense 1965 standoff over racial protests in Wallace’s home state. “Hell,” said Wallace afterward, “if I’d stayed in there much longer, he’d have had me coming out for civil rights.”
A conversation with Reagan, on the other hand, was usually pleasant and entirely superficial. In his early days as a politician, supporters would often walk away from first encounters with candidate Reagan disappointed. He’d told funny jokes, they’d laughed heartily, they’d had a ball. But they couldn’t remember much if any substance to what he’d said. The problem wasn’t that Reagan was an empty suit; rather, he struggled to connect with people when they came too close. Even his own children encountered a fog in their father’s eyes when they greeted him in a room. He was friendly, but he gave the impression that he was meeting them for the first time.
He was better with an audience watching him. Better still if they were watching him on a television screen from the comfort of their own homes. In these moments, he was great. He launched his 1966 campaign for governor with a thirty-minute television advertisement in which he pensively strolled around a comfortable living room. It was all so wonderfully familiar and authentic. There were pictures on the wall and a fire in the fireplace; Reagan’s sharp, pithy summation of California’s and the nation’s problems seemed to come to him spontaneously, a kindly father figure opining on issues of the day. None of it was real — the sentences were scripted and the living room was a studio set. But Californians didn’t mind; they were starting to expect their politicians to be great performers on TV.
Television was taking over politics in the midsixties. Anyone who’d lived through the Kennedy years could see that. Johnson could see that, and he worked tirelessly to adapt, but never with much success. As President, he obsessed over his televised press conferences, bringing in a shifting cast of experts for coaching on his diction, his posture, his eyewear. But his problem was fundamental: performing for a TV camera, he could never do what he did in person, he couldn’t see his audience and adapt his personality accordingly. And that introduced a terrifying possibility: that the people watching would see him as himself.
Johnson and Reagan, then, were both stars, but stars of different eras. It is difficult to fit them inside a single picture — when the mind focuses on one of them, the other becomes a blur. Even in the lore of practical politics, where both names have assumed vaunted status in recent years, they inhabit separate realms. Reagan is the President that politicians from both parties publicly say they admire — principled, noble, and strong. But Johnson is the President they secretly long to be — ruthless, effective, a man who got big things done.
No, it’s not true. LBJ was definitely a consummate politician, but he believed in civil rights dating back to his time as a teacher at a small school for Mexican-American children in Cotulla, Texas. He believed that the time had to be right in order to line up the number of votes needed to pass civil rights legislation, but he also recognized that the time was long overdue and he could not continue to ask for patience or sacrifice. LBJ also pushed hard for the Voting Rights Act and that was for political reasons, but not the cynical political reasons that people suggest. LBJ understood that true power and influence for minorities would come when they had the ability to vote out those political leaders who were holding them back. That was when things changed. The “political reason” was giving political power to the segment of population that had been long discriminated against and denied their civil rights. LBJ was already the most powerful person in the world, and fighting for effective civil rights legislation wasn’t going to help him at the polls in his home state of Texas. Lyndon Johnson had a lot of faults, but there wasn’t anything selfish for LBJ in signing the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and any other general civil rights legislation or specific bills prohibiting discrimination that the President put his name to during his Administration.
And George Wallace? Come on! George Wallace?! As Governor of Alabama, George Wallace literally stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama and tried to prevent black students from integrating the school. He’s also the guy who called for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” in his gubernatorial inaugural address. I don’t care if or when or how his viewpoint on race and segregation changed — George Wallace can’t even be hypothetically inserted into this discussion. Wallace might have signed the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act in the 1980s if he had been President, but he wouldn’t have signed either piece of legislation in the 1960s, and as Governor of a Southern state during that time, he actively fought against it to the point that enforcing the new laws required federal oversight and intervention.
All good questions.
1. LBJ worried about the repercussions throughout the country if he exposed what was going on. Remember, this being 1968, the country was in a great deal of turmoil. I think LBJ worried that he’d be tossing a lit match into a country already soaked in gasoline which desperately needed stability, no matter who was elected. Just trying to neatly explain the whole deal would be difficult, as well, because the Chennault affair was quite complicated and the fact that Nixon might have secretly sabotaged the peace talks would require some hardcore evidence if it was the President of the United States publicly making the accusation.
First and foremost, LBJ would have to explain how this information came to his attention, and any of those revelations would have caused outrage. Was it from the fact that the United States was spying on the South Vietnamese, our supposed allies? Was it from spying the North Vietnamese or the Chinese? Was it from the fact that the U.S. had wiretapped the phones of Anna Chennault, a naturalized American citizen and working journalist? Was it possibly from wiretaps that allowed the Johnson Justice Department or FBI or whomever to listen in on phone calls made by the Republican Presidential nominee (Nixon) and the Republican Vice Presidential nominee (Spiro Agnew) as well as their top aides (mainly future Attorney General John Mitchell)? Perhaps it was a little bit of all of those things. No matter what, the answer wasn’t pretty, and it wouldn’t have been a smooth ride for President Johnson either.
On top of all that, any revelation by LBJ would have come late in October 1968, and it would have come across as a blatant October Surprise, even if it was absolutely right to blow the whistle. Again, the country was in turmoil, LBJ had made the decision not to run again in March, Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in April, Bobby Kennedy was killed in June, and the riots following Dr. King’s assassination and police brutality during the Democratic National Convention were still fresh in American minds. It could have been seen as a last-gasp effort by LBJ to hold on to power by making these very serious allegations — LBJ privately used the word “treason” — in the hope of winning the election for Hubert H. Humphrey just a few days later.
2. No, it didn’t really make a difference in the war, and it probably didn’t make a difference in the peace talks, either. They were stalled and I doubt there was going to be a magical change of events before the election. As you mentioned, the Vietnamese on both sides of the war were not clueless about the Presidential election. I’m pretty sure that both sides were wanting to see if they could get an even better deal from Nixon if he won the election without having to be pushed in that direction. If Nixon hadn’t come to the table with an even better offer once he was inaugurated, the Vietnamese could have reverted back to the previous deal agreed upon under the Johnson Administration because it was no secret that the United States wanted to end the war and end it quickly. Our government — throughout history — has been naive, over and over again, in thinking that our political process and the events taking place in American politics aren’t observed as closely by other countries or governments as we observe them.
3. I think Richard Nixon was probably one of the most brilliant men to ever serve as President but — like Bill Clinton, who is also near the top of the list when it comes to most intelligent Presidents — he couldn’t help doing stupid things. Sometimes, when you’re smarter than almost everybody else, you do dumb things because you believe others wouldn’t think you’d ever do something so dumb. People like that can justify anything to themselves. I can tell you exactly how Nixon probably justified it to himself. He likely told himself that he lost to JFK in 1960 because of dirty tricks in Illinois and in Texas, LBJ’s home state, but that he kept quiet about it. He probably told himself that LBJ was the incumbent President of the United States and that LBJ was unfairly (in Nixon’s mind) placing the power of the Presidency behind Hubert H. Humphrey (who happened to be Vice President, an even closer way to tie him to the Administration) and would do everything he could to defeat Nixon, just as the Kennedys and their allies had done in 1960. He probably decided that if dirty tricks were going to be played, he wasn’t going to get beat again and sent back into the corporate world like after 1960. And after telling himself all of these things, Nixon had convinced himself that the world was against him, that his back was against the wall, that the Democrats were once again trying to yank the Presidency from his hands, and that it was not going to happen this time.
Listen, if I think about something long enough and run it over in my head again-and-again, I can justify just about anything to myself and convince myself that it is in my best interests. And I’m not nearly as brilliant as Nixon was, and I’d like to think that I’m not nearly as vindictive, either. Nixon was on a whole different level, in terms of intelligence, resentment, or ruthlessness.
Theodore Roosevelt stepped aside in 1908 because immediately after winning the 1904 election, he announced that he wouldn’t run for President in ‘08. It was one of those situations where he probably wanted to grab the words out of the air and take them back as he was saying them. TR loved being President and he regretted his 1904 declaration to not run in 1908 for the rest of his life. But Roosevelt also strongly believed that a person’s word is their honor and he couldn’t bring himself to break the promise he made in 1904, even if the electorate would have not only forgiven him for it, but would have preferred that he run again.
TR definitely would have won in 1908, and if he had been re-elected that year, he would have probably implemented a progressive agenda and neuter the basis for Woodrow Wilson’s successful 1912 campaign for the Presidency. Plus, Roosevelt wouldn’t have had to torpedo poor William Howard Taft and split the Republican Party, which likely would have helped him win re-election again in 1912 because the electoral landscape would have been very different. TR probably could have been elected again-and-again if he had run in 1908 and held on to the job. Roosevelt was still popular and even though he kept his promise in 1908, many Republicans urged him to reconsider — including Roosevelt’s handpicked successor, Taft. Unfortunately for TR, keeping his promise in 1908 complicated his political future, especially because of the break with establishment Republicans and President Taft.
As it was, TR had a remarkable showing in 1912 considering his party split into separate factions and he had to run as a third-party candidate for a party that was basically just thrown together at the last minute when Taft was renominated by the GOP. TR didn’t run in 1916 because he still had to heal some wounds within the Republican Party and wanted to show solidarity by staying out of that race and supporting the GOP nominee, Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes lost that 1916 race to Wilson with one of the narrowest Electoral College margins in American history (Wilson 277, Hughes 254), so even with the lingering intraparty bad blood, Roosevelt probably could have won the 1916 election. He was not going to sit out the 1920 election and he was the clear frontrunner for 1920 basically from Election Day 1916. Roosevelt would have won the 1920 election — and won big considering the fact that the comparatively unknown (and exceedingly unqualified) Warren G. Harding ended up winning over 400 Electoral votes.
Roosevelt died on January 6, 1919, and that shook up every projection of the 1920 Presidential election. We mention Roosevelt’s popularity as one of the reasons he could have been elected President on several occasions, but another important factor was his age. When TR assumed the Presidency upon the assassination of President McKinley, he was just 42 years, 322 days old; he was the youngest President in history. He’s still the youngest President in history. In fact, Roosevelt was younger when he LEFT office after 7 1/2 years as President (50 years, 128 days old) than most Presidents have been upon their inauguration! TR was 60 years, 71 days old when he died, meaning TEN Presidents were older on the day of their inauguration than Roosevelt was on the day that he died.
I imagine that you’re probably right and that Roosevelt’s health — like LBJ;s — would have benefited from TR staying active and engaged through the important work that he was doing everyday. There are a couple of differences, though. Roosevelt remained a lot more active than LBJ did after leaving office. TR was very involved in politics nationally and in New York; he continued his amazingly prolific output as a writer; he dedicated significant amounts of time and energy on his expeditions as a naturalist and hunter; and let’s not forget that he actually did run for President again (and was so active during that campaign that he was shot in the chest in an assassination attempt and then gave an hour-long speech before heading to the hospital). LBJ let himself go in a way, but TR couldn’t stop going full-steam ahead on multiple projects.
But in Theodore Roosevelt’s case, that active and adventurous lifestyle probably contributed to his death. In 1914, TR spent nearly eight months on a scientific expedition in Brazil exploring a destination so remote that it was called the River of Doubt since few explorers had ever successfully reached it (Brazil later renamed it “Rio Roosevelt” in TR’s honor). During the Brazilian expedition, Roosevelt suffered a nasty cut on his leg that became so infected that there were worries it might have to be amputated in the field. Even more worrisome was the fact that Roosevelt was stricken with malaria so severe that he was hallucinating and had a dangerously high fever which reached 106 degrees. Roosevelt was convinced that he was dying and urged the other members of his expedition, which included his son, Kermit, to carry on without him because he worried that he would hold the party back and expose all of them to further danger. The rest of the expedition refused and eventually got Roosevelt out of the Amazon and back home to New York.
TR had recurring bouts of malaria for the rest of his life and never fully recovered from that or the serious infection which nearly cost him his leg. Roosevelt was famously energetic and physically active — his exercise regiments in the White House often included boxing, wrestling, and jiujitsu (TR basically the first American mixed martial artist). But he was weakened by the illnesses from Brazil and was hospitalized for weeks at a time when he had relapses, even though he was not quite 60 years old. Roosevelt still had his eye on a run for the White House in 1920 despite his health problems, but he really began to decline rapidly after July 14, 1918. All four of his sons saw combat in World War I and made their father immensely proud; his three oldest sons, Theodore Jr., Kermit, and Archibald had been wounded in action. But on July 14th, the former President’s youngest son, 20-year-old Quentin Roosevelt, a fighter pilot in the early American Army Air Force was shot down by a German fighter in a dogfight over France.
Theodore Roosevelt had spent his life seeking military glory and praising the heroic action of “the man in the arena”, but when his son was killed in action, the horror of war truly came home for him. Roosevelt was devastated by Quentin’s death and his already-declining health seemed to fail even more quickly. The chronic health problems stemming from the expedition in Brazil, constant physical pain from a life filled with dynamic exercise of his body and mind, and a broken heart from the death of his youngest son sapped him of his strength and stripped him of two things that Theodore Roosevelt always had in abundance — endless energy and iron will. TR was only 60 years old when he died, but he was the oldest 60-year-old man who had ever lived.
Lyndon Baines Johnson is one of those few Presidents or political leaders who is instantly identifiable by his initials — “LBJ” — an exclusive club also populated by TR, FDR, and JFK but few others. Richard Nixon spent years and tons of energy working to become a member of that group, going as far as naming his autobiography RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. But LBJ’s initials became a recognizable brand long before he became President; he also had the added advantage of being able to monogram everything in his home with his initials since they were also shared by his wife (Lady Bird Johnson), his two daughters (Lynda Bird Johnson and Luci Baines Johnson), and even one of his dogs (“Little Beagle Johnson” — which wasn’t one of the dogs President Johnson was famously photographed picking up by their ears, those beagles were named “Him” and “Her”).
But where did the name “Lyndon” come from? LBJ’s middle name — “Baines” — was his mother’s maiden name, but “Lyndon” wasn’t a family name. In fact, LBJ didn’t have a name for the first three months of his life. The man who would one day become the 36th President of the United States spent the first three months of his life just being called “Baby”. Of course, he couldn’t spend the rest of his life with the name “Baby”, so LBJ’s parents, Sam Ealy Johnson and Rebekah Baines Johnson, finally came to an agreement on what he would be called. Since LBJ was a far better storyteller than I will ever be, I’ll let him explain, courtesy of the LBJ Library’s always-incredible Oral History Project, as well as LBJ Library Director Mark K. Updegrove’s awesome book, Indomitable Will: LBJ In The Presidency (BOOK | KINDLE).
According to LBJ:
"I was three months old when I was named. My father and mother couldn’t agree on a name. The people my father liked were heavy drinkers — pretty rough for a city girl. She didn’t want me named after any of them.
Finally, there was a criminal lawyer — a country lawyer — named W.C. Linden. He would go on a drunk for a week after every case. My father liked him and he wanted to name me after him. My mother didn’t care for the idea but she said finally that it was alright, she would go along with it if she could spell the name the way she wanted to. So that is what happened.
[Later] I was campaigning for Congress. An old man with a white carnation in his lapel came up and said, ‘That was a very good speech. I want to vote for you like I always have. The only thing I don’t like about you is the way you spell your name.’
He then identified himself…as W.C. Linden.”
I think that retirement — being removed from the day-to-day politics, power, and constant action of the Presidency — is what killed LBJ more than his heart problems. LBJ actually took care of himself better when he was President, too; he ate better, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink as much, he was engaged in something every hour of every day. I think inactivity led to his death more than anything else.
I don’t think that Eugene McCarthy could have won the Democratic nomination in 1968 if LBJ had stayed in the campaign and ran for another term. As I mentioned in that earlier post about what I think would have happened if LBJ and Nixon had faced each other in the ‘68 election, Johnson, like any incumbent President, would have had significant advantages and as the head of the Democratic Party, he would have controlled the party throughout the process, so any challenge from fellow Democrats could have been handled pretty easily once he put the party apparatus into action and shaped the Democratic National Convention into whatever he might have needed it to be in the case of a floor fight. Plus, LBJ had a powerful campaign organization that was already familiar with a a primary fight (the unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination against John F. Kennedy in 1960) and a Presidential election (the massive popular vote and Electoral College victory in 1964).
There is also another thing that is frequently overlooked when people bring up Eugene McCarthy’s impressive showing against LBJ in the 1968 New Hampshire Primary. President Johnson actually wasn’t on the ballot in the New Hampshire Primary; he was a write-in candidate, partly for strategic reasons (to test the waters in case something like McCarthy’s strong showing in the primary were to happen). So while LBJ won 49% of the vote and McCarthy won an impressive 42% of the vote, I think it’s always important to note that Johnson was a write-in candidate. Still, McCarthy’s performance was impressive, no matter what, and it was a sign that LBJ was going to face a fight from anti-war advocates during primary season and that McCarthy couldn’t be taken lightly. McCarthy technically came in second place in the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic Primary, but it was basically considered a victory, and his strong showing definitely led Johnson to withdraw from the race.
Why didn’t McCarthy do better in the 1968 Democratic primaries once Johnson withdrew from the race? Well, to put it bluntly, Bobby Kennedy screwed him over. For several months prior to the New Hampshire Primary, anti-war activists urged RFK to challenge LBJ for the Democratic nomination, but Kennedy consistently declined to consider a challenge and openly voiced his support in favor of President Johnson’s re-election. Then Eugene McCarthy stunned LBJ and the Democratic Party with his showing in the New Hampshire Primary, and it became clear that there was a passionate anti-war voting bloc that could make a serious difference in the 1968 election. Despite shooting down for months about not entering the race and supporting the incumbent LBJ over his fellow anti-war advocate McCarthy, Kennedy jumped into the race just four days after the New Hampshire Primary.
I know this isn’t a very scholarly way to put it, but RFK pulled a real dick move by jumping into the race after McCarthy had done the legwork in New Hampshire and demonstrated that President Johnson was very vulnerable. When Kennedy announced his candidacy, he immediately started siphoning a lot of those anti-war votes that had propelled McCarthy to the cusp of an upset over an incumbent President in the New Hampshire Primary. Many of those voters saw Kennedy as more electable than McCarthy because he was, of course, a Kennedy, and as they battled each other during the primaries that followed, Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert H. Humphrey, joined the race and was basically seen as the mainstream candidate. To a lot of those young Democratic voters who had supported McCarthy and then bailed in favor of Kennedy once RFK declared his candidacy, HHH was a continuation of the Johnson Administration’s increasingly unpopular foreign policy. But the back-and-forth battle between RFK and McCarthy in many of the state primaries helped clear a path for Humphrey to take a nearly insurmountable lead in delegates as the 1968 Democratic National Convention approached. After winning the California Primary, Bobby Kennedy looked to have some momentum, but he was assassinated that night. In truth, RFK’s only chance at the nomination was probably if all of the candidates headed into the Democratic National Convention without anybody able to clinch the nomination on the first ballot and having a floor fight ensue. Even then, I believe it would have been unlikely for RFK to have been nominated by a Democratic National Convention that was still largely controlled by Lyndon Johnson’s party organization, which would have worked diligently to prevent Bobby Kennedy from being nominated as President. As for McCarthy, he ended up in second place in the delegate count at the Convention, but the battles between him and RFK during the primary season resulted in many of the delegates who had pledged to support Kennedy voting for anybody else besides McCarthy (Kennedy’s delegates were released from their pledge due to his death). Eugene McCarthy got a pretty raw deal in 1968 after being responsible for a major turning point in history with his near-defeat of President Johnson and the aftermath of the ‘68 New Hampshire Primary.
I agree — I think LBJ would have won in ‘68 if he had run. First of all, Hubert Horatio Humphrey, of all people, almost pulled off the victory over Richard Nixon in 1968. Humphrey lost the popular vote by a margin of just over 500,000 votes — in an election where George Wallace won nearly 10 million votes. Despite his Civil Rights accomplishments, I think Johnson would have neutralized Wallace in some of those Southern states. In fact, it’s very possible that a heavyweight like LBJ in the race would have kept George Wallace from launching a bid as serious as he actually did in 1968. Wallace won 46 Electoral votes (all of them being states of the Deep South) and I don’t think that would have happened with LBJ in the race.
Wallace was a big factor in the race, but another big factor was the battle for the Democratic nomination and the turbulence surrounding the primaries, RFK’s assassination, and the battles between Chicago police and anti-war protesters outside of the Democratic National Convention. If LBJ had been the candidate, there would have been no primary fight, and the DNC would have been much more disciplined. There definitely still would have been anti-war protests, but instead of seeming to add to the chaos of the Democrats’ nomination process, it would have come across differently.
And the biggest difference would have been the difference between Lyndon Baines Johnson on the campaign trail and Hubert H. Humphrey on the campaign trail. On television, LBJ often came across wooden and uninspiring, but he was something altogether different while campaigning. More importantly, LBJ wouldn’t have rolled over and just let Nixon get away with any Nixonian dirty tricks. LBJ could play just as dirty, and he would have if it meant the difference between four more years and a forced retirement. LBJ was the incumbent President of the United States and the head of the Democratic Party; he controlled the party apparatus would have known who to use the power of his office and his power of the Democratic Party to propel him to victory if it was kept close.
It definitely would have been closer than the 1964 election; LBJ wouldn’t have cruised to a landslide over Nixon in 1968 like he did over Barry Goldwater four years earlier, but I do think LBJ would have beat Nixon. In the election that we did get — a three-way race between Nixon, Humphrey, and Wallace — the Electoral College results were Nixon 301, Humphrey 191, Wallace 46 (270 votes needed to win). Nixon won the popular vote in 1968 over Humphrey by only a few hundred thousand more votes than Kennedy beat him in 1960 (one of the narrowest victories in American history) and George Wallace claimed 9.9 million votes. As I said, in my opinion, if LBJ had run in ‘68, Wallace either wouldn’t have run or he wouldn’t have been able to get ballot access in all 50 states. Either way, he wouldn’t have won 9.9 million votes and I don’t think he would have won any of the five states that he did actually win in ‘68 (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi). LBJ would have built a powerful voter registration and get out the vote organization in those Southern states with large African-American populations whose right to vote was signed into law and protected three years earlier by LBJ. I think that those new voters, in addition to the Democrats who remained Democratic voters in the South despite LBJ’s Civil Rights policy, would have put those states in the Democratic column. Wallace also won one of North Carolina’s 13 Electoral votes in ‘68.
If it was just LBJ vs. Nixon, I think LBJ would have won all of the states that Humphrey won (Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia) as well as the states that Wallace won (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi). I also think that LBJ would have won 11 of the 32 states that Nixon won majorities in over Humphrey (Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia). In many of the 32 states that Nixon won in the actual 1968 election, his margin of victory was slim and Wallace’s removal from the equation likely would have swung more votes into the Democratic column than the Republican, resulting in a swing of those 11 states. The popular vote margin would still be pretty close, but LBJ would win majorities in most of the major states (those with the most Electoral College votes). In a straight LBJ vs. Nixon matchup in 1968, I think the Electoral College result would be: LBJ 381, Nixon 157.
And, yes, this question motivated me to actually go back and re-figure the 1968 Presidential election’s Electoral College map state-by-state. Don’t say I never did anything for you guys.
That is such a GREAT question because the answer can go so many different ways and spur some fantastic debate. The Presidency is a difficult and terribly exhausting job every day and most Presidents have faced a lot of adversity throughout their terms simply because of the very nature of the position and its responsibilities. There are dozens of individual days that are hard to argue with if they are suggested by someone to be the most difficult single day faced by a President over the 225 years that the job has been in service.
I think that the day you suggested is undoubtedly near the top of the list, as are any of the days when a Vice President assumes the office upon the assassination or death from natural causes of the incumbent President, and November 22, 1963 was, of course, one of the darkest days in the nation’s history. The emotions and thoughts possessed by the people on Air Force One as LBJ took the oath office and they prepared to fly back to Washington, D.C. with JFK in a casket just a couple of hours after he arrived in Dallas on that same airplane very much alive are unimaginable. There are just no words for a tragedy of that magnitude, and, as you mentioned, the presence of a newly-widowed Jackie Kennedy, clearly in shock and standing in the crowded cabin of the plane with her husband’s blood and brain matter staining her clothing, adds a whole different dimension to the tragic day and was a hell of a way for someone to begin their Presidency. There was also the fact that nobody knew the scope of the assassination and whether there might be something even more sinister — an international conspiracy or a plot to decapitate the entire federal government — going on. Plus, LBJ was the only President to actually witness his predecessor’s assassination. As if a Presidential assassination isn’t shocking and traumatic enough, Johnson was only a couple of cars back in the motorcade. He saw what happened and he was taken to Parkland Hospital right behind JFK; LBJ caught a glimpse of the scene inside JFK’s limousine as the Secret Service past the vehicle in order to keep him protected inside the hospital; Johnson was in the building when Kennedy was officially pronounced dead. I’ve always thought that one of the strangest feelings ever experienced by a President had to have been when an aide entered the room where LBJ was being held inside Parkland Hospital and addressed him as “Mr. President” — the moment he realized that JFK was dead and that he was now President. Imagine that.
And yet, even with everything mentioned above, I think there are two other more difficult days faced by Presidents. One is April 12, 1945 — another day in which a President died in office and was succeeded by his Vice President. In this case, it was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who died suddenly at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, and was succeeded by Harry S Truman.
FDR was clearly dying when he won an unprecedented fourth term as President in 1944, and his health was declining noticeably. When he took the oath of office for his fourth term in January 1945, FDR was sworn in on the South Portico of the White House instead of at the U.S. Capitol. It was said that the inaugural festivities were scaled back because of World War II and that certainly played a part, but FDR’s failing health was also a factor. At just 557 words, Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address was the second-shortest in American history — only George Washington’s second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1793), which was 135 words long, was shorter than FDR’s fourth. After the physically taxing trip and summit with Stalin and Churchill at Yalta and meetings with other Allied leaders in February 1945 — a journey which would have been punishing for even a healthy person — FDR gave a report on the agreements to a Joint Session of Congress. At Yalta, officials from the other Allied delegations were alarmed by FDR’s appearance and when FDR gave his speech to Congress he did so from a seated position, apologizing for his “unusual posture” and noted that it was “easier for me not to have to carry about ten pounds of steel around on the bottom of my legs.” The reference to the leg braces he had worn since contracting polio in 1921 was the first time Roosevelt had ever publicly acknowledged his physical disability, and members of Congress now saw what those at the Yalta Conference had seen — FDR was gravely ill.
One person who did not realize how badly the President was ailing was the Vice President, Harry Truman. In 1944, President Roosevelt had dumped his Vice President, Henry Wallace, from the ticket, and seemingly put the decision of his running mate largely in the hands of the Democratic National Convention. In reality, Roosevelt was virtually positive that he would not survive his fourth term and he wasn’t simply choosing a Vice President — he was choosing a successor. Vice President Wallace didn’t cut it as a successor (not to FDR and definitely not to the leaders of the Democratic Party), and Truman steered the Convention towards Truman, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and James F. Byrnes, a former Congressman, former Senator, former Supreme Court Justice, a longtime advisor-without-portfolio to FDR and the ultra-powerful director of the War Mobilization Board.
Roosevelt eventually decided that Truman was the guy he wanted and worked behind-the-scenes to get him nominated at the Convention despite a floor fight by passionate supporters of Wallace who wanted to keep him on the ticket and by Truman’s own reluctance to leave the Senate, a job he loved more than anything he had ever done in his life, for the Vice Presidency, which was powerless and boring and lacked even a hint of influence within Presidential Administrations at that point in history. Once elected and sworn in as Vice President, Truman was no different than any of the previous Vice Presidents — he had nothing to do, wasn’t included in on decisions or discussions of policy, and had almost no personal or professional relationship with President Roosevelt. The only thing of note that Truman did during his Vice Presidency was cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate to help his predecessor in the Vice Presidency, Henry Wallace, get confirmed as Secretary of Commerce. Truman spent most of his days on Capitol Hill, and was at having drinks with a small group of Congressmen and Senator in the office of House Speaker Sam Rayburn on April 12, 1945 when he got a call summoning him to the White House ASAP.
Truman wasn’t sure what was going on, but Allied troops were quickly closing in on Berlin that month from the west and the east, so it could have been just about anything. When he arrived at the White House, it was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who told him, quite bluntly, “Harry, the President is dead.” Despite FDR’s poor health, Truman was stunned. “Is there anything I can do for you?”, the new President asked Eleanor Roosevelt, and the new widow responded, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”
That wasn’t an exaggeration. World War II was coming to a close in Europe and still raging in the Pacific. Within two-and-a-half weeks of Truman’s succession to the Presidency, Mussolini was captured and killed by his own people in Italy, Berlin fell to the Soviets, Hitler killed himself in his bunker, Germany surrendered, and the war ended in Europe. And, at some point shortly after Truman was sworn into office, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson briefed him on the work being done to build an atomic bomb. Truman — the only President to order a nuclear strike — was completely in the dark about the Manhattan Project and the goal of building a nuclear weapon until after he became President. With all of that to come, everything going in on the world, and the fact that he had suddenly succeeded the longest-serving President in American history — a man whose image was hanging in the houses of millions Americans next to an image of Jesus — in the midst of the bloodiest war in the history of the world is why Truman’s April 12, 1945 was a more difficult day than LBJ’s November 22, 1963. The day after he was sworn into office, Truman said to reporters, “I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”
The other day that I would consider one of the single most difficult days experienced by a President doesn’t require much of an explanation because most of us remember it well. We lived through it and it’s tragically memorable in the same way that older generations remember November 22, 1963 or another day that was very difficult for a President, December 7, 1941 (the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor). No matter how I voted, or how I felt about George W. Bush when it came to other issues and his Presidency overall, I will never forget his poise during the days after September 11, 2001, which was without a doubt one of the toughest days any President has ever experienced. He was a bit unsteady on the day of the attacks, at least in his statements early in the day, but we were all unsteady. We didn’t know what the hell was going on, and the President was in the frustrating position of not being allowed by the Secret Service to return to Washington, D.C. until later in the evening. He was removed from the situation, forced to remain in the air aboard Air Force One as it flew across the country, protected by fighter jets, to a secure location in Nebraska. President Bush began to find his footing with his address to the nation that night from the Oval Office once he finally ordered to be taken home to Washington, and he was fantastic throughout the rest of that week, especially at the National Prayer Service and when he visited with the family members of victims and with rescue workers at Ground Zero.
Knowing how difficult 9/11 was for regular Americans like me, far removed from the horror in Manhattan, in Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon, I can’t imagine how hard that day was to the actual victims of the attacks, or those people connected to the victims. And it’s impossible to understand how hard September 11, 2001 was for the President of the United States, from the moment Andy Card whispered the news to him in that classroom in Sarasota, Florida until he finally went to sleep that night after a day of attacks on the country unlike any that any other President has ever faced. Like I said at the beginning of this answer (approximately 90,000 words ago), this is a great question because it has so many possible answers and opens up a very interesting debate. But in my opinion, no President had a more difficult single day than George W. Bush on September 11, 2001.