Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen
Posts tagged "Lyndon Baines Johnson"

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.

Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America by Jonathan Darman (BOOK | KINDLE), Available Tuesday, September 23rd from Random House

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.”


36th President of the United States (1963-1969)

Full Name: Lyndon Baines Johnson
Born: August 27, 1908, near Stonewall, Texas
Political Party: Democratic
State Represented: Texas
Term: November 22, 1963-January 20, 1969 (Assumed the Presidency upon the death of John F. Kennedy)
Age at Inauguration: 55 years, 87 days
Administration: 44th (Completed the term of President Kennedy) and 45th
Congresses: 88th, 89th and 90th
Vice President: None (1963-1965) and Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Jr. (1965-1969)
Died: January 22, 1973, LBJ Ranch, near Johnson City, Texas
Age at Death: 64 years, 148 days
Buried: LBJ Ranch, near Johnson City, Texas

2012 Dead Presidents Ranking: 5 of 43 [↑1]

In 2012, many of my longtime readers were surprised that I had LBJ ranked #6 instead of #3, or even #1 as some people suspected I might put him due to my unabashed appreciation and frequent praise of his leadership. I noted then — as I am also noting now — that the distance between the Presidents ranked #4, #5, and #6 is almost non-existent. You can basically consider all three of those Presidents as tied for fourth place, but I couldn’t conceivably have a tie in my own personal rankings. There are no specific statistics or metrics or any sort of processes in determining my Presidential Rankings that would lead to a tie, so including one just because the Presidents ranked 4th, 5th, and 6th are basically interchangeable in my opinion would be a cop-out or just plain lazy. (With that said, while the Presidents ranked #4, #5, and #6 are separated by an almost imperceptible distance, the difference between those three Presidents and the President ranked #7 is pretty significant.) LBJ is a great President because of his domestic accomplishments and Civil Rights, even with the turmoil of the last few years of his Presidency and the drag that Vietnam places on his legacy. I am adamant that the passage of true, effective Civil Rights legislation during LBJ’s Presidency — legislation that was shepherded and piloted through Congress by Lyndon Johnson — is one of the great accomplishments in all of American History. I believe that LBJ did more for Civil Rights than anyone in American History — including Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. His leadership when it came to getting legislation passed through Congress so that he could sign it never receives the full appreciation that I feel it deserves, so I’ll continue fighting my own battle for it. With this year’s 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and next year’s 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, Johnson’s legacy has received an infusion of attention, and that attention has led to a greater appreciation of LBJ’s leadership. The escalation of the Vietnam War undoubtedly casts shadows over Johnson’s accomplishments, but I believe Civil Rights will ultimately dominate discussion of LBJ’s overall legacy. The increase in attention and admiration due to the anniversaries of the Civil Rights legislation is why I have LBJ at #5 this year instead of #6, but again, I think the Presidents that I have ranked #4, #5, and #6 are interchangeable.

1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine:  Not Ranked
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine:  Not Ranked
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine:  12 of 38
1990: Siena Institute:  15 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine:  14 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians:  10 of 41
2000: Public Opinion Poll:  19 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership:  18 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians:  11 of 42
2010: Siena Institute:  16 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre:  11 of 40


President Lyndon B. Johnson and Senator Richard Russell of Georgia

"Watch their hands, watch their eyes.  Read eyes.  No matter what a man is saying to you, it’s not as important as what you can read in his eyes.  The most important thing a man has to tell you is what he’s not telling you; the most important thing he has to say is what he’s trying not to say." — Lyndon B. Johnson

As 1967 edged towards Christmas and the arrival of a New Year, the Vietnam War continued to rage on while President Lyndon Baines Johnson and a full contingent of staffers and press climbed aboard Air Force One to attend the funeral of Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt, who had drowned off the coast of Victoria, Australia. Following the funeral (and despite the rapidly approaching holidays), LBJ decided to extend his journey — several times. From Australia, the President touched down in Thailand and Vietnam to visit U.S. troops, followed by a short visit with Pakistan’s President Ayub Khan.

LBJ’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson, who remained back home at the White House, called the whirlwind world tour, “the fastest, longest, hardest trip any President of the United States had ever taken.” The exhausted press contingent which had accompanied LBJ agreed. They had circled the globe, covered a state funeral, tagged along during a Presidential visit to an active war zone, stopped off in six different countries, and topped everything off with an audience with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican.

The real goal for the trip’s ever-evolving extension from a quick appearance in Australia to honor the President’s friend, Prime Minister Holt, to a 28,294-mile circumnavigation of the Earth became apparent on December 23, 1967. After a short visit with Italian President Giuseppe Saragat and Prime Minister Aldo Moro, President Johnson was received in Vatican City by Pope Paul. With nothing else working, Johnson hoped that the Pope might be able to help broker peace in Vietnam. Despite the President’s efforts, however, Pope Paul VI only promised to study the matter.

Thousands of anti-war demonstrators had greeted LBJ as his plane touched down in Rome, but the President was able to rise above it — literally — as he flew to the Vatican via helicopter. The Presidential helicopter landed in the Vatican Gardens — a first — a technological achievement that traditionalists, including the Pope, grumbled about when they witnessed it. How dare this American land a helicopter in the Vatican Gardens rather than fight his way through Roman traffic like everyone else? After the President’s visit, however, that grumbling gave way to acceptance and the advantages of modernity as the Pope himself began to use a helicopter for short flights out of the Vatican, particularly to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer retreat perched on the hills of Lake Albano, approximately 15 miles outside of Rome.

Up to that point in American history, the relationship between LBJ and Pope Paul was probably the closest between any President and Supreme Pontiff (but still a far cry from the relationships between more recent Presidents and Popes) . With the war in Vietnam stagnant and increasingly bloody, President Johnson had been hoping to find a way for Pope Paul VI to act as a peacemaker, bring the belligerent parties together, and broker a deal to end the conflict. While that never happened under Pope Paul’s guidance or mediation, LBJ had tremendous respect for the Pope and believed that a face-to-face meeting with Paul VI — something which might give LBJ an opportunity to use his famously effective Johnson Treatment — would make a difference in enlisting the Pontiff’s assistance. What happened in the private meeting between Johnson and Paul VI remained known only by those two leaders. According to LBJ’s brother, Sam Houston Johnson, the President told him, “The Pope is a very great man,” and suggested that Paul VI was sympathetic to American struggles in Vietnam. However, other sources reported that the President and Pope had a tense meeting about the worsening state of the war in Southeast Asia and escalation of the conflict due to American policies. LBJ didn’t go into details about what did or did not happen in his meeting with Pope Paul, but in describing his private audience to his brother, Sam Houston Johnson, the President claimed, “Incidentally, the Pope said I was one of the great leaders of our time. What do you think of that, Sam Houston?”

What does stand out about the meeting between President Johnson and Pope Paul VI was the gifts that they gave one another. Although Christmas was just a couple of days away, the gifts were not Christmas presents but part of the diplomatic niceties observed by world leaders who frequently exchange gifts during their meetings. Technically, any gifts given to the President by other leaders during his term actually belong to the American people rather than the President himself, but in many cases, the gifts a President receives can be found on display in their Presidential libraries.

Since LBJ arrived at the Vatican on the day before Christmas Eve, Pope Paul’s gift to President Johnson did, in fact, reflect the holiday season. The Pope gave the President a stunning oil painting from the 15th Century — a Nativity scene featuring the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and the newborn baby Jesus being watched over by angels.

President Johnson, of course, had a gift for the Pope. To the amusement of the Pontiff and many others within the Vatican, LBJ gave Paul VI a bronze bust of an American President. Was it a likeness of George Washington? Thomas Jefferson? Abraham Lincoln? No. Was it a sculpture of John F. Kennedy, the nation’s first-and-only Catholic President, who had been assassinated just months in Paul VI’s pontificate?

No. Lyndon Johnson gave Pope Paul VI a bronze bust of…Lyndon Johnson. In a photograph capturing the exchange of gifts between the two leaders, the bemused expression on the Pope’s face pretty much says all that one needs to know about the gift bestowed upon him by LBJ.

According to the State Department’s Chief of Protocol, James Symington, this wasn’t a unique gift:

"You can’t fault a man for wanting to give mementos and gestures of his friendship. But what [LBJ] wanted to take with him was, I don’t remember the exact figure, something like two hundred busts of himself. Some of them were white marblish in appearance and others were bronze-looking. It is, I think, unusual for a man to give a bust of himself in his lifetime, although it’s difficult to give it any other time. But to make a mass-production gesture really boggles the mind…

Today, there are heads of state all over Asia who are trying to decide what to do with the President’s bust. But not just heads of state, because that would have been only a dozen or less [of the busts]. As I say, we had hundreds of them, so many, many people — cabinet ministers and all kinds of functionaries — received one. The President would say, “I want a white one.” “I want a bronze one.” And you never had the one he wanted and you had to go back to get it. [LBJ would exclaim] “Damn it! Can’t anyone do anything right?”

It’s not known what Pope Paul VI did with his bust of Lyndon Johnson, but one thing is certain — the gift definitely wasn’t some sort of limited edition, one-of-a-kind, priceless national heirloom. In fact, over 40 years after LBJ’s death, the gift shop located in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin remains stocked with the same type of busts that the 36th President of the United States once presented to Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings, Queens, and, on the night before the night before Christmas in 1967, an altogether bewildered Pope.

No President ever came to this office on a platform of doing what was wrong. Most of us have made decisions that were wrong. But every man who ever occupied this office, or sat at this desk, or reclined in this chair, has been dedicated to doing what he believed was for the best interest of the people of this country. I am utterly convinced that any man who takes the oath of office as President is determined to do right, as God gives him the wisdom to know the right.

Most people come into office with great dreams and they leave it with many satisfactions and some disappointments, and always some of their dreams have not come true. I’m no exception. But I am so grateful and so proud that I have had my chance. And as to how successful we’ve been in doing the greatest good for the greatest number, the people themselves, and their posterity, must ultimately decide.

Lyndon B. Johnson, October 1968

Happy Birthday to Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was born 105 years ago today!

Tonight, in honor of his birthday, I’ll be reposting some of the LBJ content that I have shared in the past. 


On December 31, 1963, Lyndon Johnson had been President of the United States for just over a month.  Forty days earlier, John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas and LBJ was now entering 1964 — a Presidential election year — as the incumbent President, albeit an accidental one.

After several somber, tense, and exhausting weeks, LBJ was spending the Holidays at the LBJ Ranch in the Texas Hill Country.  On that New Year’s Eve, many members of President Johnson’s staff gathered at the Forty Acres Club in Austin, Texas to celebrate a birthday party for LBJ aide Horace Busby.  President Johnson wanted to join the festivities, but a tired Lady Bird wasn’t interested in going out, so LBJ gathered his secretaries at the LBJ Ranch and boarded a helicopter for the short flight into Austin.

Austin and its main businesses in the early 1960s were no different than any other city in the Segregated South.  Although the party for Busby was being held at the Forty Acres Club on the campus of the University of Texas, the hangout’s strict code of segregation had previously led to controversy.  In 1962, an African-American official from President Kennedy’s newly-formed Peace Corps was denied service at the Forty Acres Club, which led to a minor boycott and the resignations of several University of Texas staff members who had held club memberships.  Still, segregation was strictly enforced, just as it was in restaurants, bars, hotels, bus stations, playgrounds, cemeteries, and basically anywhere that one group of people might come into contact with another group of people throughout the South.

When President Johnson and the secretaries that he had brought along with him to the party arrived at the Forty Acres Club, the simple fact that the President of the United States was about to attend a gathering at a segregated business could have caused a major national controversy.  It was still early in LBJ’s Presidency and the fact that Johnson was from the South had worried civil rights leaders when JFK tapped Johnson as his running mate in 1960.  Up to that point, LBJ had not yet done anything as President to neutralize the fears of liberal Democrats who mourned President Kennedy’s assassination as the loss of potential civil rights legislation.

Everyone inside the Forty Acres Club recognized that the President was about to arrive when Secret Service agents entered the building and began scanning the guests and taking up positions.  Music was playing, cocktails were being served, conversations were cascading throughout the room, but there was also a sense of dread amongst those on LBJ’s staff who realized that the President’s decision to frequent a segregated nightclub in Austin would likely require some major explaining when the news got out.

And then, when Lyndon Johnson walked into the Forty Acres Club, it became clear that he might not be the President that some worried he may be.  As he entered the strictly segregated club, the President of the United States was arm-in-arm with one of his secretaries — Gerri Whittington. One of the guests, Ernie Goldstein turned to LBJ aide Bill Moyers and asked, “Does the President know what he’s doing?”  Moyers didn’t hesitate.  He responded, “He always knows what he’s doing.”  Whittington asked Johnson a similar question.  “Mr. President,” she asked as they headed inside the club, “do you know what you are doing?”  Johnson didn’t hesitate.  “I sure do.  Half of them are going to think you’re my wife, and that’s just fine with me.”

Gerri Whittington was an African-American woman and in the final hours of 1963, the President of the United States had taken it upon himself to integrate the Forty Acres Club in Austin.  

Nobody had suggested it.  Nobody had demanded it.  Nobody had expected it.  There were no focus groups convened and no polling data was consulted.  Political calculations had nothing to do with it.  It was as simple as Lyndon Johnson wanting to celebrate New Year’s Eve with his staff — a staff which included an African-American woman.  On the last night of 1963, Lyndon Johnson brought a black friend to what had been a strictly segregated, all-white club because he wanted to, but he also did it because he realized that he was now the most powerful man in the world and it was something that he could do.  As LBJ said in other situations, “Well, what the hell is the Presidency for?”  On that last night of 1963, LBJ showed that the Presidency was for breaking down barriers and beginning the journey that made a big, brash Texan from the Hill Country the man who did more for Civil Rights than any other President besides (maybe) Lincoln.

Gerri Whittington, who had been asked to join LBJ’s secretarial staff in the White House shortly after President Kennedy was assassinated, continued to work in the White House for President Johnson until the day he left office and flew home to retirement in Texas.  She was the White House’s first black executive secretary and one of her fondest memories wasn’t desegregating the Forty Acres Club with LBJ, but the day in June 1967 when President Johnson steppped out of the Oval Office with Thurgood Marshall and shared the news that he was appointing Marshall as the first black Supreme Court Justice.  Other than the President and Marshall, Whittington was the first person to know of the historic nomination.

As for the Forty Acres Club, the rigid segregationist policy that had previously been the rule literally disappeared overnight.  The very next day, January 1, 1964, a curious party-goer from the night before called the club to see if it might have been an aberration or a one-time concession to the power of the Presidency.  When he asked if black guests were now allowed at the Forty Acres Club, he was told, “Yes, sir.  The President of the United States integrated us on New Year’s Eve.”

I know that I am not the only big fan of Lyndon Baines Johnson here on Tumblr, so I wanted to pass along a suggestion I received while exchanging e-mails today with Margaret, the wonderful web editor at the LBJ Library.  

The LBJ Library, on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, has been newly-redesigned and is once again re-opened to visitors every day of the year except Christmas.  During the year that I lived in Austin, I found myself at the LBJ Library more times than I can even estimate and loved every visit.  The only thing I miss about Texas is that wonderful Library and Museum, and I would definitely like to check out the redesigned exhibits.  Fortunately, if you’re not in the vicinity of Austin, you can still take the tour with the LBJ Library app from the iTunes store, which will act as your tour guide and take you on an updated journey through President Johnson’s life and career.

For Presidential history nerds such as us, each of the locations in our nation’s growing Presidential Library system give us an opportunity to celebrate and learn about our country’s leaders.  To me, visiting a Presidential Library is like winning a Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s Presidential History Factory.  But way cooler and with only a few Oompa Loompas (at the Hoover Library, oddly enough…I think he brought them back from Belgium).  Now, for just 99 cents, you can tour the updated version of LBJ’s Library by downloading the LBJ Library app from the iTunes store!

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Ed Ames with the "Hello Dolly" Male Chorus

In 1964, a familiar refrain during the Presidential campaign was “Hello, Lyndon!”, a version of the title song from that year’s popular Broadway hit, “Hello, Dolly!”, sung here by Ed Ames.  It was a happy time for Lyndon Johnson, who had been thrust into the White House under tragic circumstances in November 1963 with the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  One year later, LBJ was elected President of the United States in his own right, routing Republican nominee Barry Goldwater in one of the biggest electoral and popular vote landslides in American history.

Four years later, many things had changed — both positively and negatively.  But on March 31, 1968, the lyrics of “Hello, Lyndon!" were far from President Johnson’s mind.  That night, at the end of a televised speech from the Oval Office in which Johnson announced an unconditional halt to the bombing of North Vietnam in order to help find a path towards a peace settlement, LBJ stunned the nation, other politicians, many members of his family, and most of his White House staff.  With a campaign for another term as President beginning, instead of singing "Hello, Lyndon!" as in 1964, the bombastic Texan who had spent his life loving, needing, and mastering the use of power looked across his desk into the television cameras that beamed his images into millions of American homes — and Lyndon said good-bye.


There was an ugly mood in the country in 1968 with protests against the unpopular Vietnam War, racial and civil unrest in many cities around the nation, and debates and disruptions on college campuses often turning violent.  Crime rates were rising, rioting was breaking out, and the situation would worsen less than a week after Johnson’s announcement when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.  The United States was at war in Vietnam, but there was also a war of sorts within the country’s borders, and LBJ addressed that divisiveness in his March 31st speech as he shifted from the change in Vietnam policy to the personal decision he had come to:

The ultimate strength of our country and our cause will lie not in powerful weapons or infinite resources or boundless wealth, but will lie in the unity of our people.

This I believe very deeply.

Throughout my entire public career I have followed the personal philosophy that I am a free man, an American, a public servant, and a member of my party, in that order always and only.  For 37 years in the service of our Nation, first as a Congressman, as a Senator, and as Vice President, and now as your President, I have put the unity of the people first.  I have put it ahead of any divisive partisanship.

And in these times as in times before, it is true that a house divided against itself by the spirit of faction, of party, of region, of religion, of race, is a house that cannot stand.

There is division in the American house now.  There is divisiveness among us all tonight.  And holding the trust that is mine, as President of all the people, I cannot disregard the peril to the progress of the American people and the hope and the prospect of peace for all peoples.

So, I would ask all American, whatever their personal interests or concern, to guard against divisiveness and all its ugly consequences.

Then LBJ recalled the afternoon that an assassin’s bullet elevated him to the Presidency, along with the achievements that his Administration and Congress accomplished for the American people, particularly in the first two years of his time in the White House as Johnson tried to lead the nation to realize his “Great Society”:

Fifty-two months and 10 days ago, in a moment of tragedy and trauma, the duties of this office fell upon me.  I asked then for your help and God’s, that we might continue America on its course, binding up our wounds, healing our history, moving forward in new unity, to clear the American agenda and to keep the American commitment for all our people.

United we have kept that commitment.  United we have enlarged that commitment.

Through all time to come, I think America will be a stronger nation, a more just society, and a land of greater opportunity and fulfillment because of what we have all done together in these years of unparalleled achievement.  Our reward will come in the life of freedom, peace, and hope that our children will enjoy through ages ahead.

What we won when all of our people united just must not now be lost in suspicion, distrust, selfishness, and politics among any of our people.

Three years earlier, Americans were amazed and some — including Martin Luther King, Jr. — were moved to tears when President Johnson adopted the inspirational words of the Civil Rights Movement and told a Joint Session of Congress that in the struggle against racial injustice, “We shall overcome.”  Now, the American people heard words that surprised them for a very different reason:

Believing this as I do, I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year.

With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office — the Presidency of your country.

Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.

But let men everywhere know, however, that a strong, confident, and a vigilant America stands ready tonight to seek an honorable peace — and stands ready tonight to defend an honorable cause — whatever the price, whatever the burden, whatever the sacrifice that duty may require.

Thank you for listening.  Good night and God bless all of you.

In the days following LBJ’s withdrawal from the 1968 campaign, the President seemed to feel refreshed and his approval ratings increased, but the mood darkened once again on April 4th when Dr. King was assassinated.  Robert F. Kennedy, one of the Democrats who jumped into the fray and sought the party’s Presidential nomination following Johnson’s withdrawal, was killed two months later.  As the Democratic National Convention approached — an event which was marred by violence in the streets of Chicago between Chicago police and demonstrators — Johnson privately hoped that his troubled political party might turn to him and draft him as the nominee. He didn’t know if he would accept it, but as always, Lyndon Johnson wanted to be wanted.  Instead, the Democrats nominated Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert H. Humphrey, who lost the election in November to Richard Nixon.

Was LBJ’s withdrawal from the 1968 campaign a self-sacrificial act on behalf of his party and country in order to focus on the job at hand?  No, of course not.  It’s no secret that Johnson, as Commander-in-Chief of a tremendously unpopular war, was himself tremendously unpopular.  Few people had better political instincts than Lyndon B. Johnson, and he could certainly read and understand approval polls. 

LBJ was certainly spooked by the results of the Democratic primary in New Hampshire on March 12, 1968.  Although LBJ won the primary with 49%, Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota won 42%.  Prior to the New Hampshire primary, there were no Democrats willing to challenge LBJ for the nomination.  McCarthy’s showing led RFK to enter the race, even though he had previously declined to run.  Facing a challenge for the Democratic nomination probably was a factor in LBJ’s decision to withdraw from the race, but I don’t think it wasn’t the main reason.

As LBJ suggested in his withdrawal speech, a general re-election campaign takes a President away from his duties, but having to beat back a challenge for his own party’s nomination would require even more campaigning.  Still, a politician with LBJ’s experience and an incumbent President with the advantages of a built-in political team, massive war chest, and nominal control of all aspects of the Democratic Party (the President is always the head of his political party) would be a tough opponent for any challenger within the party to overcome.  I think LBJ would have won the nomination (and relished a chance to defeat Bobby Kennedy), and a general election battle between LBJ and Richard Nixon probably would have gone LBJ’s way.  Hubert Humphrey nearly beat Nixon despite his relatively low-profile and without the advantages of Presidential incumbency that Lyndon Johnson would have possessed.

So, the political challenges were a factor, and the determination to focus on the troubles gripping the nation were a factor, but I believe the main reason for Lyndon Johnson’s decision to withdraw from the 1968 campaign and not seek re-election was his health.

In every campaign that Lyndon Johnson ever participated in — dating back to his first bid for Congress in 1937 — he worked so hard that he became sick.  Johnson, who suffered a massive heart attack that nearly killed him in 1955, was convinced that he would not live long.  According to Leo Janos in The Atlantic, LBJ didn’t think he would survive another term.  ”The men in the Johnson family have a history of dying young,” he told Janos in 1971, two years after leaving office.  ”My daddy was only 62 when he died, and I figured that with my history of heart trouble I’d never live through another four years.”

Johnson also told Janos, “The American people had enough of Presidents dying in office.”  As someone who succeeded an assassinated President and who saw Warren G. Harding and Franklin D. Roosevelt (who “was like a daddy to me” according to LBJ) die in office, a weakened or incapacitated President resonated deeply within Johnson.  He spoke often to aides about how one of his biggest fears was ending up like Woodrow Wilson who was crippled by a stroke in 1919 and spent the last two years of his Presidency as an invalid.  When she was young and a member of the White House Fellows program, Doris Kearns Goodwin was an aide to LBJ and, in retirement, helped him complete his Presidential memoir, The Vantage Point: Perspectives on the Presidency, 1963-1969.  In her own book about LBJ, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream — a book in which a far more candid LBJ emerges — Kearns Goodwin writes about how deeply the Wilson nightmare truly haunted Johnson:

Hating the days, Johnson hated the nights even more.  He began dreaming again the dream of paralysis that had haunted him since early childhood.  Only this time he was lying in a bed in the Red Room of the White House, instead of sitting in a chair in the middle of the open plains.  His head was still his, but from the neck down his body was the thin, paralyzed body that had been the affliction of both Woodrow Wilson and his own grandmother in their final years.  All his Presidential assistants were in the next room.  He could hear them actively fighting with one another to divide up his power: Joe Califano wanted the legislative program; Walt Rostow wanted the decisions on foreign policy; Arthur Okun wanted to formulate the budget; and George Christian wanted to handle relations with the public.  He could hear them, but he could not command them, for he could neither talk nor walk.  He was sick and stilled, but not a single aide tried to protect him.

The dream terrified Johnson, waking from his sleep.  Lying in the dark, he could find no peace until he got out of bed, and, by the light of a small flashlight, walked the halls of the White House to the place where Woodrow Wilson’s portrait hung.  He found something soothing in the act of touching Wilson’s picture; he could sleep again.  He was still Lyndon Johnson, and he was still alive and moving; it was Woodrow Wilson who was dead.  The ritual, however, brought little lasting peace; when morning came, Johnson’s mind was again filled with fears.  Only gradually did he recognize the resemblance between this dream and the stampede dream of his boyhood.  Making the connection, his fears intensified; he was certain now that paralysis was his inevitable fate.  Remembering his family’s history of early strokes, he convinced himself that he, too, would suffer a stroke in his next term.  Immobilized, still in office nominally, yet not actually in control: this seemed to Johnson the worst situation imaginable.  He could not rid himself of the suspicion that a mean God had set out to torture him in the cruelest manner possible.  His suffering now no longer consisted of his usual melancholy; it was an acute throbbing pain, and he craved relief.  More than anything he wanted peace and quiet.  An end to the pain.

It was thoughts and feelings like these that led Lyndon Johnson to make his famous speech 45 years ago tonight.  It sounds crazy and seems insane that the power-hungry, power-loving Lyndon Johnson would allow himself to be chased out of office by a fear of death.  But Lyndon Johnson thought he would die at the age of 64 and Lyndon Johnson was worried he wouldn’t survive another term.  That term would have ended on January 20, 1973.

Lyndon Johnson died on January 22, 1973.  He was 64.

Here are the graves of Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson in the family cemetery at the LBJ Ranch near Johnson City, Texas.  I believe these photos are from my first visit to the LBJ Ranch, which was in May or June of 2010.

Lyndon Baines Johnson’s ability to convince others to see things his way, vote for his legislation, serve at his command, and do what he needed them to do is so legendary that there is even a familiar description of his tactics — “the Johnson Treatment”.  Read any biography of LBJ and you’ll be sure to find the words “bully” and “cajole” somewhere in the text.  The towering Texan often used his imposing physical presence (he was nearly 6’4”) to grab lapels, jab fingers in chests, wrap his arms on his target, and literally lean on others in order to get what he needed, as displayed in the famous series of photographs above of the Johnson Treatment being used on a somwehat terrified-looking Senator Theodore Green of Rhode Island.

But the Johnson Treatment wasn’t always a physical onslaught.  Lyndon Johnson had an innate, often stunning ability to read the personalities of others and immediately understand exactly how to ingratiate himself with them.  With giants of Capitol Hill like Senator Richard Russell of Georgia and longtime House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, LBJ recognized two lonely, childless men who had nothing in their lives but an intense devotion to politics.  With both men, Johnson built relationships bordering on familial.  Russell and Rayburn both had something close to paternal affection for Johnson, who was endlessly deferential to them and brought them into his home for dinners with his family because, as he once explained to Senator Russell, who lived alone in a small apartment in Washington, “You’re gonna have to eat somewhere, you know.”  The relationships he built were real, but there was a reasoning behind the deference and for the personal bonds forged with such men, too.  Johnson recognized their influence and how they could further his goals for himself and for his country.  As LBJ often said, “Power is where power goes.”

Johnson would tailor his strategy differently for everybody he approached, and his success rate was astonishing.  The Johnson Treatment’s tactics were effective, if not always admirable.  The man who would one day become LBJ’s Vice President, Hubert H. Humphrey, once pulled up the leg of his trousers to show bruises where Johnson had kicked him while saying “Get going!” after giving Humphrey marching orders.  In the dark days following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson decided to appoint a special Presidential commission to uncover all of the facts of the murder and report back to the country.  To chair the commission, LBJ wanted Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the United States, but Warren was opposed to Supreme Court Justices serving on extrajudicial commissions.  When Warren declined, Johnson called him to the Oval Office and appealed to his patriotism, noting that rumors that the Soviet Union might be involved in Kennedy’s death could cause the Soviets to become nervous of an impending retaliation by the United States and launch a preemptive nuclear strike, which would kill an estimated 39 million Americans in the first hour.  “All I want you to do is look at the facts, and bring any other facts that you want in here and determine who killed the President,” Johnson told Warren.  “But here I’m asking you to do something and you’re saying no, when you could speaking for 39 million people.  Now I’m surprised that you, the Chief Justice of the United States, would turn me down.”  The Chief Justice, one of the most formidable and respected men in the country, was left in tears, and immediately said, “Mr. President, if the situation is that serious, my personal views do not count.  I will do it.”

Richard Russell didn’t want to serve on the Warren Commission, either.  One of the main reasons was that the staunch segregationist hated and distrusted Earl Warren, whose Supreme Court had ordered the desegregation of public schools in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.  Throughout their relationship, Johnson had always been deferential to the Senator from Georgia who, in turn, treated LBJ like the son he never had.  Now, just seven days into his Presidency, LBJ used another form of the Johnson Treatment on Russell.  A couple of hours after Russell had initially turned down Johnson’s request, the President called him back and told him that he wasn’t simply asking Russell to serve on the commission — in fact, he’d already announced it to the press.  Russell was stunned and again tried to beg off, but it was no use.  The protégé, now President of the United States, said, to his mentor, “You’re my man on that commission.  And you are going to do it!  And don’t tell me what you can do and what you can’t, because I can’t arrest you.  And I’m not going to put the FBI on you.  But you’re goddamned going to serve, I’ll tell you that!”  There wasn’t anything else the Senator could do.  Richard Russell served alongside the Chief Justice on the Warren Commission.

The Johnson Treatment — and LBJ’s unique way of adapting it to each person — even worked with people who knew Lyndon Johnson extraordinarily well, understood his modus operandi, and were somewhat “on-guard” for the Johnson Treatment.  James H. Rowe was a cunning, tough politician and lawyer, who had known Lyndon B. Johnson since Johnson was a young, up-and-coming Congressman  beginning to float into the circle of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Rowe had been a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and became an ardent New Dealer.  He worked on the Nuremberg Trials prosecuting Nazi war criminals following World War II, and was a Democratic operative who was a trusted political adviser to Presidents Roosevelt and Harry Truman.  By 1956, Rowe had known Lyndon Johnson for nearly twenty years and had often seen LBJ get his way via the Johnson Treatment by bullying, flattering, and even sometimes making others feel pity for him.

On July 2, 1955, Johnson, the powerful Senate Majority Leader, suffered a massive heart attack that very nearly killed him.  Just 46 years old, unhealthy habits such as his blistering pace at work, his diet, his drinking, his lack of exercise, and the more than three packs of cigarettes that he smoked daily caught up with LBJ, who came from a family of men with a history of heart trouble.  As he returned to work at the Capitol, Johnson asked Rowe to join him as an aide in the Senate.  Rowe turned Johnson down because of his lucrative law practice in New York City — a job as an aide to the Senate Majority Leader would obviously result in a drastic pay cut for Rowe.  LBJ put the Johnson Treatment into full effect, and not just on Rowe.

As Rowe continued to decline Johnson’s pleading, mutual friends were told that LBJ had nearly died and that Rowe wouldn’t help him out.  Rowe’s law partner, another New Dealer and famed operative for FDR, Thomas “Tommy the Cork” Corcoran, got on Rowe’s case, saying, “You just can’t do this to Lyndon Johnson!”.  Rowe would later remember, “People I knew were coming up to me on the street — on the street! — and saying, ‘Why aren’t you helping Lyndon?  Don’t you know how sick he is?  How can you let him down when he needs you?’”  Even Rowe’s wife was recruited and asked him one night, “Why are you doing this to poor Lyndon?”.

Then LBJ really turned it on.  Over the years, Rowe had seen Johnson use whatever means necessary to obtain the support he needed and the people he wanted.  But when Lyndon Johnson came to James Rowe’s law office, he was stunned by the display.  Johnson’s was sobbing, with his head in his big hands, tears streaming down his face.  “I’m going to die,” said Johnson.  “You’re an old friend.  I thought you were my friend and you don’t care that I’m going to die.  It’s just selfish of you, typically selfish.”  Pleading with Rowe that he had a big job to do as Senate Majority Leader and not much time left because of his health problems, he literally begged Rowe to come to work for him, even if it meant sacrificing his law practice for a while.

"Oh, goddamn it, all right," said Rowe.

The Johnson Treatment had worked again, even on an old hand like James H. Rowe, who had seen it in action so many times.  And, as soon as Johnson got what he wanted, the tears disappeared.  The weakness was gone.  He was no longer dying or crying or pleading.  Instead, he stood up, looked his new employee, and gave him his first orders.

"Just remember, I make the decisions.  You don’t," LBJ commanded Rowe, and then stomped right back to work. 


President Lyndon B. Johnson and Senator Richard Russell of Georgia

"Watch their hands, watch their eyes.  Read eyes.  No matter what a man is saying to you, it’s not as important as what you can read in his eyes.  The most important thing a man has to tell you is what he’s not telling you; the most important thing he has to say is what he’s trying not to say." — Lyndon B. Johnson