At the beginning of 1968, no one could have predicted the reception that would greet President Lyndon Baines Johnson as he entered St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan on the afternoon of Thursday, April 4. Here was a man so dogged by protesters that he had been limiting his public appearances to military bases and American Legion halls. Here was an activist president—his legislative achievements were exceeded only by those of his idol, Franklin D. Roosevelt—who had become so divisive that he had abandoned his re-election campaign just four days before. And yet, as he began walking down the aisle with his daughter Luci, the 5,000 people who had gathered for the installation of Terence Cooke as archbishop of New York rose and began to applaud. As the president and his daughter sat silently through Cooke's inaugural sermon, the archbishop addressed him directly: "Mr. President, our hearts, our hopes, our continued prayers go with you."
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The greeting in New York City was just the latest manifestation of a dramatic turn in Johnson's popularity. Hundreds had lined the streets to see his motorcade as it entered the city. Another crowd had cheered him during a visit to Chicago three days earlier. Newspaper editorials had heaped praise on Johnson for his decision not to seek re-election. It was as if someone had flipped a switch in the national psyche: in a Harris Poll taken after his withdrawal announcement the previous Sunday night, the public went from 57 percent against to 57 percent in favor of the job he was doing as president.
After dropping his campaign, Johnson was by all accounts a man renewed. An increasingly hostile Congress, constant public criticism, the recent Tet Offensive by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces, and the prospects of a grueling re-election battle had ground him to a nub; now, freed from political pressures and embraced by the media and public, he plotted an agenda for his remaining months. Along with peace in Vietnam, he had a long list of domestic programs he felt he now had the political capital to get passed. As he wrote in his memoirs about his New York visit, "The world that day seemed to me a pretty good place."
But then, just hours after Johnson entered St. Patrick's, James Earl Ray poked his Remington Gamemaster out the bathroom window of a Memphis flophouse and fired at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was standing outside his room at the Lorraine Motel, 80 yards away. King was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he died at 7:05 p.m.
An aide relayed the news of the shooting to Johnson as he sat meeting with Robert Woodruff, head of Coca-Cola, and former Georgia governor Carl Sanders in the West Wing of the White House; word of King's death came within an hour. The president finished his business quickly, then huddled with his inner circle of aides to work on a statement he would read on television. Before the night was out, looting and burning erupted in Washington, just blocks from the White House; over the next several days, riots would break out in as many as 125 cities. When it was over, 39 people were dead, more than 2,600 injured and 21,000 arrested; the damages were estimated at $65 million—the equivalent of about $385 million today—though the destruction was so widespread that a full accounting remains impossible.
Back in the White House, even as the riots were beginning, Johnson knew his hopes for a legislative victory lap were finished. Just hours after King's death, he told his domestic policy adviser, Joseph A. Califano Jr.: "Everything we've gained in the last few days we're going to lose tonight."
Johnson had weathered riots before—the first of the "long, hot summers" was in 1964, only months into his presidency. But by 1968 he knew that another spasm of urban disorder would ruin his standing with the public. Far more than Vietnam, a combination of civil rights activism and racial riots had eroded LBJ's support among white, middle-class Americans. "The level of vitriol in the mail and the calls over all the race issues dwarfed anything we had on Vietnam," Califano told me recently in the Manhattan office where he chairs the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. "He was very conscious that he'd become an incredibly divisive figure because of his strong stand on the race issue."
Nevertheless, Johnson began 1968 hoping he could push through his ambitious domestic agenda while running for re-election: among other items, a 10 percent income tax surcharge, a ban on housing discrimination and more money for the Head Start school-readiness program, housing and jobs. "In January he was still willing to spend whatever capital he had left—and it was dwindling fast—to get his work done without waiting for the war to be over," Califano wrote in his memoirs. "Often we put so many complex proposals out in a day that reporters were unable to write clearly about them." But the disastrous Tet Offensive in January and February and antiwar Senator Eugene McCarthy's striking second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary in March convinced Johnson that he had to do something drastic. "Abdication," historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote in her biography of Johnson, "was thus the last remaining way to restore control, to turn rout into dignity, collapse into order."
Conventional wisdom holds that Johnson backed out of the 1968 race a broken man, undone by years of domestic division. But 40 years later, such a view seems too simplistic. An examination of that fateful week in the Johnson presidency, based on documents from the National Archives and interviews with Johnson White House staffers, shows that he was, in fact, emboldened by his withdrawal—only to be broken, finally and irreparably, by the King assassination and the riots that followed.
Indeed, soon after he made his withdrawal address, Johnson was plotting a new agenda. "His demeanor was that of a new man," his confidant and former speechwriter Horace Busby wrote. "His conversation began to quicken with talk of what could be achieved over the balance of the year. There was fresh excitement and an old bite in his tone as he declared, ‘We're going to get this show on the road again.'"