The Unmaking of the President

Lyndon Johnson believed that his withdrawal from the 1968 presidential campaign would free him to solidify his legacy

(Cheryl Carlin)
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By 5 p.m. federal troops occupied the Capitol, surrounded the White House and had begun patrolling with sheathed bayonets; ultimately, some 12,500 soldiers and National Guardsmen would be sent to Washington. Tanks crunched broken glass beneath their treads. And Washington wasn't the only city to be occupied. "At about five o'clock in the afternoon, Johnson got a call from Mayor [Richard J.] Daley, who started telling him Chicago was getting out of control," McPherson told me. Federal troops soon arrived in Chicago. They marched into Baltimore on Sunday.

Scores of cities across the nation registered some level of civil disturbance. Pittsburgh and, later, Kansas City, Missouri, teetered on the edge of uncontrollable violence. In Nashville, rioters torched an ROTC building. National Guard troops were deployed in Raleigh and Greensboro, North Carolina. Even small, previously peaceful cities were hit—in Joliet, outside Chicago, rioters burned down a warehouse not far from a key Army munitions factory.

Flying home from Memphis on Friday evening, Attorney General Clark and his staff had asked the pilot to circle Washington before landing at Andrews Air Force Base. Roger Wilkins, then an assistant attorney general, recalled seeing fires everywhere, obscured by billowing smoke. "As I'm looking out the window, I see a great big orange ball with a needle in it," he told me. "All of a sudden I said...‘That's flames, and the needle I'm seeing is the Washington Monument.' The city looked like it had been bombed from the air."

Along with the riot response, Johnson's aides went to work on the speech the president was scheduled to give to Congress that Monday. The address, Johnson told Busby, "can make or break us. The [withdrawal] speech Sunday was good and accomplished what we wanted, but King's death has erased all of that, and we have to start again."

Proposals poured in: LBJ's Congressional liaison, Harold "Barefoot" Sanders, suggested a bigger income surtax. The Labor Department suggested a renewed effort to rehabilitate ghettos. Gardner Ackley, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, suggested a "bill of economic rights" that would give priority to programs for housing and income assistance. Doris Kearns Goodwin, then a White House fellow assigned to Labor, recalled working late into the night on the speech, then "driving home exhausted through uncanny, deserted streets, halted periodically at barricades where armed soldiers looked inside the car." At one point, Califano's staff tallied $5 billion (the equivalent of almost $30 billion today) in new plans to include in the speech. "One thing people were of a single mind about," McPherson told me, "was that it shouldn't be any small measures."

But as Friday gave way to Saturday and then Sunday, the mood in the White House soured. The speech was repeatedly postponed. By April 9, the Washington Post noted, "Neither Congress nor the Administration appeared in a mood to plunge headlong into massive new urban spending programs now."

What had happened? In part it was simple realism. Even as Johnson was drumming up his list of new programs—an expression of his unalloyed New Dealer faith in government—he was hearing new levels of criticism and anger from his friends in Congress. Georgia Senator Richard Russell, one of Johnson's fellow Democrats, phoned and fumed because he had heard that the soldiers guarding the Capitol were bearing unloaded arms. (They did, however, carry ammunition on their belts.) West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, another Democrat, called for the Army to occupy Washington indefinitely.

It was "extraordinary that there should have been such a vast difference between the conversations in the White House and attitudes on the Hill," McPherson wrote in his memoirs. "On the Hill, and probably for the majority in this country, [new social spending] seemed dangerously like a protection racket."

On Sunday, Johnson saw the destruction in Washington firsthand. After attending church with Luci, he accompanied Gen. William Westmoreland—who had flown in from Vietnam for a meeting—on a helicopter trip to Andrews Air Force Base. On the way back, he had the pilot fly up and down the riot-torn streets. In the daylight, recalled Tom Johnson, a White House aide (and future president of CNN), the passengers could still see fires burning.

With America in flames, Johnson realized that he would do better to focus his efforts on a single piece of legislation, preferably one with few costs attached. He chose the fair- housing bill, which would ban racial discrimination in housing sales and rentals for some 80 percent of the residential market. It was, noted Senator Sam Ervin, a Democrat from North Carolina, the first civil rights bill to challenge discrimination outside the South. For that reason—combined with the national cooling on civil rights since the 1965 Watts riot—it had been stalled for two years.


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