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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But the show closed quickly. Consider the fate of a speech, conceived in the hours after King's death, to outline a massive new effort to address urban poverty. On Friday, April 5, the day after King died, Johnson had gone on television and promised to deliver the speech the following Monday. Then he pushed it back to Tuesday night, supposedly to avoid overshadowing King's funeral in Atlanta earlier that day. Then he postponed it indefinitely. When Busby urged him to get on with it, Johnson demurred. "We don't have the ideas we used to have when I first came to this town," he told Busby. "Until we all get to be a whole lot smarter, I guess the country will just have to go with what it has already."

Johnson's withdrawal—which he announced on March 31 on national television with the words "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President"—was long in coming. According to his press secretary George Christian, Johnson had been weighing the decision since October, and he had casually broached the subject with friends even earlier. In January 1968, he asked Busby to draft a withdrawal statement to slip into his State of the Union address, but the president never delivered it.

By late March, however, Johnson had begun to reconsider. At lunch on Thursday, March 28, he brought up the idea of withdrawing with Califano and Harry McPherson, his special counsel. With antiwar protesters outside the White House gates chanting, "Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?" Johnson rattled off his reasons for withdrawing. He was worried about his health. He wanted to spend time with his family. Most important, his political capital was gone. "I've asked Congress for too much for too long, and they're tired of me," he told his lunch companions, according to McPherson, now a partner at a Washington law firm.

Johnson's staff had spent weeks working on a major speech about Vietnam, scheduled for the evening of March 31, in which the president would announce a halt to bombing over most of North Vietnam to encourage Hanoi to enter peace talks. The day before, he asked Busby to rework the statement that had gone unread during the State of the Union address. Busby came to the White House the next morning, and Johnson secluded him in the Treaty Room to work on what Johnson discreetly called his "peroration."

Johnson told his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, about the new ending that morning, but informed key cabinet members only minutes before going on the air. As he sat in the Oval Office, his family watching from behind the cameras, he exuded a calm rarely seen on his face of late, "a marvelous sort of repose over-all," recalled his wife, Lady Bird. When he finished his speech, he stood quietly and hugged his daughters.

The White House was silent. "We were stunned," McPherson told me. And then the phones began ringing. All night, friends close and estranged called with congratulations and approval. The White House press corps exploded in activity, clamoring for a further statement. The first lady finally emerged. "We have done a lot," she told reporters. "There's a lot left to do in the remaining months; maybe this is the only way to get it done."

Johnson addressed the nation on television again the night of April 4. "America is shocked and saddened by the brutal slaying tonight of Dr. Martin Luther King," he said. "I ask every citizen to reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King, who lived by nonviolence."

He had already called King's widow, Coretta; now, he dived into a flurry of calls to civil rights leaders, mayors and governors around the country. He told the civil rights leaders to go out into the streets, to meet with people and express their sorrow. He advised politicians to warn their police against the unwarranted use of force. But no one seemed to be heeding his words. "I'm not getting through," he told his aides. "They're all holing up like generals in a dugout getting ready to watch a war."

Busby, who had come in from his Maryland home to help with any speechwriting, watched as his old friend once again took on the weight of a national emergency. "The exuberance of the week seemed to be draining from his long face as I watched him behind the desk," he later wrote.

Johnson dispatched a Justice Department team, led by Attorney General Ramsey Clark, to Memphis to oversee the manhunt for King's assassin. Meanwhile, he set Califano, McPherson and their assistants to work calling the nation's leading black figures to a meeting at the White House the next day: Roy Wilkins of the NAACP; Whitney M. Young Jr. of the National Urban League; Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, Indiana; Thurgood Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court; and around a dozen others. Martin Luther King Sr. was too ill to come from his home in Atlanta. "The president wants you to know his prayers are with you," one of Johnson's aides told him over the phone. "Oh no," replied the ailing patriarch, "my prayers are with the president."


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