"I have concluded that I shall not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year."
"I do not believe 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."
"Therefore, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President."
This ambitious and powerful man, who had won a tremendous landslide just four years earlier, had become so troubled by an unpopular war—that he was ostensibly ending his long and brilliant political career.
So many things happened in 1968 that it’s difficult to select any one as critical. Many younger political junkies might not see Johnson’s decision as all that important. But if you go back and look at the political situation, this was tremendously significant event that has ramification not only in 1968—but actually sent shock-waves throughout the system for years. Let me explain.
By January 1968, Lyndon Johnson was embattled, but he remained a dominant figure. Had he sought the nomination, it would have been his. He still could have made policy adjustments in Vietnam. And while major changes were not forthcoming, short cease-fires and more peace talks were still possible.
Granted, things had been getting worse in Vietnam. In January came the Tet offensive--North Vietnamese troops attacked numerous provincial capitals and major cities in the south, including an attack on the U.S. embassy in Saigon and the presidential palace. Tet showed that the U.S. was not winning the war. And remember, this war was not censored by the government. Americans saw the body bags every evening on TV.
But even with these extreme difficulties, the Democratic Party and its leaders would have lined up behind LBJ. In 1968, the party structure was not as decentralized as it is today. The Democratic hierarchy was ruled by the president and it would have been nearly impossible to defeat him. Yes, an insurgent candidate could embarrass LBJ, or damage him for the November run…..but the way the convention votes were gathered and tallied, Johnson would have had few problems taking the nomination.
But what we were starting to see by 1968 was the deterioration of that old system. At the time, many still did not see its imminent downfall. Maybe Johnson saw it crumbling…..maybe Eugene McCarthy did too. But things were taking place that would have ramification for the future of American politics—Johnson served to exacerbate those changes when he gave that March 31 speech.
By the start of the year, most assumed the Johnson-Humphrey ticket would stand for reelection. But some of the antiwar left went looking for a challenger. At the time, this seemed more symbolic that substantive. Most saw New York senator Robert Kennedy as the clear first-choice—but he was not willing to challenge Johnson or the war….yet. Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy finally agreed to face the president. No one gave him a chance.
Then in the March 12 New Hampshire primary, Johnson beat McCarthy 49% to 42%. This shook the political world. How could this soft-spoken, antiwar senator get such support? People started to wonder a little more about the war, maybe it was time to question the politicians on this.
But the old political “machines” were also starting to collapse. If McCarthy could do it......maybe these primaries would allow the “people” to select the candidates. At the time, the primaries weren’t worth much at the convention (pols like mayor Daley still ruled), but if the grass-roots spoke, the leaders would have to listen wouldn’t they?
McCarthy had opened some eyes and people were just wondering what all of this meant. Then two days later, Robert Kennedy entered the race. RFK was the star of the party and the realistic hope of the left. He is still be criticized for waiting too long—for not being as courageous as McCarthy—but when he entered, the dynamics of the campaign changed even more.
So by the end of March, President Johnson was being challenged by two Democrats, and he still seemed flustered by the war—which was going badly. And while he controlled the party and could have garnered the nomination, he called it quits.
What were the implications here? By abandoning the race, I think that Johnson set in motion tremendous political changes. Yes, these changes would have taken place sooner or later, but without the 1968 political turmoil—probably later. By dropping out of the race, the antiwar left and the student movement saw that they could possibly change the system. If they could do this, maybe they could end the war…..maybe they could change the corrupt system itself.
LBJ had opened the door and the activist took advantage. While the 1968 election didn’t turn out the way the left wanted (Nixon v. Humphrey; Kennedy dead; the party in ruins), there was hope that manifested itself during the next 4 years.
I still believe Johnson hoped the party might still draft him at the summer convention. He was an ambitious man—and he still might have won the election. But there are times when I also think maybe Johnson knew something—maybe he had begun to understand that he was on the wrong side of history. Maybe he saw that the nation and its institutions were changing rather quickly.
Lyndon Johnson shocked the nation that Sunday evening and set in motion some important electoral changes in this nation. It now seems like it couldn't have been any other way--for 1968 turned out to be a great social, cultural, and political divide. Johnson was on the other side of that divide, he was a man of the past.