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Johnson Withdraws: The Renunciation

[TIME from Apr. 12, 1968]

(TIME, April 12, 1968) -- Lyndon Johnson's renunciation of a second term as President dumbfounded all but a score of relatives and top aides, who suspected that it might be coming. It was not included in the advance text of his bombing-pause speech. Only an hour before he went before the television cameras did he order a U.S. Army Signal Corps man to put his climactic words on the TelePrompTers. Even then, Johnson said, "I'm not going to know probably until I get there whether I'm going to use that speech."

By the time Johnson reached the crucial passage 35 minutes after his address began, many Americans had already switched off their television sets. Others had grown heavy-lidded. Still others slouched, fast asleep, before flickering tubes. Then, with the particular relish he derives from surprises, the President jolted his countrymen out of their Sunday somnolence with the biggest surprise of all. Said he, in a sentence that may already have earned its place among historic American quotations: "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President."

The seismic impact of Johnson's withdrawal statement has only begun to be felt. Politically, it means a bitter battle for the succession among Democrats and an anguished reappraisal among Republicans concerning Richard Nixon's chances for election in November. Within the U.S., it could mark the beginning of a frenetic effort by Johnson to complete the record of domestic legislation that he wants to stand as history's yardstick for his presidency. In foreign affairs, it could bring more intense efforts to end the war -- either by negotiations or by heavier fighting. In any event, the President no longer has to adjust his policies, as he put it, "to win a primary or a state convention or please some party leader."

Walking Out. It had long been considered axiomatic that if Lyndon Johnson could walk, he would run for a second term. But in the months preceding his withdrawal, his problems mounted relentlessly. The nation was so divided over Vietnam that it was no longer possible for the President or many of his Cabinet members to travel without the danger of a rowdy demonstration. The U.S. dollar was being brutally battered by foreign gold speculators. Not least among the factors affecting his decision was the unforeseen strength of Senators Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy in their challenge to his renomination. So low had Johnson's popularity sunk, said one Democratic official, that last-minute surveys before the Wisconsin primary gave him a humiliating 12% of the vote there.

Voicing Doubts. Johnson had long toyed with the idea of renouncing a second term. After his election in 1964 by the greatest popular margin in history, Johnson and his wife discussed the possibility of his retirement. According to White House Press Secretary George Christian, Lady Bird "thought it best that her husband step out after one elected term -- but she didn't pressure him. She's not that kind of woman." She did nudge him from time to time. During one visit to retired Congressman Carl Vinson, who returned to Georgia after 50 years in the House, she said: "See, Lyndon, there's a man who can leave Washington and be happy."

Last spring the President mentioned to his friend of 30 years, Texas Governor John Connally, that he might not run again. He voiced a similar opinion to Robert McNamara in August. In October, Johnson dictated the bare outline of a withdrawal statement to Christian at the L.B.J. ranch. Christian took the draft to Austin to show it to Connally, who was himself considering retirement after three terms.

Crystallization Point. Plainly, the President was stung by the savagery of the criticism aimed at him. Early in his presidency, he had declared: "I want to do only one thing in this job. I want to unite this country." But a few years later, during a tour of the ranch, he showed some friends a great tree and sadly told them: "This is the tree I expect to be buried under. When my grandchildren see this tree, I want them to think of me as the man who saved Asia and Vietnam and who did something for the Negroes of this country. Yet I have lost popularity on Vietnam and on the Negro question." The President's aides claim that Johnson's brooding reached "a point of crystallization" some time last fall. When General William C. Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, visited the U.S. in November, Johnson asked how American troops would react if he refused to run for another term. The answer was that they would be surprised, but would understand.

Just before Christmas, as Johnson was about to depart for Rome on his round-the-world tour, he called former White House Aide Horace Busby, now managing a Washington consulting firm, to his compartment aboard Air Force One. "What do you think I ought to do next year?" he asked, referring to the presidential race. Busby suggested that he withdraw. In mid-January he asked Busby and Christian to draft a withdrawal statement for use in his 1968 State of the Union speech.

Before leaving to deliver that address, Johnson showed his statement to Lady Bird. She changed a few words, then kept the statement. Johnson, convinced that Congress would give short shrift to his legislative program if he announced his withdrawal at that time, had once again deferred the decision.

An Animal in the Forest. Deepening troubles at home and abroad finally persuaded the President to go through with it. He yearned, as he told visitors last week, to be "like an animal in the forest, go to sleep under a tree, eat when I feel like it, read a bit, and after a while, do whatever I want to do."

While preparing the bombing-pause speech, he summoned Busby to the White House, again asked his advice about withdrawing. Most of the President's aides were urging him to mount a vigorous campaign against Kennedy and McCarthy. But Busby counseled: "I wish you could do what we talked about in January." Johnson asked him to draft a new statement to that effect. After a restless night, he called Busby in again on the day of the speech and urged him to draft yet another withdrawal statement, emphasizing the need for national unity. While he labored over the announcement in the Treaty Room of the White House, Johnson went to St. Dominic's Roman Catholic Church with Luci and her husband Pat Nugent, afterward stopped at Southwest Washington's Watergate Apartments, where Vice President Hubert Humphrey and his wife Muriel were packing for a trip to Mexico City to sign a Latin American nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Johnson showed Humphrey the two alternative endings to his scheduled speech, told him that he was seriously considering using the second one -- the no-run announcement. "I can understand your reasoning," Humphrey told him, "but I wish you wouldn't do it."

In the Dark. Through the rest of the day, Johnson reviewed the decision with his family. Lynda had just returned from the West Coast, where she had seen her husband, Marine Captain Charles Robb, off to Vietnam. Before he left, Robb had been told that his father-in-law might announce his withdrawal. He levied his little approval, as did Johnson's other son-in-law. Lynda had her doubts. So did Luci, who told friends later: "The saddest thing is that I will be 21 by November, and I won't be able to vote for my father."

Some Johnson aides were in the dark until the last moment. Two days before the speech, Campaign Strategist James Rowe submitted a memorandum advising the President that several Democratic leaders -- and a TIME correspondent -- had questioned whether he intended to run. At the same time, he advised Johnson that his latest state-by-state survey showed him easily winning renomination on the first ballot. Rowe, Postmaster General Lawrence O'Brien and other campaign aides spent most of Sunday charting L.B.J.'s race, unaware of his impending announcement.

Not an Hour or a Day. Only in the closing minutes of his speech, when Johnson raised his hand to his forehead and started reading the words, "Of those to whom much is given, much is asked," was Lady Bird certain that he was going through with it.

The President noted that, during a 37-year career, "I have put the unity of the people first," for "a house divided against itself by the spirit of faction, of party, of region, of religion, of race, is a house that cannot stand." Yet, he continued, "there is division in the American house now. There is divisiveness among us all tonight." Said the President: "What we won when all of our people united just must not be lost in suspicion and distrust and selfishness and politics among any of our people. And 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 Americans 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."

Even up to that point, Johnson might merely have been striking a characteristic "above-the-battle" stance. Then came the sentence that prompted millions to wonder if they had heard correctly. They had.

Nothing Quite Like It. Even those who had been forewarned were caught off guard. "I'm stunned," said Connally. "I didn't think it would happen." Humphrey, who heard the speech on the radio at U.S. Ambassador Fulton Freeman's Mexico City home, said: "This is a very sad moment for me." Muriel wept. The next morning, when Humphrey showed up with red-rimmed eyes to address U.S. residents in Mexico, he quipped: "It's smog. I had no idea you were so close to Los Angeles."

There were precedents for the President's actions -- and yet there had never been anything quite like it. Every Vice President who succeeded to the presidency in this century has renounced a second full term. But Theodore Roosevelt eventually sought another term on a third-party ticket, Calvin Coolidge courted a draft, and Harry Truman had served for 7 years before bowing out.

Politicians, uncharacteristically, were at a loss for words. "I don't know quite what to say," stammered Bobby Kennedy. Said McCarthy: "I think I'm surprised." Former G.O.P. Presidential Candidate Alf Landon declared: "I do not recall a more momentous event of this kind in our entire history." Barry Goldwater had a more down-to-earth reaction. "I went and had another drink," he said, "I just couldn't believe my ears." Senate Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen bitterly noted that the "personal and sometimes ugly" criticism of the President by his fellow Democrats helped drive him to his decision. Said Dirksen: "The harpies of the shore shall pluck the eagle of the sea."

V-J Day. Undoubtedly, Johnson's motivation will be the subject of debate for years to come. Some attributed the decision to his health: one Democrat, in fact, reported that Johnson had been denied renewal of a $250,000 insurance policy if he decided to undertake a national campaign. But Johnson's cardiologist, Dr. J. Willis Hurst, noted that he has been healthy since his 1955 coronary attack, and is now "clearly in the category of a man who has never had a heart attack."

Some saw the move as a self-serving attempt to increase his stature in history. Others accepted at face value Johnson's statement that he wanted "to preserve the honor, integrity and dignity of the office of the presidency" and considered his action a grand, even noble gesture for the sake of the nation. "I doubt if any single speech in history has so abruptly turned feelings around on one man," said California Democratic Committeeman Eugene Wyman. "He really defused the hatred toward him."

Not entirely. In Boston, Harvard, M.I.T., and Boston University students marched across the Charles River, and one shouted: "It's V-J day -- victory over Johnson!" Outside the White House, a group of youths unfurled a banner reading THANKS, L.B.J. In Kansas City, a photographer wrote: "Congratulations. It was the best thing you could possibly have given up for Lent." Of a record 20,000 letters and telegrams that poured into the White House, however, all but a few congratulated the President for a magnanimous action.

Completely Irrevocable. Many of Johnson's critics could not bring themselves to believe that he was sincere. He might have "something up his sleeve," said Pediatrician Benjamin Spock. "I hope he means it," said retired Lieut. General James Gavin. "I'm afraid he doesn't, and that he would accept a fair draft." Many sophisticated Europeans suspected that Johnson hoped to duplicate the feat of Egypt's Nasser, who "quit" after the disastrous war with Israel in 1967 but was restored to power by popular demand. "Is this a false exit," wondered Paris' Le Monde, designed "to stop the rapid decline of his popularity and make for himself a plebiscite of tears?"

There is always that possibility -- particularly if his peace moves yield results. But after his speech, Johnson summoned reporters to the Cezanne-studded Yellow Room in the living quarters of the White House and told them that his decision was "completely irrevocable." A reporter suggested sympathetically that he was sacrificing himself for the sake of unity. "No," he snapped, "I am not sacrificing anything. I am just doing what I think is right, what I think is best calculated to permit me to render the maximum service possible to the country in the limited time that I have left."

The Wrong Convention. The next morning the President felt, as he told friends, like a man who had shed a sack of cement. [The obverse of Harry Truman's comment on April 13, 1945, the day after Franklin Roosevelt's death and his own swearing-in as President. "I don't know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you," he told a group of reporters, "but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me."] He flew out to Chicago to address the National Association of Broadcasters, quipped that one of his aides had told him: "It looks to me like you are going to the wrong convention in Chicago." In a notably restrained speech, he made an uncharacteristically modest confession: "I understand, far better than some of my severe and perhaps intolerant critics would admit, my own shortcomings as a communicator."

That night he went to bed early, for the first time in memory did not bother to wade through his thick stack of night reading, even overslept the next morning. Relaxed, almost jaunty, he told a group at the Department of Agriculture: "I am a Hereford breeder. I sell registered calves. I am going to have a lot of time to work on it pretty soon."

Cordial Confrontation. He avoided partisan politics, despite rising pressures to endorse Hubert Humphrey. Said Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield after a breakfast meeting: "I think he will keep hands off and let the Democratic Convention decide."

Bobby Kennedy, for one, wanted to make sure of that. He requested a meeting "to discuss how we might work together in the interest of national unity during the coming months," and Johnson quickly agreed to the get-together. It was their first formal session since the bitter 45-minute confrontation in the White House 14 months ago, when the President angrily lashed out at Bobby for having fostered rumors that he had received a Vietnam peace feeler during a European visit. Now, in an hour-long meeting described by both sides as "cordial," Johnson briefed Kennedy on the crises confronting the nation and told him, in effect: "If you want to assume this burden and if the people want you to, why should I stand in the way?"

Still, the roots of the Johnson-Kennedy antagonism go deep, and many Democrats anticipate that sooner or later the President will do something to prop up Humphrey. For the time being, Johnson is determined not to let partisan politicking dilute his withdrawal gesture and thereby diminish his effectiveness as a negotiator with Hanoi. "When the time comes to take an active part," he told newsmen after his speech, "I will make my announcement. I don't want to get into that now."

Dead Pigeon. In the Republican camp, officials were concerned that Johnson's withdrawal would make things inestimably more difficult for their prospective nominee, Nixon. "We had a pigeon," said a Nebraska Republican, referring to Johnson, "and he flew the coop." Indeed, a quickie Louis Harris Poll, taken in the first two days after the President's announcement, showed Nixon running behind all of the likely Democratic candidates. Kennedy led Nixon 41% to 35%; McCarthy led 39% to 33%, after trailing Nixon by 9% a month back; and Humphrey, 35% to 34%.

As a result, even though Nixon romped through last week's Wisconsin primary with 80% of the vote, some Republicans are convinced that the upshot of Johnson's action will be to bring New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller back into the race. For the time being, Rocky was holding back, still maintaining that a genuine draft was the only thing that could return him to contention. "Sure, Johnson's out," said a Rockefeller aide, "but that doesn't change our problem -- the Republican Party. They don't want Rockefeller. It's as simple as that." In an effort to remedy the problem, a group of influential Republican moderates laid plans for the formation of a National Rockefeller for President Committee. Rocky gave the committee his quiet approval, but even so, unless he begins campaigning actively, it is questionable whether many party professionals will be eager to risk Nixon's revenge by supporting him.

Mad Calliope. Among Democrats, the initial feeling was that Johnson's pull-out would prompt a mad dash for the Kennedy camp. "I was afraid there would be a rush to Bobby," confessed Gene McCarthy. "But is hasn't developed yet." Indeed, the most significant fact in the aftermath of L.B.J.'s speech was the reluctance of Democrats to budge in any direction. "There should be no headlong rush to anyone's bandwagon," advised New Jersey's Governor Richard Hughes, and most politicians heeded him. Chief among the fence sitters was Chicago's mayor, Richard Daley, who is keeping all of his options open at least until the June 11 Illinois primary, and probably until just before the August convention. One Mid-western party leader speculated that Daley would ultimately wind up backing Kennedy. "I think Daley will hold out on Bobby," he said, "until he gets a good haircut and begins talking in a way that doesn't shake the bankers up so much."

Kennedy, of course, is the man to beat. If he crushes McCarthy in Indiana's May 7 primary and if Humphrey fails to work up a head of steam, his campaign is likely to roar into Chicago like a mad calliope, all its pipes ablast. But Bobby has problems. He stands to inherit much of the "hate vote" hitherto directed at Johnson. He has been robbed of his two big targets -- the President and the war -- though he insisted last week, during a five-state swing: "The war is not over. The election is not over. We cannot afford to relax." Bobby's appeal has been limited mostly to the militant young, Negroes and intellectuals; McCarthy has shown strength in academe, suburbia and, surprisingly, sizable swaths of rural America. But neither has made much headway in the traditional repositories of Democratic strength -- the blue-collar ethnic districts of the big cities, and the South.

Getting Interested. That is where Hubert Humphrey's strength may lie. He held off an immediate declaration of candidacy, but he was plainly itching to take the plunge. "You know, I'm getting interested," he told cheering labor leaders in Pittsburgh. And he told the National Federation of Grain Cooperatives in Washington: "I'm perfectly willing to stick around this town a long time."

Humphrey has some grave drawbacks. He is indelibly a part of the Great Society, tarnished by its failures as well as burnished by its successes. His once vivid image has faded in the penumbra of the vice-presidency. He has lost much of his old liberal constituency, and there are still many conservatives who cannot quite believe he has changed his fiery stripes.

Nonetheless, he stands to inherit the support of the party regulars who were standing by Johnson, of labor leaders and of many businessmen. As in Nixon's case, his tireless work for the party has given him "a lot of chips to cash in," as a Democratic state chairman puts it. He has been Johnson's top liaison man with the nation's mayors, has won their affection and in many cases their solid support. Of all the Democratic candidates, he is the most acceptable to the South. Said a Texas Democrat: "I never thought I'd live to see the day when Hubert Humphrey would be the most conservative candidate seeking the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party."

McCarthy's impressive 57%-to-35% victory over Johnson in Wisconsin lost a lot of its luster after the President's withdrawal. "I feel as if I'm in a horse race and have made the turn for home and the other horse has jumped the rail and started eating grass," jested the Minnesotan. "It makes it a little embarrassing running for the wire alone." For the forthcoming primaries in Indiana, Nebraska, Oregon and California, he will have company -- perhaps more than he wishes. Kennedy is the favorite to defeat him in all of them, and though McCarthy has made plans to triple his efforts for Indiana's May 7 test, he is hedging his bets by downplaying the election's significance. "You don't have to win every primary," he said. "You just have to make a good showing and win your share." McCarthy's best hope for winning his share, however, may be a Humphrey-Kennedy deadlock at the convention, leading to his selection as a compromise candidate.

Man of Surprises. During his talk with Kennedy, the President said that "the time may come" when he will want to express a preference. That should bring a lot of politicians down off the fence and have considerable bearing on the nomination.

In the meantime, the President seems more in command and more relaxed than at any time since the palmy days of 1964, when everything in L.B.J.'s garden seemed to be coming up roses. For the first time in months, he is free of the fear that his appearance in almost any city will provoke riots. In Chicago, spectators were unsure whether to applaud his presence, since that might have suggested pleasure at his withdrawal, and so they simply gawked: but there were no catcalls. When he visited New York City later in the week for the investiture of Archbishop Terence J. Cooke, he was applauded outside St. Patrick's Cathedral an given an ovation by the crowd of 5,000 inside. Among the guests in the cathedral, seated two rows behind Johnson and Luci, was Jacqueline Kennedy. As he left, he stopped to say a few words to his predecessor's widow, and was photographed with her in an exchange of warm smiles.

Before returning to Washington, Johnson whipped over to the United Nations for a hastily arranged 60-minute conference with Secretary-General U Thant. "Well," said U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Arthur Goldberg to Thant of the unexpected call, "he's a man of surprises."

A Force to Reckon With. In the nine months remaining to him, Johnson is likely to spring quite a few more. One came just three days after his withdrawal, when he announced that he was flying to Hawaii for strategy conferences with Saigon-based U.S. diplomats and military leaders on Hanoi's offer to talk about talks. General Westmoreland flew to Washington instead for a weekend conference with the President. Said Westmoreland somewhat infelicitously: "I understand you have had a little trouble here yourself."

Freed of his political shackles, Johnson can be expected to move more forcefully than he dared during the years when he was trying to maintain his "big tent" consensus. Congress, for example, can expect a gale of presidential messages, and while the men on Capitol Hill are not notably generous to Presidents whose terms are drawing to a close, they may be spurred to act by a spurt in Johnson's popularity.

For even though Johnson was tagged a lame duck as soon as he announced his intention to withdraw, he is now in fact a bird of rather singular muscularity. He retains the allegiance of countless party regulars, labor officials, businessmen and civil rights leaders. There is every likelihood that his rating in the public-opinion polls will rise considerably as a result of the renunciation. Together, these factors will give him considerable leverage, which he has not had in recent months. And Lyndon Johnson, who above all else craves a favorable verdict from history, will undoubtedly use those levers in a final, all-out effort to solve the two problems that have increasingly bedeviled his presidency -- the war in Vietnam, the racial confrontation at home.

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