Why LBJ Chose Not to Run for Reelection in 1968 – Then Attempted to Retract it

(Excerpted and reedited from Who Really Killed Martin Luther King Jr.?)

When he was twelve years old, Lyndon Johnson proclaimed to some friends, “Someday, I’m going to be president of the United States.”  Thereafter, he was never shy about repeating that statement to anyone willing to listen and, with time, his resolve never lessened: In fact, it became an obsession of his, so ingrained that it became an inseparable part of his being.  Naturally, once achieved, he would do everything under his power to remain in office for as long as possible, and he did just that; at least, until the point that he had no choice left but to drop out.[1]

Lyndon Johnson’s “Worst Nightmare”

From the moment he became president on November 22, 1963, on the tarmac at Love Field in Dallas, Lyndon Johnson lived in fear of the possibility that either Robert or Edward Kennedy might ever become president. Who REALLY Killed Mart... Nelson, Phillip F. Best Price: $17.34 Buy New $15.43 (as of 10:02 EDT - Details)

Johnson felt particularly threatened by Bobby and was so afraid of the possibility of a groundswell of support for RFK’s nomination as vice president at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City that he went to lengthy manipulative efforts to prevent any chance of that.[2]

Throughout the first two years after his “landslide” election, as the public got to know him better, even as his legislative accomplishments increased, his popularity numbers declined.  It was merely one cause of the public’s distrust of Johnson: what reporters had euphemistically begun calling his “credibility gap” – the result of the growing public realization of his intrinsic dishonesty – the only thing in ascendancy at that point.

By the last half of 1967, his disastrous Vietnam policies had caused increasing public anger due to the loss of so many young men in an unnecessary, unwinnable and completely futile war that had no discernable relation to national security.

Such was the sorry state of affairs within his own administration that many of his most stalwart aides and cabinet officials, such as Bill Moyers and Robert McNamara, had left, under clouds of disgust and confusion, caused in large part by the absence of information regarding whether they had resigned or were fired.

In September 1967, Newsweek magazine (which had until then been among Johnson’s strongest supporters) reported: [3]

“He is the first President in U.S. history to be beset simultaneously with a major war abroad and a major rebellion at home—neither of them going well or holding forth any promise of the kind of sudden and dramatic improvement that alone could reverse the rising tide of anger, frustration and bitterness that is cresting around the White House. He is also a President whose own personality has become an issue in itself—an issue, indeed, that seems increasingly to be producing almost as much criticism and contention as the war in Vietnam and the tumult in the ghettos.”

By the end of 1967, some of Johnson’s staff had reported that he had already begun to talk about dropping out of the 1968 election, including his top aide Marvin Watson (who had filled the vacant Moyers position). Best Price: $21.09 Buy New $17.00 (as of 06:30 EST - Details)

In late January 1968 the Vietcong began the “Tet Offensive,” a surprise attack launched simultaneously throughout South Vietnam, setting off bombs and attacking even the “invulnerable” American embassy in Saigon. Finally, the majority of Americans began to understand that President Johnson had brazenly lied to them about the “light at the end of the tunnel” and the fact of how “enemy body counts” were inflated across the board by as much as 100%.

Johnson’s troubles, and especially his “biggest nightmare,” were all behind what would play out on March 31st, throughout the next five months, and everything else related to the 1968 political events yet to occur.

Robert Kennedy’s Entrée

Likewise, LBJ’s political difficulties, and the March 12th near-victory of Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy over Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, were the impetus for Robert Kennedy to reevaluate his previous position against running for president that year.

Four days later, on March 16th, RFK announced his entry into the presidential race, stating: “I do not run for the presidency merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies. I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I’m obliged to do all I can.”

Two weeks after that, President Johnson announced his departure from the reelection campaign. Johnson made his stunning announcement on March 31, 1968, on a television broadcast that was mostly about yet another change in strategy in his war planning. That talk ran on for over 4,000 words before he finally came to the best twenty-one-word sentence he had ever uttered:  “Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

Lyndon Johnson and the... Kearns Goodwin, Doris Best Price: $11.80 Buy New $11.99 (as of 04:47 EDT - Details) Parties immediately broke out all over the nation, especially in college town bars and cities across the country. There has arguably never been such a spontaneous, decentralized, and widespread celebration, before or since. People of all political stripes, young and old, were literally dancing in the streets, according to the president himself:[4]

“[T]he thing I feared from the first day of my Presidency was actually coming true, Robert Kennedy had openly announced his intention to reclaim the throne in the memory of his brother. And the American people, swayed by the magic of the name, were dancing in the streets.” (Emphasis added).

A Deeper Look at LBJ’s Decision to Quit: Were There Greater Objectives?

For a man who had spent decades being obsessed with becoming the president of the United States, after having fulfilled his dream, to then sacrifice that office without a fight meant that he had undergone a powerful transformation: His voluntarily giving up the position for which he had lusted his entire lifetime could only mean that he surrendered it in order to accomplish certain other, even greater, objectives.

His primary concern at that point would have undoubtedly been to ensure that his tenure as president would be enshrined forever in a legacy befitting one of the “greatest presidents of all time.” Only a position in the same tier as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt in the pantheon of US presidents would be adequate for him, at least in his own mind, a point that he had made himself on numerous occasions.  As Richard Goodwin – the speechwriter Johnson had inherited from JFK – had alluded to on several occasions, to achieve that rarefied status, he intended to “out-Roosevelt Roosevelt.”[5]

But to accomplish that, he would have to ensure that no one then alive and in a powerful position to succeed him—anyone who might wish to destroy the myth of his “greatness”—would ever be allowed to follow him into the White House.  Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were the men he feared the most, because he knew that they knew the truth about those myths.

As if on cue, only four days after Johnson announced he would not run again, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis.  Two months after that, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles.  Both of these murders were the result of many months of planning, primarily by the FBI (in King’s case) and the CIA (in RFK’s case) with plenty of support and assistance between the two and other governmental entities, including military intelligence and local police agencies, as documented in the referenced sources.[6]

After the Assassinations – Johnson Attempted to Re-Enter the Race

On to Chicago: Redisco... Rogan, James Best Price: $13.76 Buy New $19.99 (as of 04:47 EDT - Details) In yet another of a lengthy series of “startling developments” that tumultuous year, shortly after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson acted to put himself back into the race.

In retrospect, it seems – perhaps too obviously – that whatever his original rationale for exiting the campaign, his concerns had now been resolved and he must have seen it as a great opportunity to come in to the back-door of the convention floor as a knight on the proverbial “white horse,” ready to save the country from having to choose between , in his estimation, the two much lesser candidates (in July, when Richard Nixon was already leading Hubert Humphrey in the polls).

According to LBJ biographer Robert Dallek, LBJ’s turnaround started shortly after the RFK assassination when he began putting feelers out about the possibility that he could reenter the race by making it known that he would certainly accept being “drafted” during the convention, sold to the delegates on the basis that he would be the only Democrat who could recapture the White House. That led several top aides within his administration, and various party leaders, to state that if his latest “peace efforts” showed promise quickly enough, he might have a chance to save the presidency for the Democrats after all:[7]

It was to be a triumphant moment, but Mayor [Richard J.] Daley and White House aide Jake Jacobsen believed it would be even more than that. They foresaw a draft nomination if the President would just give the word. “That’s what I’m for,” Daley said. “I’m for a draft, and I’ll start it if there is any chance he will do it.” White House aide Jim Jones reported: “Jake says this convention is going to draft the President if there is the slightest indication the draft will be accepted.”

Johnson, who had never trusted Humphrey to continue his Vietnam policy, met – one month before the start of the Democratic National Convention – with the presumptive Republican nominee, Richard Nixon, who urged Johnson not to give in to pressure from Humphrey to soften his Vietnam positions; in return, Nixon would not publicly criticize Johnson’s policies. Then-Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford summed up Nixon’s response as giving “us his support in return for inflexibility in our negotiating position, and thereby freeze poor Hubert out in the cold. Humphrey wants to change the policy, but the President won’t let him say so.”[8]

The evening news stories, meanwhile, suggested that the thousands of young people headed to Chicago would create violent clashes between themselves and the police, with the delegates caught in the middle. For that reason, there had been considerable pressure among many party leaders to have the convention be moved to Miami, the site where the Republican National Convention was scheduled to meet in early August, three weeks before the Democratic convention’s schedule.

That proposal had even been supported by Humphrey, but Chicago Mayor Daley was adamantly opposed to it and promised that peace would be maintained.

Moreover, he also promised that if it were moved, he would withhold support for the party’s candidate, presumed to be Hubert Humphrey, the then-vice president. President Johnson, a good friend of and in mind-sync with Mayor Daley, was also against moving it and was rumored to have said, “Miami is not an American city.”[9]

Johnson not only caused the convention to remain in Chicago despite the high risk perceived by practically everyone else, but he began micromanaging all arrangements, down to the requirement that Humphrey’s son-in-law had to personally appear each morning in line for tickets to get into the convention center, for all members of the family. LBJ’s control over the entire convention was so complete that he “dictated the city, the date, the officers, the program of the convention.” Johnson also rejected every one of Humphrey’s recommendations for the entire program—the scheduling issues, the speakers, the content of the all-important platform— even for the lower-level officers to be appointed to manage the entire affair.[10]

It was at this point, around the end of July and the early August 1968, that Johnson had come close to a decision to officially throw his big Stetson back into the ring, which would require actually attending the convention the end of the month (Aug. 26-29). He planned to arrive there as a surprise guest, and undoubtedly, in his dreams, he would be received excitedly, even ecstatically, by the happy and relieved delegates, thankful to him for his personal sacrifices all for the sake of his continued service to his country.  Moreover, he indubitably would have figured on it becoming a triumphant moment in his own personal and presidential history, buttressing his “legacy” that had become his greatest priority.

It was in the middle of August when he put a number of aides and speech writers to work on planning the “Draft Johnson” movement, similar to how he had meticulously planned many other “surprise” events over the course of his career.  Next, Johnson sent his high-level aides Harry McPherson and Larry Levinson to Hollywood to begin working on a film glorifying his life and extensive achievements, all of which led up to the magnificent program he had brought to the country, called the “Great Society.” By maximizing the “good things” and playing them up for all they were worth while minimizing the fact that many of them were already being defunded in order to reallocate scarce funds to his war, Johnson felt that the country would finally come to its senses and better appreciate the value of having such a great and magnanimous president as he had been for yet another four years. He discussed all of this with Chicago’s mayor, Richard Daley, who could not contain his excitement as noted above.[11]

Johnson’s longtime aides John Connally and Warren “Woodie” Woodward affirmed that “[Johnson] very much hoped he would be drafted by the convention,” and, moreover, he even sent his de facto chief of staff at that time, Marvin Watson, to Chicago “to assess the possibility of that convention drafting LBJ . . . I want to get it on the record,” Connally said, “that even though there had been a withdrawal, Marvin Watson was up there for the specific purpose of talking to delegates at Mr. Johnson’s (direction).”  John Connally also stated that “I personally was asked to go to meet with the governors of the southern delegations, with Buford Ellington, Farris Bryant, and that group, to see if they would support President Johnson in a draft movement in 1968 . . . I believed it strongly enough that I went before all those southern governors and asked them if they would support Johnson in a draft, and they said, ‘No way.’” [12]

The Most Disastrous Convention of All Time

The 1968 Democratic Convention is remembered, hands down, as the worst of all time. On convention eve, August 25th, the violence that had begun three days earlier began escalating further. By August 28, over 10,000 student protesters had gathered in Chicago’s Grant Park. The “Yippie” protestors nominated their candidate in Grant Park, a big hog named “Pigasus.”  A hippie bonfire in Lincoln Park provoked the first of many clashes with the Chicago police. After a man lowered the city-owned American flag, several policemen confronted the man and, in the melee that followed, began to beat him. The demonstrators reacted to that by throwing rocks and other objects at the police and hurling words and threats, as well.

At the height of it, the violence extended from Grant Park to the Amphitheater; the worst occurred at the Hilton, as the Chicago police, at Mayor Daley’s direction, beat the protesters, outside and inside the hotel.  As author Dallek noted: “Though the public generally blamed the violence on radicals, later assessments described a police riot sanctioned by Mayor Daley’s refusal to grant demonstration permits and instructions to police to protect the convention from ‘extremists.’”

Whatever hopes Lyndon Johnson had for becoming the “White Horse” hero and savior were dashed by the hippie protesters.  Johnson immediately took steps to distance himself, finally sending a message to the delegates on the 28th that his “name not be considered by the convention.”[13]

Among the many records set at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, was that of a sitting president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who had won in a “landslide” election four years previous, being essentially disinvited to his own convention.  But even worse than that, the incumbent president, who had choreographed the entire affair from afar and had desperately wanted to appear there at the last minute and be seen as the savior of the party and a favorite to win reelection, was so hated by so many delegates that he was not even mentioned by the speakers there. He confirmed all of this himself, as when he stated:[14]

“I’ve never felt lower in my life . . . How do you think it feels to be completely rejected by the party you’ve spent your life with, knowing that your name cannot be mentioned without choruses of boos and obscenities?”

It is interesting that the so-called “historians” who consistently vote Johnson into the “top ten” list of presidents never mention what his own party thought of him at the end of his reign of tyranny.

What was Really Behind Lyndon Johnson’s Actions: Protection of His Legacy?

The question of what caused Lyndon Johnson to decide not to run for reelection—just four days before Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, and two months before Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated—then, almost immediately deciding to reverse his decision once they were both silenced forever, is perplexing yet possibly quite explainable. The nub of the matter—LBJ’s actions beginning March 31, 1968, and ending five months later on August 28, 1968—comes down to what changed during that period. There were only two substantive matters related to the point:

  1. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and;
  2. the series of primary elections that had just begun, with his poor performance in the first ones and signs of trouble brewing in the remaining, all of which he missed by bowing out.

By the end of June, the primary season was over, his two most feared political enemies were dead, and in early July he had begun planning the resumption of his political career, only three months after having declared to the nation that he was unequivocally ending it.

David Martin, writing as “DC Dave” at his namesake blog/website, proffered an answer to the obvious question, in an essay titled “Did Lyndon Step Down So Bobby Could Be Killed?”:[15]

Put bluntly, for the November 22, 1963, coup to stick, keeping Bobby out—permanently—trumped keeping Lyndon in for another four years.

As it happens, there were some people in the RFK camp who could already see which way the wind was blowing. The following quote is from Sons and Brothers: The Life and Times of Jack and Bobby Kennedy by Richard D. Mahoney:

. . . some around Bobby began to talk openly about the inevitable. French novelist Romain Gary, then living in Los Angeles, told Pierre Salinger, “Your candidate is going to get killed.” When Jimmy Breslin asked several reporters around a table whether they thought Bobby had the stuff to go all the way, John J. Lindsay replied, “Yes, of course, he has the stuff to go all the way, but he’s not going to go all the way. The reason is that somebody is going to shoot him. I know it and you know it, just as sure as we’re sitting here. He’s out there waiting for him.”

The only thing wrong with Lindsay’s prediction, as it turned out, was that it was not a “he” but a “they,” the official story notwithstanding.

In a pure, fair, and perfect world—where contrived lies and sorcerers’ myths could never be sustained, where they were always immediately discovered and replaced with truths, in a time and place where powerful logic, fairness, and sound reasoning would always prevail—DC Dave’s explanation would be axiomatic. Of course, in that world, such atrocities would never occur in the first place, but we digress.

In the alternate universe where Lyndon B. Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover resided, both had long believed that they could do anything either wanted to do and get away with it, one way or the other.  Lyndon Johnson had proved that over and over again throughout his life, in a series of nearly unbelievable but ultimately successful feats that numerous people had witnessed, but about which all were forced to remain silent. That was done through every device available to those who have access to the most deadly tools of covert operations: murder; personal threats; bribery; changed, destroyed or fabricated testimony, and – for those in the military or in possession of high security clearances – merely government secrecy protocols accompanied by threats of prison, “or worse.” (See End Note #1 for a single example among the many).

By now, it should become obvious to all that Lyndon B. Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover were among the founders of the insidious, modern “Deep State” that is now well established on the same foundation and using the same tools, though now grown to a global, even celestial, scale.

End Notes:

[1] Among other things “under his power” to ensure his reelection, in June, 1967 he had attempted to have one of his own Navy ships, the USS Liberty – with its crew of 294 – attacked and sunk by Israel, but blamed on his long-term nemesis, Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser.  The idea was to create a wave of patriotic fury and support for his planned retribution attack on Egypt, joining “little Israel” in what became known as the Six Day War.  In his deluded mind, he saw that as a way to create such popularity for himself that his reelection one year later would be guaranteed. That effort failed when Israel failed to sink the Liberty and the ship’s crew mostly survived; thus, the presidential treason had to be covered up, instead of becoming the source of his planned celebration of victory, where his actions would be extolled as those of a brilliant statesman and leader of the free world.

[2] Sullivan, William C., The Bureau: My Thirty Years in Hoover’s FBI,  pp. 58–59; Dallek, Robert, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times1961–1973  pp. 162–165.

[3] Newsweek, September 4, 1967, pp. 42-45

[4] Kearns-Goodwin, Doris, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, p. 343

[5] Goodwin, Richard, Remembering America, p. 259

[6] Ref. my books: Who Really Killed Martin Luther King Jr.? and LBJ: From Mastermind to The Colossus, Chapter 6.

[7] Dallek, Robert, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times1961–1973  pp. 571-572 (Cite Ref. “HHH [Humphrey] to Jim Jones, Aug. 5, 1968; Jones Memo, Aug. 21, 1968, WHCF [White House Central Files] EX/ND19\CO312; Bert to Jim Jones, Aug. 9, 1968, WHCF: CF: EX/PL1: Don Furtado to Harry McPherson, Jr. Aug. 15, 1968; Jim Jones to LBJ, Aug. 25, 1968; Califano to LBJ, Aug. 27, 1968; Jim Jones Memo, Aug. 24, 1968, 1:10 pm., WHCF: EX/PL1; Califano, Triumph and Tragedy, 318-20).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Various sources (e.g. New York Magazine – Jan 19, 1987 – Page 35)

[10] Op. Cit. (Dallek), p. 574

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p. 572

[13] Ibid., p. 573

[14] Achenbach, Joel, “A Party That Has Lost Its Mind: In 1968 Democrats held one of the country’s most disastrous conventions” Washington Post, August 24, 2018 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/08/24/a-party-that-had-lost-its-mind-in-1968-democrats-held-one-of-historys-most-disastrous-conventions/

[15] Martin, David, DCDave.com, “Did Lyndon Step Down So Bobby Could Be Killed?” September 23, 2014: http://www.dcdave.com/article5/140923.htm.

Reprinted with the author’s permission.