[Excerpted from James Rogan's new book, On to Chicago: Rediscovering Robert F. Kennedy and the Lost Campaign of 1968]
During the Vietnam War, President Lyndon B. Johnson authorized approximately 35,000 bombing raids on enemy targets in Southeast Asia. Fifty years ago tonight, March 31, 1968, he dropped a political bomb on America.
First elected to the Congress in 1937, Johnson later served in the Senate as majority leader, vice president under John F. Kennedy and succeeded to the presidency upon Kennedy's assassination in 1963. The following year, LBJ won a landslide election by beating conservative Republican Barry Goldwater in a 44-state rout. Soon thereafter, Johnson ordered U.S. combat forces into Vietnam in an effort to halt the spread of Soviet and Red Chinese-backed communist aggression.
By late 1967 the Vietnam War had raged for over three years and grew increasingly unpopular. With no end in sight, antiwar activists sought to recruit an intraparty challenger to Johnson's anticipated 1968 re-election. Working off old "end the war" mailing lists, they launched a "Dump Johnson" drive. The likelihood of success was so remote that the proposition seemed absurd to all but a handful of like-minded objectors.
Allard Lowenstein, the founder of the fledgling movement, visited every antiwar Democratic senator – including Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, whom he lobbied repeatedly to run. Lowenstein's pleas with all (but one) were in vain, and each gave the same reason Kennedy gave in refusing to take on the president of his own party: Johnson was unbeatable in 1968. Only Sen. Eugene McCarthy, a quirky congressional backbencher who preferred writing poetry to the grubby political world, agreed to challenge LBJ for the Democratic presidential nomination. With no major funding, no organizational base, almost zero name identification, and with Johnson holding a monopoly on party establishment support, McCarthy filed for the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. Party elders and the press treated his quest as a national joke.
During his six week New Hampshire campaign, McCarthy's message began resonating with college students across America, many of whom faced impending military induction notices because of Johnson's continued war escalation. First dozens, and then hundreds, and finally thousands of them rode buses or hitchhiked east. Arriving at McCarthy headquarters, they cut their long hair, put on conservative clothes and then blanketed every New Hampshire neighborhood on his behalf.
For his part, Johnson ignored McCarthy. Once Johnson's main potential competitor for the nomination – Kennedy – announced he would not run, Johnson did not bother filing for the New Hampshire primary ballot. After McCarthy jumped into the race at the last minute, Johnson decided that filing would give his challenger credibility, so he again passed. Instead, he allowed the state's leading Democrat, Gov. John King, to initiate a formal write-in campaign for Johnson to energize the party's base and to coax back some of the press attention now focused almost exclusively on the contested Republican primary between Richard Nixon and George Romney.
From the man who led the effort to oust Bill Clinton from office, Rep. James Rogan's "Catching Our Flag: Behind the Scenes of a Presidential Impeachment"
When New Hampshire voted on March 12, 1968, the nonconformist senator expected to draw no more than 10 or 15 percent came within 200 votes of out-polling Johnson statewide, sending shockwaves across the political establishment. With LBJ now showing unexpected vulnerability, and after McCarthy did the heavy lifting, Robert Kennedy jumped into the race against Johnson a few days later.
With Johnson next facing McCarthy in a head-to-head matchup in the April 2 Wisconsin primary, the White House dispatched Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Cabinet members, various administration officials and members of Congress to the Badger State. Local party officials coordinated their efforts through the Democratic National Committee to crush the McCarthy insurgency.
A few days before the primary, Johnson met with his campaign manager, Postmaster General Lawrence F. O'Brien, whom he had sent to Wisconsin to assess their operation. O'Brien stunned LBJ with the news: Their polls showed that McCarthy would beat the president by as high as 60 percent. It was hopeless.
With his earlier embarrassing New Hampshire showing, a likely humiliation coming in Wisconsin and a new Gallup poll showing he had cratered to a 35 percent approval rating, Johnson knew that his once-iron grip on the nomination might slip quickly if party leaders concluded that he was beatable. After sharing O'Brien's field report with a longtime aide, Johnson lamented, "If a president has to spend 10 million dollars to get the renomination of his party, then it's time for [he] and his party and everybody else to go some other way. I don't want to go that way. … I can't get peace in Vietnam and be president, too."
Johnson reserved network airtime for an address to the nation on Vietnam for the evening of March 31, 1968, which was two days before the Wisconsin primary. Speaking from the Oval Office, LBJ announced a partial bombing halt over North Vietnam and indicated the U.S. was prepared to engage in peace talks. Then, in the last minute of a 40-minute speech, and after telling listeners that he wanted to devote all his efforts to ending the war, he pulled the pin on his grenade: "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."
Unexpectedly, Johnson went from victim to victor. His approval rating shot up an unprecedented 13 points – from 36 percent to 49 percent – in one night. After the speech, millions of anti-LBJ partisans jettisoned nearly four years of anger and now hailed him as a statesman. This newfound popularity made him regret privately removing himself from the campaign. For a time he even toyed with the idea of having his supporters start a "Draft Johnson" movement at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, but in the end he let the cup pass.
LBJ's exit from the campaign threw open the race to succeed him. Ahead that year awaited divisive primaries, riots, assassinations, a bloody nominating convention and a hard-fought three-way race to the November finish line.
Yet all of that turmoil remained down the road 50 years ago tonight – the night President Lyndon Johnson, one of the fiercest political competitors of the 20th century, laid down his sword.
Johnson left the White House in January 1969 and retired to his Texas ranch. In later years he oversaw the building of his presidential library, wrote his memoirs, raised his cattle and spent time with his grandchildren. He died of a heart attack at age 64 on Jan. 22, 1973.