Johnson calls it quits; King, Kennedy are shot
By Justin Ewers
January 17, 2008
Lyndon Johnson must have been reassured by his prospects for
re-election in January 1968. After the assassination of John F.
Kennedy, Johnson had won the presidency in the biggest landslide in
American history, winning more than 61 percent of the vote in 1964.
He had his struggles in the White Housethe Civil Rights Act had
exhausted much of his political capital, and the war in Vietnam,
where nearly 10,000 Americans were killed in 1967, had stirred up an
increasingly restive antiwar movement. But Johnson seemed to be
holding firm. Gen. William Westmoreland, his man in Vietnam, had
reported in the fall of 1967 that there was "light at the end of the tunnel."
Johnson's approval rating was climbing and, as the incumbent, he
remained the clear front-runner. He had received another boost that
fall when JFK's brother RobertJohnson's personal nemesis and only
legitimate rival in the Democratic Partychose loyalty to the party
over the pleas of antiwar activists who wanted him to mount an
insurgent campaign. The protest movement had settled, instead, on the
unthreatening Eugene McCarthy, an unknown Minnesota senator. Two
weeks before the New Hampshire primary, McCarthy was polling at 11 percent.
Over the course of only a few months, all that would change. McCarthy
shocked Johnson by nearly beating him in New Hampshire, winning 42
percent of the vote. Kennedy announced that he was entering the race
in March, and Johnson, in a surprise announcement, withdrew his
candidacy two weeks later. When Kennedy was killed while campaigning
that summersoon after the assassination of Martin Luther King
Jr.the Democratic Party fell into disarray. Johnson left office with
the lowest approval rating of any postwar president.
Tet perceptions. What caused this historic unraveling? Vietnam was
mostly to blame for Johnson's fall, but Kennedy's decision to run
against him, historians say, may have been the coup de grâce. After
years of rosy military analyses and soothing talk, the
three-week-long Tet offensive, launched by the Viet Cong at the end
of January 1968, made many Americans believe the war had no end in
sight, even though the Viet Cong suffered substantial losses.
"Americans had been assured the war was going well," says Michael
Klarman, a professor of history and law at the University of
Virginia. "Then the Communists are in the U.S. Embassy." With major
cities across South Vietnam under attack, there was a growing
perception the president had a credibility problem. Along with the
venerable Walter Cronkite, seven major newspapers, including the Wall
Street Journal, began questioning Vietnam after Tet, giving the
battle an immediate political impact. On March 12, McCarthy nearly
won New Hampshire.
Four days later, when Kennedy announced he would enter the race,
Johnson had to take an even closer look at his re-election strategy.
Since Tet began, Johnson had been trying to keep his chin up in
public. "Make no mistake about it," he said in a February speech. "We
are going to win." But behind the scenes, he was scrambling.
Johnson's advisers agreed the war had stalematedand public opinion
was turning against it. According to a poll in mid-March, 49 percent
of people believed the United States had never had any business being
in Vietnam. With antiwar protesters massing wherever Johnson went,
campaigning was going to be a messy affair.
Running against a Kennedy, with his presidency suddenly in tatters,
was Johnson's worst nightmare. His entire term in the White House had
been served in the shadow of John F. Kennedy, and now, after he had
dutifully pushed through many of Kennedy's policiesat great
political costhis boss's brother was trying to unseat him. Polls
showed Kennedy running ahead of Johnson in several states. "I felt
that I was being chased on all sides by a giant stampede," Johnson
would later tell historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. "And then the final
straw, the 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. The whole situation was unbearable for me."
Bowing out. On March 31, two weeks after Kennedy's announcement, the
hard-bitten Texan who never shied from a fight conceded the race.
Johnson framed his decision as an honorable retreat, saying the
crisis in Vietnam demanded a nonpartisan figure in the White House.
"I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to
any personal partisan causes," he said. "Accordingly, I shall not
seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another
term as your president."
But his attempt to stay above the fray didn't last long. Within the
week, King was shot in Memphis and rioting broke out in more than a
dozen major cities. Peace talks with the North Vietnamese went
nowhere. Kennedy, after building steam in several early primaries,
was killed by an assassin's bullet in June. Johnson's presidency
would now be dogged by the memory of two martyred Kennedys. "It would
have been hard on me to watch Bobby march to 'Hail to the Chief,' "
he said after leaving office. "But I almost wish he had become
president so the country could finally see a flesh-and-blood Kennedy
grappling with the daily work of the presidency and all the
inevitable disappointments, instead of their storybook image of great
heroes who, because they were dead, could make anything anyone wanted
happen." That, in 1968, was not to be. In November, Richard Nixon won
the general election.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy won the popular vote over Richard M. Nixon
by fewer than 120,000 votes. In the Electoral College, Kennedy won
303 votes to Nixon's 219. Illinois's 27 electoral votes were
considered critical to Kennedy's victory, but he won them by some
9,000 popular votes. Republican Party operatives were demanding
recounts, claiming that the Chicago Democratic machine of Mayor
Richard J. Daley, father of the current mayor, had stolen the
election. Despite calls for him to fight, Nixon conceded the race.