Topic: Decision of President Lyndon B. Johnson not to run for reelection (announced on March 31, 1968).
Interview Date: October 15, 2003.
WILLIAM O. BAKER: He gave that a great deal of thought, of course, but from the point of Viet Nam, that was pretty largely his theme. He didn't pay much attention really to what Nixon had done, after those events, after those things had occurred. But he really pondered, and he really ruminated with, I say primarily, the sort of Democratic party people that were alert to the situation. And they wanted him, off course, to stay on, because he would have been re-elected without any question, I think. But, and I remember his discussions very vividly, and he said it would not be a tenable deal, that eventually the thing would just come to pieces in his administration, at least, if he tried to carry on the hostilities which were implied or even committed by the conditions in Viet Nam.
And Johnson was very candid with some of us on that. How much Kissinger and others had helped to advise him, I do not know. It took a long time for him to make up his mind that he wasn't going to run, because he realized the momentous decision. That was a game in itself.
I haven't read all the stuff. They put out a couple of biographies of Johnson. Yea, they are pretty accurate. But I do happen to know that it was soul wrenching experience for him. Not so much the razzle-dazzle of being president or having been president in function as it was his very calculated position that it wouldn't work, that he would lose his role. I remember he really thought, struggled with his mind about that very, very hard.
I doubt if the politicians, the political writers, or the political theme analysts have really appreciated all that was involved there. Johnson was a very calculating fellow, in a perfectly straightforward way. He was proud of being calculating. And he just went over every angle he could think of about that. And it wasn't until quite a short time before his decision came out that he decided definitely he wasn't going to run. He was prepared, in many ways, or certainly his party and his colleagues were prepared that he would run, and would, I think, have been elected, that is just my thought, by a large majority.
That was quite a decision. And it would be an interesting exercise for historic analysts to really put together a much more incisive role on that than anybody has done. Of course, Johnson was so colorful that they were taken off, they were preoccupied by other things very quickly. Nobody really did that.
See, it was then, not very long after that,. I'm trying to remember if it was one year or two years, that this most extraordinary broadcast by Johnson occurred. That broadcast, he really assembled, articulated that. And I think one of the most amazing exercises in the American political history, in which he explained he was unqualified to be president.
I heard the whole thing. It happened, I didn't know that I would have heard it. I couldn't believe what came out of there. I didn't think I would hear some of that. But it was a really astonishing footnote to history. And, of course, what it brings out is what we were touching on here very casually. And that is what did he really think when he was president. After he gave that talk, and of course he referred to the tragedy and the rest of it, he seemed to me to be so absolutely sincere, so convinced, that he was unqualified to be president that it had to have an impact on his life, on his actions. …
It was the darnest thing I ever heard. I have been exposed to a number of presidents and their colleagues at that time, and I never heard anything that approached that before. And he was completely convincing.
When he was vice-president, he took a couple of us in pretty warmly and pretty candidly. I really don't think he anticipated that head ever be president as a result of that sequence. I don't think this ever occurred to him. I think he just felt destiny had its role. One thing happened to be that he going to be vice-president, but that he might have been Postmaster General, or something else. But that was just the way the government went. He did his duty.
I was in Texas for a lot of the time that the critical part of his campaign to be vice-president. … And I don't think anybody in the state, but in the whole nation, thought well this fellow putting on this campaign and pretty soon he'll be president of the United States. This was just unbelievable.
For one thing, Johnson was never lacking for ideas. In the history of the Congress at that period and the Nation, he had a lot of ideas, and he knew how to get a lot of them heeded. So that he got this curious situation where he felt his duties as vice-president, of course he had been in the Congress all those years, was to do some things that he thought the country needed or that the country would benefit from. So he went right along that line. But the idea that that was going to be something that the president of the United States would do, I really don't think ever occurred to him. I don't think he was ever thought of it in those terms. But it was really quite intriguing.
Now they've written these rather colorful and somewhat sensational biographies of Johnson, and I haven't studied those carefully enough to be very useful. But I think most of them really did not understand Johnson. They were mostly writing books for public entertainment, which was entirely successful, I think. They had a lot of entertainment value.
… he was very active in the idea of legislation and he had notions of what was good for the country. That social legislation was really pretty remarkable, pretty good. I mean, Johnson was not a born critical or social philosopher. He wanted to get action. He wanted to get improvement. He wanted to get people who could do things, you see. And so the notion that he could get to those oppositions. Then later on people didn't understand, or didn't pay attention to what he was trying to do, I think, was very disheartening to him. I think Lady Bird was probably correct in that too. He was pretty discouraged when he finally retired to the ranch. I think she helped get him through some of that. He was a remarkable case.
His idea of President Kennedy’s favorite people wouldn't be printable. What he thought, not only of Ehrlichman and others, but rather the ones that were supposed to be the brain trust of the intellectual leaders, and which Kennedy paid attention to, Johnson thought they were nuts. He said that.
He used to get us in there, and he got us in there later, of course, for lunch. These little lunches, I don't mean just one lunch, but he had a little room, several of the presidents have had, for lunch, where they get people in, never scheduled there, never registered. … He would get at some national security and technologic things. He would get some plans for improvement of the country, and then we would have a feeling that the president wasn't, in that case, with us anymore. We found the reason was he had been on the telephone for the last twenty-five or thirty minutes.
Well, anyhow, that was the sort of thing Johnson got into. He was very versatile in the way he went at what he felt the government should or could do. But he thought that some of the people, including Mrs. Kennedy’s friends or coterie, were just nuts anyway. He just had to have them around.
He really did study this Viet Nam security business and attitudes of the country. And he took him a good while to decide, but he decided he just wasn't going to pursue it. He wasn't going to run it. So there is quite a lot of history to be written there yet.