The Night Lyndon Quit

For twenty years, the story behind President Johnson’s withdrawal has remained a mystery. Now, on the anniversary of his decision, his former secretary reveals the drama of LBJ’s biggest surprise.
As Lyndon Johnson spoke to the nation, he knew he had to sacrifice his political career in order to save his presidency.
Photo Illustration by Melissa Grimes

THE FIRST TIME PRESIDENT JOHNSON told me that he wasn’t going to run for reelection, I thought he was pulling my leg. It was the late summer of 1967 and we were in his bedroom, where I went every weekday morning to discuss issues prior to starting my press briefing. He instructed me to start working on a withdrawal statement. “You don’t tell anybody; nobody knows but Bird and me,” he said. “I don’t know when, but I think we ought to do it before the first of the year.”

His reasons were based entirely on health. His heart attack in 1955 had almost killed him, and the other shoe would drop sooner or later. The men in his family died young. Disability bothered him more than sudden death; Woodrow Wilson’s stroke had left him barely able to function in the latter part of his presidency, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s health was failing even as he was running for another term. As he talked on, I decided that he was in a blue funk about something and would change his tune by nightfall. I was in no hurry to compose a statement.

A couple of months later he called me in San Antonio, where I had quartered the traveling press while he visited his ranch, and said, “Let’s talk about this withdrawal.” For a time he talked about his health again. But then he brought in other personal problems: his daughters had to be in the limelight, his wife had no freedom from the goldfish bowl; he couldn’t politick while he was trying to find peace in Vietnam. It became clear that he was thinking of anything to justify his decision. He wanted out, but he couldn’t find the right way to get out.

Finally he dispatched me to Austin to see his most trusted adviser, Governor John Connally, whom he had told of his plans. I was to extract from Connally a rationale for the decision to withdraw. At the dining table in the Governor’s Mansion one Saturday afternoon, Connally and I spent two or three uninterrupted hours trying to develop some eloquent and credible prose. Much of the time Connally, who had decided not to run for reelection himself, played Johnson’s surrogate and dictated in a stream of consciousness as if he were making a formal speech.

Johnson’s intentions were to announce his withdrawal in December, perhaps at a Democratic party gathering. He abandoned that idea and began shooting for the State of the Union address to Congress in mid-January 1968. By then I couldn’t visualize another term in office. It was becoming more and more difficult for the president to travel because of the peace demonstrations. The cities had been a racial powder keg, and no relief could be foreseen for 1968. How were we going to campaign? Moreover, how was he going to run the country after the election?

I was allowed to confide his intentions to my young assistant, Tom Johnson, but I had no idea if anyone else in the White House was aware of them. Later I learned that he had widened the circle slightly. Just before Christmas the prime minister of Australia, Harold Holt, was lost at sea while taking a swim. The president went to Melbourne for the memorial service, and one of his guests was Horace Busby, a former aide who had helped write his most important speeches. Our trip turned out to be a five-day endurance test to Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, Pakistan, the Vatican, and back to Washington for Christmas Eve.

Somewhere between Karachi and Rome, Busby told me later, Johnson came out of the presidential cabin and sat down next to him. A news blackout, in force while the president was in Vietnam, had just been lifted, and Johnson was in high spirits. He imitated David Brinkley saying, “We’re sorry to report that the president of the United States has just been found.” Then he looked out the window, where you could see the lights of Tehran, and his mood changed. “The poor shah,” he said. “They have so little time and so little to work with.” After a long silence he said to Busby, “What do you think we ought to do next year?”

Busby said instantly, “Not run.” Johnson fixed his eyes on him, and when Johnson did that, you knew you were being looked at. But Busby had been around him long enough to know not to retreat. Neither man said a word. Johnson held the stare for a long time, then got up without further conversation.

In January, a couple days before the State of the Union address, Johnson summoned Busby to the White House. “I want you to write the closing for my State of the Union,” Johnson said. “When I get through, I’m going to surprise the hell out of them. I’m going to reach back in my pocket and pull out this statement you’re going to write.” He told Busby what he wanted to say: he had persevered, kept the faith, now he was going to leave.

The next day the president gave me Busby’s draft and told me to combine it with the best words Connally and I had been able to devise. On the day he was to go to the Capitol, I gave him four type-written sheets that ended, “I have prayerfully concluded that I will not be a candidate for reelection.”

That evening I stood in the back of the House chamber, waiting for the immortal words. I could hardly contain myself, relishing the surprise and wondering whether Congress was going to applaud or weep. The words never came, of course, and he told me afterward that he thought it was the wrong time to do it. “It just didn’t fit,” he said. “I couldn’t go in there and lay out a big program and then say, ‘Okay, here’s all this work to do, and by the way, so long. I’m leaving.’” He wrote in his memoirs

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