“Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” Monday marks the anniversary of those words, spoken by Lyndon Johnson from the White House on the evening of March 31, 1968. It marked a stunning end to a singular political career: congressman, senator, vice president, and president. Johnson, of course, assumed the presidency in the midst of a terrible national tragedy, but in 1964 he went on to win the highest percentage of the popular vote in the 20th century.
The next four years would prove to be momentous, as he surged forward with an ambitious and transformative domestic agenda that ran headlong into the nightmare of Vietnam. Unlike other stories I’ve republished from the Texas Monthly archives over the past few weeks, “The Night Lyndon Quit,” published in April 1988, is not written by a member of the magazine’s staff. Instead, the author is George Christian, a name well known in Texas political circles who served as LBJ’s press secretary. He offered a candid view of the process that led to Johnson’s famous speech, many of the details of which had not been published before (the photo above is of Johnson watching the playback of his speech later that night with his younger daughter Luci). The relationship between Christian and Johnson is on full display, and of particular interest is that Christian stood at the back of the House chamber during that year’s State of the Union speech, bracing for the announcement. It didn’t come. Johnson told Christian afterward:
“It just didn’t fit. 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.’”
But there was no turning back, and Johnson revealed his decision shortly afterward in a speech in which he announced a unilateral reduction in “the present levels of hostilities” in what he hoped would be a step toward peace negotiations. For Christian, it was an evening of “absolute relief” as well as a point of pride for the press secretary because reporters had no idea what was coming: “It was the first time in history that nothing had leaked,” he wrote.
( LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto )