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On this day, LBJ changed political history — and two Minnesotans played key roles

On the evening of this date in 1968, President Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

Today is an anniversary that might not get much attention — or maybe it will, what do I know? — but it’s my post for today.

On the evening of this date in 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson went on television and announced that “I will not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

Johnson, an almost unimaginably ambitious man whose greatest ambition had long been to become president, decided to forego the possibility of a second full term, for which he would have been constitutionally eligible and which he might, perhaps, have won. But perhaps not. Kids were in the streets chanting his name, and not in a good way. The most famous chant went: “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

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Some combination of the miseries of doing his job in the awful quagmire of the Vietnam War, the fear that he might lose if he sought reelection and — perhaps most nobly if this was his motive, which he did express to some aides — the belief that seeking to end the war during the remainder of his term must be such an absolute priority, that he must free himself from all political considerations in case the opportunity to do so arose, led LBJ to start thinking about forgoing another term several months earlier.

He had planned to announce his decision at the end of his State of the Union Address in January of 1968, and a secret draft of the address to include that announcement had been in the works. But for cloudy, complex reasons, LBJ decided not to make the announcement. My guess is that he couldn’t stand to foreclose his options and end his political career in ashes.

Different political calendar

If you look at where we are on the political calendar on this date in 2016 — roughly halfway through the primary season — you might think March 31 was too late for such an announcement. But the calendar was different then. Only one primary — New Hampshire, of course — had been held. LBJ had not declared his candidacy nor his non-candidacy and, unimaginably from where we stand nowadays, had refused to make clear whether he was running or not.

Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy was the only announced candidate for the Democratic nomination. But a slate of delegates that was pledged to LBJ was also on the ballot in New Hampshire. McCarthy, a new recruit to the anti-Vietnam War cause at that time but the political leader of the movement at that moment, made a surprisingly strong showing in New Hampshire. Most people seem to misremember that McCarthy won the primary. Actually, he finished a strong second, with 42 percent of the vote, behind 50 percent for the slate pledged to the unannounced Johnson candidacy.

That was March 12, and it certainly sent the message that LBJ was not the consensus candidate of his party for renomination. Four days after that primary, on March 16, Sen. Bobby Kennedy, who had previously decided not to run for president because he didn’t believe LBJ could be beaten for the nomination, changed his mind and announced his own candidacy. After LBJ pulled out, McCarthy went on to win the Wisconsin primary a few days later on April 2 with Kennedy finishing third behind Johnson.

On the Republican side, former Vice President and 1960 Republican nominee Richard Nixon was the prohibitive frontrunner for the nomination. He had won New Hampshire and would sail to the nomination winning almost every primary. Nixon’s position on Vietnam was double-talk, but the war was not a mess of his own creation and he could get away with it — and he did get away with it but the war was a big part of what eventually destroyed him, too.

Less than a week after LBJ’s big announcement (April 4), Martin Luther King was assassinated. 1968 was a horrible year. I was in high school, hated LBJ (about whom I now have more complicated feelings), despised Nixon and viewed McCarthy (about whom I now have much more mixed feelings) as a brave potential savior and peacemaker. Bobby Kennedy, whom I admired (but about whom I also now have mixed feelings), was killed in June. We still don’t know what that was about.

Humphrey enters the race

On the morning of the day, 48 years ago today, when he would make his famous statement of non-candidacy, LBJ sent word to his vice president, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, that he had better start preparing to get into the race. Humphrey — whom I despised back then as a Johnson lackey but admire greatly now — did, of course, immediately take steps to get into the race. Humphrey would eventually become the Democratic nominee, but the hideous end of the violence-marred Chicago convention left his chances in tatters. He rallied late in the general election and made it close, but in the end, the war destroyed him, too.

A final note of historical perspective: Yes, Humphrey became the Democratic nominee in 1968, but he did so without winning a single primary. McCarthy or Kennedy won them all, and Humphrey didn’t seriously try to win any primaries. This was the last hurrah (but not much of a hurrah) for the old system in which primaries played a much smaller role and most states had boss-controlled delegations with no serious role for the average voter to express a preference for party nominee. The aftermath of that horrible, horrible year led to the reforms of the nominating process in the direction of the system we have now (about which I have developed mixed feelings, at best).

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LBJ went home to his Texas ranch, grew his hair long, lived as a near-recluse and died at age 64 of heart failure, on almost exactly the day that his second presidential term would have ended if he had run for it and won, none of which he did.

If you’d like to see a video of LBJ’s famous statement of non-candidacy, it’s here.

If you’d like to read an insider recollection, by a former LBJ staff member, of how the decision to announce his retirement came down, it’s here.