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Time Machine

March 2023
1min read

… Exit LBJ

Lyndon Johnson had considered giving up his pursuit of a second term long before he actually did it, in a surprise ending to a nationally televised speech on March 31. The advance press copy of Johnson’s address contained his announcement of a halt to bombing in North Vietnam and proposals on American troop levels—dramatic stuff by itself—but gave no warning that the troubled President would then read on to say, “With American sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge here at home, with our hopes … for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes. … Accordingly, I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

Johnson’s address had started out as a part of his re-election effort. With his proposals for de-escalation in Vietnam, the President hoped to unbalance McCarthy’s single-issue campaign as well as to counter the long-dreaded candidacy of Robert Kennedy, who entered suddenly on March 16. He was announcing finally, declared the senator from New York, not “merely to oppose any man, but to propose new policies … and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I’m obliged to do all I can.” Kennedy had also been watching the Republican polls and, seeing Nelson Rockefeller weakening, relished the idea of thrashing Richard Nixon in a November race.

None of the dozen or so drafts of Johnson’s speech had even hinted at his quitting the race. He had given his alternate ending to the speech to the Teleprompter operator an hour before airtime. Only a handful of people knew he might use it, one of them his wife, at whom he glanced before reading out the final section. The President had been polling his staff on his own viability as a candidate for at least a year, but more increasingly after the Tet Offensive of January 30. Staffers in the White House remembered him occasionally patting his shirt pocket in response to some fresh attack and saying, “I got my resignation right here in my pocket.”

When the President made his announcement, McCarthy was speaking in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and got the news from his audience. The exuberant scene later reminded him of “Orestes being smothered by the Eumenides,” he said. Senator Kennedy, whose campaign to oust Johnson was merely two weeks old, found himself suddenly without a target. “I don’t know what I can do now,” he confessed. “It’s no fun attacking Nixon so early in the game.”

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