My grandfather used to love to tell this story.
Grandpa was a Texan. In his retirement years, he belonged to a fishing club in rural east Texas, about two hours from his home in Dallas. The clubhouse was set up so that members and their guests could stay overnight, eat their meals in a big country dining room and keep their fishing boats and fishing equipment on the premises.
On the evening of March 31, 1968, Grandpa was at the fishing club. I don't know if my grandmother was with him on that occasion. She often came there with him, but I don't think she always did. Anyway, there was a TV in the dining room and Grandpa told me that was where he watched President Lyndon Johnson deliver a major speech on Vietnam — a speech that turned unexpectedly dramatic at the end.
It was a real game changer.
In his book "The Making of the President 1968," historian Theodore H. White wrote that there was speculation about Johnson's intentions within the administration that day but no certainty. He mentioned an anxious exchange between Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford and White House staffer Henry McPherson, who asked, "Clark, what's up? Is he going to say sayonara?"
The vice president, Hubert Humphrey, conferred with Johnson that morning, but when he left on a scheduled trip to Mexico City later that day, White wrote, he "was still not sure that the president actually meant to give up at all." (After Johnson withdrew, Humphrey entered the race and went on to win the nomination at a time when most delegates still were chosen by party bosses, not primary voters.)
The first lady's press secretary and adviser to both the president and his wife, Liz Carpenter, who died earlier this month at the age of 89, spoke with Johnson after his meeting with Humphrey. White wrote that "she felt in her bones that the [re–election] campaign was on."
I don't know if the first lady herself knew Johnson's plans. If she had any suspicions, she did a good job of covering. Two days before the speech, White wrote, "Mrs. Johnson had come to a women's group of politicians and pledged herself, personally, to all of them to do whatever was needed to re–elect the president: to go anywhere, stump anywhere, appear anywhere."
I was far too young at the time to understand the complexities of the issues or the times. I knew that my parents were opposed to the war and supporters of Gene McCarthy, a writer (poet, really) and senator, the man whose insurgent campaign for the Democratic nomination received credit for toppling the Johnson presidency.
I'm not sure if McCarthy deserves credit for that. The momentum of the times and the growing opposition to the war in Vietnam had a lot to do with it. As far as I could see, McCarthy mostly amplified public disenchantment, but he did so exceedingly well. His platform was primarily anti–Vietnam War, but as his former colleague, George McGovern, wrote on the occasion of McCarthy's death (using a reference that McCarthy probably would have appreciated), he was an orator. "The ancient Roman rhetorician Quintilian defined an orator as 'a good man speaking well.' " McGovern wrote. "I give you Gene McCarthy — a good man who thought, wrote, spoke and quipped well."
In hindsight, I guess, much of what the president said was predictable. His policies on the war weren't significantly altered in the speech. But then he shocked the nation and the world.
"I have concluded that I should not permit the presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year. With America's sons in the fields far away, with America's future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world's 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 or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office — the presidency of your country.
"Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."
President Lyndon Johnson
March 31, 1968
With those words, LBJ ushered in a truly transitional year in America. A lot of years are labeled "transitional" — and, to an extent, many really are — but 1968 may have been the most momentous year in my lifetime. Less than a week after Johnson's speech, Dr. Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis. Two months later, Bobby Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles. When the Democrats convened in Chicago to nominate Humphrey, it was the riots in the streets that America saw on its TV sets — and remembered at the polls.
Those were probably the biggest stories in a year that seemed to have a new stunning development on a weekly basis.
And from that day until the day my grandfather died in 1969, on the occasions when my family met my grandparents at the fishing club, Grandpa would observe, as we sat down to eat in that dining room, that he watched Johnson's speech in that room with the owner of the fishing club, a fellow who was known to all as "Kit" Carson.
Whenever Grandpa mentioned Johnson's speech, it wasn't necessary to ask which speech he was talking about. Grandpa was a Texas Republican in the days when Republicans were in the minority in Texas. Oddly, his daughter (my mother) was about as far to the left as my grandfather was to the right. They were the embodiment of the generational divide that afflicted the nation in those days.
Anyway, when you acknowledge that Grandpa was a Republican, it is a logical — and accurate — conclusion that the only thing he had in common with Lyndon Johnson was their native state. Consequently, he was elated that LBJ would not be running for president again.
Well, by 1968, fewer and fewer Americans wanted Johnson to remain in the White House. My parents were glad he wasn't running again, too. In fact, shortly before Johnson announced his withdrawal from the race, Gallup reported that his approval rating had fallen to 36%, the lowest — to date — of his presidency.
It was already clear in January, with the Tet offensive that led Walter Cronkite to conclude that the Vietnam War was not winnable, that 1968 would be a year like no other, but Johnson's announcement really iced it.
And it seemed to set in motion a series of events that left America reeling. The extent may not have been clear until enough time had passed, but once that time had passed, White found the words to summarize it.
He observed that, after Johnson's speech, McCarthy, who had been campaigning in Wisconsin, spoke with many political correspondents, including the legendary Mary McGrory, with whom he "devoted himself entirely to poetry." He quoted Yeats and Robert Lowell and then quoted from some poetry he had written.
"There was little poetry in Washington that evening," wrote historian Theodore H. White, "for it was not part of the script of history that Lyndon Johnson of the Pedernales should be brought down by a poet from Watkins, Minnesota. Of Lyndon Johnson's evening in Washington, Yeats had already written:
" 'We are closed in, and the key is turned on our uncertainty.' "