The unravelling of a U.S. presidency 50 years ago

Lyndon Johnson, who became President after the assassination JFK, watched it all slip away thanks to the Vietnam War

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Nov. 30, 1967, was a fateful day for U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. Although the political cognoscenti didn’t recognize it at the time, things began to unravel when Sen. Eugene McCarthy announced that he’d oppose Johnson in the 1968 Democratic presidential primaries.

The smart money believed that any serious internal Democratic challenge to Johnson would have to come from Sen. Bobby Kennedy. After all, the two men had long despised each other and Kennedy considered Johnson to be a fundamentally illegitimate successor to his murdered brother. Were it not for John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson would never have been president.

So Kennedy had recast himself, growing his hair fashionably longer and shifting his political image in a vaguely leftward direction – Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War being a particular bone of contention. The Cold Warrior Kennedy of the early 1960s was gone, replaced by a shaggily romantic rebel appealing to those in search of an existential-sounding hero.

But the new persona notwithstanding, Kennedy remained a calculating politician wary of burning bridges. If he wanted to be president someday, a kamikaze attack on a sitting president within his own party was too risky. It would probably fail and would alienate too many powerful people in the process. The Kennedys had always been acutely aware of the need to stay onside with power-brokers like Chicago’s Richard Daley and Democratic governors in key states.

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Thus, when push came to shove in the autumn of 1967, Kennedy declined requests to take up the anti-Vietnam challenge, indicating instead that Johnson had his support. And McCarthy stepped into the void.

Acerbic, intellectual and quirky, McCarthy was an unlikely standard-bearer. He’d been in federal politics since the late 1940s, first as congressman from Minnesota’s fourth district and then as one of the state’s two senators. He’d supported Adlai Stevenson over John F. Kennedy in 1960 and had hopes of being Johnson’s running-mate in 1964. Another Minnesotan, Hubert Humphrey, was chosen instead.

Subsequently, McCarthy developed deep reservations about what he saw as Johnson’s hawkish Vietnam approach. On Nov. 30, 1967, he declared: “There’s nothing left but to take it to the people.”

McCarthy’s campaign was boosted by two things.

As the only anti-Vietnam candidate, he was a coalescing point for opposition to American involvement in the war. This made him the beneficiary of activist support, including the small army of university students from the likes of Harvard and Yale who descended on the first primary state – New Hampshire – to knock on doors, make phone calls and stuff envelopes.

There was also the January-February 1968 Tet Offensive. Militarily, Tet was a significant defeat for the combined forces of the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. But its duration and intensity shocked the American public, seriously undermining the Johnson administration’s narrative. Clearly, the war wasn’t going as well as officially portrayed.

When New Hampshire went to the polls on March 12, 1968, Johnson won by 49 per cent to 42 per cent. And although a substantial number of McCarthy voters were actually hawks who wanted a more vigorous prosecution of the war, there was no gainsaying the bottom line: Johnson had lost the confidence of more than 40 per cent of his own party’s voters. This sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen.

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Sensing Johnson’s blood in the water, Bobby Kennedy quickly adjusted his calculations. He was ready to enter the fray.

To McCarthy, this was an outrageous act of sheer opportunism. Kennedy had allowed him to take the risks and do the dirty work, and was now going to swoop in to steal the prize. McCarthy resolved not to go quietly. He’d fight Kennedy all the way.

And there was much drama to come.

Embittered and isolated, Johnson reluctantly withdrew from contention; McCarthy and Kennedy fought it out through to California in June. There, having just won the California primary, Kennedy was assassinated.

The party organization – essentially the bosses and the trade unions – delivered the Democratic nomination to Humphrey; and Republican Richard Nixon won the general election by a whisker.

Despite taking down an ostensibly formidable president, McCarthy soon drifted into relative obscurity. Opting not to run for senate re-election, he tried unsuccessfully to run for president several more times.

Then, ever the political maverick, he supported Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.

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