LBJ shook the world 41 years ago today
March 30, 2009 at 9:02 p.m.
Updated March 29, 2009 at 10:30 p.m.
"I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President."
-- Lyndon Baines Johnson
March 31, 1968
That was 41 years ago tonight, and I can still remember vividly those stunning words coming from the television, which I was glued to in hopes of hearing something positive about the Vietnam War.
Some things are so shocking, so out of the blue, they stay with you forever.
LBJ looked so tired. The full weight of the Vietnam War was pressing down on him, and in his ears were the cries of protesters outside the White House chanting, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" Or, "One, two, three, four, we don't want your #&*#@+! war."
And so, in an unbelievable move, he unloaded his bombshell.
"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."
I sat there, holding my 7-month-old son on my knee, silently trying to absorb what I'd just heard.
Now, with all the years that have passed since Mr. Johnson's abrupt departure from a long life in politics, many motives have been ascribed to his announcement that night. They ranged from highly noble to totally selfish. Personally, I have always come down somewhere in between. I think the man had simply had enough of that killer office, but I also prefer to think of him as a man who knew he had become a divisive factor in America and stepped down for the good of the country.
And this admiration for a Democrat was coming from a (at the time) young man who'd been raised by a staunchly Republican father who placed Dwight Eisenhower in a place near he Deity.
It would be less than five years later that I received a call from our Washington reporter for The Houston Post, Art Wiese, who covered LBJ's burial, and dictated the following lead paragraph to me from Johnson City, as I worked the senior rewrite desk in Houston.
"As bells tolled across his beloved Pedernales River, Lyndon Johnson came home for the last time."
That was the river that flowed through the Johnson ranch he loved so much, and Lady Bird, the love of his life, knew that's where he wanted to lie for eternity. I met her a year later in Austin, and we talked for some time. To this day I think she was the most gracious and stately woman I've ever met, despite her tiny size.
Anyway, I worked the story of LBJ's funeral, and I admit to shedding a tear over it. Regardless of political party, he was my president, too.
At the entrance to his official presidential library in Austin, almost 20 years after his death, I paused one day to read this greeting:
"I hope that visitors who come here will achieve a closer understanding of the presidency and that the young people who come here will get a clearer comprehension of what this nation tried to do in an eventful period of its history."
Whether we fully understand those words, or the man, I can believe that both were sincere.
Jim Bishop is a senior editor for the Advocate. Leave him a message at 361-574-1210 or firstname.lastname@example.org or comment on this column at www.victoriaadvocate.com