March 31, 1968: when LBJ announced he would not run for President

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Fifty years ago, Spring Quarter classes of my freshman year must have started on an April Fools’ Day Monday.

On my way back to New Hampshire from Spring Break in Laredo I’d been trying to get to Boston from San Antonio on cheap student standby fares all day Sunday. Typically, I missed getting a seat on a New York flight in Dallas and then missed the Plan B one in Chicago. By nighttime, I’d only made it to the lounge in LaGuardia Airport. In 1968, New York shared not only its first name with New Orleans and Nuevo Laredo, but also a low legal drinking age.

I was hanging out at the bar comparing the watery Cuba Libres they were serving to the honest ones I’d been drinking in Nuevo Laredo cantinas the night before. There was a flight to Boston before midnight, where I’d catch the “T” into downtown, and then the Vermont Transit red-eye bus up to White River Junction where the snow was still two feet deep.

There were plenty of other students between flights in the airport bar, drinking and exaggerating Spring Break’s debauches and sunburns on Florida beaches or hometowns in sunnier climes than New Hampshire. There was eager anticipation for the outdoor pleasures of New England springtime. Things like trips to swimming holes and Red Sox games at Fenway Park.

And, of course, the War.

There was plenty to talk about: the gore of the Tet Offensive had been on the evening news all through February. Our parents had been digesting Walter Cronkite’s special report on the unwinnability of war in Vietnam. The “Love It Or Leave It” reflex was not nearly as automatic. A couple of weeks earlier Eugene McCarthy had stunned even his Children’s Crusade student campaigners with his 42% showing in the New Hampshire Democratic Primary.

Little did we know that before the end of the week, Martin Luther King would have been assassinated and that by the time finals were done that term, Bobby Kennedy would be, too.

There was a TV going on the shelf among the bottles behind the bar, and at 9 o’clock we looked up through the smoke of all the Marlboro’s to see the despised image and hear the “Mah fellah Amuricuns” accent of President Johnson. A Bronx cheer goes up. You could hear mumbled “screw-yous” as the student crowd vented at the political face of the war in Vietnam. Political sentiments among students on campus may not have been unanimous, but I can’t remember anyone defending the Johnson administration. In my dorm room, 103 New Hampshire Hall, we had an LBJ dartboard.

Regional accents have played an unacknowledged but important role in American politics. The accents of JFK, Jimmy Carter, Clinton, and Dubya of, course! were notable. But LBJ’s Texas drawl had a powerful subconscious influence on Americans’ attitude toward him. A University of Texas professor I worked with used to entertain American Dialect Society Convention cocktail parties in the 70’s with a story about meeting a little old lady on Congress Avenue in Austin a couple of days after the Kennedy assassination. The two of them were acquaintances, and they were lamenting the dreadful events in Dallas when the blue-haired matron came up with a Pollyanna-ish, half-full observation: “Well, at least, now we don’t have a President with an accent!” What had bothered her Texan’s ears about Kennedy’s Boston English with the missing R-sounds in “vigah” and superfluous R’s in “Cuber” would soon have their alienating equivalent for the rest of the country in Johnson’s Central Texas drawl.

LBJ ‘s English wasn’t that different from my own. That wasn’t my problem. The war in Vietnam was. My grumbling was not about his accent, but his foreign policy.

As we half-listened, most of the talk from the White House was the usual pre-heard blah-blah, yeah-yeah, déjà vu.

But out-of-the-blue, Johnson announces a bombing halt north of the DMZ, and we start listening. Speechless, in fact. Drinks suspended in one hand. Cigarettes with long dangling ashes motionless in the other.

And then he gets to the end of the Sunday Night Special Address to the nation:

“I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party as your President.”

A second or two of silence as the words sink in.

Then a big whoop and cheering. We were jumping up and down, slapping people on their backs as though we’d just won the lottery. LBJ was out! Maybe the war would end.

There was a lot of standing drinks in that bar in the hours afterward. I missed the flight to Boston and had to catch one at dawn with a dry mouth and a splitting headache.

Around midnight one of the revelers, a guy from Boston College, I think, had looked over at me through the boozy haze with a suddenly worried look and blurted, “Whoa! Is it April Fools’ Day?”

The other day I watched a YouTube clip of the speech. The contrast between Johnson’s calm appeal to sacrifice in the service of liberty and his refusal of partisanship, no matter how self-serving and wordsmithed by speech writers like Horace Busby, do not sound feigned. What a depressing difference from the dog-whistling of political discourse today!

Watching the clip from 50 years ago, I also thought of how less than five years later, LBJ would be dead at age 64. Just like his father and grandfather. Just like his premonitions.

When he gave his big speech on March 31, 1968, Johnson was (only!) fifty-eight years old. With his long, hound-dog ears, reading glasses, and slicked-back gray hair, he looked to me that night like he was a hundred years old.

Here I am ten years older now than he was in my own reading glasses, wondering if my old ears look droopy like his.

Where were you when you found out that the 1968 Presidential Election was not going to involve Lyndon Johnson?


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