Monday, July 9, 2012

Stepping Up and Stepping Away

I can remember exactly where I was the evening of March 31, 1968.  My freshman girlfriend and I were down in the basement of her dormitory.  This was one of the few places in the dorms where there was a television and we were poised ready to heckle President Johnson deliver a speech to the nation. The talk was, ostensibly, to be about the Vietnam War, how things were going, etc.  At this point already I, and nearly all of my fellow freshmen, had become anti war campaigners. It was sport for all but the most apolitical among us to jeer and question the credibility of war proponents.

Johnson, you may remember, did a very clever thing on this date at the end of March.  It was common during the period for politicians to deliver advance copies of their speeches to journalists.  When a presidential talk was completed, newscasters would analyze instantly the talk, because they had had the benefit of reading it well before the speech was delivered.  Later, in the Nixon administration, Vice President Agnew railed with some legitimacy about this process which he called Instant Analysis.  Agnew, never one of my favorite pols, did have a point in this case complaining that citizens did not have an opportunity to digest a speech before the journalists would slam it immediately after the last presidential word was uttered.

On March 31, 1968 Karen and I had been peppering the screen with challenges to the president's credibility, when Johnson stunned the entire nation by ending his talk with a comment about the upcoming election. Everyone thought that Johnson would, for sure, be the democratic candidate in November.  But Johnson with a smile told the viewing audience that he would "not seek nor accept" the nomination of the party.

This not only surprised the viewers, it astonished the journalists who had been given the speech--but not the last paragraphs. What happened then was that broadcasters on all three networks sputtered and stammered for a while having had no preparation for the most significant part of the talk.

At the time everyone speculated on why Johnson who had clobbered Goldwater in the 1964 election would take himself out of the front runner position for another term.  I'm reading a book about Lyndon Johnson now.  It might take me until the election to finish it as it is a fat book and while well written, every page is dense with information and it is taking me a long time just to get through a few pages.

What I have discovered so far has been illuminating.  Apparently, Johnson was a person who simply hated to lose. This fact is at odds with another fact--he wanted desperately to be president. How someone can aspire for the highest office and at the same time be averse to what is a likely event at some steps along the way, is difficult to fathom. Yet, supposedly, the man hated to lose.  I am only 70 pages into the book, but I wonder if his decision to step down was because--in the face of mounting anti-war sentiment even within his own party--he thought he might lose.

In sport we often hear about players who are great because "they hate to lose."  Yesterday while watching the Wimbledon final we heard talk about this player or that, who excelled because of their will to win and aversion to loss.  But in sport those who win must acknowledge that losses are inevitable and nobody but nobody--even a Michael Jordan--can assume that they will always win.  In sport, heroes become heroes because they put the potential for loss on the line. True champions would never decline an invitation to compete.

President Johnson, like all of us, was a complex person.  A southerner who voted against every civil rights legislation prior to 1957, he became the president who was able to pass the most meaningful civil rights bill of the twentieth century in the mid 60s.  Johnson, however, also was a person who sent your brothers to war in Vietnam with a real sense of how futile the enterprise was and how corrupt the South Vietnamese--our alleged allies--were.

I'm interested in finding out more about this complex person (though the length of the book is daunting).  Regardless, I am not sure I will ever be able to comprehend let alone condone how we continued to escalate the war at the cost of so many deaths to young people. I knew from nothing in 1968 when I went to watch that speech. Maybe I still know from nothing, but I know a little bit more than I did then.  Athletes step up. Johnson stepped up with domestic legislation, but he stepped away when it came to the war, and it cost the baby boomers, our parents, and potential offspring, dearly.


  1. The LBJ you saw that day was a broken empty shell of a man full of guilt brought about by his roll in the Vietnam fiasco. I wish some of that would rub off on our present and previous president but I doubt it. They have too much blood on their hands to enjoy the life they live.

  2. I think you are right about Johnson. He came to the fork in the road, took the wrong one, and then could not find his way.