Monday, February 19, 2018

Review: LBJ's 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America's Year of Upheaval

For many people, but not me, 2016 was "the worst year ever." Two prominent rock musicians, David Bowie and Prince, died. Great Britain voted for Brexit. And of course Donald J. Trump was elected president.

But for me 2016 was a pretty good year, as I supported Trump and Brexit, and while I admired the work of Bowie and Prince, both men lived recklessly, so I didn't mourn them that much.

On the 2016 New Year's Eve edition of NPR's Wait...Wait...Don't Tell Me," Bill Kurtis correctly declared 1348, when the Black Death arrived in Europe, as the worst year ever.

Not nearly as bad as 1348 was 1968. But for President Lyndon Baines Johnson, '68 was his worst year ever. And the last full year of the 36th president's time in office is the subject of Kyle Longley's LBJ's 1968 Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America's Year of Upheaval.

We are barely into 2018, but be patient, we'll be deluged with many unhappy anniversary stories.

Coincidentally, 1968 was the first year of my life that I had any inkling of what was going on outside of my South Side Chicago neighborhood. Some of the events in Johnson's annus horribilis I remember well. Such as my exclaiming when a bulletin preempted ABC's Bewitched with the announcement that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. "Who's Martin Luther King?" I exclaimed. "You don't know who Martin Luther King is?" my mother retorted with surprise. Hey, give me a break. I was in kindergarten at the time. Also, I recall my parents sadness over Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, as well as the riot outside the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago during the Democratic Convention. The whole family calmly watched the police clubbing the protesters. Yes, it was a different time as riots were commonplace in the late 1960s as were televised reports of them. Meanwhile my father, my mother assured her children while we were taking in the mayhem, was "far away" from the disturbance. He was attending the actual convention, covering the proceedings for a tiny Chicago neighborhood newspaper.

And I remember that I was the only person who raised a hand in my first grade class at my new suburban school when my teacher asked, "Whose parents voted for Hubert Humphrey?" The gender gap didn't exist then. Richard M. Nixon, won Illinois and of course the general election.

Twelve years later my mother and father were proud Ronald Reagan conservatives.

After Longley recounts LBJ's final State of the Union address given that January--at the time it was assumed by everyone that he would run for a second full term--the troubles begin with a largely forgotten tragedy from 1968, the seizure of the USS Pueblo, with 83 crew members, by North Korea. Johnson and our military were already bogged down with the Vietnam War--another American conflict was unthinkable. One Pueblo sailor was killed--the rest of the crew was tortured and starved. The Pueblo capture foreshadowed the helplessness Jimmy Carter endured after our embassy in Iran was overrun by "students" eleven years later, as well as our contemporary frustrations dealing with the mysterious yet paranoid North Koreans. The USS Pueblo hostages weren't released until shortly before Christmas.
MLK plaque in Winnetka, IL

A week later, while the battle of Khe Sanh raged in South Vietnam, the Communists' Tet Offensive began throughout the rest of that nation. For Johnson and our country, 1968 was like that, one crisis was piled on top of another. Just as the Tet Offensive winded down, to the surprise of many, LBJ announced that he would not seek reelection. A few days later King was assassinated, followed by riots in many major cities, including Washington. Longley recounts a meeting among White House staffers when someone decides to open a window--and in came the fumes from nearby arson fires. There were machine guns placed on the steps of the Capitol and sandbags were strategically placed on the White House grounds. A journalist observed that the Capitol "looked like the parliament of a new African republic."

Things were relatively calm until Johnson's rival, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated in June. The tragedy elevated LBJ's vice president, the loyal Humphrey, who the president unfairly treated with disrespect, into the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. Then a surprise came. Earl Warren, the liberal Supreme Court chief justice, announced his retirement. Johnson, oblivious that he was seen as a lame duck by the Senate, as well as by the rightward drift of the nation--which is why Warren, fearing a Nixon win, wanted out--suffered a stinging defeat after nominating his friend and confidante, associate Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas, to be the next chief justice. For the Fortas seat LBJ chose another crony, Homer Thornberry, an appeals court judge who succeeded Johnson in the House of Representatives. Fortas didn't survive a cloture vote. Nixon nominated Warren's replacement, as well as the successor for Fortas, who resigned in disgrace in 1969 over a secret payments scandal.

A few days after the Warsaw Pact nations invaded Czechoslovakia and ended the Prague Spring, the disastrous Democratic National Convention, largely remembered for the riot I watched on television, also showed the nation how fractious the Democrats were, all but guaranteeing a Nixon win in November.

All through 1968 the Johnson administration was negotiating with the North Vietnamese to sit down for a peace conference, while the Nixon campaign worked behind the scenes with the South Vietnamese to prevent one.

Longley in my opinion unfairly compares the Nixon chicanery in what became known as the Chennault Affair to a story from that other "horrible year," 2016, when he says "a foreign government likely played a role in shaping the outcome of a presidential election with the possible collusion with one of the campaigns." What the author wrote is probably a year old. I have the advantage of writing in the present--on Presidents' Day no less--and while the Mueller investigation has not completed its work, nine months after he was named special prosecutor, Mueller has revealed no evidence of  collusion between Russia and the Donald Trump campaign.

That doesn't mean I didn't enjoy LBJ's 1968. I did. I got the most pleasure by having the co-worker in the cubicle next to mine read the section about the Washington riot after MLK was murdered. He was one of the soldiers dispatched to the capital to put down the riot. An enlisted man, he chuckled when read that a District of Columbia public safety official and the vice chief of the US Army were unable to communicate with the president because the police radio system was jammed as they toured the riot zone. The pair was forced to wait in line for their turn to use a pay phone like ordinary people--for their own safety they were unwilling to identify themselves--so they could call the White House and give their report on the carnage to Johnson.

LBJ, like all presidents, believed the media wasn't giving him a fair shake. When he learned that black activist Stokley Carmichael, during that same riot, planned a march in Georgetown, where so many of the columnists Johnson disliked lived, he howled, "God-damn! I've waited thirty-five years for this day." That gave me a chuckle. Trump would like that quip too, I am sure.

It wasn't all bad news for Johnson in '68. For two years Johnson had been trying to get a fair housing bill passed by Congress. In the days following King's murder, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 made it on to LBJ's desk, which he promptly signed. Later that year Congress passed a gun control bill, which was weaker than what Johnson wanted, but he signed it into law anyway.

LBJ's 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America's Year of Upheaval is available on and at many other book sellers.

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