tv LB Js Decision Not to Seek Re-election in 1968 CSPAN March 29, 2018 2:33am-3:04am EDT
televised address to the nation that he would not run for reelection in 1968. he also told the back story of the president's decision process which began in september of 1967. james jones is a form member of the house of representatives from oklahoma and former u.s. ambassador to mexico. the interview was recorded for c-span's the weekly podcast. i shall not seek and i will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president. but let men everywhere know, however, that a strong and a confident and a vigilant america stands ready tonight to seek an honorable peace and stands ready
tonight to defend an honored cause. >> march 31st, 1968, 50 years ago, james jones, no aide was closer to president johnson than you, serving four years as his appointment secretary equivalent to the white house chief of staff. walk us through the process that president johnson undertook to decide not to seek reelection. >> well, it actually started about seven months previous in september of 1967. the president said -- told me he wanted to go to the ranch that weekend. and he would like to have john connally, then texas governor, come to the ranch and lady bird johnson, the president, john connally, governor connelly, myself and the president's top secretary marie famer were at the ranch that whole weekend as the president really relaxed at the ranch by riding around the ranch, looking at the deer, looking at the cattle, et
cetera. particularly, the three of them, mrs. johnson, the president, and governor conley, rode around and discussed whether he should or should not run for re-election. and then at meal times, we would all discuss it. and the president asked conley what he should do. conley said he was not going to run for governor again in '68. and he thought the president should not run for re-election. that discussion went on. nothing was concluded, and then we went back to washington in the white house. periodically, the president would ask me to come in and have a drink or talk about issues, and the issue of whether he should run or not came up. we -- if you go fast forward then to december of 1967, the christmas season, we all went back to the ranch.
well, we had a around the world trip and then went to the ranch. again, the decision was being discussed. the president asked me to get horace busby, one of his longtime speech writers and draft a statement that he was not going to run for reelection, but not to tell anybody about it. so very few people, i would say less than half dozen, who had any inkling that this was being seriously considered. we had the speech drafted, what he called the final announcement that he wouldn't run, and in the meantime i was coordinating the development of the state of the union speech for january of 1968. we kept the speechwriters for the state of the union separate from horace busby. so the president was planning to announce at the end of the state of the union speech in january
of '68 that he was not going run. we had everything ready. we did not have any of this on teleprompter, and we had a separate little piece of paper, the i shall not run. we drive up to the capitol, and the president gives his state of the union speech, and he did not declare he wasn't going to run. so we were riding back to the capitol. at this time i'm 28 years old. you know everything when you're 28 years old. so i basically asked, you know, he didn't use this. he said oh, he said i left it on the night table. and i forgot to bring it up. well, to my way of thinking, i thought he had decided not to run. he decided to run and not to give this speech. so we went on and the first three months of 1968, and he started asking for different issues -- different questions,
different information. for example, he asked us to have a study done as to when hairy truman announced that he was not going to run for reelection in 1952. it turns out it was march 30th. he had some special polls made. holly coyle was our pollster in that year, and we asked ollie to run the president on a head to head against all the possible democratic and republican candidates, which would be gene mccarthy, bobby kennedy, nelson rockefeller, and richard nixon, et cetera. and the president beat all of them in those polls. this is about ten days before his march 31 announcement. i think he did that because he wanted to have in his own mind that he was not being run out of office, that if he did run, as he thought he would win, that he could win.
so he asked for information like that. so we get to friday, march 29th, and the president called a mini press conference in the rose garden and basically said he's going to make a nationwide televised speech on sunday evening, the 31st, and it was going to be an important speech. we spent the rest of that weekend working on that speech, and, again, taking horace busby back and putting him in the indian treaty room separate from all the speech writers. he was in the mansion. not the indian treaty room, but the lincoln bedroom which was adjacent to the president's bedroom. so horace was looking -- or was working on the end of the speech. nobody else knew about it. and even before we got to that on the 29th, after the little
mini press conference, he asked me to get george christian who was then the press secretary and marvin watson who had been my predecessor as appointment secretary but who was now running the punitive campaign for reelection, asked the three of us to come in for a drink in the little office off the oval office. and at that point, we again talked about whether he should or should not run. at the end, he said what do you fellows think? and we split 2-1. two of us thought he should run, one, george christian, thought he should not run. and we had no decisions at that point. so we continued to work on the speech, on saturday, it was at the white house. we went through several revisions of the speech. sunday morning he called me at my apartment in southwest washington and asked me to come down to the white house, that he and lucy were going to go to church that morning at st. dominic's church over in southwest washington. he asked me to go with him.
so while we're in church, he said -- asked the secret service to get the i will not run part off his night table and bring are it to him and then also call hubert humphrey who was the vice president and ask him to delay his departure for mexico city that day, because he wanted to come over and see him. and so in those days, the vice president didn't have a home. so he was living in an apartment in the same complex where i was living in southwest washington. so after church, we went over to the humphrey apartment. lucy went in with mrs. humphrey to another room, and the president, vice president and i went into the little study. the president asked him to read the speech and vice president humphrey read the speech, and he got to the end and he started really just palpitating. he could hardly get his breath. and president johnson said to him, if you're going to run, you
need to start tomorrow. but i have not finally decided whether i'm going to run or not. i will have jim call you in mexico city tonight with my final decision. so that we left it at that. one of the interesting things, as you know, vice president humphrey ran for president in 1960. and he was defeated in west virginia in a very big surprise by the kennedys, by jack kennedy. and so when the president said, if you're going to run, you need to get started right away, tears welled up in his eyes, and he said, there's no way i can beat the kennedys. which was an interesting observation of him going into the campaign with that. so we went through the day on sunday. he had some personal friends,
arthur krem, the head of united artists at the time and mrs. crim, they came to the white house. they were part of a discussion through sunday. and then going back and forth. and then i think the speech was around 8:00. around 6:00, the president asked me to come over to the mansion, and we went over the speech one last time. he said now you can put it on the teleprompter. and this was -- had been such a tightly guarded secret that nobody knew about it. sy was telling one of your colleagues here, bob flemming who is an assistant press secretary, i asked bob to sit to the side of the desk in the oval office when the president made the speech and watch the teleprompter. and if it happened to go blank on him, to put the right page in front of the president so he could read from that. so bob knew something was up, but he didn't know what.
and so i was back in my office, which was next door at the oval office, and bob comes racing in. he had flipped through the pages to see what was new and different about it. he got to the end of the speech and he started just getting -- not being able to get his breath and he left the oval office because he was afraid it was going to be a ruckus while the president was speaking. so it was an interesting evening. when the speech was over, the president -- it was like a great load had been lifted off his back. it was like he had -- was free at last. and that he could see the end. so he really thought that he was going to be able to get a peace agreement in vietnam. that was the real reason we started talking about not running. he had -- he had mentioned several times, different reasons why he shouldn't run, which i thought were bogus.
for example, he said that his father and grandfather had both died at age 64, and that he was going to die at age 64 and he would be president, and he didn't want to die in office. turned out he did die at age 64, but i think he did not take care of his health as he should have. and i never verified whether his father and grandfather died at that age. but that was one of his excuses. another excuse was that he never appreciated and knew his daughters while they were growing up because he was always on the run, always doing things political. and he really wanted to know his grandson, grandchildren who at that time he had one, and he just doted over that little boy. that's another reason he said he didn't want to run. the final analysis, he thought very much that if he were a candidate for re-election, that
he might pull his punches, if he had an opportunity to get a peace settlement in vietnam. and he did not want to be put this that kind of a position. he thought if he were free of politics that he could do whatever was necessary to reach a peace agreement. so that was the real reason he didn't run. >> along those lines, this is from october of 1968, a conversation between president johnson and everett dirkson, a republican from illinois, and a mention of richard nixon, who was at this time the republican nominee and the issue of vietnam. let's listen. >> now, i have told nixon, and i repeat to you that i'm trying as hard as i know how to get peace in vietnam as quickly as i can. for that reason, i am not running. now, when i have anything that i believe justifies or warrants consultation, i will initiate.
>> as you hear that conversation, your reaction, james jones? >> well, in october, maybe two weeks before the election, we were pursuing -- the president was pursuing a peace agreement in paris, and we had the north vietnamese, the south vietnamese, et cetera. and the president really thought he was going to reach an agreement. around about that time, our intelligence sources intercepted a phone call from vice president agnew's campaign stop in albuquerque, new mexico, to madam chenault in washington. and shortly thereafter, madam chenault had a phone call to the president of south vietnam which in essence said hold off, nixon will give you a better deal.
and all of a sudden the negotiations came to a halt. >> to basically undercutting president johnson? >> that's right. of course, the president was furious at this. he did have -- i had talked to brice harlow, who was very close to mr. nixon. and basically tell him that this is going to -- if this happens again, it's going to be totally publicized. president johnson decided not to leak this or tell this to anyone. >> why? >> he said that if nixon were elected any way, he would be impeached right off the bat, because this is a treasonable offense. and he did not want to see the presidency or that institution disrupted that way. that was the main reason. so he didn't tell anybody. very few people even knew about this. but it did -- in my judgment, had that not happened, we would
have had a peace agreement before the president left office. >> we get the impression through history that it was a tortured last year for lyndon johnson, but you were with him. what was his mood? what was he like? what was going through his mind in regard to vietnam, the election of '68, and the assassination of dr. king, and later senator robert kennedy? >> it was a very, very tough year. first of all, in january, right off the bat, you had two instances that caused real problems. one was the capture of the sort pueblo, the sort of spy ship we had off north korea. and the other was the tet offensive, which was, in military terms, the north vietnamese were defeated, but in political terms, it was such a
shock that back here, it was considered as a win for north vietnam. so those two start off the year, and then when you get to april 1, april 2, dr. king was assassinated. then robert kennedy assassination june 4th or 6th, so it was a very disruptive year and that -- those events caused more demonstrations and more disruptive demonstrations where property and what have you was destroyed. and so there was nothing -- there was nothing settled about that particular year. >> what were his personal feelings towards bobby kennedy? >> he never expressed them to me or to those around us. but we knew what his feelings
were. he felt that bobby kennedy would not have been elected in '64 in new york had johnson not had such a landslide victory up there. he felt that bobby kennedy was constantly undermining him and disrespecting him. and he felt that bobby kennedy was different from either jack kennedy or ted kennedy whom he liked each of those brothers. so what all went into that and that feeling -- those bad feelings happened before i worked for the president and i can't comment on that, i don't know. but it was a very strained relationship. i know that -- i think it was early april, because after the president announced he was not going to run for re-election we had bobby kennedy -- and ted sorensen down to the white house
and the president met with them in the cabinet room. and he was very stern with him. basically lecturing -- the president lecturing bobby kennedy on not doing things that's going to interrupt or disrupt a movement towards a peace settlement in vietnam. you can tell then that the two people did not have the warmest of relationships. >> of course, that settlement did not take place in 1968. >> right. >> take us back to the evening of march 31st. the speech is over. you're in the white house. paint a picture. what was it like? what was lady bird johnson saying to president johnson, what was the interactions with president johnson, what are you seeing and hearing? >> well, after the speech the president went into the little office off the oval office and received and made phone calls. one of the interesting phone calls was to nelson rockefeller, because -- or rockefeller to
him because he was the governor of new york. johnson had developed a warm relationship with governor rockefeller and had encouraged him on this night to run for election. that -- i suspect of all the people who are running the one that president johnson thought might be the best successor to him was nelson rockefeller which is an interesting observation. lady bird johnson was absolutely elated because she felt he should not run. she had felt that for quite a while. and so she and the daughters were both just congratulating and feeling very warm. the president having wrestled with this decision for months felt really relieved that the decision was made. his step was much lighter.
his attitude was much brighter. and so i think he was relieved. i was handling phone calls mostly to -- lulu bank was first who called and she was distraught. i had to talk to vice president humphrey. i had called -- we had several cabinet secretaries on the same airplane going to asia. i think it was to japan for some sort of a conference. i called dean rusk the secretary of state and i told him what the president had done and his response was thank you very much. so he just took it in stride. he was a person of few words anyway. so i was taking those calls and to different members of the congress, to let them know. so it was -- it was a happy feeling. and as i say it was almost as
though president johnson was on his way out of jail because he always felt in that particular year, he always felt very confined by the white house. and so it was a feeling of freedom. >> one other conversation on to the evening of march 31st. this is with willard werts who served as the labor secretary. let's listen. >> mr. president -- >> yes, bill, how are you? glad to hear you. >> that was the greatest contribution to peace in all of history. >> well, i hope so. we sure have been working it. >> and it's magnificent. beyond that, i only want to tell you that at the right time i'll be doing everything in my power to reverse that decision. i think i'm smart enough to know that right now is not the time. i don't want you to say anything, but i want you to know how i feel. >> it's not reversible, but god
bless you. i'm grateful to you. >> it puts you in a position to do what woodrow wilson wasted the opportunity to do and you're a great man. >> thank you, you're a wonderful colleague. you have been a great source of strength to me in every way. >> you're a great man. >> thank you. >> president johnson with his labor secretary. again, it's important to underscore this was a shock to the nation. it stunned the world. >> right. and to his cabinet and to most of the people who were in government. it was really a well kept secret and bill was a wonderful person. he was president kennedy brought him in as labor secretary and he stayed on with president johnson for the whole kennedy/johnson eight years. and he was just a very wise person and a very decent person. and very smart. >> james jones, i have to ask you about these recordings
because we air them every saturday on c-span radio. >> right. >> and it is often the most commented part of the programming is people listen to the inner workings of the johnson white house. as you listen to the tapes, what are your thoughts? >> well, president johnson wanted the tapes and he wanted them for several reasons. probably his own self-protection, number one. but he was -- interesting thing about president johnson, his motivation was history. how would history record his administration and his presidency, and he wanted that for history. and when we left office, he said at the appropriate time he wants these released because he wants -- he wants the american people to see his administration as he said with the hide off, both the worst and the good things that
the administration did so that they could really assess his administration. and these tapes were -- one of the things that i find wonderful about them, lyndon johnson was not a good television person. he never warmed up to a camera. he would warm up wonderfully, very much so with people face-to-face. he was very much a people person. but on camera, he was very stiff and did not come across well. and when people would say you know they have their negative opinion of him after he had made an address on television or what have you, i would say i wish you could see the johnson that we see privately. he is warm, he's funny. he's smart. he is very committed and -- but you don't see that on television because he's too intimidated by the camera and how people might perceive him. he did not want to be perceived as some corn pone politician.
he wanted to be perceived equal to what he believed the office of the presidency should be. and what those tapes have done is to be able to show the lyndon johnson that we got to know privately in a way that would not have been able without the tapes. >> and finally, at the time you were 28 years old in march of 1968, as you reflect 50 years later that moment where johnson announced that he was not seeking re-election and the events that followed in the days after, what were you thinking? >> well, i did not -- it's interesting because i grew up in a town in oklahoma. muskogee, oklahoma. my dad was a rural postal carrier, rural mail carrier. it's the kind of thing that just happens. i had no preordained reason to be at the white house, but i was so busy and there were so many
things that could go wrong that i never really got to think about what it was like to be there. the only one time it was is one time in that year, actually, that we -- i was called from the situation room and there were some sort of -- i don't remember the issue now but there was a situation report on the foreign activities that i felt i had to wake up the president. it was about 2:00 in the morning. i felt i had to come down and wake up the president and give him this message. as i was walking through the mansion in the family corridors upstairs, i looked at some of the portraits up there on the walls and i thought -- that was the only time i was able to say, what are you doing here? aren't you a lucky, lucky guy? and so i really didn't try to
analyze what am i -- what's this all about. i was just scrambling to get everything done. >> james jones served as president johnson's appointment secretary, equivalent today to white house chief of staff and went on to serve in the u.s. house of representatives and the u.s. ambassador to mexico. thank you for stopping by the studios. >> thank you. >> it's book tv in prime time, beginning thursday at # p.m. eastern, a discussion on immigration and race relations from the recent tucson festival of books. after that tasha takes viewer phone calls on immigration, and then a discussion on political candidates and elections from the writers festival in california. later from the savannah book festival journalist seleste headily offers communication strategies in her book, "we need to talk." and catherine smith discusses
her book "the gatekeeper." book tv thursday at 8:00 p.m. eastern on c-span 2. and american history tv, the 75th anniversary of the world war ii battle, and we'll show you a discussion from military historian on the american defeat in tunisia. that event tack place at the national museum in new orleans. it's american history tv thursday night starting at 8:00 p.m. eastern here on c-span 3. >> sunday night on q & a, high school students from around the country were in washington, d.c. for the senate youth program. we met with them where they shared their thoughts about government and politics. >> and i'm really passionate about daca. it is unfair that 7000,000 womens lives and children hang
in the balance. it's a human rights issue. >> the notion that we're the only country in the world that's not in the paris climate accord is a travesty. every other country in the world has recognized the detrimental impact of climate change and have taken steps to address it. >> we are the richest nation in the world, and yet we have citizens who go bankrupt trying to cover basic health care costs, and i think that is an outrage and that we should be ashamed. >> sunday night at 8:00 eastern on c-span's q & a. >> in a televised speech from the oval office president lyndon johnson announced steps to limit