In July 1964, the Republican party nominated Senator Barry Goldwater as the candidate to unseat President Lyndon Johnson. The ultra-conservative Arizona senator, whose radical right-wing rantings alienated scores of voters, never had a chance. Polls indicated that Lyndon Johnson would retain the White House by a large margin.
Despite the optimism of polls and pundits, Lyndon Johnson appeared unsure about his suitability for the office of the presidency. For months he had expressed to trusted friends and aides his feelings of anxiety about the legitimacy of his presidency. People close to Johnson spoke of how he often voiced grave doubts about his effectiveness and reputation, only to bask in delight as others reassured him of his political brilliance. In her journals, Lady Bird Johnson referred to this pattern of behavior as "the same old refrain." Still, as the summer of 1964 approached, there was much uncertainty as to Johnson's plans for the future
On August 25, 1964, the day after the Democratic Convention opened in Atlantic City, Johnson was so troubled he even drafted a speech announcing his intention to pull out of the race. Stunned aides attempted to talk him out of his decision to withdraw. Finally, Lady Bird, appealed to his sense of courage and duty, reminding him of the work left to be done. The country needed him, his wife assured. Lyndon Johnson heeded her advice and accepted his party's nomination.
With the nomination in hand, Johnson turned his attention to the selection of a running mate. Many democrats hoped Johnson would choose Robert Kennedy, the former president's younger brother. But Johnson was faced with a dilemma -- he and Kennedy were political enemies. The disdain the two man held for each other went back to the days when Robert Kennedy was managing his brother's presidential campaign and grew during Johnson's tenure as vice-president. Kennedy felt Johnson's presidency lacked legitimacy and saw LBJ merely as a usurper of his brother's glory. Johnson feared that Kennedy would use the vice-presidency solely to solidify his own base of support for a challenge in 1968. Johnson had to find a way to get Kennedy's name off the "short list" of potential vice-presidential candidates without alienating Kennedy supporters. Kennedy would have to remove his own name from consideration.
Johnson and Kennedy, not surprisingly, provided differing accounts about how Kennedy's name was removed from the list of possible vice-presidential candidates. The end result, however, was the same -- Robert Kennedy would not be sharing the ticket with Lyndon Johnson.
Following the convention, Johnson appeared re-energized. He barnstormed the nation, greeting enthusiastic crowds wherever he went. The more they cheered, the more animated and impassioned Johnson became. As election day drew near, Johnson decided just winning would not be enough -- the "accidental president" wanted a landslide. An overwhelming victory would allow Johnson to step out from under the shadow of John Kennedy. And, he yearned to be president of "all the people." He came quite close -- Johnson crushed Goldwater by over 16 million votes, winning 61 percent of the popular vote.
Lyndon Johnson's resounding election in 1964 was accompanied by the election, or re-election, of 28 Democratic senators and 295 Democratic representatives. The heavily Democratic make-up of the 89th Congress prompted some observers to claim that the U.S. now had a "one-and-a-half party system." Johnson would take full advantage of this lopsided alignment to push for his ambitious Great Society programs.
Almost four years later Johnson retreated from the political spotlight, as he had once threatened to do in 1964. In a nationally televised address Lyndon Johnson startled the country by declaring, "...I shall not seek, and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president." With that announcement, LBJ ended one of the most colorful political careers in the nation's history.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?