Classic Royko: Why President Johnson called it quits
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Editor’s note: On March 31, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would not run for reelection. Mike Royko, then writing for the Chicago Daily News, weighed in the next day. Of all the vintage Royko columns we’ve run each Monday over the last few months, this one feels the most dated. We’d liked to know your thoughts on that. Please write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There were those who screamed with a vicious joy when President Johnson, in that slow, sad way of his, said he is not running again.
There were others who reacted with sullen cynicism, asking what his angle is.
The white racists said “good.” The black racists said “good.” The super-hawks said good and the doves said good. And most of all, the young said good.
They were all so busy being jubilant in this strong man’s terrible moment that many didn’t listen to the serious thing he told them.
The president of the United States told the people of the United States they are so divided against themselves he dares not take part in a political campaign for fear that it could get even worse.
But they answered, many of them, with one last jeer of contempt and hatred.
It figured. Unrestrained hatred has become the dominant emotion in this splintered country. Races hate, age groups hate, political extremes hate. And when they aren’t hating each other, they have been turning it on LBJ. He, more than anyone else, has felt it.
The white racists, those profoundly ignorant women who toss eggs at school buses, blamed him for the very existence of the Negro. To them he was a “n—- lover.”
The black separatists could find no insult too vile to be used on him. To them he was a white racist. That he launched some of the most ambitious civil rights legislation in the nation’s history means nothing in a time when black scholars say Abe Lincoln was the worst kind of bigot.
The super-hawks complained that he wasn’t killing the Viet Cong fast enough.
The doves portrayed him as engaging in war almost for the fun of it.
And the young, that very special group, were offended by him in so many, many ways.
For one thing, he was old. They might have forgiven him that if he had at least acted young. But he acted like a harassed, tremendously busy, impatient man with an enormous responsibility. Just like their old man.
He offended them by failing to pander to them, by not fawning over them and telling them that they were the wise ones, that they had the answers, that they could guide us. He didn’t tell them that because he was the man charged with running the country, not them.
He offended others by engaging in an “unjust” war. Their collective conscience rebelled against the “unjust” war. So they portrayed him as the eager murderer of babies. Just how many of these conscience-tormented young men are more tormented by the thought of being rousted out of bed at 4 a.m. by a drill sergeant than by the thought of a burned village, we’ll never know.
And he offended many by his lack of style and wit, his sore-footed hound dog oratory.
So the abuse he took from all was remarkable. Presidents, like all politicians, have to take abuse. It is within the rules of the game to criticize them, to spoof them, to assail them.
But there may not have been anything in our history to compare with what has been tossed at President Johnson in the last four years.
A play that says he arranged the murder of John F. Kennedy has been a hit with the intellectuals, and those who think they are.
A somewhat popular publication of satire called “The Realist” printed something so obscene about him that I can’t find a way to even hint at it.
High government officials were hooted down when they tried to represent the administration point of view on campuses, those temples of free speech.
Every smart punk grabbed a sign and accused him of being in a class with Hitler or Richard Speck. The nation’s nuts vowed to come to Chicago during the convention and turn it into anything from an outdoor orgy to a historic riot as their contribution to the democratic process.
He needed more personal protection than any president in history. That can’t feel very good. But it was necessary. We have people who burn cities and many others who go to movies and howl with glee at the violent scenes.
If you live in a big city, you see the hate that threatened it. He lived in the whole country and looked at it all. And he couldn’t see a way to unite it.
Maybe he wasn’t the best president we might have had.
But we sure as hell aren’t the best people a president has ever had.
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