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The Agony of Victory: Behind the Scenes on Election Night

President Lyndon B. Johnson at the 1964 presidential election night with reporters.

President Lyndon B. Johnson at the 1964 presidential election night with reporters. The president shows the Victory-Sign following his landslide election victory against republican candidate Barry Goldwater. November 3, 1964. Photo by Cecil Stoughton, PD.

President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney have campaigned formally for the better part of a year. When this election is over, the total amount spent by their campaigns or on their behalf will approach $2 billion. They have traveled with few reprieves, been coached for debates, and endured attacks from television advertising (which has been 87% negative overall). And, once it is finished, Obama or Romney will have to move past it—and presumably, govern.

With Election Day just one week away, we wondered how previous candidates have reacted and felt to the culmination of the campaign season. We dug into our archives here at the Miller Center and found phone conversations that provide a glimpse of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon on the eve of victory. Given the years LBJ and Nixon would endure following their success on election night, we are reminded that being up on the mountain and riding the tiger are each their own agony. Impending victory did not bring instant relief for Johnson and Nixon. Instead, election night conversations centered on the nerve of the opponent, the absence of complete victory, and one “sore hip.” This profoundly humanizing fact sheds light on the impending winner of November 6th, 2012.

In an phone conversation with McGeorge Bundy, LBJ noted how the constancy of the campaign had worn on him, but how it paid off:

“And we got a great country, and we got . . . we’re blessed and it was just a wonderful evening. It was a very touching evening, but I got so sore today. I didn’t realize how much I’d been doing and how high up on the mountain I’d been. I got—I’d been keyed too high.”

LBJ also called Hubert Humphrey, Bill Moyers, Dean Rusk, and McGeorge Bundy on election night November 3, 1964 complaining of head, back, and hip-aches: “I’m aching all over […] I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ve been in bed all day long.”

Election night, November 8th, 1972, had a similar tone—with complaints of physical pain replaced by Richard Nixon’s now-familiar vulgarity: “You know, this fellow [George McGovern, the Democratic presidential candidate] to the last was a prick. Did you see his concession statement?”

The conversations on these nights did, of course, include campaign “shop-talk”—with questions revolving around the veracity of early projections. But neither man seemed able to take his eye of the game in their sights. For Johnson, this meant talking to Humphrey about the scare tactics of the Negro Protective League:

“[they say] that any negro that goes to vote, that the Protective League just wants to inform them, as their friend, that if he’s ever had a traffic ticket, if he’s ever been under suspicion, if he’s ever been speeding, if he’s ever had an over-parking ticket, if he ever hadn’t paid his taxes on time, if he’s ever been discharged from employment, that he’ll have to report right away to the sheriff and that these things will have to be settled before he can clear his record to vote…Just the meanest, dirtiest, low-down stuff that I ever heard. Ought to go to jail for it. It’s just—it’s just inhuman.”

After a discussion of the considerable margin of victory they were likely to get, Nixon told Henry Kissinger, “all these left-wing columnists can do now is to piss on the not winning the Senate and the House and building the party, but they couldn’t care less about that.” He then dwelled on the Senate seats Republicans lost in 1972.

The personal qualities of these men might come as no surprise, but the basic fact of the 1964 and 1972 races put analysis in unfamiliar territory. The elections were landslides. Johnson received 486 of 538 electoral votes. Nixon’s opponent, George McGovern, managed only 17 votes. On election night, with margins of victory practically unthinkable for today, neither man seemed to have come down from the mountain that is a presidential campaign.

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