March 1968

March 1968

President Johnson searches for answers before making a surprise announcement

Jump to entry for March 13, 15, 20, 22, 23 (three calls), 24 (two calls), 31

March 13

Richard Daley with Richard Nixon
Richard J. Daley with President Richard Nixon, February 1970

Continuing their discussion of a possible presidential commission on Vietnam that might head-off an insurgent campaign by Sen. Robert F. "Bobby" Kennedy [D–New York], President Johnson and Chicago mayor Richard J. "Dick" Daley considered LBJ’s idea of simply inviting RFK to meet with Clark M. Clifford, the new secretary of defense.

Tape: WH6803-02-12812-12813, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Daley


John V. Lindsay
John V. Lindsay, April 1963
President Johnson: Now, I would be very glad to select a group of independent folks. I'd want to sit down with Clifford and with Rusk and with my better people, like CIA [Central Intelligence Agency], and figure out who we could get that would be of value. Every time you appoint one of these committees, you get more than you can do anything about. For instance, I—Kennedy—Jack Kennedy spent 9 billion [dollars] on the cities in his last federal budget in '64. This year I've got 22 in there. [Daley acknowledges.] Yet [Robert F.] Bobby [Kennedy] [D–New York] says I'm not doing enough. Yet the Congress is going to cut about 5 [billion] out of what I've got, and I'm fighting to hold it. The Kerner Commission made a very exhaustive study and spent a couple of million dollars, but they recommended that I spend 80 million and I got no place to get the 80. [Daley acknowledges.] I can't borrow it. I can't tax it. I can't get a tax bill of any kind, and they didn't discuss that. That's the detail they didn't get into. And Bobby just gave them hell today for not carrying out the Kerner Commission study. Well, I—I didn't realize when I appointed [Otto J.] Kerner [Jr.] that this son of a bitch from New York, [John V.] Lindsay, would take charge.
Daley: Yeah.
President Johnson: He did take charge—
Daley: Yes, he did.
President Johnson: —and he recommended I hire two-and-a-half million people on federal payroll, and I just—I've not wanted to reflect on Kerner and criticize the commission. At the same time, I couldn't embrace it because I've got a budget. When I came in, Kennedy had a budget of 97 billion [dollars]. My budget tonight's 187 [billion dollars].
Daley: Yeah.
Robert Kennedy campaigning
Robert F. Kennedy, June 1968. Photo: Evan Freed
President Johnson: Now, that's what's happened in four years. And I've got to have some fiscal solvency, and I can't have it unless I have a tax bill. But Bobby said today that I'm not—I'm not doing enough for the cities. Well, I want to do everything a human can if they'll give me any money, but I— Now, the trouble with a commission—you appoint one and, by gosh, they're liable to recommend to you something that you'll have to turn over and knock down. It'll hurt you worse unless you're careful. Now, I think I could get a fellow like [McGeorge "Mac"] Bundy, that they wanted yesterday, and maybe a fellow even like Sorensen, who's strong for Bobby. I'm—I have terrible fears that if I appointed candidates, they: (a) the Republicans wouldn't serve; (b) the candidates, [Eugene J. "Gene"] McCarthy [D–Minnesota] and the rest of them, I think, would think I was trying to trap them political. And I'm afraid the country would think it was political, but it's something I want to consider, and I want to talk to him about. But it seems to me, knowing Bobby—he came down to see me once before, and before he comes, his press men tell all the press.
Daley: I see.
President Johnson: They get here before he does. There are at least a hundred out waiting at the door.
Daley: Oh, yeah.
President Johnson: He comes in. When he goes out, he's got to make his case. [Daley acknowledges throughout.] It's usually a reflection on me. Then they all come in to me. I have to make my case, and it gets back at him. 
. . .
President Johnson: Now, the California demand is not as much from California as it is from him, Dick. He is—
Daley: Yeah.
President Johnson: He is calling everybody. [Daley acknowledges.] He called Nebraska today. They all called—
Daley: He's getting panicky after this thing in New Hampshire.
President Johnson: Well, he did it before, Dick. Here's what he did. He told [Philip A.] Phil Hart [D–Michigan] last Thursday—Thursday a week—last Thursday. A friend of mine heard him tell Phil Hart. Now, we didn't get it secondhand [Daley acknowledges throughout] that he was going to announce as soon as New Hampshire was over with. That he had to announce, and he was going to do it. [R. Sargent] Shriver, who is wanting to go to Paris, called up and asked that his appointment be announced not later than Tuesday—this was about Sunday—because he had a bet with his wife and—that he knew Bobby was going to announce. Now, we had those two direct pieces of evidence. In addition, he went out to California, presumably to see this Mexican who was fasting, this striker, this Cesar Chavez.

. . .

President Johnson: And I've got to be careful in anything I do that it's not done publicly, so Hanoi won't think I'm running out [Daley acknowledges] or caving or that they are having pressure on me.
Daley: Yeah.
President Johnson: The Soviets, Bobby sees them pretty regularly. He goes in and out, and they come in and out of his office, the Embassy here. And they relay their stuff to Hanoi. And I wouldn't want them to think that I—he was pressuring me and that I was weakening.
Daley: Yeah.
President Johnson: Because I think it would keep them from ever doing business with us at a conference table if they think they can do it without—if they can beat the boys here in Washington by making me crumble, there's no use in beating them out there, you know.
Daley: That's right.
President Johnson: And this is a difficult thing to do to a president in time of war
[Recording and annotated transcript of this complete call]

March 15

Lyndon Johnson signing autograph
Lyndon Johnson on the campaign trail, October 1964

With Sen. Robert F. "Bobby" Kennedy’s announcement of his  presidential candidacy seemingly unstoppable (it would come a day later), LBJ and Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley discussed final negotiations with the Kennedy camp—and the pending struggle for the nomination.

Tape: WH6803-02-12817, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Daley


Richard J. "Dick" Daley: I said, "I hope you'd give a lot of thought to this thing. I hope you wouldn't just rush into it because of the incident in New Hampshire, because," I said, "you remember four years ago, [Henry Cabot] Lodge [Jr.] won a great victory in New Hampshire." And I said, "When it came to the convention and the nomination, he wasn't there." And I said, "However, this is a decision you have to make. It's one that you're going to have to do a lot of thinking about, and you should do a lot of soul-searching, because it's one that's going to not only affect our party, it's going to affect our country." Well, he was going to try to talk again with his people. But if I were making a prediction, I would say that I think he's going to go. I think he's [President Johnson starts to interject] going to go into the California situation.
President Johnson: I believe he is. I believe he's made that decision, and I believe that he wanted to be able to say that he tried his best to—
. . . 
Nguyễn Văn Thiệu
Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, president of the Republic of South Vietnam, March 1967
Daley: And I said, "Now, as to what happens in the future, you always want to remember that today might be one occasion and," I said, "surely the whole Vietnam situation looks pretty bad today. It did in the last couple of weeks. But," I said, "these things can change." And I said, "Then what's going to happen?" Well, he thinks there should be change in the South Vietnamese government, the corruption and the fact that 10 percent of the population owns the land, and all that. I said, "I think the President has all these things on mind. I don't think—in mind. I don't think he's for perpetuating a corrupt government. I don't think he's perpetuating a government in which there's no freedom or liberty." I said, "I think the President is just as strong for freedom and liberty in South Vietnam as anyone else. And I think he's just as interested in ending corruption in South Vietnam." But I said, "What the hell? He can't do it himself, and he can't do it overnight." And I said, "He's trying the best he can." And I said, "I just was hoping that in this kind of a situation involving our country, we'd have a lot of unity of our people. We have enough disunity," I said, "outside of our party. And surely we all have a right and you have a right and anyone else has a right to go out and assert himself and discuss the issues and debate the issues. This is what America's made of. But," I said, "I would hope that we could do that in the convention, and we didn't have to do it in these primaries." And I said, "Hell, you can win all the primary states you might enter into, but still you have to get the delegates in the convention." Well, he was going to talk again last night with his people. But if I were making a prediction, I would think that he has already made this decision, and he was just—Although, he said, "This is—this doesn't involve the presidency, as far I'm concerned. I'm very much involved in principle and in conscience. I think that what's happening here is something that's hurting us in the world, it's hurting us at home, it's hurting us every other place, and I'm just anxious and trying to resolve it someplace." I said, "Well—"
President Johnson: I agree—
Daley: "—so is the President."
President Johnson: Yes. I agree with all those statements. And I feel them, I expect as much as he does, in conscience, and I'm . . . I'm . . . I'm trying now to figure out some way that we can get the Russians a little more active to try to see if they will exert any of their pressures at all, since they're furnishing this equipment, to try to force these people to talk. [Daley acknowledges.] They can't do it as long as they think they can—
. . .
President Johnson: They talk about the cities. Goddamn it, I've got 22 billion [dollars] up there for the cities they haven't touched!
Daley: Yeah.
President Johnson: They haven't even had a hearing on it!
Daley: I talked to him about that. I said, "Well, you talk about the cities." I said, "You must admit that no one has done more for the cities than the present man occupying the White House. Now," I said, "granted, all of us recognize the old story: 'You haven't done enough.'" But I said, "Hell, he's having trouble and had trouble with the Congress in passing what he's even proposing. Now, it's one thing to talk about billions of dollars. It's another thing to show someone where you're going to get it."
. . . 
Daley: Just like you're saying here. [President Johnson acknowledges throughout.] They don't get it if these other people keep saying, "Well, we've got to do—the cities are on fire and there's this great crucial revolution at home. What are they doing?" But no one is telling them about the amount of money that you've put into the cities and the amount of money you have up there for the Model Cities, the fact that it took them [television begins playing in the background] two or three months to get the rodent program through when you asked for this kind of money for the cities. All of these things have to be brought forward because, as you say, we're living in such an age, people forget from one day to another what's happening.
President Johnson: That's right, and I've got to take you and [Richard J.] Dick Hughes and John [B.] Connally and a few of you and just have a good solid wall, which I think we will have. I'll get [Hubert H.] Humphrey [Jr.]—
Daley: And you got to have an offense, too. There's no use in just sitting and letting people shoot at you.
President Johnson: All right.
Daley: We've got to lay out an offense and go ahead and carry out our offense.
President Johnson: All right. We'll do that, Dick.
Daley: I'll be in touch with you, Mr. President.
President Johnson: Thank—
Daley: Good luck to you.
President Johnson: Thank you, Dick.
[Recording and annotated transcript of this complete call]

March 20

Lyndon Johnson with Walter Reuther
Walter Reuther meets with Lyndon Johnson, November 1963

In a call with United Auto Workers (UAW) president Walter Reuther, who had recently questioned the president’s priorities during a speech to the UAW convention, LBJ tried desperately to hold his fragile coalition together.

Tape: WH6803-02-12824-12825, Lyndon Johnson and Walter Reuther


President Johnson: But, we have the responsibility. Now, you've got to be responsible, too, and I know your board will give you hell, and I get hell from all of my people all the time. But this is a period and a time—These boys can't get this nomination; they're not going to get it. We're going to take these states, and they're not going to come close to it. They'll win some primaries, [Reuther acknowledges] because I don't have much time to make calls like this. I'm just fighting my heart out to, by God, on the monetary question. I'm doing my best to keep them from cutting my budget 20 billion [dollars]. That's the present demand to cut it, and if I’d let it come to a vote, that's exactly what the Republicans and the southerners would do to me, while the liberals are cutting at me. I've got the problem of Vietnam; I've got the Middle East; they're building up to beat hell; they're pouring the arms to the Arabs. We have no mutual security pact. We have no treaty. I don't know what I could do if they called on me, yet they are calling on me and I've got to give them some assistance, and I'm doing it on my own, while [J. William "Bill"] Fulbright [D–Arkansas], who is not strictly one of your type of liberals, is giving me hell every second, and then going in and voting against open housing out in the open. Now, I've got my southern defectors, because I have been the first man that ever passed things like open housing, and they gave me a big reverse yesterday in the damn Rules Committee because [William] Colmer of Mississippi. But I delivered and changed five separate people, and [Philip A.] Phil Hart [D–Michigan] will tell you, on open housing. Now, if I can't have fellows like you in this presidency, well, then, by God, they can take [Richard M. "Dick"] Nixon, or somebody. But I've just got to have you stand up when the going's tough, because when you got your back to the wall, I come to you, and I stand there. And when you've got your strikes on, by God, you know that you got a friend. And I want you to tell the [Emil] Mazeys and the rest of them that I'm no goddamn fascist; I'm trying to settle this thing. [Reuther acknowledges.] I'll take anybody's suggestion. If you've got a plan, anybody that wants it considered, we'll sure get it in. But I can't force this man to talk to me and agree.
Lyndon Johnson and J. William Fulbright
Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright meets with President Johnson, May 1968
Reuther: Sure. Well, you can—look, Mr. President, you can be sure. As I told Hubert, we have been a constructive force, a responsible force, and we're going to continue to be that. And I made very clear, I said to that board yesterday, and I believe this deep in my heart, that nobody wants peace more than you do. You're carrying the heavy burdens of your office, and God only knows it’s a impossible task.
President Johnson: Now, Walter, we’re going to get it. It’s not—we're not—anybody can get a [A. Neville] Chamberlain peace for 30 days. I could do that and say, "OK, we'll cave in here." But it just moves right into Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, immediately. They're doing it now.
Reuther: Sure.
President Johnson: And you're going to have a Chamberlain peace or you're going to have a [Winston] Churchill one. Now, that doesn't mean that—the moment I think that they think that I am not going to have to cave here, I think we can have a discussion, because we're already doing it, and the Russians want them to. [Reuther acknowledges throughout.] But the Chinese are a little more belligerent, and we just kind of have to wait till we bring that force around. Now, I want to give you three things for your board, if they want to talk about something. When I came into this office, [Dwight D.] Eisenhower would—had spent 9 billion [dollars] for the poor; [John F. "Jack"] Kennedy had raised it to 12.13 My budget, that needs some of their help right now, and their concern, for the poor, is 28 billion. [Pause.] Nine, 12, and 28. Now, just write that down. [Reuther acknowledges.] When I came into this office, for education, health, welfare, social security, Eisenhower was spending; Kennedy moved it to 24. My budget this year has got 48 in it. [Pause.] Now, I think those figures speak for themselves.
Reuther: I do, too.
President Johnson: And I've got a million people voting in the South [who have] never voted before. I’ve got the accommodations where they can eat, and where they can sleep, and now, nobody thought I’d get 20 votes for open housing. I passed it through the House, passed it through the Senate, with not a vote to spare. Cloture was 65 to 32. Now, that's where I need their help, and, of course, they're concerned about the war, and I am, too. Both daughters' both husbands are going out, one of them [Patrick J. Nugent] is going to Hué, and the other’s [Charles S. "Chuck" Robb] going to Danang, right there in the middle of it. God knows I'm more concerned than anybody. I've got everybody in the country talking to me. I've got [Edwin O.] Reischauer in for two hours, two weeks ago. I've got Tommy Thompson writing me memos. I've got every human being. [Reuther acknowledges.] But this is something that—[President Franklin D.] Roosevelt couldn't end the war with [Adolf] Hitler, by God, just on a chosen day, and I can't end it either. Now, I'm not spreading it. I've been fighting it out there for four long years, without involving China and Russia, and that's some little feat in itself. And without invading North Vietnam or Cambodia. But if I have to play those rules and play it safe, I can't wipe them out that quick. . . .
[Recording and annotated transcript of this complete call]

March 22

Lyndon Johnson with Richard Russell
Lyndon Johnson and Richard Russell, December 1963

In this conversation with Senate Armed Services Committee chair Richard B. "Dick" Russell Jr., President Johnson expressed his concern about the gathering momentum of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign.

Tape: WH6803-03-12830, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Russell


President Johnson: Now, [Robert F.] Bobby [Kennedy] [D–New York] is storming these states and these governors and switching them and switching the bosses all over the country, and a pretty blitz, ruthless operation. "If you don't do this, I'll defeat you." And he's doing it with candidates for the Senate and things of that kind. [Abraham A. "Abe"] Ribicoff [D–Connecticut] kind of backed away from the endorsement yesterday.
Russell: I was amazed at that. I saw it on television.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy
Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, June 1963
President Johnson: Well, they both started this riot business two years ago on television, saying they're going to—if they didn't do something they're going to take the cities and they've been encouraging it. And Bobby's been hiring Martin Luther King [Jr.], raising money for him for two years. We've been watching it. But they're a good deal—they're doing that a good deal. They're going to beat hell out of us in Wisconsin, as you could imagine from our . . . from the type of votes you have there. They do the same thing in California.
. . .
President Johnson: Well, there's been a great shift of sentiment, unless I'm misinformed, from what I see in the wires and the letters. Just nearly everybody since he got in and started speaking to these student groups around the country, just thinks we've played hell and we ought to get out right quick. It's the worst thing I've ever seen.
Russell: [Coughs.] Well, I . . . I don't think everybody does by a whole lot.
President Johnson: No. No, but I think there's been a good shift of sentiment is what I'm saying.
Russell: Oh, oh.
President Johnson: I think since the Tet Offensive, then followed by [Eugene J.] McCarthy's [D–Minnesota] New Hampshire [Democratic presidential primary] victory [sic], then followed by Bobby's play, then followed by their speeches up there, and our general resurvey trying to determine what to do, and all of the leaks. The civilians in the Defense Department are almost treasonable, Dick.
[Recording and annotated transcript of this complete call]

March 23

Lyndon Johnson with Earle Wheeler
Lyndon Johnson and General Earle "Bus" Wheeler, March 27, 1968

During a conversation with Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Earle G. "Bus" Wheeler, President Johnson emphasized the need for new ideas on Vietnam in order to blunt the momentum of Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign.

Tape: WH6803-03-12834, Lyndon Johnson and Earle Wheeler


President Johnson: Yeah, you can get in, you won't have—any time you want to see me, you just tell [W.] Marvin Watson and when it's convenient. You won't have to hang around very long. [Wheeler acknowledges throughout.] You just come on—we'll just work it in. I want to see you as quick as you get back. Abrams, too. I've got to find some alternatives to turn some of this thing around a little bit. If we don't, we're going to be in trouble. And Vietnam is the only thing, and it's just murdered me. Gallup this morning gives the young man [Robert F. "Bobby" Kennedy] who wants to capitulate, 44 to 41 to us. And that's just—it's just happened in three weeks here. We're way down, and he's up just on Vietnam, and we've got—the publicity's been bad. We've lost everything, we didn't know it was going to happen, we got caught and most of it's lies, but anyway it's out and the press is just not with us as anybody must see that turns it on.

And Vietnam is the only thing, and it's just murdered me.

[Recording and annotated transcript of this complete call]

Lyndon Johnson on the phone
Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office, June 1968

In contrast to the concern he had expressed in his conversation with Earle “Bus” Wheeler, President Johnson seemed confident about his prospects in a race against Robert F. Kennedy in this conversation with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

Tape: WH6803-03-12835, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Daley


Richard J. "Dick" Daley: —our county central committee together, 80 of them, and they are, up to a man, they said, "We'd welcome a primary. Let him come in here."
President Johnson: Well, God bless you.
Daley: Both of them have ducked it, you know.

We have 160 and he has 8, and they're from Massachusetts and New York, and most of them are real extreme reform left-wingers.

President Johnson: You and [Richard J.] Dick Hughes and Pennsylvania and Texas, and I don't think we'll lose a single mountain state or a single southern state. And I think that—I counted the congressmen last night. We have 160 and he has 8, [Daley acknowledges] and they're from Massachusetts and New York, and most of them are real extreme reform left-wingers.
Daley: I see.
President Johnson: And I don't want anybody—
Daley: I think in a way it's a good thing. What the hell, they've been chafing at this thing. The more I think about it, you know, we were trying to hold off and trying to do everything, and I was trying to talk to [him], because I was giving him some sound advice.
President Johnson: You were, and everybody knew that.
Daley: Yeah. But I guess it's just as well, because he doesn't seem to be going any place. I don't know where he's going—
President Johnson: He's going to get a lot publicity, a lot of media treatment, a lot of—
Daley: Well, it's going to be to—As I said to him, all you're going to do is try to do is divide our party.
President Johnson: Going to have a lot of polls . . . he's always got three or four polls hired. But what we've got to do is this: we've got to have four men kind of be my board of directors, run this country. We got to get you and Dick Hughes of New Jersey, who is just as solid as a rock. We've got to get [Joseph M. "Joe"] Barr and [James H. J.] Tate of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.2 We were there yesterday, [Daley acknowledges] and they're just as solid as a rock. And if we can take—we've got Ohio at the moment; he's trying to buy it off, but we—if we can take Ohio and Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Texas, and New Jersey—
Daley: Hell, we're in.
President Johnson: —well, that's all of it, that's all of it.
Daley: I think it'll be a landslide. [Daley chuckles.]
[Recording and annotated transcript of this complete call]

Lyndon Johnson with Larry O'Brien
Lyndon Johnson meets with Lawrence O'Brien, April 1967

A little more than a week before he announced that he would not seek the Democratic nomination for president, LBJ appealed to postmaster general Lawrence F. "Larry" O'Brien Jr. to take charge of his campaign.

Tape: WH6803-04-12839-12840-12841, Lyndon Johnson and Lawrence O'Brien


President Johnson: That's what I want you to do. Now, if you want to leave the Post Office Department at twice your salary and do that, you do it; if you want to do it inside, you do it; if you want to do it from the White House lawn, if you want to do it from the President's bedroom, if you want to do it from the top of the Capitol, I don't know. You can explore all of those things, any way you want to do it. But I want you to do it. Now, if you don't want to do it, can't do it, or feel some reason why you oughtn't to do it—we had postmaster generals do this. [Dwight D.] Eisenhower has; [Franklin D.] Roosevelt has, others. It may be that the times have changed, maybe we oughtn't to. You're the one I want. Now, the only way you can know that is for me to tell you.
. . .
President Johnson: And, I mean, if you have to go to GSA [General Services Administration] or to [Clark M.] Clifford or whoever it is, just let them know that we're playing for keeps here, and let's wrap this thing up. And the only way Bobby will ever be president is for you to make him president. If you want to—
O'Brien: Did you see his comment today?
President Johnson: No, no. What'd he say?
O'Brien: Just looking at it here on the ticker . . . [reading] "Kennedy said today Johnson's decision—Westmoreland—indicate a new direction."
President Johnson: Well, that's good. [O'Brien acknowledges throughout.] Maybe that'd make him happy. I'm having all these folks in that he's talking about next week. I'm having [Matthew B. "Matt"] Ridgway in. I'm having [Cyrus R.] Vance in. I'm having [McGeorge "Mac"] Bundy in. I'm having [Henry Cabot] Lodge [Jr.] in. I'm having his friend [Maxwell D.] Max Taylor in. I'm going to sit here two days on these things and work on them. And all I've got to do is—if he'd just lay off of us just a little—I can't presidentially, publicly proclaim, like this boy [Theodore C. "Ted"] Sorensen wanted me to, that we have played hell, and that I'm transferring it to a commission headed by Senator Kennedy, because they would just holler a deal. And [Eugene J. "Gene"] McCarthy [D–Minnesota] would run us both crazy.
O'Brien: Yeah.
Edward Kennedy presents an award to Lyndon Johnson
Edward Kennedy presents the Joseph P. Kennedy Award to President Johnson, January 1964
President Johnson: So I just told him that. But I said, "I will be glad to have Senator Kennedy; I sent for [Edward M.] Teddy [Kennedy] [D–Massachusetts]. Got him in, and I sent his suggestions to everybody, the Joint Chiefs, and told them to carry them out. And I don't have any trouble dealing with him. But Sorensen went back, and I don't know what the hell happened. I just said, "We can't—the President can't proclaim it, because it would be a deal, but I'll listen to any of them that want to." I made Joe Califano go sit in Bobby's office on the cities message three weeks ago. [O'Brien acknowledges.] And I called Bobby myself! Now, Bobby can be president, but he oughtn't to be president until he's 46. And I'm not trying to hurt him. And all he's got to do is just . . . he's going to defeat congressmen, senators, everybody else. If he beat me for the convention, he wouldn't get one vote in 25 states I can name. He'd just have—I've had some of the top men say, "My God, if you don't run, I'm going Republican. I don't care who it is!" He wouldn't do it. He'd be worse than [Alfred E.] Al Smith ever was, but he don't have to unless he just cuts us to pieces, and you're the only one that's going to bridge this gap. You're the only one that's going to—
. . .
President Johnson: If you could, you might want to—at 2:30 or 3:00—if I need you, run over and meet with these Cabinet officers on what we put together with the new Poverty-HUD-Labor program for some of these sample cities, like Dick wanted to put together today, where we got a little unification. You might tell them where you think they are wrong and where you think they're right, if you have a chance. [O'Brien acknowledges.] If you don't want to, you don't need to, but if you do, I'll have Marvin call you when we get together. I'm going to have Wirtz, the new poverty man, HUD if they're in town, and a few things like that.  
[Recording and annotated transcript of this complete call]

March 24

Henry Fowler
Henry H. "Joe" Fowler, September 1965. Photo: National Archives of The Netherlands

By March 24, President Johnson’s confidence had begun to fade. Faced with looming budget shortfalls, LBJ felt that he had to secure a 10 percent federal income tax surcharge. Conservatives in Congress, though, refused to support the tax increase unless Johnson agreed to cut domestic spending for his Great Society initiatives. In a conversation with Secretary of the Treasury Henry H. "Joe" Fowler, LBJ expressed his growing sense of political weakness: "I'm not master of a damn thing."

Tape: WH6803-05-12844-12845-12846-12847, Lyndon Johnson and Henry Fowler


President Johnson: [Pause.] No, I think it'd get out in the paper and just cause you lots of trouble. I don't think it's that strong. I think it'd be a good idea to have Mansfield meet with Russell in there. [Fowler acknowledges.] I just think that'd be bad, our meeting with his policy group, like Muskie and some of those folks there. I rather think before we do it, we ought to talk to our Cabinet about it, because I'm—my guess is they're going to come loose on it, unglued. The way I hear them talking and what I feel—I just don't believe that [Stewart L.] Udall and [Orville L.] Freeman and [Wilbur J.] Cohen and Wirtz and the poverty group and housing—I believe they're going to think that this is a reactionary Republican move that undoes all they've been fighting for. And that they ought to get a tax bill without having to cut them to pieces.
Fowler: Well, they just can't get it, Mr. President. That's the long and the short of it.
President Johnson: I think that's right, I think that's right.
George Smathers
George A. Smathers, 1963
Fowler: They just can't get it. That 12 to 5 vote when [George A.] Smathers [D-Florida] offered the tax bill in committee and we got two Republicans—I mean, two Democratic votes! [President Johnson acknowledges.] We got Smathers and—wait a minute, Smathers and Gore and Harris. Now, that's what we got.
President Johnson: Is Harris for cutting these things? That's what I'm—
Fowler: I don't know.
President Johnson: I don't see how he writes the civil disorders committee [unclear]—
Fowler: I don't know whether he will be or not. I haven't counted him.
President Johnson: He's raising hell about my not embracing this disorders committee report, you know. I don't know how I could be—
Fowler: Well, you hear, of course, from this constituency. And I know it's there. I know the concern about it. Of course, the constituency I hear from is just all the other way. And [Richard M. "Dick"] Nixon is preparing a blast for a speech on fiscal responsibility to tear the hide off.7 He's going to make a major issue of it.
President Johnson: I think that's right. I sure think he's there. [Fowler attempts to interject.] And I think that it's right with the Congress. It's not because we haven't—we can't make them do it. We've been abandoned.
Fowler: Well, you see, however, the—as I've told you, the trap that—the plan that Williams has made is to point out that you've got two-thirds of the Senate. You are the master of the Senate and always have been.
President Johnson: That's not—I'm not master of a damn thing. I haven't got anybody—
. . . 
President Johnson: These 32 that you're talking about, and when you add 22 more with them, which you're likely to, they'll just murder us. They'll say we took the baby's milk. We took these things. I don't mind cutting space and supersonics and stuff like that, but when you go to moving into this poverty area, they're already screwing me. They just murder me every day.
[Recording and annotated transcript of this complete call]

Wilbur Mills
Portrait of Wilbur Mills

A call with House Ways and Means Committee chairman Wilbur D. Mills  of Arkansas about the tax surcharge bill only further deepened President Johnson's despair about his ability to advance a policy agenda—and maintain the political support necessary for a campaign.

Tape: WH6803-05-12848, Lyndon Johnson and Wilbur Mills


Mike Mansfield
Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, April 1967
President Johnson: Because I'm not going to screw you. I'm going to [Mills acknowledges] put this on you. If you can't—if you don't think the country's going to hell, why, then, maybe it's not. Maybe I'm wrong. But I think it is. I think we're in the most dangerous thing I ever saw in my life, and I think it's going to blow right in our face and ruin all of us. And all of us go down together. And I may go down anyway, but all of us on this. I really honestly think that, and I don't think that I can take the lead in wrecking my programs. I just don't believe I can. I just don't believe I'll have any support. I don't think the southerners like me to begin with. I know damn well the Republicans are not going to like me. And if I run off all the regular Democrats, I'm in a hell of a shape. And I know what [Richard J.] Dick Hughes will do, and I know what [Richard J.] Dick Daley will do, and I know what Ohio and Pennsylvania and [Joseph M.] Joe Barr, head of the Mayors' Conference in Pittsburgh, will do.11 And if I just go out here and say I'm going to do it, I know what Meany will do. And that's about all the support I got left. And I sure as hell don't want to make you mad, and I . . . you and [Mike] Mansfield [D-Montana] and [Carl B.] Albert [D–Oklahoma] are kind of my leaders. And hell, if I ain't got you, I ain't got any leaders. I'm just a coach without any halfbacks out there on the field. I just tell them, "Go run play 29," but there ain't a damn human to pick it up. So, I can't win a game under those circumstances. Now, tell me what the hell to do.
Mills: Well, now, I told Joe the other day, I thought it might clear the air a little bit, if he had the votes, to get something adopted on this bill, with the understanding that it might be knocked out in conference. But once the Senate goes on record, I think it might help in the House some. It wouldn't help to do it right now, but within a few weeks it might. We just haven't got the votes in the House yet. But if the Senate takes this step, I think it might help us to clarify the air a little bit in the House.
President Johnson: What I'm afraid of is when we go to agreeing that we're going to cut these programs, and they have to—they get down and go to telling you look in—where are you going to do it, like I did with Meany. Now, some of it's coming out of poverty, Mr. Mills. Some of it's coming out of health, Mr. Mills. Some of it's coming out of education. Some of it's coming out of [Housing and Urban Development] HUD. Now, all them say you're not doing near enough, and I'm just catching hell from them. I'm catching hell from the New York group, and the Pennsylvania group, and the Illinois group—every one of them—California. Just saying that that's what's wrong with me: I will not support the cities. [Mills acknowledges.] Now, when they go to getting those figures, and it goes to coming out, I think that we're going to be further away because they're going to say, "Oh, we ain't going to cut that." I think the only way we're going to get it cut is like I did last year. When they get through, then—[Recording ends.] 
[Recording and annotated transcript of this complete call]

March 31

Abigail McCarthy
Abigail McCarthy

President Johnson did not record another call until the night of March 31, after he had stunned the nation with his announcement that "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president." Johnson accepted a call from Abigail McCarthy, the wife of Sen. Eugene J. "Gene" McCarthy [DFL–Minnesota], one of LBJ’s challengers for the Democratic nomination. 

Tape: WH6803-06-12853, Lyndon Johnson and Abigail McCarthy


White House Operator: —on the line, ma'am.
President Johnson: Hello?
Abigail Q. McCarthy: Hello?
President Johnson: Yes?
Eugene McCarthy
Eugene McCarthy, October 1966
McCarthy: Mr. President?
President Johnson: Yes.
McCarthy: This is Abigail McCarthy.
President Johnson: Oh, Abigail, how are you?
McCarthy: I am fine, Mr. President, but I am overcome with emotion, really. I don't see how you could have done this.
President Johnson: [speaking softly] Well, I just thought we had to do it because there's so much at stake that one little person like me doesn't—
McCarthy: You know you aren't one little person, Mr. President.
President Johnson: [Slight chuckle.] Well, I've got nine months now to do nothing except—I won't spend one moment doing anything except trying to find peace, and I thought that I—it was—I just thought I had to do it.
McCarthy: Well, I just want to tell you, you have my affection and respect, and I want you to tell Lady Bird [Johnson] how much I love her.
President Johnson: I sure will, dear, and I think it's awfully nice of you to call.
McCarthy: Well, I'm just—you know, I can hardly talk.
President Johnson: Well . . .
McCarthy: I mean, I remember another time like this with Mr. [Harry S.] Truman. And, Mr. President, really, that was—you know, it—it's just shocked us to our feet here, you know?

I won't spend one moment doing anything except trying to find peace, and I thought that I—it was—I just thought I had to do it.

President Johnson: Everything—everything will be better, and we'll have a lot of time to devote to what's really important. And after 37 years, you learn what is important. And the—I've just—I—
McCarthy: You know, Mr. President—you know, basically our friendship was never severed.
President Johnson: I hope not. I hope not.
McCarthy: Yes.
President Johnson: I don't want it to be.
[Recording and annotated transcript of this complete call]