On a Sunday morning in 1968, Horace Busby—speechwriter and advisor to Lyndon Johnson during LBJ’s time in the House, the Senate, and the White House—was summoned to the president’s quarters to discuss a speech on pausing a massive bombing campaign in Vietnam. The televised speech interrupted that evening’s regular TV programming, ran for forty minutes, and included a “record scratch” moment, so to speak, that shocked the country:
“With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office — the presidency of this country.
Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”President Lyndon Baines Johnson, March 31, 1968
Ron Elving reported on the fiftieth anniversary of the speech in 2018 for Weekend Edition Sunday:
The speech Horace Busby helped the president shape on that Sunday fifty-five years ago today was a significant milestone during a very turbulent time in America. A week after LBJ’s announcement that he would not be seeking reelection, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Below, read speechwriter and advisor Horace Busby’s account of that day at the White House. The following excerpt has been edited for length. Read the full account in The Thirty-First of March: An Intimate Portrait of Lyndon Johnson by Horace Busby, officially publishing on April 11.
A Sunday at the White House
By Horace Busby, excerpted from The Thirty-First of March
Sunday, March 31, 1968, began drably. The sunshine and springtime of Saturday were gone. Overnight, winter had returned; sullen clouds sat low on the eastern horizon, shutting out the early sun, and the Maryland pastures lay gray and lifeless under the morning chill. My own mood matched the day.
At midnight, when the White House operator had called with the cryptic message from the president, there had been a moment of elation. The summons to the White House at nine this morning could only mean that after so many weeks of delay, there was to be a decision at least. The main purpose of the speech would be to announce the cessation of bombing in North Vietnam. Whether the president also chose to renounce a second term or whether he elected to make the campaign did not greatly matter; the important consideration, as I saw it, was that the choice would be deliberate—one which Lyndon Johnson had finally taken time to make for himself, rather than having it forced upon him by the chance of circumstance that had so dogged him in the office. Whatever the decision, if it was his own, the future would be better. For this I was grateful and, in a sense, happier than I had been in days, but the happiness did not last.
Just minutes after the midnight call, the telephone rang again. It was the White House once more, but this time the call came from Jim Jones, the young assistant who only recently had been placed in charge of the president’s daily schedule. “I was just checking,” he began. “Did you get the word that the president wants you here in the morning at nine?”
In my own term on the White House staff, when Jim Jones first came to work there, we had been friends. His cordiality and helpfulness had continued since, but when, out of old habit, I casually asked what the morning held, the friendliness froze out of Jones’s distinctive Oklahoma voice, and he spoke evasively. I had to put my question pointedly. “Why does the president want to see me, Jim?”
Jones hesitated. There was no mistaking the sharpness when he finally replied. “It has to do with the speech,” he said, “with the peroration.”
The word seemed strangely stiff and formal. In my time around Lyndon Johnson, we called the ending for a speech what it was—“the end,” not something so elegant as “the peroration.” Both the tone and the vocabulary of my caller aroused a suspicion that Jones had something more to say than he had yet said. I pressed him again. “But I sent the president a draft peroration late in the afternoon.”
“Yes,” he said coldly. “I know you did.” “Has he seen it yet?”
The answer was even colder. “Yes, he has seen it.”
I realized the conversation was becoming a contest. We were sparring with each other over something Jones did not intend to tell me. Again from habit, I applied the old Lyndon Johnson dictum that “the most important thing a man has to tell you is nearly always what he tries to keep from telling you—if you’re smart enough, and patient enough, you’ll stay with him, until you make him say it.” I became determined to stay with Jim Jones until he said whatever he seemed bent on holding back.
“What was his reaction?” I asked.
There was no acknowledgment of the question, only silence. I tried again.
“Was his reaction up or down?” “Neither,” Jones said tersely.
Trying a new tactic, I questioned Jones about himself. “Have you seen what I wrote?” Without hesitation he answered, speaking with a sudden and forceful intensity.
“Yes, I’ve seen it,” he said, “and I think it’s awful, just awful. The language is all right—don’t get me wrong about that—but it’s your idea that I don’t like. It is terrible; in fact, it stinks.” Jones had not intended to speak as he did or to say so much. Very abruptly he ended the conversation. But when the receiver clicked in my ear, I thought I knew what had happened and, perhaps, what lay ahead.
On Saturday nights, President Johnson very often worked late in the Oval Office. Usually before the long night ended, he called together several of his special assistants and passed the hours with high-spirited, good-humored accounts of the events and experiences of his week. Quite commonly, if he happened to have a speech draft on his desk, he entertained his audience by reading the text aloud, parodying himself as he interpolated comments which could be expected from critics in the press. In such a situation, the president must have been unable to contain his secret longer; with the draft of the withdrawal statement in hand, he had surprised Jim Jones and others on duty for the evening by reading it to them. I knew what their reactions must have been: to a man, they had expressed instant and heated disagreement. Furthermore, considering Jones’s emphasis—in saying “it’s your idea that I don’t like”—I assumed that the president had played another of his favorite games. Wanting to draw out candid responses from those around him, he had undoubtedly presented the statement as my idea rather than his own. That was a familiar Lyndon Johnson tactic and, in situations such as this, a very useful one.
After the conversation with Jim Jones, I hardly bothered with sleep. At six o’clock on Sunday morning I was in the kitchen at our home. Reading through the news of the day was not encouraging. On page one, The Washington Post headlined the announcement of the president’s televised address, but nothing in the story hinted at the possibility of a withdrawal announcement. On the same page, a story was offered about the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.; he was to speak that morning from the pulpit at Washington’s National Cathedral, outlining plans for the Poor People’s March on the national capital later in the month. But the inside pages of the Sunday edition were especially interesting.
The Gallup poll appeared that day: it reported that the president’s overall popularity remained relatively low but stable, as was to be expected. But I studied the fine print, which I knew was read with more care by the president himself: for the first time, fewer than 50 percent of the members of the president’s own Democratic Party approved his handling of the war in Vietnam.
That, I thought, might be decisive. Like the opposition of Senator Eugene McCarthy and the new candidacy of Senator Robert Kennedy, this poll statistic only made it more difficult for the president to consider withdrawing from the politics of 1968. For many reasons, he had waited to make and announce his final decision, and now it was apparent that he had waited too long.
The guardhouse at the Southwest Gate controls two entrances into the White House compound: the West Executive Avenue entrance, which is used by staff and others to reach the basement of the West Wing, and the South Grounds entrance, which opens into the circular drive to the diplomatic entrance of the mansion itself. A detail of four or five uniformed policemen is posted at the guardhouse to check the identities of arrivals against the daily gate list authorizing their admission. As I approached the gate from a block away, I flicked on the right turn indicator signaling that I was an arriving guest; one officer, carrying the gate list clipboard, moved out of the shelter to make the identification. He was not an officer I knew, and his face showed no recognition of me. When I pulled to a stop and lowered the car window, he said very coolly, “Yes, can I help you?”
There is always a likelihood that one’s name will not be on the checklist as expected. I began to explain that the White House operator had called and said the president would be expecting me at nine o’clock, but the story sounded implausible even to me. The officer appeared unimpressed. “Your identification, please?”
I reached for my wallet, but a voice shouted from the guardhouse, “That’s Mr. Busby.” I looked up to see a welcome face: a stout and apple-cheeked officer who always had a smile and joke to start each day. Taking charge impressively, he motioned for the gate to be opened and hurried to my window. “We knew you were coming,” he said, laughing at his own humor. “Shoulda baked a cake, huh?” He extended his hand and we shook vigorously.
Then he leaned closer through the window. “Big doings today, huh? Big doings.” He rolled his eyes as he spoke, and I realized for the first time that White House police were all around the entrance. One officer patrolled the walk beneath the old stone face of the Executive Office Building to the left. Others were stationed beside the fence surrounding the grounds. Standing in the center of the street, in position to halt traffic coming around the curve, another officer waited with walkie-talkie in hand. The deployment could have meant only that the Southwest Gate was on the alert for important visitors, possibly the National Security Council or even the cabinet.
My jolly friend went on. “Bet there’s gonna be a little speechwriting today.” He chuckled.
Truthfully, I replied, “I don’t know why I’m here.”
That brought a big laugh. “Oh, that’s rich.” The officer chortled. “Big doings and you don’t know why you are here.” He thought it was only a play, the kind to which White House police are accustomed. The gate was open, and I drove inside, slowing to the prescribed five-mile-an-hour speed limit. I passed the old and unused tennis court and the great fountain, which still had not begun operation.
I turned the curve on the east side of the grounds.
A White House butler waited at the entrance to the Diplomatic Reception Room, the lovely oval room on the ground floor of the Executive Mansion. In other times, there would have been no one there, but now I was very much a guest, an outsider; regulations required that someone escort me through the mansion to my destination. I followed the butler through the dark hall to the elevator, and we went in silence to the family floor. As the doors opened back, my guide motioned to his left. “The president,” he said with a courtly flourish, “is expecting you in the bedroom.”
It was almost ten o’clock, eleven hours before the national telecast, when the president at last began to discuss what he might say. He was sharp-eyed and alert. The lines seemed to have disappeared from his face, and the heaviness was gone from his shoulders. In other times those of us on the staff would have explained his appearance and his manner by saying that he was “organized.” This was a very good sign.
The president reached into his pocket for a copy of the draft text I had sent him the previous day. Holding it aloft in one hand, he said, “There are many things to consider about this. There’s the matter of health. I’ll be sixty years old this year; my father and nearly all of the men on the Johnson side of my family have died in their sixtieth year. I don’t know whether I would live out another four-year term here.” I had heard this often, of course, and while I understood his feelings, I hoped he would not be making a decision on this basis. But he said no more on the subject.
“Then there’s the war,” he said, pausing and adding after a moment, “this damn war.” He leaned forward, his eyes narrowing, and he spoke evenly. “I have done all I can to get it over with. After tonight, there’s nothing else left, I suppose, that I can do. It’s getting awfully close, too. The father of that baby”—he motioned back toward the bedroom, where Little Lyn was still playing—“is going over next month. The other daughter”—referring to Lynda—“came back this morning from California, where she had seen her man off to war, and she looked at me and her mother, and she said, ‘Why, Daddy, why?’ ”
Time was short and I started to speak, but he raised his hand. He wanted no interruption. He continued, his words coming rapidly and with force as he listed other concerns, then dismissed them.
“But those are all personal matters,” he said. “You must never forget that fellow out in Omaha or Indianapolis or Denver. He has a wife going into the hospital for a cancer operation, a daughter he’s trying to put through school, a boy on his way to Vietnam, car payments to meet, insurance premiums due, a mortgage hanging over his head, and his mother needing to go into a nursing home. When that fellow looks at the White House, he thinks the man there has it made, has everything in the world—and he’s right. All my troubles put together aren’t as big for a president as that little fellow’s troubles are for him. We have to remember that. We have to remember that here in this house”—he slapped his palm firmly against the arm of his chair—“no man who sits here can ever afford to think of himself first.”
Taking notes rapidly, I turned the page of the tablet he had handed me, nodding my agreement with what he had just said. Those thoughts off his mind now, he leaned back in the chair and said, “All right, now let’s look at these things objectively.
“First of all,” he said, “I want to make one thing clear to you. You and I are the only two people who will ever believe that I won’t know whether I’m going to do this or not until I get to the last line of my speech on the TelePrompTer.” He looked out the window for a long moment. “These days,” he said, “you never know what might happen somewhere in the world between now and tonight. I might not be able to do it even if I decide I want to.”
Horace Busby was one of LBJ’s most trusted advisors; their close working and personal relationship spanned twenty years. In The Thirty-First of March he offers an indelible portrait of a president and a presidency at a time of crisis. From the aftereffects of the Kennedy assassination, when Busby was asked by the newly sworn-in president to sit by his bedside during his first troubled nights in office, to the concerns that defined the Great Society—civil rights, the economy, social legislation, housing, and the Vietnam War—Busby not only articulated and refined Johnson’s political thinking, he also helped shape the most ambitious, far-reaching legislative agenda since FDR’s New Deal.
The Thirty-first of March is a rare glimpse into the inner sanctum of Johnson’s presidency, as seen through the eyes of one of the people who understood him best. Get your copy here.