What Happens Next in 6 Minutes with Larry Bernstein
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The President Won’t Seek Reelection

The President Won’t Seek Reelection

Speaker: Luke Nichter

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Luke Nichter

Subject: The President Won’t Seek Reelection
: Author and the James H. Cavanaugh Endowed Chair in Presidential Studies at Chapman University
Reading: The Year That Broke Politics: Collusion and Chaos in the Presidential Election of 1968 is here


Larry Bernstein:

Welcome to What Happens Next. My name is Larry Bernstein. What Happens Next is a podcast which covers economics, politics, and history. 

Today’s topic is The President Won’t Seek Reelection.

Our speaker is Luke Nichter who is the author of the new book entitled The Year That Broke Politics: Collusion and Chaos in the Presidential Election of 1968. After LBJ decided not to seek another term, the election was wide open for the candidates Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace.

There is much to learn from previous elections, especially with the 1968 election which was so polarizing and much like the present. The third-party candidate and former Southern Democrat George Wallace played an important spoiler role much like RFK Jr.

Buckle up.

Luke, please begin with your opening six-minute remarks.

Luke Nichter:

The 1968 presidential election was the most divisive in modern US history. The era closely resembles our own today. And there are almost no histories of the entire campaign by someone who talked to everyone and dug deep to find new evidence and a fresh take. In my book, I don't take a side. I present the four major candidates: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, and George Wallace. My focus is why the American people voted the way they did in 1968 and how LBJ shifted from being on the ballot to his own legacy.

I put in hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests for new material. And I made friends with archivists. I ask them, “what has been recently donated? What do you plan to release next?” Probably the most important new body of evidence in this book is it's the first to use the diary of the Reverend Billy Graham. Graham died at age 99 in 2018 and left instructions for the gradual opening of his 70 years of personal papers.

The Graham diary, we're going to hear more about this in the future. It's over 50 volumes of material documenting contact with presidents and top staff, starting with Harry Truman in 1950 and ending with Barack Obama in 2014, as well as contact with over 50 foreign heads of state. The Graham diary is a unique window into what's been called the President's Club. The idea that despite public political differences, those who have had the loneliest job in the world come to realize in private that they need each other and that only when you've been president can you appreciate others who've served in that role.

Graham served as a messenger between Johnson and Nixon in 1968, and this is the first book to feature this material. The diary documents show Johnson came to prefer Nixon as a successor because he believed it was better for his own legacy. As close as the election outcome was, LBJ’s role behind the scenes was potentially decisive. I didn't plan to argue this when I set out to write the book, I never imagined it, but it was a meeting with former Vice President Walter Mondale in which he convinced me Johnson's lack of support for Hubert Humphrey was something I should dig into. 

Ultimately, the message that Nixon passed to Johnson, according to the diary, was that as president, Nixon wouldn't criticize LBJ, would give him credit for Vietnam when it was all over, would consult with him in retirement, and do everything that Nixon could to give Johnson a good place in history.

And in 1968, in his final months of office that's what LBJ wanted to hear when many in his own political party were critical of not just of Vietnam but also the Great Society. 

President Nixon ultimately no more ended the Great Society than Eisenhower did the New Deal, the size of government grew under Nixon, and his domestic policy was expansive and surprisingly progressive. And he kept his promise not to criticize Johnson for Vietnam with LBJ fearing that he would be blamed for losing a war. 

Johnson believed to be president, you had to have a killer instinct. He didn't think Humphrey had it, but Nixon did. 

Larry Bernstein:

Our two political parties were not ideologically consistent in 1968 like they are today. It's a hodgepodge that makes for strange marriages. Today's parties the variance between the left and the right within a political party is quite narrow. So, there was a lot of cross over, and Hubert Humphrey and LBJ, albeit from the same party, had significant differences of opinions. Richard Nixon may have been closer to LBJ than Hubert Humphrey was.  But it's inconceivable today that an exiting Democratic president would support the Republican candidate more than a Democratic candidate. What made that possible in 1968?

Luke Nichter:

Republicans were positioned to be the liberal party. Democrats, especially in the South, were much more conservative. Southern conservatives were thrilled that LBJ got on the ticket with Kennedy in ‘60 because they thought he'll anchor and ground that administration. The Southern conservatives didn't like Eisenhower. He was a liberal. Kennedy governed as a liberal, even though I don't think he really was. And Johnson was ineffective in anchoring that presidency. And so, when Johnson became president after Kennedy was killed in November ‘63, they thought here's our chance to get one of our own in the White House. Southern conservatives realized LBJ was going to govern to the left of Kennedy and Eisenhower, not just on civil rights, but on a whole host of other issues government spending, intervention overseas, expanding Vietnam. 

And that was a dramatic shift in politics that started in ‘64. And for the remainder of Johnson's presidency, the Democratic party inch by inch was moving to the left. Johnson governed during this huge shift; Nixon governed during a shift. Neither one was comfortable in their own party by the time they reached the White House, and they came to seek refuge in the other. 

I recall Lady Bird's diary, which is one of the interesting pieces of evidence that's come open recently that's cited in the book. Nixon visits Johnson in 1966, and she writes, “I heard Mr. Nixon refer to Georgetown dinner parties with an inflection of voice. That's exactly how Lyndon would've said it.” Neither one went to prep school. 

Larry Bernstein:

They’re outsiders.

Luke Nichter:

Exactly. Nixon went to Whittier because he couldn't afford to go East. Johnson went to Southwest Teaching College. Now it's Texas State. Neither one was liked by the media, by the elites, and their parties. They were looked down upon by cultural leaders. 

Larry Bernstein:

In 1960, the election is really close. Some say that there was election interference, particularly in Texas and Illinois, and that if properly done, Nixon may have won. And when I looked at the state election results, it's shocking how many states are close. Today the number of Purple States is a handful. But 1960, it was a majority of the states. The one state that was not close was Georgia. And Kennedy wins it by like 50 points. But by 1968, Georgia, it's radically changed. And we always talk about a southern strategy or a movement of southerners, but nothing is more dramatic than that eight-year period between 1960 and 68.

Luke Nichter:

To look at the big shift in the South in terms of voting patterns and southern conservatives gradually moving into the Republican column, you have to go back before ‘68. Eisenhower, for example, captures Virginia in both elections. He captures Louisiana in ‘56, which is unheard of even though a lot of southern conservatives considered Eisenhower to be a liberal, especially on civil rights with the ‘57 Civil Rights Act being the biggest since reconstruction.

If you show me a candidate, especially these days who doesn't have a strategy to get votes in the South, I'll show you the loser of that election. Probably too much has been made of this idea of a Nixon Southern strategy. Because ‘68 is one of the only elections in modern U.S. history where we have a third-party challenger George Wallace, who wins enough votes to make a difference in the South.

With Wallace in the race neither Humphrey nor Nixon had a southern strategy in ‘68. There's no way either one of them was going to allow him to be on the debate stage because they couldn't go head-to-head with this fiery Huey Long-style rhetoric in the South. Nixon’s idea was to stay out of the deep south, and chip away at the margins like Eisenhower. Virginia, Louisiana, and the Upper South and the fringes were very much in play, but conceded the whole deep south to Wallace who ultimately was the winner of those states.

Larry Bernstein:

What's odd here is that the right-wing conservative candidate is a Democrat in the three-way race, and Nixon turns out to be the centrist.

I want to go through each of the three major candidates in 68 in some detail, and I'm going to start with George Wallace.  I don't know much about George Wallace. He was the former Governor of Alabama. He had said segregation now, segregation forever. And then the thing that surprised me how could an Alabama governor do well in a Michigan Democratic primary? And I read about that railroad highway between the South and the North where African Americans traveling from Mississippi and Alabama to Chicago.

Southern whites were on that same train with the blacks trying to get industrial jobs in places like Michigan. And those southern whites voted for Wallace. The books that I read in paint George Wallace as a stick figure, a simple southern racist. Tell us what we should know about George Wallace, the man, the politics and his importance to the campaign in 1968.

Luke Nichter:

There's an evolution to George Wallace. Early in George Wallace's career, he made statements that were plainly racist, whether it be segregation or in ‘62 his pledge if elected governor in Alabama, he would stand in the schoolhouse door personally at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to block integration.

Wallace got a taste of national politics in 1964 entering three Democratic primaries all out of the South and doing surprisingly well. And what Wallace realized was that a lot of his voters beyond the South were traditional Democrats who consider themselves conservatives. These were the conservative half of the FDR New Deal Coalition. rural, southern, blue-collar workers, lower middle class.

These were at least half of the core of the Democratic party. And the irony is as we look back now, the last Democrat to win them as a voting block was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. And as the party separated there was less room in the middle for these voices, their votes have been largely up for grabs ever since. And you have a seesaw battle. And the one who's gone after these voters the most has been Donald Trump, he called himself a white trash billionaire.

Probably most of them see themselves as having a more natural home in the Republican Party. And so in ‘64, as this shift was beginning, Wallace seized on the fact that these voters nationwide didn't feel they had a candidate speaking for them. 

‘68 was Wallace's first full national campaign running as an independent, so he could criticize both national parties, which was very clever. He was the last of a dying breed of traditional conservatives who descended from the reconstruction period in the late 19th century.

Larry Bernstein:

The Democratic Party has conservatives particularly from the south but also in the north. They also have their liberals, and one is Hubert Humphrey who is the Democratic nominee. This progressive left wing Democratic Party and there's friction with the more conservative Democrats. 

And there's also foreign policy, and the Democrats are very scared about being soft on communism. They lost China in ‘48. They can't lose Vietnam. Humphrey is attached at the hip with LBJ’s Vietnam policies as his vice president. How should we think about Hubert Humphrey's position 1968, given the constraints of his Democratic Party?

Luke Nichter:

Hubert Humphrey is vice president because of Lyndon Johnson. This Minnesotan became an expert in foreign relations and had a prominent seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee because of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. He owed a lot to Lyndon.

It's common that vice presidents are abused. Johnson certainly was by the Kennedys. Nixon had to carry an awful lot of water for Eisenhower, and Humphrey was relegated to being a cheerleader for Johnson's policies because Humphrey didn't know that Johnson would choose not to run in 1968. 

The second major issue that Humphrey faced in 1968, what it's like to run for the nomination of your party when your political benefactor is still in that White House. You have this awkward political space where you both must convince people you are your own man with your own ideas, and the things that we're going to do are even better than the things that we did for the last four or eight years. 

Larry Bernstein:

Nixon ran in 1960 and was seeking Eisenhower's endorsement, and Eisenhower doesn't give him a lot of love. LBJ takes over after the Kennedy assassination, but he felt belittled and never comfortable with the Kennedy folks. Humphrey felt that Johnson didn't really have much respect for him either, or was horrified that he even liked Nixon better. 

These forced marriages that we have between presidents and vice presidents, they are awkward. You mentioned some reporter asked Eisenhower something that Nixon did, and he said, give me some time. 

Luke Nichter:

The American people are fickle after eight years, we say throw the bums out and the same people by the millions vote for the other side. We can trace Biden voters who voted for Trump who voted for Obama.

Presidents understand there are natural cycles in politics, and it is better to be succeeded by the other party because we look at Washington and we see political parties, we see Ds, we see Rs, but an awful lot that happens in Washington happens for personal selfish reasons. A politician understands that even if you don't like the other side, it's better for your own legacy sometimes to be succeeded by them.

It has the effect of closing the book on your presidency and your legacy can begin going forward. And when your legacy is still open, in the case of allowing your own vice president to succeed you, your vice president is usually tempted to say things like, “we're going to do all that stuff and we're going to do it even better.” Johnson feared that Hubert Humphrey would have an even better Great Society. He would spend even more on social policy. He would go even further on civil rights, and he would end the Vietnam War. 

That's not going to be good for Johnson's legacy. But what changed Johnson's mind in ‘68 vis-a-vis Nixon was domestic policy because Nixon was making surprisingly progressive left-wing statements, like a Great Society shaded in Republican pro-market ways. So, instead of big welfare programs, it was private investment in cities, it was community policing. 

Johnson came to see Nixon as possibly better for Johnson's own legacy. Humphrey was going to outdo him in domestic policy. Humphrey had credentials with the left wing of the Democratic Party that Johnson never had. 

Larry Bernstein:

Let's go into Nixon next. Here's another stick figure in history. He resigned. He did something horribly deceitful called Watergate. He expanded the Vietnam War. If there's ever been a more disgraced figure in politics, I don't know who it is. Richard Nixon stands alone as being the dark evil president. How should we think about him and his career? How did he map out the center in the ‘68 campaign? Tell us about Richard Nixon, the winner of 1968.

Luke Nichter:

That list you have about Nixon is exactly right. Most of that wasn't yet known in ‘68. Nixon was this caricature who had appeared in political cartoons, this figure who crawled out of the sewer every four years to campaign. 

I'm in Washington DC for the 50th anniversary of the Watergate Break-in. I had a strange feeling this is the first day of my life that Richard Nixon is no longer the number one political villain in the country anymore.

That's given us space as a society to take a fresh look, not just at Watergate, Vietnam or Nixon's presidency, but his whole life and career that we've never had the space to consider before. There's not a definitive deeply researched book about Richard Nixon, the Nixon presidency, Watergate, Church Committee, any of the intelligence investigations in the 1970s. 

Even though this is 50 years old, a lot of the records are not released yet. If you go to the Nixon, Ford and Carter Libraries, there's lots of boxes of classified records. 

Nixon lost narrowly, as you said before, to John F. Kennedy, and it was close to half million votes on the popular vote. In ’62 he loses more decisively for the California governorship, really humiliating. And ABC ran a program called the Political Obituary of Richard Nixon because he really was dead at that point. 

Politicians never leave their base. Nixon packed up in California. He moved to New York City. Not a typical place that a Republican goes to lick their wounds and practices law. He remains active in politics. So, by ‘68 he’s smarter and seasoned. He thinks 1960 I lost. I went a little far to the left as a Republican. Goldwater got wiped out in ’64, one of the great four landslides of the 20th century. He went too far to the right, and Nixon thought I need to be somewhere in between those two.

In this time, Democrats have a huge party registration advantage. Democrats to win the White House only need Democrats. They have enough votes if they can somehow cobble together this awkward coalition of southern conservatives and northern industrial liberals. 

1968 it was set up for Nixon. All the other Republicans lost during the primaries. You've got Humphrey wanting to occupy the left lane, Wallace is the independent on the right lane, and it conceded Nixon that wide path in the middle.

What I suggest in the book is not a southern strategy, not a secret plan in Vietnam, but maybe the most important policy proposal that Nixon has in 1968 as a candidate is simply not offending LBJ. Just don't contradict him on anything. You can shade his policies a little different. You can say I make them a little more efficient. The bureaucracy's bloated. You can insult the government, but don't insult LBJ the person. Nixon's very careful. He refers to the Humphrey-Johnson administration. He refers to the policies of the Kennedy-Johnson administration, but he doesn't single LBJ out for criticism after the New Hampshire primary in ‘68. 

Larry Bernstein:

Let's talk about LBJ as our next character. I saw Brian Cranston on Broadway do LBJ and one of the things he talks about is his decision not to run. And in the play, there isn't any of these Hamlet-like moments of indecision and woe. But in your book, the decision is back and forth, even at the last minute what he's going to say. And then finally he gets this off his chest. Tell us about LBJ's decision not to run, and how that threw the election wide open.

Luke Nichter:

LBJ might be the most convoluted politician I have ever studied. He was an absolute master at politics in terms of misinformation, propaganda, leaking false stories to the press. And whether it's the light touch or he would go for the jugular, he knew drama and pacing. He knew how to take advantage of the moment. 

Larry Bernstein:

LBJ loves being president, loves the power, loves making the big decisions and getting these landmark legislations passed. He becomes all consumed by Vietnam and the riots and all these kids dying on his watch ate at him. The demonstrations became personal against him. He faced a lot of pressure and decided that for the good of the party and the good of the country, he was going to step aside even though it was an enormous personal cost to him. 

He was so emotionally drained that he threw in the towel with the hope that some Republican or Democrat would continue to follow his ideas, which are to win the Vietnam War with dignity, to bring our boys back and not have a communist Vietnam. And his landmarks, civil rights and voting acts would be implemented in a way that would be good for the country as a whole. I want to push back and use your own ideas to suggest that this was something with great regret that he had to do this, but he just ran out of gas.

Luke Nichter:

I agree with everything you said about LBJ and add his health wasn't good. He felt betrayed by the left wing of his party that he did a lot during his presidency to attract their support, Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, putting Humphrey on the ticket in ‘64.

Intentional moves to win over and maintain the support of the left wing of the party. Johnson felt most burned by the Kerner Commission, which released its findings in early 1968. This was the study of violence in American cities that it started with Watts, Detroit, and Newark back in the middle of the decade. The Kerner Commission also criticized LBJ on domestic policy, and even had one conclusion. I'm loosely paraphrasing it, but the essence is that more of the Great Society is causing harm for the same people it's meant to support. And that was the last straw for Johnson and that was released right around the time of the New Hampshire primary. And combined with his health and as you say lack of stamina and energy, Johnson realized it's over, better to find an honorable exit, and begin to work on my own legacy. And the most important way to do that is to influence the choice of my successor.

Larry Bernstein:

Robert Kennedy is assassinated. Martin Luther King is assassinated. There were anti-Vietnam war demonstrations against the draft. Then there's a Democratic Convention in Chicago, which is absolute chaos. After King dies, fires are purposely set in some of the major cities. Richard Daley, the mayor of Chicago, gave an order to shoot on sight if they saw people with Molotov cocktails. Johnson went up in a chopper to evaluate what was going on and looked down, seeing the city's aflame, horrified at what was going on, recognizing that this war was tearing this country apart. Take us back to that traumatic year. 

Luke Nichter:

1968 has become shorthand for a year of revolution. The Tet Offensive, Johnson's withdrawal from politics, his near defeat to Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire, the assassinations you mentioned, the seizing by North Korea of the Pueblo crew, the convention, the candidacy of George Wallace, the Peace talks. I mean we could go on and on. 

One of the key differences is not just the degree of violence where you mentioned the assassinations, but also the other real difference with society today was the military draft. The selective service system was something that united opposition. ‘68 the year where so many Americans lost faith in American institutions. This is a dystopian year and probably the one most like our current era.

Larry Bernstein:

There was a Democratic convention in Chicago. We have a democratic convention in Chicago coming up in the next couple months. 10,000 people demonstrated, and it caused riots and violence and there's talk that a hundred thousand people are going to show up in Chicago this time for the anti-Israel, pro-Palestine demonstrations. What can we learn from that previous experience as to what our future looks like?

Luke Nichter:

Whoever thought it was a good idea to have the convention in Chicago this year was either not aware of history or was willing to accept the comparisons with ‘68. Grant Park and Millennium Park and those big spaces for protests just opposite these big convention hotels, the Hilton and the Blackstone. It's a difficult place to have a convention in terms of crowd control. In ‘68, the Republicans were in Miami Beach. You could seal off by raising 3 causeways. It makes it very difficult to get in or get out.

Larry Bernstein:

The political debate in 1968, there's real stuff to talk about: busing, law and order, dealing with crime, urban decay, Vietnam War, drugs. Tell us about the big issues, what separated the parties and how they divvied up between Wallace, Nixon and Humphrey?

Luke Nichter:

I would say added to the list that you have is a growing number of people across the political spectrum who see that the political establishment doesn’t seem to have the answers. Nixon didn't win so much because he was loved but because we didn't like the other options even more. The American people weren't happy the direction we were going. Crime was also a bit of a dog whistle for race, but every measurable statistic with crime in the sixties was growing. 

You had inflation in 1960s that was spiraling out of control because of the cost of the Vietnam War combined with Johnson's expansive domestic policy.

Larry Bernstein:

In the upcoming election, RFK Jr. is a legitimate third-party candidate, often getting like 12% of the national vote, not as high as Ross Perot, but reminiscent of some polling numbers that Wallace got in 1968. Can you compare Wallace and RFK Jr.? Wallace won a bunch of states, it doesn't look like RFK will win any, but break down why third-party candidates are important, they're influence, and contrasting it with ‘68.

Luke Nichter:

Robert Kennedy Jr. campaign today is largely following the Wallace Playbook of ‘68. The most important thing is ballot access. It is no easy thing to do to get on the ballots in all 50 states as Wallace did. Kennedy's choice of a running mate who can help finance those legal challenges and write checks when needed for the campaign is all geared toward ballot access. 

Recently every election has been close. It doesn't take a swing of 5% to change the outcome in some states or in the nation. 

Kennedy still has the chance to be very disruptive, and it's also not clear why are you doing this in the first place? 

Larry Bernstein:

I end each podcast with a note of optimism. What are you optimistic about as it relates to this presidential campaign?

Luke Nichter:

I am optimistic because in 1968 the attitude was the sky is falling. There's no way out of this. It is terrible for the country, for politics, for Vietnam. And the optimism is that we got out of it. This book was written 55 years after the 1968 campaign. It took that long so that we can understand it better. It will take at least 55 years to understand our era today in politics. But the optimism and the lesson of 1968 is that we'll get through this and we might even be a stronger nation at the other end.

Larry Bernstein:

Thanks Luke, for joining us today.

If you missed our previous podcast, check it out. The topic was the Upcoming Naval Battle in the South China Sea.

Our speaker was James Holmes who is the J.C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College. 

We discussed how the US fleet can repel a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, and what that conflict would look like. James explained the benefits of using interior lines in warfare and why fighting in the South China Sea plays to China’s advantage while combat in the Indian Ocean with the combined forces of India and the US plays to our advantage.

This month marked the 80th anniversary of the D-day invasion of France and the marine landings at Saipan in the Pacific. We discussed the lessons learned from those invasions and how that will relate to what China will face if it wants to blockade or invade Taiwan.

I would now like to make a plug for next week’s podcast with Eric Kaufmann who is a Professor of Politics at the University of Buckingham and the author of a new book entitled The Third Awokening: a 12 Point Plan for Rolling Back Progressive Extremism.

I want to learn from Eric about the woke movement in universities in the U.S. and the UK and how it has undermined tolerance and led to self censorship in academia. I also want to find out what we can do about it.

You can find our previous episodes and transcripts on our website whathappensnextin6minutes.com. Please subscribe to our weekly emails and follow us on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Thank you for joining us today, good-bye. 

Check out our previous episode, The Upcoming Naval Battle in the South China Sea, here

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