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Tapes reveal LBJ thought about rejecting nomination in 1964

July 19, 1997

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) _ When Lyndon Johnson seriously considered not seeking the 1964 Democratic nomination for president, he was beset by doubts over whether he could lead the nation and angered by ``damn lies″ in the press.

``I have a desire to unite the people, and the South is against me, and the North is against me, and the Negroes are against me, and the press doesn’t really have an affection for me,″ Johnson told his press secretary, George Reedy, the day after the Democratic Convention opened in Atlantic City, N.J.

Johnson said the nation ``ought to have a chance to get the best available. That’s who I want my children to have, and I know that I’m not.″

His discussions with Reedy and special assistant Walter Jenkins about his doubts about running were among tape-recorded telephone conversations released Friday by the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library.

``I don’t think a white Southerner is a man to unite this nation in his hour,″ Johnson told Jenkins. ``I do not believe I can physically and mentally carry the responsibilities of the bomb and the world and the Negroes and the South and so forth.″

In a book published in 1971, Johnson wrote that he initially decided against running for the presidency, which he had assumed when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He even drafted a statement saying he was ``absolutely unavailable.″

But Johnson changed his mind after his wife, Lady Bird, sent him a note saying to step out ``would be wrong for your country, and I can see nothing but a lonely wasteland for your future.″

Johnson spoke of his decision with Jenkins and Reedy after racial riots in New York and New Jersey and after the attack on U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, which later prompted a congressional resolution allowing greater U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

In addition, dissension at the convention by blacks who weren’t part of the Mississippi delegation renewed Johnson’s fears that blacks wouldn’t trust him because he was from the South, said Harry Middleton, who was a Johnson speechwriter and is director of the LBJ Library.

Even though Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act shortly before the riots, ``he was really anguished about whether he could rally the blacks to his side,″ Middleton said.

Adding to his woes was a run of unfavorable press reports. In calls with Reedy and Jenkins, Johnson referred to a news magazine that had published a critical article about Lady Bird and cites apparently unfavorable newspaper articles about the convention and his role in it.

``They just write these damn lies,″ Johnson told Reedy. ``I know that a man ought to have the hide of a rhinoceros to be in this job, but I don’t have the hide of a rhinoceros.″

At one point, Reedy told Johnson that if he didn’t run, ``this just gives the country to Goldwater.″

``Well, that’s all right. I don’t care ... I don’t agree with that at all, but I think he can do better than I can,″ Johnson said.

Johnson beat Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee and senator from Nevada, in a landslide and served one term; he didn’t seek re-election to a second full term as opposition to the Vietnam War mounted.

In one call with Jenkins, Johnson said there was a great difference between how he was perceived and his true desires.

``People, I think, have a mistaken judgment,″ he said. ``They think I want great power. What I want is great solace, a little love. That is all I want.″

Johnson died in 1973 at age 64.

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