Power  /  Antecedent

LBJ’s 1968 State of the Union Was a Disaster. Can President Trump Avoid His Fate?

For unpopular presidents, the State of the Union is a minefield.

As internal battles raged over what to emphasize, by January 4, speechwriter Harry McPherson produced the first full draft.

Johnson was not happy. As he edited the draft, he called aide Horace Busby to lodge a complaint that has plagued most State of the Union addresses: “This goddamn draft they’ve given me wouldn’t make chickens crackle if you waved it at ‘em in the dark . . . It’s too long, too dull, too flat, too bureaucratic,” he said, adding, “every little two-bit bureau in the government has managed to get at least one line in on their pet project.”

Frustrated, Johnson continued searching for the right tone to promote healing and cooperation.

Finally, on January 17, at 9:01 p.m., the doorkeeper of the House announced, “The President of the United States.” Johnson entered to a thunderous applause.

For nearly 45 minutes, he talked to the nation. Dressed in a somber black suit, he opened by acknowledging the dark times, ones radically different than three years earlier. “I report to you that our country is challenged, at home and abroad,” he said. Johnson then tried to comfort Americans, assuring them that they, as a people “nurtured by their deep faith, tutored by their hard lessons, moved by their high aspirations — have the will to meet the trials that these times impose.”

But the president made a tactical mistake by opening with a discussion of the most controversial issue of the day: Vietnam. Former secretary of state Dean Acheson had tried warning him beforehand against using the “tired cliches” that dotted these “thoroughly boring” sections. But Johnson ignored his admonitions, unwilling to accept that continuing the same policies without bold changes would not be accepted by many Americans on either side of the divide.

That discussion gave the speech a contentious tone, and Johnson never recovered.