Power  /  Comparison

Lyndon Johnson Knew That Part of Wielding Power Is Knowing When to Let It Go

As Democrats debate whether Joe Biden should stay in the race against Trump, LBJ’s often misunderstood example looms.

Sixty years ago today, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act, a high point in one of the greatest runs of policymaking of any president in American history. The Johnson administration was sprinting for most of the president’s years in office, and as he approached the end of his first full term a few years later, he was exhausted and unhappy. In 1967, when Johnson was just 58 years old, he commissioned a secret actuarial study to try to determine how much longer he should expect to live. His father died at just 60, and Lyndon had had a heart attack in 1955. The study suggested he should expect to expire at 64. “I figured that with my history of heart trouble I’d never live through another four years,” he told Leo Janos, a former aide, in 1971. “The American people had enough of presidents dying in office.”

Johnson’s predecessor had died in office, of course, in a maximally traumatic way. But, as he told another aide in 1967—George Christian, who wrote about Johnson’s decision to retire in 1988 for Texas Monthly—he was more worried about drifting into infirmity than dying. Woodrow Wilson was barely able to function in the later years of his presidency; same with Franklin Roosevelt, who died less than three months into his fourth term. The consequences of those periods of illness at the ends of two world wars—the men who rose in their wakes, the decisions not made—shaped the twentieth century. 

As time went on, Johnson gained more reasons to consider retirement. His approval ratings were tanking because of the Vietnam War, at times hovering below 40 percent. He underperformed in primaries versus protest candidate Eugene McCarthy, a Minnesota senator. It began to look like he would either lose the nomination—to Senator Robert F. Kennedy, with whom he shared a deep mutual loathing—or lose the general election to Richard Nixon. The country was tired and mistrustful of him. He’d used up his political capital. He thought he had a shot at ending the war through negotiation—one that would be strengthened if he no longer had to campaign. So on March 31, 1968, Johnson pulled the trigger. “I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president,” he told the nation in a televised address. It was a shock to the country.