5/30/12 - a heartbeat from the presidency

In today's excerpt - in 1960, though he had expected to win the Democratic presidential nomination himself, and did not like Jack or Bobby Kennedy, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson had ample reason to swallow his pride and accept Jack's offer of the vice presidency. One reason was that even if they lost, he would have an elevated national profile. Another reason was that if he refused and Kennedy lost, his party would blame him. But there was an even more compelling reason for Johnson, whose driving ambition was to be President, to accept -- ten Vice Presidents had succeeded to the presidency, and sitting U.S. Presidents often died in office:

"A Vice President was the logical candidate to succeed the President when his four or eight years in office ended, the natural heir to the presidency. And of course a Vice President might not have to wait that long. The alter­native route had an abbreviated version -- and Lyndon Johnson had reconnoitered that, too.

"He had his staff look up a ... figure: How many Presidents of the United States had died in office? The answer was seven. Since thirty-three men had been President,* that was seven out of thirty-three: The chances of a Vice President succeeding to the presidency due to a President's death were about one out of five. And when that question was asked about Presidents in modern times, the odds against such an occurrence got shorter -- better. During the last hundred years before 1960, five Presidents had died in office -- Abraham Lincoln in 1865, James Garfield in 1881, William McKinley in 1901, Warren Harding in 1923 and of course Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. During that time span, in other words, a President had died in office approximately every twenty years. There had been eighteen Presidents during that time, and five out of eighteen were odds of less than one out of four.

"Furthermore, those odds seemed even shorter -- much shorter -- when com­pared with the odds of a Senate Majority Leader, or, indeed, any senator, being elected President. If John F. Kennedy made it to the White House straight from the Senate, he would be accomplishing something that only a single senator -- Harding -- had accomplished before him. And the odds were perhaps even more favorable when compared with the chances of Lyndon Johnson, the southerner, being elected in 1964 or 1968 with the civil rights issue still burning in America. Johnson was to reiterate even during his retirement his belief that no southerner would be elected President in the foreseeable future, as when, in 1969, he told Texas' young lieutenant governor, Ben Barnes, the state's new rising political star, that the only way for a Texan to reach the presidency was through the vice presidency.

"He never referred to his analysis of the odds in public, of course, and so far as the author of this book can determine, he never referred to it in private during his vice presidency, except on the evening of its first day, the day on which he was inaugurated. Sitting beside him that evening on a bus carrying high-level guests to the Inaugural Ball, Clare Boothe Luce, the former congresswoman and the wife of Time, Inc. publisher Henry R. Luce, asked him why he had agreed to accept the vice presidential nomination, and he replied: 'Clare, I looked it up: one out of every four Presidents has died in office. I'm a gamblin' man, darlin,' and this is the only chance I got.'

"But during the period immedi­ately following the convention, he explained his thinking several times. Robert M. Jackson, editor of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and a longtime ally, was to tell his reporter James M. Rowe that, ... encountering Johnson at the Corpus Christi Airport during this period, he had asked him, 'Lyndon, why in the world did you accept the nomination?,' and that Johnson had replied, 'Well, six of them didn't have to get elected.' When he was asked the same question by intimates in Texas, the precise figure, as often with Johnson, varied from telling to telling, but the theory remained the same: that because it was so hard for a Texan to be elected President, becoming Vice Presi­dent was a Texan's best chance to reach the Oval Office. 'Well,' he replied when Joe Kilgore asked the question, 'six of them [Vice Presidents] didn't have to be elected [in order to become President].' 'You know, seven of them got to be President without ever being elected,' he told Ed Clark.

"And, of course, if the odds paid off, it might not require waiting eight years for them to do so.

The possibility that fate might intervene was vivid in the mind of anyone who had been in Washington on April 12, 1945, and especially vivid to members of Sam Rayburn's basement "Board of Education" in the Capitol, where Harry Tru­man had often sat having a late-afternoon drink -- and where he had been having a drink when, that day, the summons had come from the White House that had been Franklin Roosevelt's. Lyndon Johnson hadn't been in that room when the sum­mons came, but he arrived there a few minutes later. He had known Truman for years as a senator, and then Harry had been plucked from the Senate to be Vice President--and then, less than four months after he had been sworn in, he was President.

The possibility had been kept vivid in Washington by what had happened during the presidency of Truman's successor. Three times in twenty-six months, Dwight Eisenhower had been hospitalized with serious illnesses (in 1955, a heart attack; in 1956, an attack of ileitis, an abdominal obstruction that required sur­gery; in 1957, a stroke), and each time the capital seethed with rumors that the President might die -- or that he had died and that Richard Nixon would become President, or, particularly in the case of the stroke, that Eisenhower might be dis­abled, and that Nixon would, while remaining Vice President, assume presiden­tial duties and powers. If John Adams had once called the vice presidency 'the most insignificant office,' he had also, on another occasion, made a statement that cast the position in a different light. 'I am Vice President,' Adams had said.'In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.' "

*There had been thirty-four presidencies, but Grover Cleveland had served two separate terms


Robert A. Caro


The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson


Alfred A. Knopf


Copyright 2012 by Robert A. Caro, Inc.


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