Why did one of the most politically savvy leaders ever to occupy the White House—Lyndon Baines Johnson—decide not to attend the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965? And why didn’t he send his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey? Questions remain nearly 49 years later.
Nearly 100 world leaders are now making their way to South Africa for the state funeral of Nelson Mandela. It will be a who’s who of global power-players. It’s important for them to be there, because it’s a risky thing to miss a great man’s funeral.
President Obama invited George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and their wives, to join him on Air Force One for the trek to Johannesburg. When Anwar Sadat was assassinated in October 1981, President Ronald Reagan’s security team strongly advised against him traveling to Egypt.
That was just a few months after Reagan was seriously wounded and barely escaped death at the hands of a would-be assassin, so the concerns were understandable. Mr. Reagan decided to play a “Presidential Hat Trick.” And the next day Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Richard Nixon boarded the presidential jet for the journey. Because Secretary of State Alexander Haig was “head” of the official delegation, he claimed the President’s Quarters for himself, leaving the three formers to make do in coach.
Churchill died at the age of 90 on January 24, 1965, after a series of debilitating strokes. His final illness became an international vigil for nearly two weeks, so there was plenty of time for world governments to prepare.
In fact, the British government had been prepared for a long time. More than ten years earlier, at the direction of Queen Elizabeth II, a plan called, “Operation Hope Not” had been developed for Winston’s eventual passing.
Lyndon Johnson was inaugurated for a full term on January 20, 1965, following his landslide electoral victory the previous November. He was at the top of his political game and riding high in the polls. But a few days later, on the night Churchill died, LBJ called seven reporters to his bedroom at the White House and told them that his doctors had advised him not to fly to London. He said: “I don’t have the bouncy feeling that I usually have.”
Presumably because “no bouncy feeling” isn’t an actual recognized disease, the “official” diagnosis was a bad cold.