He also told them that he was not sending Vice President Humphrey, but instead he would send Secretary of State Dean Rusk (who didn’t actually attend either, citing illness) and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. Johnson also noted that former President Eisenhower was attending as a private citizen. The grand farewell for Churchill was a global media event, watched on television by more people than President Kennedy’s funeral fourteen months earlier.
The reporters at his bedside described Johnson as looking “sicker” than they had expected: “Hair disheveled, he lay in a four-poster, canopied bed speaking softly, coughing lightly from time to time and blowing his nose.”
Johnson was widely criticized—here and abroad—for his failure to make the trip. Many in the British government saw it as a slight. And in some ways it represented a minor setback in American/Anglo relations at a crucial time in the Cold War.
Some of President Johnson’s biographers take great pains to write about the man’s energy and perseverance. For example, Robert A. Caro writes in his tome, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate, about how the man had regularly “refused to allow the illness to interfere” with his work habits. And how LBJ drove himself “mercilessly” even when he was supposed to be ill, with aides wondering, “how could a man have such energy if there was something seriously wrong with him?”
This description flies in the face of the image Johnson projected to the journalists that day.
A couple of weeks later, in a White House press conference, Johnson seemed to reveal a hint of thin skin when he was asked about his decisions related to Churchill’s funeral:
“I am glad to have the press reactions and the reactions abroad on the protocol involved in connection with funerals…In the light of your interest and other interests, I may have made a mistake by asking the Chief Justice to go and not asking the Vice President. I will bear in mind in connection act in accordance with our national interest.”
Soon after Johnson’s non-apology apology, someone coined the term “credibility gap” and affixed it to Lyndon Johnson. As with many things about LBJ, the truth is elusive.