When Vice President Lyndon Johnson returned to Capitol Hill after his first White House meeting with the new team assembled by President John F. Kennedy, he rushed to talk with his mentor, House Speaker Sam Rayburn. LBJ told his fellow Texan how impressed he was with Kennedy’s “best and brightest.” He was especially taken with Defense Sec. Robert Strange McNamara, the ex-CEO of Ford Motor Company. Lyndon described that “feller with the sta-comb in his hair” as being the brightest of the brightest.
The bald-headed Texas politico, Rayburn, narrowed his eyes and looked at Johnson over his glass of Bourbon and branch water and said with some skepticism. “Maybe, Lyndon, but I’d feel a lot better if just one of them had ever run for sheriff.”
We know that John F. Kennedy made some of the earliest commitments of U.S. ground forces to South Vietnam, but their numbers were still quite small when Kennedy met his tragic death in a Dallas motorcade. Johnson became president and vowed not to order “American boys to do what Asian boys should be doing.” That was fighting Communist subversion in Southeast Asia.
Johnson carried that message into the 1964 election against conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater. In that campaign, Johnson staked out his position as the “peace” candidate and charged that Goldwater would get America into a nuclear war. Johnson’s campaign used its own version of a nuclear weapon on the hapless Goldwater campaign by running the infamous “Daisy” television ad. It was probably the most despicable attack ad in history. But it helped Johnson to win a 44-state landslide and bury Barry Goldwater.
Do anything just to win. That was the seeming message from the 1964 election. The very next year, 1965, President Johnson began his escalation of U.S. forces in South Vietnam. The number of troops, most of them draftees, would climb under Johnson to 525,000 men. LBJ was sending more than half a million American boys, it seemed, to do the task he said that Asian boys ought to do.
Thus opened up the yawning chasm of the Credibility Gap. Johnson’s presidency was consumed by the Vietnam War. And Johnson himself soon was reviled by his own party’s grassroots. In 1964, his huge picture had been displayed over speaker’s rostrum at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. That floor to ceiling banner was as large as many of those that were carried in May Day parades in Moscow’s Red Square.
Just four years later, President Johnson was driven from office by opposition among Democrats. And he dared not even show his face at his party’s 1968 convention, that riotous affair in Chicago.
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