The President of the United States, sleeping in the White House, is visited by a harrowing dream. He is, in the dream as in reality, in this very bed. His head is his own craggy Texas calabash, but his body is the stroke-at-rophied form of Woodrow Wilson. In his dream Johnson can hear his aides in the next room, divvying up his powers; bellicose Rostow claims State and the war; liberal Califano dibs the Hill and all laws for the good of the people; practical Okun wants the budget; Christian of the fat tongue opts for the neat job of closing the credibility gap. Johnson can hear these ingrate vultures but cannot cry out to them, cannot move. No aide comes to his bedside to reassure him and thank him and love him. He lies in an unbearably lonely palsy of body and will.
He wakes up, hearstick and frightened. He rises, tests his legs; they bear his depressed weight. He flicks on a small flashlight and walks the halls of the White House in his pajamas until he funds the portrait of Woodrow Wilson.He touches his fingers to the canvas. That is Wilson; that is the one who was paralyzed in office and has been long dead. The man with his fingertips on the painting satisfies himself that he still has all his powers of limb and office.
He shuffles back to his room, lies down, drifts fitfully off. . . .
This dream of March, 1968, which Lyndon Johnson much later described to a friend, condensed all the frustrations the President must have felt in that dark corner of that plague year. What a complex man! For all his grown life all he had wanted-but he had wanted it with a feral wrath that had gouged into his face the lines of a truly burnt-out case-was to help sufferers, to bind the wounds of the poor, to give a friendly open hand to all who were oppressed. Yet he was personally a brute, a macho braggart, a cowboy proud to gallop flat out in the dark over terrain pocked with the diggings of prairie dogs. His heroes, though, were two who became criples, Wilson and Roosevelt. He had wanted with all his heart to be remembered as their peer in the bestowal on mankind of peace and social justice-and found himself instead up to his ass, as he himself would have said, in Tets and My Lais. Yet Vietnam, too, had thrilled him. Visiting there, he had urged men's to "come home with that coonskin on the wall," had boasted to the troops that "my great-great-grandfather died at the Almao" (this happened to be untrue, but mere truth to such a fabulist must have seemed a week reed), and when a helpful soldier before a takeoff pointed and said, "Sir, there's your helicopter," the Commander-in-Chief replied, "Son, they're all my helicopters." Nonetheless, his sincerity about the Great Society and the War on Poverty remained palpable-always on the verge of turning sour because no one in the whole land knew how to say, "Thank you, Lyndon Johnson." He would cut up reporters for "chicken-shit" questions, would not allow photographers to snap the less good-looking right side of his face, let people be reminded that he had run a tight little blackmail mill when he had been boss of the Senate, and loved to shock priggish types of both sexes by conducting business in the bathroom, while bestriding the john and relieving himself of all sorts of aggressions.
In March, 1968, this man was too large to be merely pathetic or awful; there was a high note of hurt hope and misery in him as he stumbled and fell. He had wanted so much for his country. As always, the harbingers of tragedy were in themselves ragged, piecemeal things. In Lyndon Johnson's case: Tet; McCarthy in New Hampshire; a Gallup poll (approval of LBJ's handling of the Presidency fallen from 48 percent to 36 percent, of his handling of the war, from 40 percent to 26 percent); Life, Time, Look, Newsweek, CBS, NBC-all coming out against the war. And finally, Bobby's hat in the ring. Ever since the humiliations of the Vice Presidency, Lyndon Johnson had nursed fear and loathing of Camelot, of Harvard, of Eastern money and wit, explicity of Kennedy charisma and power-savvy. Bobby's announcement threw the cowboy from his mount.
So it came about that on the evening of March 31, impelled by the memory of the hideous dream of paralysis, Lyndon Johnson chose, at the very end of a long broadcast to the nation mostly concerned with efforts to bring peace to Vietnam and promising a partial halt in the bombing of the North, to drill the camera lens with unforgiving eyes and to say, very slowly.
"I have concluded that I shoud not pemit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year. With America's sons in the field far away, with America's future under challenge here at home, with our hopes and the world's hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office-the Presidency of your country. Accordingly I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President. . . ."
McCarthy and his children's crusade win in Winsconsin. . . . 2001: A Space Odyssey is released; Rolling Stones calls it "a real chromosome-jerker." . . . The unmanned Saturn 5 test fails. . . .