Pitching the Presidency: How Presidents Depict the Office

By Paul Haskell Zernicke | Go to book overview

4
Presidents on the Presidency

Former President Lyndon Johnson agreed to address the Cook County Democrats at a dinner scheduled for May 1, 1970. It would prove to be poor timing for his first public speech since leaving office. For on the evening of April 30, 1970 incumbent President, Richard Nixon, announced to the nation that American military forces had crossed the Vietnamese border into Cambodia. Johnson aide James Rowe had already summarized the delicate nature of Vietnam one week before the Nixon bombshell, telling Johnson that "the nature of the occasion somewhat narrows an ex-president's subjects. Obviously you can not talk about Vietnam. The audience would want you to be critical of President Nixon but, by temperament and somewhat general agreement, you would have no intention of doing so. They certainly would not want to hear you 'support' a Republican President at such a gathering!" 1

Johnson was faced with the prospect of addressing a Democratic audience he desperately wanted to unify, but one that would assuredly be critical of Nixon's decision. William Jorden, an aide to the former president, suggested that Johnson address the Cambodian issue separately by responding, "Gentlemen, we only have one president. He is Commander in Chief," and then proceed to note that as a private American citizen Johnson naturally supports the President. 2

An insert on Cambodia was prepared and added to Johnson's speech. He also made several last-minute revisions which included replacing the pronoun "his" with "Our President's," in the initial plea for understanding the agonizing decisions that now confronted Nixon. Johnson could not ask his Democratic audience to be patient with a Republican antagonist named Richard Nixon. But he could ask them to understand the difficult decisions

-35-

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