A Presidential Story: When Power Eludes

Lyndon Johnson
President Lyndon Johnson is shown grinning while visiting his ranch in Stonewall, Texas, on August 10, 1966. (AP Photo)

 

Election years remind me of a friend who tells the story of once going camping with a buddy at Big Bend National Park in Southwest Texas. The year was 1970 and all was quite except for the squawks of the soaring turkey buzzards. The two men were interested in history, so both were well aware that they were near former President Lyndon Johnson’s ranch. Two years prior, Johnson had lived in the White House but decided not to run for another term. On Jan. 20, 1969, Richard Nixon was inaugurated as the new president. Later that day, the TV cameras showed Johnson and his family climbing aboard Air Force One for the ride back home. A few well-wishers stood nearby. One, mindful of Johnson’s Texas roots, held a sign saying, “Via Con Dios LBJ!”

During Johnson’s presidency, the Texas ranch had been the site of global activity and buzzed with the urgency of high office. This day the ranch area had become just another lonely place in the sun. The two friends drove along the Pedernales River until they could see the ranch of the other side in the distance. They stopped to take pictures. There they saw some action. A tall man wearing a Stetson hat came out of the house and motioned to another man. The tall man pointed in the direction of the men on the other side of the Pedernales. At that point, the person who Johnson was talking to, rushed to a jeep and quickly headed toward the river. There was no bridge, but he crossed the water anyway via an unseen road built just below the water top. And then the Jeep headed toward the two campers. The driver pulled out a badge and identified himself as being with the secret service. “The President saw the two of you,” the agent explained, “and he was concerned. He wanted me to check.” The agent seemed a little embarrassed. He knew that the campers were just talking pictures and politely urged that they move on.

All went smoothly, but my friend was affected by the moment. “Here was a man who a couple of years earlier had been the most powerful person in the world,” the friend said. “He commanded the full force of the United States military in Vietnam. Now he was busy sending a solitary agent after us.” The friend conceded that after camping in the dessert he and his buddy both looked scruffy, but as the agent knew, scruffiness was not a crime. (I have wondered if that night over dinner Johnson reported to his wife, Lady Bird, that he had ordered the secret service to root out some invaders.)

Power shifts, sometimes dramatically. Johnson was a good President on domestic issues, including steering the passage of John Kennedy’s landmark Civil Rights legislation, but he was befuddled by Vietnam. That was a war that the United States had the resources to win militarily but that just could not be won diplomatically. Richard Nixon faced the same quagmire, plus the Watergate issue. He served a full term and should have stopped there. On Aug. 9, 1974, during his second term, he left Washington after resigning because of the Watergate scandal.

On the morning of his resignation, Nixon and his family climbed aboard Air Force One. At noon exactly, his resignation took effect as he flew over the country he had just governed. As though through some mystical transference of authority, Gerald Ford took control. Richard Nixon could begin a quiet life perhaps, like Lyndon Johnson, longing to hear again the call to battle.

 

 

 

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