Other Presidents Have Retired in March of Their Reelection Year

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Written By Pinang Driod

With more than 100,000 people casting a vote against the incumbent president in the Democratic primary last week in Michigan, a swing state essential to his reelection, the wisdom of Joe Biden’s decision to face voters in November is again under intense scrutiny. Historically speaking, it isn’t too late for President Joe Biden to voluntarily drop his reelection bid. And he must know it: Two other Democratic presidents in his lifetime surprised the nation by announcing in March of an election year that they would not seek a new term.

The enormous challenges that confronted Harry Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson—wars in Korea and Vietnam—have little substantive resemblance to Biden’s current predicament. But the question Biden now faces is the same: Should he risk his presidential legacy by seeking another term in office? The events of 1952 and 1968 are as much a guide to making what is a hard, lonely decision as they are a warning: Having lost the advantages that incumbency incurs, the Democratic Party lost both of the elections that followed, and Republicans took the presidency.

The Korean War, which began with North Korea’s surprise attack on South Korea in 1950, would make Truman—the winner of a come-from-behind stunner of an election in 1948—a deeply unpopular president. By 1952, the war had become a stalemate. Truman was 67, older than Franklin D. Roosevelt had been when he died in office in 1945, but in good enough health that his age was not considered a political liability. Truman, however, was ready to end his presidency.

Although Truman was publicly noncommittal in January 1952 about seeking reelection, many insiders knew even before the start of the election year that he was thinking about retirement and his legacy. In October 1951, he had met with Chief Justice Fred Vinson and his former chief aide Clark Clifford to offer Vinson his full support if Vinson left the Supreme Court to run for president. In late January, Truman wrote to his beloved only child, Margaret, “Your dad will never be reckoned among the ‘Great’ but you can be sure he did his ‘level best’ and gave all he had to his country.” Meanwhile, also in January, Truman confided in one of the ambitious men around him, Secretary of Commerce Averell Harriman, that he was likely not going to run.

Truman understood that his political power was eroding. By early 1952, according to polls at the time, he was not even the choice of most of his party, and on January 23, Senator Estes Kefauver, a Democrat from Tennessee, announced that he would challenge Truman for the nomination. (Truman was the last possible presidential candidate to whom the Twenty-Second Amendment did not apply.) But giving up on the prospect of reelection was hard. On February 18, Truman gathered his inner circle for a dinner to discuss what he should do. His advisers were split. The characteristically decisive Truman waited to announce his intentions and courted additional political embarrassment by doing poorly in the first primary. Earlier that year, the politicos of New Hampshire had changed the rules of their first-in-the-nation primary to let voters choose presidential candidates directly, as opposed to electing delegates to vote later at the party’s convention. Perhaps Truman hoped to go out with a win. On March 11, however, Truman lost to Kefauver. A little more than two weeks later, on March 29, Truman announced his retirement. As it turned out, neither Kefauver nor the president’s favorite, Vinson, became the nominee. The governor of Illinois, Adlai Stevenson II, would lead Truman’s party that November.

Like Truman, Lyndon Johnson began considering retirement months before he made his decision and went public with it, and also like Truman, his base of voters was shrinking because of an unpopular war in Asia. But Johnson’s process was stealthier, more dramatic, and more emotional than Truman’s.

In Johnson’s mind, the question of his retirement was linked directly to what to do about his unpopular war. Johnson was convinced that Hanoi would never enter into serious negotiations with Washington if North Vietnamese leaders believed that Johnson was seeking only political gain in a presidential election year and not a lasting settlement. In late 1967, about a year before the election, Johnson asked General William Westmoreland what effect his retirement would have on troop morale in Vietnam. (Westmoreland assured him that the troops would keep fighting.) In mid-January 1968, Johnson vowed Horace Busby, his favorite speechwriter, to secrecy, telling him, “I have made up my mind. I can’t get peace in Vietnam and be president too.” Johnson asked him to write a secret coda to the State of the Union address that Johnson was to give on January 17 announcing his retirement. The statement was written, but Johnson didn’t use it.

By late March 1968, he faced two democratic challengers, Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy. In the New Hampshire primary, the protest vote against Johnson was nearly 42 percent. He once again enlisted Busby to write a secret retirement announcement, which he would append to a national TV address he was to give on the night of March 31, about Vietnam. In the weeks since the State of the Union, the president had settled a debate among his advisers in favor of offering Hanoi a halt in U.S. bombing “where 90 percent of the people live” in return for the start of serious negotiations. He didn’t poll his chief advisers about coupling that new policy with a retirement announcement. But for Johnson, in the words of the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who would later assist him with his memoirs, “by coupling this initiative with withdrawal from the presidential race, he made sure that it would not be read as a political trick. If, on the other hand, it failed to produce negotiations, at least Johnson had laid the groundwork for further escalation.”

Presidential families play a very important role in these moments of decision. Richard Nixon, the only president to resign in office, was briefly talked out of resigning when he raised the possibility with his family in the first days of August 1974. On March 31, after Johnson told his family over lunch what he was considering, his daughters argued passionately that he stay in the race. “Both of them were emotional, crying and distraught,” Lady Bird Johnson recalled in her diary. “What does this do to our servicemen?” she wondered. Both of the Johnson daughters had husbands in the U.S. military. The first lady’s reaction was more guarded: “And I, what did I feel? … so uncertain of the future that I would not dare to try to persuade him one way or the other.” There is reason to believe that the first lady didn’t need much persuading. Lady Bird couldn’t pass the portrait of Woodrow Wilson in the White House without thinking of the series of strokes Wilson had barely survived under the stress of ending World War I, leaving him incapacitated. Johnson had already suffered one massive heart attack that nearly killed him in 1957. When he ultimately decided not to run, Lady Bird wrote a friend, “I know what I always think in front of the Wilson portrait. In that face you see the toll the office and the times extracted.”

Resistance from his family and some of his advisers weakened Johnson’s certainty that he should drop his reelection bid. He told Busby—who, as the keeper of the final secret statement, stayed in the White House residence for more than 12 hours before Johnson uttered the words—that he himself wouldn’t know whether he’d go ahead with it until he reached the last line of his prepared text on the teleprompter. During the hours before the speech, Busby became the focus of those who doubted the wisdom of LBJ leaving the race. “Mr. Busby, why? Tell me why,” Johnson’s daughter Luci asked. As Johnson delayed the decision, he thought about Truman’s decision and asked for a copy of Truman’s March 29, 1952, speech. Until the moment Johnson made the announcement, around 9:40 that evening, the decision to step down and when was not fully settled in his mind.

Even though the wars that bedeviled them were eventually ended by their successors, neither Truman nor Johnson lived to see their legacy much enhanced by the manner of their withdrawal from public life. Their presidential reputations—first Truman’s, lately Johnson’s—would grow dramatically with time, but not because of how Korea and Vietnam ended. More relevant to 2024 is the fact that, in both cases, the president’s party lost that fall.

Biden’s unique challenge is that his legacy—as he likely defines it—depends on a Democrat winning this November. His candidacy in 2020 rested on a promise and an expectation that he would return us to some sense of political sanity and constitutional stability. Following Nixon’s resignation over Watergate, Gerald Ford famously said, to the everlasting annoyance of Nixonians, “Our long national nightmare is over.” And it was. But the same cannot be said today, three years after the January 6 attack on the Capitol, with the chief instigator of the insurrection about to be renominated by the Republican Party. The nightmare could quite easily resume.

President Biden certainly must know, as most every octogenarian does, that he hasn’t as much juice in the tank as he did even a decade ago. Special Counsel Robert Hur’s unkind cut was only a reminder of the obvious. And like Johnson, Biden must have a nagging sense that what he decides this spring will profoundly affect his legacy. Johnson ultimately, painfully, concluded that leaving would do more for the country and his legacy than staying. But what about Biden?

Should Biden run and lose to Donald Trump, his mandate to stabilize our country will be seen as ending in failure. Memories of his consistent efforts to lead a dignified presidency—with many remarkable legislative achievements, some bipartisan, and a strong economy—will be replaced by a caricature of a stubborn old man who clung to power with disastrous results.

Nevertheless, Biden remembers what happened after Truman and Johnson made their big retirement announcements. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower beat the Democratic nominee, Adlai Stevenson. In 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey was defeated by Nixon. Even in less fraught times, the project of preparing for presidential succession within a party is usually unsuccessful. In 1988, George H. W. Bush briefly revived the small legacy of Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson’s vice president and successor, because of the rarity of a vice president moving directly to the presidency through an election. There is no reason to believe that incumbency as the No. 2 would be enough to carry Kamala Harris to victory in what seems likely to be a close election against Trump. Had Robert Kennedy not been assassinated, there might be an example of someone outside the White House succeeding for the party after a late withdrawal, but sadly, we will never know what might have been in 1968.

Presidential prediction isn’t a science, especially when you have an N of only two. Given the risks of political failure suggested by the examples of two titans of his political childhood, Biden may, with reason, decide that the odds of success are better staying in. But these aren’t great odds either, and, unfortunately, so much rides on them.

Tim Naftali is a faculty fellow at the Institute of Global Politics at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

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