and the Transformation of American Politics (2017)
Just a few hours later, LBJ received reports that the Nixon campaign, specifically the campaign manager, John Mitchell, was trying to scuttle the peace talks. Then Secretary of State Dean Rusk told LBJ that Thieu had balked, saying there wasn’t enough time for him to get his diplomats to Paris. LBJ was in a frenzied hurry trying to figure out what Nixon was up to. LBJ called the FBI, and soon agents were surveilling Anna Chennault and the South Vietnamese Embassy in DC. The FBI reported that Chennault had spent thirty minutes with Ambassador Diem at the South Vietnamese Embassy. LBJ called Senator Everett Dirksen (R; Illinois) to give him fragments of what he knew, hoping that Dirksen would scare Nixon into backing off; LBJ didn’t mention any criminal aspects to Dirksen, just the political risks of what Nixon was doing.
It took an open letter from prominent Civil Rights leaders, which in essence “triple-dog-dared” McCarthy to do the right thing and support Humphrey for Civil Rights reasons. To McCarthy, he now had a way out, in that in his mind, Civil Rights trumped his Grant Park pledge, so one week before the election, McCarthy officially endorsed Humphrey. McCarthy stated that Humphrey had a better understanding of the domestic needs of the nation, and that he would reduce military tensions. Then in the same breath, McCarthy stated that he would not run for re-election in the Senate in 1970, and that he would not be a candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1972; eleven months after he announced his candidacy, McCarthy announced the end of his political career.
On that same day, Anna Chennault called Ambassador Diem at the South Vietnamese Embassy; LBJ knew she had done so since the FBI had wiretapped the Embassy’s phones. LBJ was informed that Chennault told Diem to “please tell your boss to hold on”. LBJ had unwittingly empowered Thieu to have more power in determining the outcome of the Election of 1968 than the President; LBJ’s announcement of a bombing halt now appeared to be a lame and desperate Democratic campaign tactic. With the election just three days away, LBJ had been humiliated and he simply didn’t know what to do, especially in terms of acknowledging how he knew what Nixon had done, since that meant admitting that the FBI used illegal wiretaps on foreign embassies.
LBJ told Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen as much as he felt he could, and then asked Dirksen to let Nixon know that the President knew about the sabotage of the peace talks. Nixon appeared on Meet the Press and covered himself by supporting LBJ’s efforts at peace. After that appearance, Nixon called LBJ, and the call went so well as far as Nixon was concerned that when he hung up, he and his staffers burst into laughter.
But Nixon also knew that he was committing the “Perfect Crime”, in that he would not face any exposure or penalty since LBJ would not expose Nixon for the good of the nation; if Nixon was exposed and he won the election, then the impeachment and removal of a new President was a real possibility. It wouldn’t be until 2017 when some of H.R. Haldeman’s (he was Nixon’s Chief of Staff from 1969 - 1973) notes from the 1968 campaign were discovered that proved Nixon’s role in the crime (in 1977, Nixon flatly denied having any connection with the South Vietnamese government). The final Gallup poll before the election had Nixon at 43%, Humphrey at 42%, and Wallace at 15%. The Humphrey campaign knew they had momentum, but they also knew they would most likely be short a few, or even one, campaign days (that was the price the Democratic Party faced in scheduling the Democratic National Convention so late in the Summer of 1968; one wonders if Humphrey understood that he had waited far too long to distance himself from LBJ on Vietnam).
Again, a Presidential Election that involved Nixon was decided by less than 1% of the popular vote, with Nixon at .434, Humphrey at .427, and Wallace at .135 (Electoral College: Nixon 301, Humphrey 191, Wallace 46; States Carried: Nixon 32, Humphrey 13 + DC, Wallace 5). Humphrey became the second sitting Vice-President to lose a Presidential Election (Nixon was the first in 1960). Nixon’s Inauguration on 20 January 1969 was the first to attract protesters (8000 or so; over 100,000 protesters showed up for Nixon’s 2nd Inauguration). Although Nixon’s fall from grace was due to the Watergate Scandal, he was never held to account for his crime that really mattered during the Campaign of 1968.