The president planned to address the nation on a spring Sunday night and speak to an urgent crisis. How he should manage the crisis had deeply divided the country. The president suffered from a huge credibility gap with voters. And it was an election year.
After speaking for about 40 minutes, the president shocked the audience, including his closest advisers.
“I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
With those words, on March 31, 1968, Lyndon Johnson pledged to spend all his time on ending the Vietnam War instead of running for a second term. In the previous three months, the Tet Offensive had shaken America and raised doubts if the long war could be won, or even ended. Tet galvanized opposition to the war and on March 12, liberal Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy captured 42 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. Johnson got 48 percent. A few days later, New York Sen. Robert Kennedy entered the race as well as another liberal, anti-war challenger to Johnson.
Johnson’s departure opened the way for his vice-president, Hubert Humphrey and a former senator from Minnesota, to run for president. In a close race, Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon. The last troops finally left Vietnam in April 1975.
Now we are in another national crisis. Americans are divided over how to solve it. How much of the country should be shut down? For how long? What should the government do to cushion the economic and social impacts? Political leaders are balancing public health with economic health.
There’s a big red state/blue state divide on many of these issues. Many of the states led by Republicans have been among the last to issue restrictions, despite advice from public health officials that Covid-19 will eventually spread everywhere. Unfortunately, they see this as a problem in the big cities that happen to be led by Democrats – New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit.
Public opinion polls show a deep divide between Republican and Democratic voters with Republicans seeing the issue as much less urgent and concerning than Democrats, although the gap is narrowing as the body count increases and confirmed cases mount everywhere.
While public health and intelligence professionals tried to deliver warnings three months ago, Donald Trump denied the facts, delayed action, deflected blame and demonized his opponents. We’re hearing reports that early in the year, advisers said “all the lights were flashing red,” words that eerily echoed warnings in the summer before 9/11.
Even as most medical professionals were warning of the spread of the virus, many of Fox News’ most prominent voices were dismissing it as a hoax in the latest attempt by Democrats and the media to hurt Trump.
Trump has spent much of his presidency seeking to undermine the credibility of the media in the eyes of his supporters. At a time when we need a common set of facts and set of information distribution channels we can trust, we don’t have them.
Trump’s daily briefings are really a weak attempt to replace arena rallies in front of his cheering, red-hatted flock. But his quips intended to demonize and divide don’t play as well in a small room of reporters.
The country needs confident, coherent and consistent leadership, not a carnival barker or insult comic. This is not the time for a leader whose signature moment is firing people on reality TV.
For years, Trump has ridiculed and attacked the so-called “deep state.” Now he needs those public health, intelligence and economic experts to handle the first crisis of his presidency that wasn’t of his own making.
Trump stakes his re-election on low unemployment, a strong stock market and hundreds of young conservatives he appointed to the federal judiciary. He’s lost two of his three arguments for re-election, although the economic trends he touts merely continued their performance since mid 2009.
It’s time for Trump to follow Johnson’s path and step back from the campaign and focus on the pandemic. He should announce that he won’t run again. If he’s worried about his future, after Nov. 3 and before Jan. 20, he should resign. Acting president Mike Pence could issue a pardon to protect him from any possible federal prosecution.
Trump could then safely self-quarantine in Mar-a-Lago.