December 8, 2016

1965. President Johnson Undergoes Surgery

The World-Shaking Power of the White House
President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson at a Cabinet meeting on May 25, 1961 (Photograph by Abbie Rowe - source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

October 6, 1965

Some day historical researchers are going to make a study of how world history has been changed by the phobias and diseases of the men and women who have led and pushed mankind throughout the centuries. For example, if Alexander the Great had not suffered from epilepsy, would he have continued his push to conquer India and China?

What if England's Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I, had been able to settle down to royal motherhood; or was it nymphomania that drove her to prove her superiority over men and thus restore Britain as a leading world power?

If Napoleon had not suffered the never ending irritation of shingles and attendant skin ailments, would he have possessed the patience to delay that fatal winter campaign against Moscow?

How much did the agonizing carbuncles and ever-festering boils affect the thinking of Karl Marx and his vindictive dreams of world revolution through an infectious philosophy called Communism?

And supposing Adolf Hitler had not been a paranoid megalomaniac, would Europe and Russia today be ruled by Nazi Gauleiters?

Such ruminations always come to mind when a world leader is stricken with illness; although official Washington seems to be taking the impending hospitalization of Lyndon Johnson with outward calm. However, it is inevitable that the offending cluster of gallstones which is forcing President Johnson onto the operating table already is of international concern. The ailing Presidential gallbladder already is influencing the pace of history, even though there is no reason to doubt the assurances of White House doctors that Mr. Johnson will be only temporarily inconvenienced by the operation.

But even temporary disability of a President of the United States has tremendous impact everywhere. That was the reason for the airtight White House security which kept Mr. Johnson's secret for almost a month until a firm hospital date could be arranged. Yesterday the announcement was delayed several times because the administration wanted to wait until all stock market operations on the West Coast were closed.

Any sudden upset of Presidential routine has always had a disturbing effect on the rumor-prone stock speculators. But given overnight to absorb the news, Wall Street and other stock trading centers across the country accepted the facts calmly and without panic. The market held generally steady today. So did everyone else. There were no sensational or damaging rumors to obscure the plain and simple truth about Mr. Johnson's condition.

But it is a fact of international life in this nuclear age that all nations live in a constant state of diplomatic and political jitters. The recent events in Indonesia provide evidence of this, and also proof of the damage that can be done by unfounded reports and self-serving rumors.

Like President Johnson, Indonesia's President Sukarno has troubles with his innards. For years, Sukarno has been suffering from kidney stones, and at the age of 64  his penchant for lovely ladies and high living are beginning to take their toll. Last week, rumors spread through the capital city of Jakarta and throughout the Indonesian islands that President Sukarno was dead—or dying.

The skillful and wily hand of the so-called "George Washington of Indonesia" had lost its grip, so the rumors went, thus Sukarno's control over the various military and political factions which held the nation together was no more. But now it develops that the Indonesian President is still very much alive. However, for several days there was bitter fighting throughout the country. How many persons that unfounded death report has killed is still unknown. A half dozen officers of Sukarno's Army general staff were shot. Now, the Indonesian President is occupied with trying to stave off a civil war.

By contrast, President Johnson today moved obviously and deliberately to prove to the world that his is no "diplomatic illness;" that medical surgery is not being used as an excuse for a change of leadership in the United States government. That's the reason for the vigorous walk around the White House grounds this morning and a stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue—so that not only reporters, but the people could see him. Mr. Johnson followed up this exercise with a surprise visit to a National Press Club luncheon, just in case some news cameras might have missed him. If this seems to be taking exaggerated and unnecessary trouble to prove the obvious, remember that, as pointed out earlier, these are jittery and suspicious times.

All White House actions from here on out will be designed to demonstrate that when the President of the United States goes under the knife on Friday morning there will be no wavering in American power, and no pause or change in U.S. goals. In fact, so mistrustful are these days of our years that, by Friday, more extensive preparations will be ordered to protect the United States. If precedent is followed—as in the illnesses of President Eisenhower and the executive crisis during the Kennedy assassination—America's Strategic Air Force will go on 24-hour special alert at air bases around the world, as will the Polaris-loaded nuclear submarine fleet spread over the Seven Seas, along with Minuteman intercontinental missile bases in this country.

No one will dare mess with the United States while her President is ill.

This is Bill Downs, substituting for Edward P. Morgan, saying good night from Washington.
President Lyndon Johnson at the 1965 inaugural ball following his reelection, January 20, 1965 (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

October 7, 1965

For an unpredictable number of hours tomorrow, the awesome powers of the Presidency of the United States technically will be in the hands of Hubert Horatio Humphrey, who will be Acting President of the nation while Lyndon Johnson undergoes surgery.

If we know Mr. Humphrey as well as we think we do, the Man from Minnesota will spend that time praying to speed the moment when he can become just plain Vice President again.

The Constitutional dilemma which has plagued the federal government for some 175 years—and through more than a half dozen known Presidential disability crises—that legal dilemma still remains. Because the Constitution states clearly that "the Executive Power shall be invested in a President"—one man, no more.

Almost as an afterthought the Constitution adds that in case of a President's "inability" to perform his duties, then the powers of the office shall "devolve" on the Vice President. But nowhere does the document define what constitutes "disability."

President Eisenhower made an agreement with Richard Nixon during his illnesses which attempted to clarify the situation. Nixon would become "Acting President" when Mr. Eisenhower judged himself unable to serve. Or the Vice President would, after proper consultation, himself serve as Acting President if Mr. Eisenhower was too ill to inform Nixon of the disability. In any case, Mr. Eisenhower reserved the right to determine when his disability had ended and when he would resume the full powers of the office.

The late President Kennedy had a similar agreement with Lyndon Johnson. And when President Johnson moved into the White House to complete the Kennedy term, he had the same compact with House Speaker John McCormack. A similar agreement now exists between Messrs. Johnson and Humphrey—a pact that is reassuring and binding between two men of honor. But for the future it carries no legal authority, which means that under present conditions the nation is lucky to have gentlemen instead of scoundrels sharing the world-shaking power of the White House.

In fact, the nation has had a 175-year run of luck because, as the Constitution now stands, the way is open for unprincipled men to exploit a President's disability, perhaps even refuse to return his Executive Power. In fact it's farfetched, but still a possibility that enough highly-placed conspirators could stage a coup to seize control of the Executive branch of the government.

It took President Eisenhower's 1955 heart attack to make Congress and the public aware of the problem, but it was the Kennedy assassination that jolted Capitol Hill to act on Presidential succession.

As you know, earlier this year Congress approved a proposal for a 25th Amendment to the Constitution—a measure which thus far has been ratified by the legislatures of eight states. It's a complicated but important proposal. Under the terms of the new Amendment, the President could declare himself unable to perform his duties—then the Vice President would take over as Acting President.

Or, if the President was so injured or so ill that he was unable to affirm his own disability, the Amendment provides that the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet—or "another body" designated by the Congress—could declare the President to be disabled. In either circumstance, the President would resume his Executive Powers upon his own declaration that he was again fit to serve.

However, if at that point the Vice President and the Cabinet still considered their Chief Executive unable or unfit to conduct the White House office, they would have four days to notify the Congress. The House and the Senate then would have 48 hours to convene and then consider whether the President—or whether his Cabinet—was making the correct diagnosis and judgment. Congress would have 21 days to reach a decision.

In giving overwhelming passage to the proposed Amendment, the Congress sought to block any chance of a so-called "internal coup" at the White House—a possibility considered extremely remote in the political fishbowl that is official Washington. However, the Presidential Succession Amendment probably will not get the necessary two-thirds ratification by the 38 states it needs until some time in 1967. Meanwhile, the question of Executive disability will continue to hang in the present legal limbo.

Meanwhile, the nation will wait and pray tomorrow while the White House doctors perform the gallbladder operation on President Johnson. Scheduled to begin at 7:30 a.m., the ordeal should be over in some two hours. One thing about these Presidential illnesses, they do provide the public a short course in specialized medicine. The nation already is well-informed about heart attacks, about ileitis, about Presidential head colds; now the gallbladder.

We wish President Johnson good luck with his.

This is Bill Downs, substituting for Edward P. Morgan, saying good night from Washington.