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LBJ's River Nightmare

Dreamed March 1968, by Lyndon Baines Johnson, as told to Doris Kearns

Lyndon Baines Johnson looking tired.


Johnson found himself in an untenable position in early 1968. It was impossible to quit and impossible to stay. If he left office and went back to Texas, he would be acting like a coward; if he stayed another four years, he would be paralyzed before his term was out... No matter how hard he tried to think it out, he got nowhere. One line of action as bad as the other. No matter how hectic his activity, he could not drive the demons away. But then, Johnson explained, one day--exactly what day is not clear--he realized the total impossibility of his situation. The realization came to him in a dream.

In the dream he found himself swimming in a river. He was swimming from the center toward one shore. He swam and swam, but he never seemed to get any closer. He turned around to swim to the other shore, but again he got nowhere. He was simply going round and round in circles. The dream reminded Johnson of his grandfather's story about driving the cattle across the [Pedernales] river, where they, too, got caught in a whirl, circling round and in the same spot.
...Looking ahead to posterity, Johnson began thinking... there was still the opportunity to restore his reputation if he acted nobly at this critical moment. "If the American people don't love me, their descendants will."

Source: Doris Kearns, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, p 344.

[At the end of March, LBJ announced he would not run for re-election. It did partly salvage his reputation--if only by contrast between Johnson's mixed record (voting rights vs. Vietnam war, Medicare vs. race riots) and his successor's: Richard Nixon of Watergate fame. If fame is the word.--Ed.]



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