The World Leader Who Didn’t Attend CHURCHILL’S Funeral

[This column is currently posted at TOWNHALL.COM]

Why did one of the most politically savvy leaders ever to occupy the White House—Lyndon Baines Johnson—decide not to attend the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965? And why didn’t he send his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey?  Questions remain nearly 49 years later.

Nearly 100 world leaders are now making their way to South Africa for the state funeral of Nelson Mandela. It will be a who’s who of global power-players. It’s important for them to be there, because it’s a risky thing to miss a great man’s funeral.

Obama_Bush_and_Clinton_discuss_the_2010_Haiti_earthquakePresident Obama invited George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and their wives, to join him on Air Force One for the trek to Johannesburg. When Anwar Sadat was assassinated in October 1981, President Ronald Reagan’s security team strongly advised against him traveling to Egypt.

That was just a few months after Reagan was seriously wounded and barely escaped death at the hands of a would-be assassin, so the concerns were understandable. Mr. Reagan decided to play a “Presidential Hat Trick.” And the next day Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Richard Nixon boarded the presidential jet for the journey. Because Secretary of State Alexander Haig was “head” of the official delegation, he claimed the President’s Quarters for himself, leaving the three formers to make do in coach.

Churchill died at the age of 90 on January 24, 1965, after a series of debilitating strokes. His final illness became an international vigil for nearly two weeks, so there was plenty of time for world governments to prepare.

In fact, the British government had been prepared for a long time. More than ten years earlier, at the direction of Queen Elizabeth II, a plan called, “Operation Hope Not” had been developed for Winston’s eventual passing.

US President Lyndon B. Johnson delivers a speech 2Lyndon Johnson was inaugurated for a full term on January 20, 1965, following his landslide electoral victory the previous November. He was at the top of his political game and riding high in the polls. But a few days later, on the night Churchill died, LBJ called seven reporters to his bedroom at the White House and told them that his doctors had advised him not to fly to London. He said: “I don’t have the bouncy feeling that I usually have.”

Presumably because “no bouncy feeling” isn’t an actual recognized disease, the “official” diagnosis was a bad cold.

He also told them that he was not sending Vice President Humphrey, but instead he would send Secretary of State Dean Rusk (who didn’t actually attend either, citing illness) and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.  Johnson also noted that former President Eisenhower was attending as a private citizen. The grand farewell for Churchill was a global media event, watched on television by more people than President Kennedy’s funeral fourteen months earlier.

The reporters at his bedside described Johnson as looking “sicker” than they had expected: “Hair disheveled, he lay in a four-poster, canopied bed speaking softly, coughing lightly from time to time and blowing his nose.”

Johnson was widely criticized—here and abroad—for his failure to make the trip.  Many in the British government saw it as a slight. And in some ways it represented a minor setback in American/Anglo relations at a crucial time in the Cold War.

Some of President Johnson’s biographers take great pains to write about the man’s energy and perseverance. For example, Robert A. Caro writes in his tome, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate, about how the man had regularly “refused to allow the illness to interfere” with his work habits. And how LBJ drove himself “mercilessly” even when he was supposed to be ill, with aides wondering, “how could a man have such energy if there was something seriously wrong with him?”

This description flies in the face of the image Johnson projected to the journalists that day.

A couple of weeks later, in a White House press conference, Johnson seemed to reveal a hint of thin skin when he was asked about his decisions related to Churchill’s funeral:

“I am glad to have the press reactions and the reactions abroad on the protocol involved in connection with funerals…In the light of your interest and other interests, I may have made a mistake by asking the Chief Justice to go and not asking the Vice President. I will bear in mind in connection act in accordance with our national interest.”

Soon after Johnson’s non-apology apology, someone coined the term “credibility gap” and affixed it to Lyndon Johnson. As with many things about LBJ, the truth is elusive.

Mandela’s Secret

Nelson Mandela was a giant, a colossus who seemed to stand astride history and above the everyday. His passing at the age of 95 is being marked by expressions of condolence and admiration from around the world.

As I’ve reflected on this man’s life, I’m drawn to how he managed to emerge from unspeakable pain and persecution without the baggage of bitterness and malice. This is not only a great example of practical character and grace—it’s also likely one of the keys to Mandela’s greatness.

N.Mandela in his cell on Robben Island (revisit} 1994The evening before his release from 27 years in prison, Mandela met with South African President F.W. de Klerk. They had an extraordinary conversation. It was Saturday, February 10, 1990.

A week earlier, De Klerk had made a public pledge that Mandela would be released from incarceration, but he gave no specific timetable, so the prisoner was surprised when the President told him that he would be freed the next day.  In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote: “I deeply wanted to leave prison as soon as I could, but to do so on such short notice would not be wise,” adding, “I thanked Mr. de Klerk, and then said that at the risk of appearing ungrateful I would prefer to have a week’s notice in order that my family and my organization could be prepared.”

The President was surprised by Mandela’s request and turned him down. He insisted that the prisoner would have to leave the next day. It was just one more indignity. Then de Klerk offered Mandela a glass of whiskey—maybe it was a peace offering of sorts.

Mandela had become the iconic face of global opposition to the very idea of apartheid since his imprisonment in 1964. He spent most of his prison life on Robben Island, laboring in a limestone quarry.  And the man, who would ultimately embody the political transformation of his country, began that process by somehow turning his prison cell into a place of personal progress. As his legend grew—the mystique that would one day fuel his political presence and power—so did the man himself.

How do we know this?  Well, because Nelson Mandela clearly learned and was determined to demonstrate one of the most important lessons in life, that being—no matter how much you know, or how gifted you are, all of your potential can be squandered if sacrificed on the altar of pettiness, bitterness, and a lack of personal grace and mercy.

This capacity is what made Lincoln great with his words about having “malice for none and charity for all.” And in contrast, the lack of this quality brought down one of our U.S. Presidents, Richard Nixon, who seemed to grasp the concept too late when he said upon resigning from office in 1974: “Always remember, others may hate you, but they don’t win, unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.”

In contrast to the all-too-common human tendency to bear grudges and harbor resentment, Nelson Mandela had something different in mind when he emerged from captivity on February 11, 1990. He said it this way: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Indeed.