Johnson to Nixon: Brookings and the 1968-69 Presidential Transition

November 12, 2008

President Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election in 1968 preceded one of the most wrenching campaigns in American history, encompassing the assassinations of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and culminating in a bitter three-way campaign among Republican Richard Nixon, Democrat Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace running as a third-party candidate.

Nixon prevailed. The new president confronted an unpopular war in Vietnam, uncertainty about Johnson’s Great Society initiatives on the home front and a restless, deeply divided populace.

Then-Brookings President Kermit Gordon decided the Institution could best advise the president-elect by focusing on pressing policy issues.##1##He gathered 18 experts—including Brookings scholars Charles L. Schultze, Herbert Stein and James L. Sundquist—to put together Agenda for the Nation, a collection of essays on policy recommendations for the White House. Anthony Downs, who would later join Brookings in 1977, also contributed to the work.

Gordon felt addressing domestic policy was particularly vital for the incoming administration, referring to what he called the central paradox of American society: “On the one hand, we are a nation which sees itself as wracked and divided over problems of poverty, riots, race, slums, unemployment, and crime; on the other hand, we are a nation which is clearly enjoying high prosperity, rapid economic growth, and a steady diffusion of affluence at a rate almost unimaginable a decade ago.” Schultze, Stein, Sundquist and Downs all wrote articles addressing domestic policy and strategies for improving Johnson’s Great Society programs.

In “Budget Alternatives after Vietnam,” Schultze set forth a series of recommendations to reduce military spending by promoting initiatives to limit U.S. and Soviet strategic forces and reevaluate U.S. foreign commitments. He also suggested a rigorous screening of existing federal programs such as farm price-support programs and the space program. Stein’s essay, “Unemployment, Inflation, and Economic Stability,” made suggestions for stabilizing inflation without increasing unemployment. In “Jobs, Training, and Welfare for the Underclass,” Sundquist called for equalizing access to public services through infrastructure and community outreach programs so that more non-metropolitan areas could utilize these services. Downs’ article, “Moving toward Realistic Housing Goals,” addressed Johnson’s Model Cities Program, and his recommendations focused on securing financing for the program, encouraging technological innovation and administrative reform to promote federal coordination.

With Agenda for the Nation, Brookings helped set out a policy framework for an administration in tumultuous times, and contributed to the debate over the controversial policy issues of the day. The effort would be repeated 35 years later when a new Agenda for the Nation was published by the Brookings Institution.