Half a century ago last week, Richard Nixon was narrowly elected president over Democrat Hubert Humphrey. In the final days of that 1968 campaign. Humphrey obtained FBI surveillance that, if disclosed, might well have defeated Nixon. But he never used it, and Nixon ran the country for nearly six years, until he was forced to resign in the Watergate scandal.
Days before the election, President Lyndon Johnson gave his vice president evidence that a Nixon agent, Chinese-born Anna Chennault, went to the South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington to convey Nixon's desire that the Saigon regime boycott Paris peace talks underway.
But Humphrey balked at disclosing Nixon's ploy, insisting he could not reveal classified information. But he also told aides, inexplicably, that he could not believe Nixon-- "Tricky Dick" he was widely called then -- would be capable of doing such a thing. In the end, however, President Nguyen Van Thieu did boycott the talks and they fell through.
Johnson in his memoir, "The Vantage Point," wrote: "I was convinced it cost Hubert Humphrey the presidency, especially since a shift of just a few hundred thousand votes would have made him the winner."
Joseph Califano, LBJ's chief domestic adviser, said in a later interview that Humphrey's failure to use the FBI surveillance "became the occasion for lasting rift" between the two men. The failure, he said, "really tore it. Johnson thought Hubert had no balls, no spine, no toughness."
Johnson told aides the scheme constituted "treason" by interfering with American foreign policy, and he believed its disclosure would have swung the close election to his vice president.
Humphrey later wrote in his memoir, "The Education of a Public Man": "I wonder if I should have blown the whistle on Anna Chennault and Nixon. He must have known of the call to Thieu. I wish I could be sure. Damn Thieu. Dragging his feet this past weekend hurt us. I wonder if that call did it. If Nixon knew. Maybe I should have blasted him anyway."
One who chose to see Humphrey in noble terms was Theodore H. White, recipient of uncommon access for his best-selling "The Making of the President" books. White conveyed Humphrey's decision in the most positive light, opining that he had acted "morally" and observing, "What could have been made of an open charge that the Nixon leaders were saboteurs of the peace one cannot guess; how quickly it might, if aired, have brought the last 48 hours of the American campaign to squalor is a matter of speculation."
White added: "But the good instinct of the small-town town boy Hubert Humphrey prevailed. ... I know of no more essentially decent story in American politics than Humphrey's refusal to do so."
After the election, Mrs. Chennault met with Nixon campaign manager John Mitchell, and according to her book he told her: "We need to do something about our friends in Saigon," to which she replied: "Do what about our friends in Saigon?" Mitchell: "Well, persuade them to go to Paris." She shot back: "You must be joking. Two weeks ago, Nixon and you were worried that they might succumb to pressure to go to Paris. What makes you change your mind all of a sudden?" The Nixon team, now preparing to assume power, seemed to be getting ready to follow the Johnson lead of seeking peace after all.
Years later, I located Chennault at her small office in Georgetown and pressed her on whether she had acted alone in contacts with Saigon. She told me: "The only people who knew about the whole operation were Nixon, John Mitchell and (U.S. Sen.) John Tower, and they're all dead. But they knew what I was doing. Anyone who knows anything about these things knows that I was getting orders to do these things, I couldn't do anything without instructions." Chennault died last year.
Whatever was in Humphrey's mind at that time, his decision not to "blow the whistle" on Nixon as an 11th hour gamble to win the 1968 election has remained a tantalizing "what if" to that most eventful and tragedy-heavy year that marked the end of the LBJ era and the start of the eventually corrupt Nixon years.
Jules Witcover's latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power," published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at email@example.com.