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DALLAS — And on that Friday afternoon, the very cars that had driven one president to Parkland Memorial Hospital were taking another president to Love Field.
It was at this moment — between Parkland Hospital and Love Field, between the Kennedy years and the Johnson era — that Liz Carpenter, a Lyndon Johnson press aide, reached into her purse and pressed her fingers around a little white card (gold lady bird on the corner) that she had brought along to be autographed by Lady Bird Johnson. She started writing out a statement. It concluded: “I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask God’s help and yours.’’
The motorcade pulled up at Air Force One, and the Johnson entourage clambered up through the rear door. Ms. Carpenter wanted to work on the statement, but she and Marie Fehmer, Mr. Johnson’s secretary, agreed: They couldn’t start typing. The typewriters belonged to the Kennedy staff.
On the plane, the Johnson entourage didn’t know what to do, what to say, where to sit. In the hospital it had been no better. The Johnsons had been shoved into a small three-room suite just inside and to the right of the hospital entrance.
Jerry Kivett, the Secret Service agent assigned to Mrs. Johnson, called to make sure that Air Force One had been fueled for a cross-country flight.
Secret Service agents had wanted to get Mr. Johnson back to Washington as soon as possible to protect him, but Mr. Johnson wanted the opinions of Lawrence O’Brien and Kenneth O’Donnell, charter members of President John Kennedy’s inner circle. They agreed: Get back, and soon.
At 1:22 p.m., Mr. Johnson asked Mr. O’Donnell about the president’s condition. Mr. O’Donnell replied briefly: “He’s gone.”
With stunning suddenness everything changed.
The president had been killed by a $12.78 mail-order rifle; the vice president was the president.
In an instant, all of the sure things that fragile people clung to were suddenly not sure at all. Yet Mr. Johnson was sure of two things. He had to show calm; his new presidency demanded it, the country demanded it. And he would not, could not, leave Texas on John F. Kennedy’s plane without Mr. Kennedy’s widow and Mr. Kennedy’s body.
As the nation experienced its first shared television moment — coverage that veteran CBS newsman Walter Cronkite would say “revolutionized television news’’ — the terrible questions accumulated.
On Air Force One, Mr. Johnson called Robert F. Kennedy, and the man who played the dual roles of chief law-enforcement officer of the United States and oldest surviving Kennedy brother was asked the most difficult question:
Where, Mr. Johnson wondered aloud, should he be sworn in?
Mr. Johnson later said that he was worried about a communist takeover of the United States and thought “the most important thing in the world was to decide who was president of this country at that moment.” Robert Kennedy advised that the oath could be performed by anyone empowered by the state of Texas to administer an oath.
But even that was difficult. There wasn’t a copy of the oath anywhere; Nicholas Katzenbach, Robert Kennedy’s deputy at the Justice Department, would have to dictate the oath over the phone, which would be typed out on a single sheet.
Meanwhile, a call went out to Judge Sarah Hughes. She wasn’t at her desk at the federal court; she had been at the Trade Mart awaiting the speech President Kennedy would never make. Impatiently, Mr. Johnson grabbed the phone and asked the clerk at her office to find her. Moments later, Judge Hughes called back. She could get to Air Force One in 10 minutes to swear in the 36th president.
Mr. Johnson called Rose Kennedy. “I wish to God there was something that I could do and that we were grieving with you,” he said to the slain president’s mother. It was too hard to say any more. Instead, he handed the telephone to his wife.
Over the Pacific, Air Force plane 58-6972, flying Secretary of State Dean Rusk and a group of top administration officials to the Far East, turned around 910 statute miles outside of Honolulu.
Before long, George Ball at the State Department was examining the way the nation buried Franklin Delano Roosevelt and was preparing a memo for Mr. Johnson urging the issuance of a proclamation calling the Monday of Mr. Kennedy’s funeral a day of national mourning, sending telegrams asking governors whether they would attend the funeral, issuing instructions to close all departments and agencies on the day of the funeral, and to have military commands fly their flags at half-staff for 30 days.
The transition from one presidency to another came in a volley of gunshots and then the horrible stillness of silence. “There was no screaming in that horrible car,” said Nellie Connally, whose husband, Gov. John Connally, had been wounded in the attack. “It was just a silent, terrible drive.”
Then, in the blue and silver jet on the tarmac, the new president was sworn in.
Through it all, Liz Carpenter’s mind raced to a remark that Lady Bird had made earlier, when the world seemed quiet and understandable: “Lyndon’s a good man in an emergency.”
America in 1963
In November, 1963, the United States was more powerful than it had ever been, more powerful than any nation had ever been. Everything about it was big — its nuclear arms, its popular culture, its colorful eccentricities, its peculiar weaknesses.
It was a huge, diverse, powerful nation: It was sending men to explore the new frontier of outer space. It was exploring its interior soul, wondering whether a nation conceived in liberty for all could continue to deny its blessings to some. It was involved in a cold struggle in Europe, especially in Berlin, and in hot struggles around the globe, especially in Congo, Laos, and, ominously, Vietnam.
Its weakness was symbolized by the missiles that, only 13 months earlier, had been assembled a brief trajectory away in Cuba. Its promise was symbolized by great wealth assembled in its cities and suburbs and harvested on its farms, but its great problems were symbolized by those in city, suburb, and farm who were clawing to be invited in — a toxic mixture that would, in the decade to come, produce the sort of domestic turmoil and national introspection that the nation had not known since the Depression.
And the fountainhead of all this, the heart of all this activity and promise and, so often, crisis and heartache, was the presidency — an office conceived in the isolation of America in the 18th century and reconstituted in the centrality of America in the middle of the 20th century.
JFK and LBJ
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The presidency John Kennedy won in the bruising 1960 election was an office of great responsibility and great resources, but the presidency that he reshaped in the three years following the election was an office of great celebrity.
Not since Franklin Delano Roosevelt had an American president been so indelibly a symbol of American promise and resolve. This president had limitations, to be sure; his tax cut was languishing in Congress, he didn’t know his own mind on civil rights, he had been routed, or at the very least deeply unsettled, by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in summit talks in Vienna.
But in his formal speeches, casual style, and televised press conferences, Mr. Kennedy was more than a president. He was a personality.
Now his reign and his era were over.
The new president lacked the polish of Mr. Kennedy and, worse yet, knew it.
Mr. Kennedy possessed the outer moral bearing of an Ivy League president, able to talk fluently about values and Voltaire. Mr. Johnson had that of a rural Southern courthouse pol, able to understand how to abuse and use worried men.
But where there was surface elegance to Mr. Kennedy, there was inner depth to Mr. Johnson.
He knew politics from its grittiest roots; he knew how to motivate men and to scare them into action. He knew Washington and its hidden, darker corners. He knew the secrets the most powerful chairmen harbored on Capitol Hill; he knew the secret levers of power that existed beyond the Constitution — indeed that sometimes existed beyond the conscience of most of the respectables in the capital.
Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Johnson both served in the House and Senate, but Mr. Johnson’s relationships on Capitol Hill were far deeper than Mr. Kennedy’s.
Of both men, and of a score of others, chairmen and powerbrokers and keepers of the faith and keepers of dark secrets, Mr. Johnson would ask more than Mr. Kennedy could and would get more.
Mr. Kennedy seemed a romantic figure, but in truth, Mr. Johnson was the more romantic.
He had a romance with Washington, with power, with the idea that it was possible to harness the tax revenues and regulatory power of the federal government and use them to transform the nation.
For him, the New Deal didn’t end with the Roosevelt years. For Mr. Johnson, the New Deal was a process, not a program. It was an idea, and the idea was as alive in Lyndon Johnson on the Friday when John Kennedy was killed as it had been in the years when Mr. Johnson ran the National Youth Administration.
In the next hours, days and weeks, Lyndon Johnson would take power by intuition.
He knew that a gentle hand was necessary. But he also knew, from his youth in Johnson City and his college days at San Marcos and his early days in the House, that a gentle hand could be a strong one, and that in this case it had to be very strong.
In his first day as president, the people around Mr. Johnson made it clear that he would symbolize change even as he sought to show continuity.
President Johnson was, to be sure, a different sort of president than his predecessor.
He understood the complexities, totems, and taboos of Congress far better than Mr. Kennedy; in his address to Congress on Nov. 27, he would say, “For 32 years, Capitol Hill has been my home.” He lacked the easy lyricism of Mr. Kennedy, but he had a gritty sense of reality, and he understood, intuitively, struggle — and though Mr. Kennedy spoke of long twilight struggles, Mr. Johnson had lived struggle.
The nation at this time was peculiarly vulnerable to Mr. Johnson’s strengths — and to his weaknesses.
Though the term did not yet exist, there did exist an American underclass, and Mr. Johnson understood the heartbreak of the striving. Though the term was not yet widely employed, there did exist a minority consciousness, and Mr. Johnson knew the agony of the life of the black and the brown. He wanted to ease their way.
The civil-rights movement of bus strikes and lunch counter sit-ins had, by 1963, matured, its various elements more united, more willing to move from demonstration to confrontation.
These confrontations began in the fateful year of 1963, particularly in Birmingham, and they spread, through word of mouth and the pulpit and television and the power of conscience.
Mr. Johnson understood that this movement had moral authority even if local authorities did not, and he thought government should be its ally.
Then there were the weaknesses. They grew from his sense of insecurity and insularity. He didn’t know the world, and he knew that was a weakness in a job where it was important to know French President Charles de Gaulle and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and understand the impulses of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, Fidel Castro in Cuba, and Mao Tse-Tung in China.
The realities and rhetoric of real politics were foreign to him, and while he relied on his instincts in domestic affairs, he didn’t dare do so abroad. Vietnam was a faraway country of which he knew nothing. Worse yet, everything he knew was processed and distilled into an American model.
He would show his strength in Vietnam — his fortitude, his toughness — but in determining to show his strength, he would in fact underline his weakness.
He would not be defeated in Vietnam; he feared Republicans, impeachment, the verdict of history. He would press on, though his instincts were skeptical to the core.
Man in a hurry
From the very start, Mr. Johnson was an old man in a hurry.
He knew intuitively that the nation’s wound was the nation’s opening, believing that if he could only move deftly and quickly enough, he might move the country. Time and again he would admonish his staff: We have a very limited window to make a difference. “He knew,” his daughter, Luci Johnson, told me in an interview, “the beginning was when he had the best chance.”
Mr. Johnson entered office in the most strained of circumstances, taking the oath in Air Force One while the blood-stained widow of his predecessor looked on and as the shocked world trembled.
Within hours, his advisers, a mix of Johnson loyalists and Kennedy holdovers, told him that Mr. Kennedy’s commitment to civil-rights legislation was a threat to his presidency, then regarded as fragile and temporary.
They counseled him that as a Southern president who hadn’t been elected, he had every excuse to put the legislation aside. He asked what the presidency was for if not for urgent national priorities such as civil rights.
To John Kenneth Galbraith, he said: “I want to come down very hard on civil rights, not because Kennedy was for it but because I am for it.”
On his first day in the White House, Mr. Johnson was a whirlwind, doing himself what White House staffs had been accustomed to do for the president.
He called to speak with the widow of J.D. Tippit, the Dallas police officer killed by Lee Harvey Oswald after the assassination. He made sure a general was dispatched to greet former President Harry Truman on his arrival in Washington. He contacted John Oakes at the New York Times to talk about the paper’s editorial stance toward the new administration. He asked Mr. Rusk and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to stay on, telling Mr. McNamara: “There must be no move that would ever remotely lead others to think that our policies of strength are changing.’’
He wrote the Kennedy children separate handwritten notes. He opened his first cabinet meeting by saying: “The president is dead. The president must keep the business of this government moving.”
Mr. Johnson’s Saturday schedule alone was daunting, and a measure of how furiously and thoroughly he worked to consolidate his hold on the office.
At 10 a.m. he met with National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, CIA Director John McCone, Attorney General Kennedy, press secretary Pierre Salinger, and Jack Valenti, a special assistant to the new president.
The president, at the request of Arthur Goldberg (JFK’s former labor secretary turned Supreme Court justice), called labor leader George Meany, saying that he knew he could count on the support of organized labor.
After public services at St. John’s Church in Lafayette Square, he met with former President Dwight Eisenhower for 20 minutes and then had phone conversations with congressional leaders, asking whether he ought to address a joint session of Congress the day after the funeral; with Fred Kappel of AT&T, asking support of the business community; with Sen. Ralph Yarborough of Texas, who offered to “close ranks”; and with Sen. George Smathers of Florida, whom Mr. Johnson quizzed about the status of the Kennedy tax bill.
Many national leaders called him — Sen. Warren Magnuson of Washington, with words of encouragement, Gov. George Romney of Michigan, with prayers. In the afternoon, he met with Mr. Truman. In the evening, he checked in on Mrs. Connally in Texas.
Before the day was out, he wrote Mrs. Tippit, concluding: “If there is any solace in a dark hour like this, let it be the fact that your husband’s bravery and his dedication to his country and his President will be an inspiration to law enforcement officers everywhere.”
Though notes of a meeting of foreign-policy specialists on Mr. Johnson’s second day as president show the new chief executive expressing misgivings about Vietnam (and suggesting he wasn’t sure the United States was right in upending Ngo Dinh Diem earlier that month), a Vietnam memorandum Mr. Johnson signed on his second day as president would shape his entire presidency, and repercussions from it would be felt unto this day.
From the very beginning, Mr. Johnson’s aides were worrying about his image and helping to sculpt it.
In a memo written Nov. 24, aide Horace Busby discouraged the tempting notion to have present and past LBJ associates go on television to provide insights into the new president. Mr. Busby to Mr. Johnson: “Nobody associated with you should make any kind of appearances until your own image and impact on the land is firmly established.’’
A day later, the day of Mr. Kennedy’s burial, CBS correspondent Nancy Dickerson wrote the president a brief typewritten note: “As far as the press is concerned, the period of mourning ends this afternoon. Your press organization must begin NOW.’’
But already, Lyndon B. Johnson had taken command.
Portions of this essay appeared originally in Mr. Shribman’s contribution to “The Great Society and the High Tide of Liberalism,” a collection of essays published by University of Massachusetts Press.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. David M. Shribman is the executive editor of the Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.