How Lyndon Johnson handled transition of presidency

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 the 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, in pencil, 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. Carpenter wanted to work on the statement, but she and Marie Fehmer, Johnson's secretary, agreed: They couldn't start typing. The typewriters belonged to the Kennedy staff, not to the Johnson staff.

Plane that transported JFK from Dallas to D.C. on display

The plane that carried the body of President John F. Kennedy from Dallas to Washington, D.C., is at the National Museum of the United States Air Force near Dayton, Ohio. Visitors are able to tour the plane. (Video by Michael Henninger; 11/17/2013)

President Kennedy's visit to Pittsburgh

PG executive editor David Shribman discusses the significance of President John F. Kennedy's visit to Pittsburgh in 1962. (Video by Steve Mellon; 8/8/2012)

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, sitting among tables and stools, the drapes pulled shut.

Jerry D. Kivett, the Secret Service agent assigned to Lady Bird, called to make sure that Air Force One had been moved out of terrorist range and had been fueled for a cross-country flight.

Secret Service agents had wanted to get Johnson back to Washington as soon as possible -- the better to protect him, they said with remarkable urgency and unanimity -- but Johnson wanted the opinions of Lawrence O'Brien and Kenneth P. O'Donnell, charter members of Kennedy's inner circle.

They agreed: Get back, and soon.

At 1:22, Johnson asked O'Donnell about the president's condition. O'Donnell replied briefly but unforgettably: "He's gone."

With stunning suddenness everything changed. The Johnsons had planned a weekend with the Kennedys at the Johnson ranch. All the arrangements had been made.

Even the demonstration of ranch roping, herding and pistol shooting was set. The ranch staff knew, for example, that Mrs. Kennedy smoked Salems; that the president liked creamed soups for lunch; that the water in the president's room should be tepid, not iced; that Mrs. Kennedy preferred terry cloth hand towels, not smooth linen ones; that the president favored bloody Marys or daiquiris for lunch, maybe scotch for dinner, and that Mrs. Kennedy liked champagne on the rocks before dinner. Everything was ready, all was in place.

Now the president had been killed by a $12.78 mail-order rifle, the vice president was the president, Mrs. Johnson had become a public figure, and the Johnson girls' lives were upended.

Luci Johnson, rushed home in a Secret Service car and hungry for a call from her parents, decided to wash her hair. She believed that once her parents got home there would be no time for anything like that. (Later, her father would say: "Sweetheart, you did the right thing.")

In an instant, all of the sure things that fragile people clung to -- especially the principals, swept up in the aftershock of the midday bullets -- were suddenly not sure at all. Yet Johnson was sure of two things. He had to show calm, even if he was roiling inside; his new presidency demanded it, the country demanded it. And he would not, could not, leave Texas on John Kennedy's plane without John Kennedy's widow and John 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, Johnson swallowed a bowl of vegetable soup with crackers. He called Robert F. Kennedy -- a phone call routed through Dallas, then to Fort Worth, to the White House switchboard and finally to the attorney general -- and the man who played the dual roles of chief law-enforcement officer of the United States and oldest surviving Kennedy brother was asked a wrenchingly difficult question:

Where, Johnson wondered aloud, should he be sworn in?

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." 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. In one of the small incidents that underlined the tragic caprice of history, Nicholas deB. 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 bearing the letterhead ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE.

Meanwhile, a call went out to Judge Sarah Hughes. She wasn't at her desk at the federal court; like scores of Texas grandees, she had been at the Trade Mart awaiting the speech John F. Kennedy would never make. Impatiently, 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 of the United States.

Johnson called Rose Kennedy. "I wish to God there was something that I could do" and that "we are 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, an Air Force plane 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. The White House Signal Switchboard worried that there was only one telephone line to Johnson's house on 52nd Street in Northwest Washington. By 10 that night, five additional lines would be added, and Johnson's commercial line would be canceled.

Before long, George Ball at the State Department was examining the way the nation buried Franklin Delano Roosevelt and was preparing a memo for Johnson urging the issuance of a proclamation calling the Monday of 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.

But all that seemed a million miles away.

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.

The Bible came from Mrs. Johnson's purse. It looked new. There was no inscription. Johnson noticed that it was a Catholic Bible. 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."

This was an emergency like no other -- so grave that Congress, which ordinarily is eager to skip out of Washington, stayed in session for 356 days that year.

A new president

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 power was symbolized by the troops that sat at the ready a rifle shot across tense borders in Eastern Europe and on the Korean peninsula.

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 nexus 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.

The presidency John Kennedy won in the bruising 1960 election was an office of great responsibility and great resources, but the presidency that John Kennedy reshaped in the three years following the election was an office of great celebrity.

Not since FDR 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 S. Khrushchev in difficult summit talks in Vienna.

But in his formal speeches, casual style and televised press conferences, Kennedy was more than a president. He was a personality.

Now his reign and his era were over, the sense of majesty and grace not merely stilled but bloodied.

The new president lacked the polish of Kennedy and, worse yet, knew it, felt it; years later, Joseph A. Califano Jr., who served as Johnson's secretary of health, education and welfare, would say that Johnson's "envy for the glamour that surrounded the Kennedys in life and the adulation that attended them in death was Shakespearean."

Kennedy possessed the outer moral bearing of an Ivy League president, able to talk fluently about values and Voltaire. 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 Kennedy, there was inner depth to Johnson.

He knew politics from its grittiest, gravelly roots; he knew how to motivate men and to scare them into action. He knew Washington, not so much its shiny monuments but the 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.

Kennedy and Johnson both served in the House and Senate, but Johnson's relationships on Capitol Hill were far deeper than Kennedy's.

Lawmakers like Richard Russell of Georgia and Harry Byrd of Virginia -- both of whom had opposed the Civil Rights Bill in 1957 -- had little in common with Kennedy, but had an affinity and a sense of understanding with Johnson, who could fairly be described as one of their cronies.

Of both men, and of a score of others, chairmen and powerbrokers and keepers of the faith and keepers of dark secrets, Johnson would ask more than Kennedy could and would get more.

Kennedy seemed a romantic figure, but in truth, Johnson was even more so.

He was the most romantic of the romantics. 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, whether by diverting mere money, or by diverting great rivers or by diverting ancient human purposes.

For him, the New Deal didn't end with the Roosevelt years. For Lyndon B. 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 that John Kennedy was killed as it had been in the years when Johnson ran the National Youth Administration.

Taking command

In the next hours, days and weeks, Lyndon Johnson would take power by intuition.

He knew, though no one needed to tell him, 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 strong, very strong.

In his first day as president, in the very first memos he received from a terrified staff ("To: The President," they said, and even now the difficulty of thinking of Johnson that way is apparent on the page), the people around Johnson made it clear that he would symbolize change even as he sought to show continuity. "I don't know how many deals have been made up at the Capitol," Orville Freeman, the secretary of agriculture, told LBJ aide Walter Jenkins the day after the assassination, a message that Jenkins dutifully passed on to Johnson, "but I am sure that President Johnson is not bound by any of them."

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 Kennedy; in his address to Congress on Nov. 27, he would say, "For 32 years, Capitol Hill has been my home." He knew where the power came from, where the hidden weaknesses were in men and institutions. He lacked the easy lyricism of Kennedy, but he had a gritty sense of reality, and he understood struggle -- and though Kennedy spoke of long twilight struggles, Johnson had lived struggle.

The nation at this time was peculiarly vulnerable to Johnson's strengths -- and to his weaknesses.

Though the term did not yet exist, there did exist an American underclass, and Johnson understood the heartbreak of the striving. Though the term was not yet widely employed, there did exist a minority consciousness, and Johnson knew the agony of the life of the black and the brown. He wanted to ease their way, to open windows and doors, to think big the way Roosevelt did.

Because the need was so great -- no longer a third of a nation ill-housed or ill-fed, to be sure, but giant chunks still living in poverty, still prevented from reaching the big horizon, or even from seeing it, still fettered by lack of opportunity. 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.

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 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. Hence the notion, not entirely fanciful, of a New Deal for the Mekong Delta.

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, farther and farther into the swamp, though his instincts -- and this is evident in his first day of office -- were skeptical to the core.

From the very start, Johnson was an old man in a hurry. Later, his aides would develop what they called "the LBJ trot," a way of walking through the White House with an air of intensity and urgency, a metaphor for the intensity and urgency Johnson brought to his job and for the intensity and urgency with which he infected his aides.

But in the early days, 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," Luci Johnson said, "the beginning was when he had the best chance."

He spoke of continuing, but in truth he wanted to go far.

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 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 even been elected, he had every excuse to put the legislation aside for a year, or forever. He asked what the presidency was for if not for urgent national priorities such as civil rights.

To economic adviser 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. Keep in mind that I want a liberal policy because I'm a Roosevelt Democrat."

On his first day in the White House, Johnson was a whirlwind, doing himself what White House staffs had been accustomed to do for the president.

He called 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 Rusk and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara to stay on, telling McNamara: "We must have both strength and the appearance of strength. 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, thinking first -- as no political figure today would -- of Kennedy's young son and only later of his older daughter. He opened his first Cabinet meeting by saying: "The president is dead. The president must keep the business of this government moving."

Johnson's Saturday schedule alone was daunting, and a measure of how furiously and thoroughly he worked to consolidate his hold on the office and to begin his own administration.

At 10 a.m., he met with National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, CIA Director John McCone, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, press secretary Pierre Salinger and Jack Valenti, now a special assistant to new president. Shortly thereafter, Bundy, former dean of arts and sciences at Harvard, gave Johnson a brief review of the operation of the White House Situation Room and McCone gave him an intelligence briefing.

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 Eisenhower for 20 minutes and then had a spate of phone conversations with Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, a leader of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party; with Rep. Carl B. Albert, Sen. Everett Dirksen and House Speaker John McCormack, congressional leaders, asking them 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 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 Harry Truman. In the evening, he checked in on Mrs. Connally in Texas.

On the way home to Spring Valley in Washington, he stopped at the Mayflower Hotel to pick up a newspaper. He wasn't finished yet. At 9:40, he telephoned Bundy just to be sure telegrams on the continuity of American foreign policy had been sent out.

Before the day was out, he wrote Mrs. Tippit at 238 Glencairn in Dallas, 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." He sent the letter air mail special delivery.

Though notes of a meeting of foreign-policy specialists on 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 Johnson signed on his second day as president would shape his entire presidency and repercussions from it would be felt unto this day.

Throughout it all, there was a mix of piety and purpose. But from the very beginning, Johnson's own 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. Busby to 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 Kennedy's burial, NBC correspondent Nancy Dickerson wrote the president a brief typewritten note (on two-thirds of a piece of typing paper): "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.

Correction (Nov. 22, 2013): Nancy Dickerson began working as a correspondent for NBC in 1963. The story originally misidentified her network.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1890). First Published November 21, 2013 11:26 PM

Join the conversation:

Commenting policy | How to report abuse
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.
Commenting policy | How to report abuse


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?