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LBJ, the Kennedy Assasination, and Me

Excerpt: Lyndon Johnson's biographer on the way he—and the 36th president—spent November 22, 1963


This piece was excerpted with permission from Where Were You? America Remembers the JFK Assassination.

During the three years of Kennedy’s presidency, Johnson spends very little time with the president. Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s secretary, put together from the presidential log  just how little time Johnson was alone with Kennedy, although he wanted to be alone with him a lot. The first year, 1961, he’s alone with Kennedy ten hours and nineteen minutes. Second year, I don’t remember the number, but it’s less. The third year, in the whole year of 1963, the vice president is alone with the president only an hour and some minutes. Johnson is cut out of power completely.

Johnson was the great legislative magician. He passed bills no one else could pass. In fact, in 1957 he passed the first civil rights bill that had been passed since Reconstruction. But under the Kennedys he isn’t allowed to participate in the legislative process at all. Part of it is simply that they’re afraid of Johnson. They had seen him in his days of power, how he was the most powerful man in Washington. They want to keep Johnson on a very short leash because if they let him off the leash, who knows what he’s going to do? Second, Johnson is always interested in publicity for himself. They’re afraid that if they let him run the legislative program, it will become Johnson’s program and not Jack Kennedy’s program. Third is simply the hatred between Johnson and Robert Kennedy.

The Kennedys do everything during that presidency to humiliate Johnson. He’s not allowed to have a plane to go to an event unless Robert Kennedy personally approves it. Every speech, even a minor speech, has to be approved by the Kennedys. They leave him with no power at all. Of all the things that bothered Johnson, nothing bothered him as much as not being allowed to ride on Air Force One with the president. At one point Kennedy says to Evelyn Lincoln, “You don’t mean he’s asking to ride on Air Force One again? I’ve told him that for reasons of security, the vice president and the president should never travel on the same plane.”

When they get off the plane [in Dallas], the second car of the motorcade is a Secret Service car. They call it the Queen Mary because it’s so heavily armored and jammed with Secret Service men with their automatic rifles hidden on the floor and four agents on the running boards. In the first car are Kennedy and Connally, with his leonine head, and Nellie Connally, the former sweetheart of the University of Texas. Then there’s a seventy-five-foot gap. The Secret Service insists there be a seventy-five-foot gap between the president’s cars. Then there’s the Johnson car, which is an open convertible with Johnson sitting on the right in the backseat, Ladybird in the center, and Senator Yarborough on the left; in the front is Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood.

Suddenly there’s a crack—a sharp, cracking sound. People think it’s a backfire from a motorcycle, or they think it’s a balloon popping. But Connally told me, “I was a hunter. I knew the moment I heard it that it was the crack of a hunting rifle.”

Rufus Youngblood in Johnson’s car hears the noise, doesn’t know what it is, but he says, “I suddenly saw not normal”—those are his words—“not normal movements in the president’s car. The president seemed to be tilting to the left.” At the same moment he sees in the Queen Mary, the Secret Service car, an agent jump to his feet with a rifle in his hands; he’s looking around, trying to find out what’s going on. Then the other shots crack out. It’s only eight seconds between the first and the last shot. Everyone knows what they are now.

Youngblood whirls around in his seat. He grabs Johnson by the right shoulder and says, “Get down. Get down.” Youngblood shouts in a voice that Ladybird says she had never heard him use before. He pulls Johnson to the floor and sort of falls over the back of the front seat and lies on top of Johnson, shielding him from bullets. As they’re lying there, Youngblood has a radio strapped to his shoulder. The radio is basically in Johnson’s ear, and he hears the words, “He’s hit. He’s hit,” and he hears the words, “Hospital, hospital.” Not only has the president been wounded but the governor’s been shot. Who knows if Johnson was the next target or not?

Youngblood tells him to keep down, and he realizes his best chance of protection is to put his car as close to that Secret Service car in front of him as he can. So he tells the driver, a Texas highway patrolman named Hershel Jacks. A typical Texas patrolman—laconic, cool—Jacks puts the car just a few feet from the bumper of the Secret Service car. The three cars—Kennedy’s, the Secret Service’s, and Johnson’s—roar up a ramp onto the expressway, roar down the expressway, and squeal off the expressway and into the emergency bay at Parkland Hospital.

Youngblood says to Johnson, “When we get to that hospital, don’t stop for anything. Don’t look around. We’re taking you to find you a secure place.” So they yank him out of the car. His car is right next to Kennedy’s. He never has a moment to look to the left to see what’s in Kennedy’s car. What’s in Kennedy’s car is the president’s body. They haven’t taken it out yet, with the blood pooling from his head on Jackie’s lap as she’s sitting there. But he doesn’t know this. He doesn’t know what’s happened to the president. They run Johnson—four agents with the agent behind them carrying a rifle in his hand—looking for a secure place.

The Secret Service agents sort of lift Johnson out of the car and run him down one corridor, down another one, and finally they get to what they call the medical section. They find a cubicle that’s been divided into three sections. Johnson is put against a back wall. They close the blinds on the windows. For forty-five minutes, Johnson stands there. They bring in a chair, and Ladybird sits beside him. But Lyndon Johnson is standing there. Then Ken O’Donnell suddenly walks through the door. Ladybird was to write in her diary: “Seeing the stricken face of Kenny O’Donnell, who loved him, we knew.” A moment later, another Kennedy aide, Mac Kilduff, runs into the room and runs over to Johnson and says, “Mr. President.” It’s the first time he knows he’s president.

I was a reporter for Newsday, a Long Island newspaper. I was in the middle of Arizona. Actually I was in the middle of the Mojave Desert. I was doing a series on elderly retirees who were trying to live on retirement homesites in the middle of the Mojave Desert, and we found out they were basically being gypped by their companies. The Senate had sent an investigator out with me. I had found that the elderly women who were trying to live there didn’t have water or anything and had to drive to get water. We were trying to get the names and addresses of these women so that the Senate could bring them to Washington. We were there all of November 22. We had been staying in Las Vegas and driving down to the Mojave Desert. You couldn’t get reception on our car radio. There was so much static early in the day that we turned off the radio. In the evening we were driving back to the main highway. I think it was Route 66. It went up to Las Vegas. As we got to the intersection and turned on the radio, the first words we heard were, “Doctors are operating on Governor Connally at this moment,” something like that.

What is this about? and then there was static. All of a sudden we came up to Route 66, and there was a big truck—as I remember, a big trailer truck—with a driver sitting in the window. He was crying and said something like “Have you heard?” and told us the news. This was already evening or close to evening of that day, hours after the assassination. I didn’t hear about it until then.

At the time President Kennedy is killed, that Civil Rights Bill is going nowhere. The Senate was always the great barrier to civil rights with its use of the filibuster. But the bill’s not even in the Senate. It’s not even on the House floor. The House Judiciary Committee has passed it, but they sent it to the Rules Committee, which is presided over by Judge Howard W. Smith of Virginia, the archest of segregationists. He won’t even tell anybody when he will start a hearing. At approximately the same time as the Kennedy motorcade is going through Dallas, John McCormick, the Speaker of the House, is asking Judge Smith, “What’s the schedule? When are you going to start hearings?” Smith is saying, “I don’t know.”

The Washington Post interviews Smith and asks, “What are your plans for the Civil Rights Bill?” He says, “No plans.” That bill is not getting out of the Rules Committee; it’s completely stuck. 

Three nights after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson’s going to give his first speech to the joint houses of Congress. Johnson’s not even in the Oval Office yet; he’s still living at home. In the dining room, around his kitchen table, his advisors are drafting the speech. Johnson comes in, and they tell him, “Don’t emphasize civil rights. Don’t make that a priority. You’re going to alienate the Southern Democrats. It’s a lost cause, anyway. It’s a noble cause, but it’s a lost cause. Don’t waste your prestige immediately on it.” And Johnson says, “What the hell’s the presidency for, then?” He makes civil rights a centerpiece of his speech. He puts it in the context of Kennedy’s memory. “This is what he fought for. This is what he wanted.” Sympathy for Kennedy is not the whole story, but it’s a big part of the story of why that Civil Rights Bill gets passed.

Jack Kennedy had this great gift for appealing to the better side, “the better impulses in America’s nature.” He said, “Ask not what your country ...” He stirred everybody.

One minute it was the Eisenhower era, where people were interested in materialism and making money. Then Jack Kennedy made these speeches at the beginning of his presidency, and all of a sudden, everyone wanted to go to Harvard Business School. The next minute, everyone wanted to enroll in the Peace Corps or work for Bobby Kennedy’s Justice Department. He appealed to America’s ideals, and he did so in words of genius. The words of his speeches are the words of a man who knew what ideals America should be striving for and knew what words to put them into. He’s unforgettable in that.

In foreign policy, when you listen to the tapes of the Cuban Missile Crisis, you hear over and over again moments you can hardly believe. The Russians shoot down the airplane, and you hear the voices of George Bundy, McNamara, and the others saying, “Now we promised we’d retaliate. We have to attack now. We have to bomb now.” Kennedy basically says, “Gentlemen, let’s take a little break. Let’s be calm. Let’s come back in a few minutes and talk about so-and-so.” Over and over again, he pulls the hawks back from war. If he hadn’t been president, would we have had a nuclear war over the Cuban Missile Crisis?

In those respects, Kennedy was among our greatest presidents. You also have to say that in domestic affairs, Kennedy was not effective. His legislative program and the ideals he articulated for Medicare, for tax reform, for civil rights weren’t going anywhere. Would they ever have gone anywhere? If he had a second term, would they have gotten passed? Perhaps, but there’s no sign of that. Both of his two big bills, the tax cut bill and the Civil Rights Bill, were absolutely stalled in Congress.

When you look at the Kennedy assassination and Lyndon Johnson’s ascension to power, you say, “This is one of the pivotal moments of the twentieth century.” It’s a watershed moment, and what do I mean by “watershed”? I use it in the exact meaning of the term. A watershed is the top of a mountain divide. On one side, the waters run one way; on the other side, the waters run another way. On November 21, 1963, America was not the same country as it would be five years later—five years after Jack Kennedy’s death—when Lyndon Johnson’s presidency ended. America changed. When you look at the whole landscape of America in the twentieth century, John F. Kennedy’s presidency was a pivotal moment when everything started to change. There are many reasons for that. Part of it is the unique place Jack Kennedy holds in American political history—because of the unique, unforgettable way he made America remember what ideals it stood for.

Excerpted with permission from Where Were You? America Remembers the JFK Assassination, compiled and edited by Gus Russo and Harry Moses, foreword by Tom Brokaw, published by Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press © 2013.