Steven M. Gillon: Taking Another Look at LBJ and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy

Roundup: Talking About History

[Steven M. Gillon is the resident historian of the History Channel and professor of history at the University of Oklahoma. His book, The Kennedy Assassination -- 24 Hours After, is published by Basic Books.]

As we approach another anniversary of that fateful day in Dallas, it is useful to reassess the role that Lyndon Johnson played in the critical 24 hours after the assassination. As I argue in my book, The Kennedy Assassination: 24 Hours After, history has not been fair to LBJ.

William Manchester created the popular narrative of LBJ's role in his bestselling book, The Death of a President. Leaning heavily on the accounts of disgruntled Kennedy aides, Manchester painted a portrait of a boorish and overbearing vice president, insensitive to the needs of a grieving widow, driven by a combination of megalomania and insecurity. Released in early 1967, Manchester's story of presidential arrogance and deception made sense to Americans disillusioned with the war in Vietnam, student protest, and racial rioting.

Manchester's interpretation, which has been embellished over the years, has shaped our views of LBJ's actions that day. It's time to set the record straight.

It is important to keep in mind the unprecedented nature of the crisis that Johnson faced in November 1963. He became the eighth vice president to succeed to the presidency upon the death of the incumbent. JFK, however, was the first president to die instantly from an assassin's bullet. Since Kennedy's death was so sudden, LBJ had no time to prepare for the transition. There were no briefing books to consult; no instant polls to guide him. He was traveling with the presidential party, largely cut off from his closest aides back in Washington. At each step along the way, Johnson had to make decisions based on instinct, often with little or no advice from others.

The distortions about LBJ begin at Parkland Hospital in the minutes after the shooting. Manchester accused Johnson of being under the sway of the secret service and unable to make decisions. A man known for being decisive and often ignoring the advice of secret service agents, "was far readier to take orders than to issue them. "

Not True. LBJ rejected the adamant, unanimous, and repeated pleas of the secret service that he leave the hospital immediately and fly back to Washington. Each time when confronted by this option, Johnson stood his ground, making clear that he would not leave until he had definitive word on Kennedy's condition. (In essence, he refused to leave until JFK was officially declared dead). Despite the secret service warnings that his own life was in danger, LBJ made clear that he would not leave Dallas without Mrs. Kennedy.

Kennedy loyalists viewed Johnson's decision to fly Air Force One back to Washington as part of the larger narrative of the day -- an example of LBJ's insensitivity and his megalomania. They would later claim that LBJ was so desperate to surround himself with the trappings of presidential power that he hijacked the Kennedy plane.

The charge is bogus. Johnson never requested to use the Kennedy plane. The secret service made that call for him. (LBJ and JFK flew to Dallas on separate but identical planes. The Kennedy plane was designated Air Force 26000. Any plane carrying the president is automatically designated Air Force One, so in that sense it did not matter which plane Johnson chose.) But it did matter to the secret service. Agent Emory Roberts never questioned that LBJ would be returning to Washington on Air Force 26000. In his mind, Air Force 26000 was the president's plane. Kennedy was dead and Lyndon Johnson was now president. It was now his plane. It may have been unsentimental, but it was appropriate. And Roberts never asked Johnson what plane he wanted to use.

Johnson has also endured criticism for taking the oath in Dallas instead of waiting until after he returned to Washington. Many in the Kennedy group believed that it was insensitive to Mrs. Kennedy, who was forced to sit on the hot plane for nearly an hour waiting for Judge Hughes to arrive. Kenneth O'Donnell complained that "Johnson could have waited until he got to Washington and spared all of us on Air Force One that day, especially Jackie, a lot of discomfort and anxiety. O'Donnell insisted that LBJ wanted to take the oath as soon as possible because "he was afraid somebody was going to take the thing away from him if he didn't get it quick."

Whatever his motives, Johnson made the right decision. Although Johnson would later be accused of being tone deaf when it came to the media, he brilliantly choreographed the swearing-in ceremony to provide the nation with the reassurance that it needed.

There was a great deal of confusion on the plane and in Washington about a very basic constitutional issue: When did the vice president assume the powers of the presidency? Everyone knew the vice president succeeded the president in the event of death. But did LBJ become president when Kennedy was declared dead? Or did he need to take the oath before he assumed the powers of the presidency? No one was sure. (The opinion of the assistant attorney general was that Johnson assumed the title of president, but lacked the power of the office until after he took the oath. These issues would not be clarified until ratification of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment in 1967).

Johnson was no constitutional scholar, and the abstract debates about the oath were of little interest to him. At a time when the operating assumption was that the assassination was part of an international conspiracy, Johnson needed to make sure there was no ambiguity about who was in charge of the nation. Taking the oath in Dallas was the right thing to do.

Johnson's decision to ask Mrs. Kennedy to participate in the swearing-in ceremony provided more fodder for critics. Once again, they charged, he was being insensitive and insecure. In reality, Johnson brilliantly choreographed the scene to produce one of the most iconic pictures in American history. The photographs of the ceremony, which flashed into living rooms across the nation even as the presidential plane streaked toward Washington, delivered a public message that the government survived, Johnson was in charge, and the transition of power, though violent, had been smooth. "LBJ understood how crucial it was to photograph the swearing-in so that the picture could be flashed around the world quickly," Jack Valenti noted. "This photo would proclaim that while the light in the White House may flicker, it never goes out."

The controversies surrounding LBJ continued into the next day. On Saturday morning, Johnson asked JFK's secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, to vacate the Oval Office within a few hours. Lincoln complained to RFK, who confronted Johnson and asked that he give the staff more time. In RFK's mind, this incident was further proof of LBJ's naked lust for power, and his disrespect for the slain president's memory.

Johnson's motives, however, were understandable. On the short helicopter ride from Andrews Air Force Base back to the White House on Friday evening, both NSC director McGeorge Bundy and secretary of defense Robert McNamara, recommended that LBJ occupy the Oval Office as quickly as possible to send a reassuring message to both allies and enemies. At the time, Johnson resisted, wanting to balance the demands of the job with the sensitivities of the Kennedy family, especially the grief-stricken attorney general. Apparently, at some point during the night, Johnson changed his mind.

What he did not know was that Bundy had also changed his mind. After encountering RFK early on Saturday, Bundy realized it would take longer than expected to remove JFK's belongings. He left Johnson a note asking him to give the Kennedy aides more time, but LBJ did not see the note until after his confrontation with RFK. The mix-up was an example of how missed signals -- unavoidable amid the chaotic changes -- intensified already savage animosities.

What is less understandable is why LBJ often refused to take responsibility for the decisions that he made in those critical hours. He had every right to take the Kennedy plane, but he insisted that O'Donnell specifically told him to take it -- a charge that O'Donnell vehemently denied. He claimed that RFK recommended that the oath be administered in Dallas, when in reality it was Johnson's idea. What appeared as minor character flaws in those first few hours of his administration, would later balloon into a full blown "credibility gap" that would doom his presidency.

LBJ's main goal in his first 24-hours was to comfort a shocked and grieving nation, reassuring the American people that their government was still functioning. By all accounts he succeeded. Veteran journalist Walter Lippmann summed it up best, writing that the assassination "taught us how right was President Kennedy when he chose Lyndon Johnson as his running mate. His choice was not only the smartest kind of politics, it was most discerning and wise."

Lippmann's assessment is accurate. For all the scorn that would later be heaped on LBJ, and for all the animosity that his presidency would produce, on that tragic day in November of 1963, LBJ emerged as a figure of towering strength, shrewd political instincts, and national healing.

comments powered by Disqus