Lou Wigdor: LBJ & The Invisible Gorilla of Succession

Roundup: Talking About History

Senior Writer and Editor Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts.

Last week’s excerpt in The New Yorker of Robert Caro’s account through the prism of  LBJ's biography of the Kennedy assassination and its immediate aftermath (The Transition) offered one riveting insight after another. My favorite was an Invisible Gorilla moment of inattentional blindness when at Dallas’s Parkland Memorial Hospital, Johnson and his retinue, having just learned that Kennedy had expired and fearing the prospect of a conspiracy, elected to leave the building before the press discovered Kennedy's fate.
Caro writes in The New Yorker:
As the new President of the United States headed out of the hospital, Robert Pierpont of CBS News caught a glimpse of him but did not follow. No other reporter followed him, or apparently knew he was even leaving. "We weren't thinking about succession,"  Newsweek's Charles Roberts explained later.  .  . Nobody attempted to follow him although he was then President of the United States."

[With Kennedy’s death, Johnson immediately became the country’s 36th president. The subsequent oath was a ceremonial formality.]

Only one member of the press, the official White House photographer, Captain  Cecil Stoughton, had the independence of mind  to follow the new president’s decisive exit to his limo and the airport. It was Stoughton who later snapped the iconographic photo of LBJ--framed by Lady Bird and Jacqueline Kennedy--taking the oath of office on Air Force One.

Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simon's Invisible Gorilla experiment asked subjects viewing a video of basketball players to count passes on a gym floor. When a man in a gorilla suit appeared in the frame, a significant number of the observers (typically 50%) failed to notice. The experiment revealed the diminished cognitive/perceptual flexibility that accompanies hyperattentiveness in a demanding cognitive task--a task that was also reinforced by the subjects'  emotional commitment to completing the exercise itself.

The emotional valence at Parkland Hospital was, of course, through the roof—fueled by an uncertain, unfolding, epic tragedy-in-the-making. Little surprise, then, that the press was hyperfocused both emotionally and cognitively on JFK. Since becoming vice president, Johnson had morphed from his leonine days in  the Senate into a nexus of self-doubt. His swagger had become a shrug; he feared expulsion from a second-term ticket. Why focus on a decidedly second fiddle when you might miss the outcome to the story of the decade? But with the news of his own assumption, Johnson was reborn.  His posture straightened,  his facial expression waxed determination and fierce concentration. And he became the  cool, decisive leader that his aides had known in the Senate.

The New Yorker article is excerpted from The Passage of Power, the 4th volume--due out in May--of Caro's magisterial LBJ biography. Without question, Caro is Johnson's Boswell.

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