In a riveting new account in The New Yorker, Robert Caro, the preeminent biographer of 36th president Lyndon Baines Johnson, traces the politician’s activities on the day President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Before the shots were fired, a Senate probe threatened to contaminate Johnson’s career, and magazine investigations had the Johnson family finances in their sites. Then fate rang out of the clear Texas sky.
Caro traces Johnson’s steps on Nov. 22, 1963, from the time he left Ft. Worth, Texas, with the president through his decision to take the oath of office on the runway on board Air Force One—and on to his first order as president of the United States. While the reporting itself is impeccable, it is as always Caro’s perspicuous analysis of the manipulation of power that most impresses. The Daily Beast collects seven key moments from Caro’s must-read account of one of the most fateful days in 20th-century American history.
Plus: Newsweek's Charles Roberts was one of three reporters to be present when Johnson was sworn in aboard Air Force One and reported on all the events of the day. See his original reporting here and here.
‘Yarborough Snubs LBJ’
When he awoke in Ft. Worth, Johnson was greeted by cheerless headlines on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, including the one above from The Dallas Morning News. The vice president had been tasked with ameliorating a rancorous dispute between the wings of the Democratic Party, and Sen. Ralph Yarborough, a liberal leader in the party, had the day before very publicly thumbed his nose at the would-be mediator. The humiliation was well documented in the papers that morning, and the stories were indicative of where Johnson was in his political career that day. All was not well, and how it would end, even this master politician could not foretell.
‘Little Lyndon’ Becomes a Big Problem
Meanwhile, back in Washington, a potential scandal for Johnson was slowly building as the Senate rules committee looked into the activities of Robert G. Baker, who had served at Johnson’s appointment as secretary for the majority during his days on the Hill. Known as “Little Lyndon,” Baker had resigned under pressure from the probe, but the scandal was growing, and it threatened to embroil Baker’s former boss. Life magazine had chronicled the scandal and, unlike prior press coverage, tied the metastasizing mess directly to Johnson. The magazine had bigger targets in mind, too, and that very morning editors and reporters were meeting to discuss angles for a broader investigation, this one into the vice president’s personal finances.
Calm Under Fire
When shots rained down on the president’s motorcade in Dallas, the man who had gained a reputation in college for being “an absolute physical coward” was entirely still against the floor of his car as Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood shielded him with his body. The agent would later sum up the vice president’s demeanor as “calm.” Despite the wail and the rush of Secret Service precautions, police sirens, and his own uncertain future, Johnson’s tone was measured when told that agents would be rushing him to safety. “OK, pardner, I understand,” Johnson said as Youngblood gave him his instructions.
Sped to the Hospital
Crushed against the floor of his limousine by the weight of a Secret Service agent, Johnson was sped to the emergency-room entrance of the Parkland Memorial Hospital, where he was hurried through the halls until agents could find a room to secure. Once she and her husband were deposited in a small, bare room, everything grew suddenly still, as Lady Bird Johnson recounted. Johnson stood with his back against a wall and gave instructions for Texas congressmen and aides whose fidelity was unquestioned to be brought to him. Then, he and his wife did little more than stare. “Lyndon and I didn’t speak,” his wife would recall of the minutes of sudden and incomprehensible calm they shared in the aftermath. “We just looked at each other, exchanging messages with our eyes.” Even with the president dead, speculation about a wider plot was rampant, and no one could be sure that the worst had yet come.
Call to Bobby Kennedy
After leaving the hospital, Johnson was taken to Air Force One, where he took refuge in the presidential bedroom. With the Secret Service agents outside still concerned that a conspiracy might be afoot, Johnson placed a call to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. As Caro notes, the choice of the recently assassinated president’s brother and confidante as Johnson’s first call was motivated in part by commonsense legal concerns and political considerations, but also in part by a desire to be legitimated by the Kennedy clan. The call, and another that followed it, soon after would come to be a matter of dispute in later years, however, as the two politicians clashed over the events of the day. In question was Johnson’s decision to be sworn in immediately on the plane in Dallas, an action that the grief-stricken Kennedy later recounted he didn’t think was necessary. In Johnson’s version of the story, all he wanted from the attorney general was the text of the oath of office, wording that he could have retrieved from any number of other sources. Whatever Bobby Kennedy’s personal feelings about Johnson—and they were never good—the new president got what he wanted.
With Jackie by His Side
First lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s gentle voice was edged with steely reserve when she told Lady Bird that she was not yet ready to change out of her bloodstained clothes because she wanted “them to see what they have done to Jack.” Johnson wanted, and in some ways needed, the first lady present when he was sworn in. She had presided over Camelot in her signature pillbox hat, and now, in a pink dress that belied the tragedy of the day, she was the nation’s chief mourner. As four seats were removed from the plane’s rear compartment to make way for her husband’s bronze coffin, Jackie stepped past it and entered the bedroom to find Johnson either, as different accounts have it, reclining in his shirt sleeves or about to exit the room. Either way, Johnson scored another coup, as Caro writes: “Whether she [Jackie] agreed explicitly or not, there was an understanding that when Johnson took the oath she would be present.”
Jackie wasn’t the only person Johnson needed present when he took the oath. Johnson had arranged his life around the wielding and manipulation of power. He knew that, as a president chosen not by the people but by an assassin’s bullet, he needed to create a scene that would confer legitimacy on his presidency from its very beginning. He set about organizing the perfect tableau. Reporters were a crucial part of that scene, and Newsweek’s Charles Roberts was joined by UPI’s Merriman Smith and Sid Davis of Westinghouse Broadcasting on the plane. Johnson packed the cramped, hot room where he took the oath with the deceased president’s aides and secretary. After the oath was administered and photographs taken, Johnson did not hesitate. “Now let’s get airborne,” he said.