When shots rang out in Dallas on Friday, November 22, 1963, shocked reactions centered on John F. Kennedy. How badly is he wounded? Is he alive? Is he dead? Not many people were thinking of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. Most people were probably not even aware that LBJ and his wife, Lady Bird, were riding in the same motorcade as it made its way through Dealey Plaza, two cars back.
Robert A. Caro’s Passage of Power, the fourth volume in his mega-biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, paints a detailed picture of the events and personalities of that day. The day ended a period in Johnson’s life of being marginalized, ridiculed, and all but ignored. What a change from a powerful position as Senate majority leader where his persuasive skills, knowledge, and instincts were legend. Having always aspired to the presidency, Johnson’s ambivalent stab at the nomination during the 1960 primaries revealed his deep-seated fear of failure. Once New Englander Kennedy was nominated, the search was on for a vice-presidential candidate with Southern ties. It is still debated whether JFK’s offer to join the ticket as vice-president was sincere or a dutiful gesture, made assuming LBJ would decline. But, he accepted, and the ticket won.
Suddenly, Johnson had no power at all. He was assigned to a couple of committees, but, except for cabinet meetings, he was left out of most conclaves determining foreign and domestic policy. JFK’s closest confidant, by far, was his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (RFK), who had a well-known hatred for LBJ. It was not just dislike, it was hatred. Caro describes LBJ enduring “lizard-like” stares and the silent treatment from RFK during cabinet meetings. Other administration officials and insiders secretly derided Johnson as a country hick, “Rufus Cornpone,” for his poor, small-town Texas roots, teachers’ college education, and southern drawl.
Then, that afternoon in Dallas, LBJ’s car sped toward Parkland Hospital behind JFK’s car, a secret service agent using his own body to shield LBJ who had been pushed to the floor of the car. At the hospital, waiting in a curtained room with only Lady Bird, Johnson became president the moment Kennedy died. Was there a plot to kill LBJ as well? Was the assassination part of a larger conspiracy? Was this an attempted coup of the United States? Caro goes into great detail about the fear and confusion of the next few hours. The oath of office was hastily administered on Air Force One at the Dallas airport, the windows shuttered, and lights dimmed. Then the plane departed for Washington, D.C., JFK’s staff in shock and grief, Jacqueline Kennedy sitting with her husband’s casket.
Lyndon Johnson had the enormously difficult task, over the next few days, of getting a grip on the reins of power, attempting to maintain continuity and the confidence of the American people — the whole world, in fact — while allowing for the necessary outpouring of grief, and sad farewells. Many world leaders came to the funeral and, to the surprise of his aides, he greeting them graciously. The evening of the funeral, LBJ called an impromptu meeting of all the governors who had come, before they could make their way home. He asked for their help, but also wanted to instill confidence in his leadership and assurance that Kennedy’s policies and programs would continue. LBJ’s aides reported seeing a transformation from the despondent vice-president in the doldrums to a leader capable of wearing the mantle of president.
Everyone has their own opinion of Lyndon Johnson’s legacy, but he carried out a tragic transition of power.