Like September 11, 2001, November 22, 1963, is a day that resides in the archival memories of those who experienced it. We vividly remember the precise moment when the shocking news pierced our daily routines. We recall how disbelief gave way to numbness and dismay. In the leaden hours that followed, our actions had the sensation of slow motion, as if our minds were recording every facet of the experience, as indeed they were. It is not surprising, then, that the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination is inspiring an outpouring of remembrance and reflection.
My own memories of the tragedy and its aftermath belong to three different chapters of my life. The day of the assassination, I was sitting in Nettie Lee Kellam Bradshaw's civics class in Baytown's Robert E. Lee High School. As soon as a male voice announced over the public address system that the President had been shot, our teacher hastily left the classroom in search of additional information. She returned a few minutes later, visibly distraught and wiping her tearful eyes with a handkerchief. A second announcement confirmed what she already knew or suspected: President Kennedy was dead. There was a momentary silence as a collective sense of loss and bewilderment descended over the class. For Nettie Lee, a much earlier memory must have made the poignancy of this moment even more personal. As a young secretary in Washington in the early 1930s, she had had a romantic affair with a congressional aide before he met and married another woman. That man, Lyndon Johnson, was now President of the United States.
When our afternoon classes were cancelled, I left the school in my 1963 Chevy and drove around aimlessly. Its AM radio, although permanently tuned to my favorite rock-n-roll station, played solemn instrumental music. As I listened to a mournful string rendition of "Red River Valley," I stopped near a wooded area and bawled. Then I instinctively drove to my father's law office to seek his help in making sense of the senseless. Only the night before, he and my mother had seen the President and Mrs. Kennedy at the Houston dinner honoring Congressman Albert Thomas. Their vivid descriptions of the President's luminous smile and the First Lady's radiance had been worth waiting up to hear. The glow of that magical evening was now gone, but I found comfort in my father's shared sorrow and his grim assurance that the nation would persevere.
The second chapter came a decade later in Austin when I began conducting oral history interviews for the LBJ Presidential Library. Although my predecessors had already recorded most of the interviews dealing with the Kennedy assassination, my sessions with Lawrence F. O'Brien and Sid Davis were especially memorable. In many other interviews, the tragic event loomed in the background. Listening to the men and women who had experienced the assassination and its aftermath added a personal dimension to this history. At the same time, these recollections documented a remarkable presidential transition that effected change through continuity. Excerpts from some of the LBJ oral histories are presented in the accompanying feature, "Memories of a Tragedy."
A curious sidelight of the post-assassination events concerned the fate of the "Bible"—actually a Catholic missal—used by President Johnson when he took the oath of office aboard Air Force One. After the swearing-in, Lady Bird Johnson placed the missal and the typed oath in her handbag and carried them to Washington. There she entrusted the items to Dorothy Territo, the White House staff assistant who collected material for a future presidential library.
In August 1966, the advance publicity for William Manchester's book The Death of a President and its serialization in Look magazine, circulated the story that the Bible, a treasured Kennedy family keepsake, had disappeared after the flight back from Dallas. The inevitable questions followed: What happened to it? Did LBJ or someone in his inner circle steal a Kennedy heirloom? When it became known that the book was actually a Catholic missal or prayer book, instead of a Bible, an additional question was raised: Was LBJ's oath of office valid?
Johnson, sensing that his archrival, Robert Kennedy, was behind the accusations, enlisted one of his most trusted counselors to guide the White House in dealing with the potentially embarrassing crisis. Although Abe Fortas's day job was Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, he moonlighted as a high-level advisor to LBJ. Fortas closely examined the missal and interviewed those who had handled it on Air Force One.
In a remarkable August 29, 1966, telephone conversation with the President and Mrs. Johnson, press secretaries Bill Moyers and George Christian, and the President's secretary Marie Fehmer, Fortas discussed how the White House should respond to press inquiries about the missal. The Justice quickly disposed of any doubts concerning the oath's legality; a President could take the oath of office without any book at all, Fortas explained, or could even take the oath using a copy of Playboy magazine. Fortas also described the missal in detail, emphasizing that it was new and probably had never been opened before he thumbed through it. The volume bore no writing associating it with President Kennedy or his family other than the initials "JFK" embossed on the inside of the leather slip cover. In other words, there was no reason to think the missal was a family keepsake.
For almost an hour, LBJ, Fortas, Mrs. Johnson, and the two press secretaries deliberated on how to respond to questions from the media. Should the White House even acknowledge having custody of the missal? Mrs. Johnson suggested writing a note to Mrs. Kennedy, offering to return the volume. Bill Moyers shared insights regarding Manchester's relationship with the Kennedy family, which had deteriorated into an emotional conflict and threats of a lawsuit. After composing and analyzing the precise language of a response, President Johnson decided that George Christian, if queried, should plead ignorance regarding the missal and refer the press to Moyers. In the end, the White House simply declined to comment, so everyone assumed that the book had been lost or stolen.
More than a decade later, in the course of my work at the LBJ Library, I learned that the elusive missal was discreetly hidden among the Library's holdings. I raised the matter with Harry Middleton, the Library's director, expressing the view that we should offer the book to the Kennedy Library or the Kennedy family. Why keep it if we could never exhibit it or even acknowledge possessing it? Harry concurred and contacted the John F. Kennedy Library. Dan Fenn, the JFK Library director, presumably after checking with the Kennedy family, responded that the LBJ Library should keep the missal. Since neither President Kennedy nor his family had ever used it, the volume had no sentimental value to them. Besides, its only historical significance related to President Johnson. The missal is presently on display at the LBJ Presidential Library.
My third encounter with the Kennedy assassination came when I moved to the National Archives in 1991, the year that Oliver Stone's JFK hit the screen. The movie's dark conspiratorial notions brought renewed interest in the tragedy and fueled demands to open the long-classified government records pertaining to the investigation of the assassination. Congress responded to the pressure by enacting the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, which mandated the creation of an artificial collection of assassination records from all government agencies, including the presidential libraries. Even copies of LBJ's relevant telephone conversations, which were then under a fifty-year seal, were shipped to the National Archives. The measure also accelerated the declassification of thousands of documents and established a review board to scrutinize the agencies' rationale for withholding any record.
Among the assassination records in my division, the Center for Legislative Archives, were those of the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Chaired by Rep. Louis Stokes of Ohio in the late 1970s, this committee had investigated the assassinations of both Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Kennedy. In the course of the committee's inquiry, it had accumulated a large quantity of security-classified documents from various executive branch agencies. Our procedure for declassifying these documents for inclusion in the JFK Assassination Records Collection was to send copies to the originating agencies for declassification. Two particular memories from this endeavor illustrate how the agencies' resistance to openness gave fodder to the conspiracy theorists.
I remember reading an op-ed in the Washington Post suggesting that a restricted FBI document relating to an alleged cellmate of Lee Harvey Oswald in the Dallas County jail, if opened, would solve the mystery of the assassination. The following day, I asked one of my archivists to retrieve this document so I could read it. It was utterly useless. But as long as the document remained sealed, conspiracy buffs could attach to it whatever significance their fertile imaginations could concoct.
The agencies' reluctance to declassify records, which stemmed from a legitimate need to protect intelligence sources and methods, was frequently overly zealous. One still-classified document that had become a Rosetta Stone to theorists was the CIA's top-secret Lopez report on Lee Harvey Oswald's activities in Mexico City. After we sent a copy of the lengthy document to the CIA for declassification, the agency returned it with virtually every page of text completely redacted with thick black horizontal lines. I took the copy reflecting the CIA's handiwork to Capitol Hill and showed it to Rep. Charlie Rose, the Chairman of the House Administration Committee, and Rep. Bill Thomas, the ranking Republican. They instructed me to tell the CIA to try again and to do a much better job. If the agency didn't comply, the House would open the entire document without any redactions at all. The congressional threat must have gotten the agency's attention. A much-improved declassified version may be found here.
The John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection would ultimately comprise more than four million pages. Despite this huge trove of new documentation, countless publications, and the passage of half a century, there has been no persuasive challenge to the predominant theory that a lone madman was responsible for the tragedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
Below are excerpts from firsthand accounts of those who witnessed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson's assumption of the presidency. These excerpts come from oral histories held by the LBJ Presidential Library.
Charles Roberts was the White House correspondent for Newsweek.
Charles Roberts: We were all aware before we left Washington that the President and Vice President thought they were in trouble, that they were going to need Texas again in 1964 and that they were in trouble there, that there was a good opportunity for fundraising, that there were deep splits in the party. . . . Kennedy felt he needed to do it because he knew how important Texas had been in 1960 and how important it could be again. So it was, of course, a political trip. There were some inspections of space facilities at Houston and a couple of things like that as window dressing.
Sid Davis, Westinghouse Broadcasting Company's White House Correspondent, was the pool reporter for the swearing-in of President Johnson.
Sid Davis: I remember Kennedy meeting with the Spanish—LULAC [League of United Latin American Citizens], I think it's called. They met with LULAC, and Kennedy was of course mending fences in Texas before the 1964 election. The crowds were exuberant and warm and friendly, and it was just a lovely, lovely trip at that point. Mrs. Kennedy was along. And Lyndon Johnson was there because it was his home state and he was opening the doors and helping Kennedy mend these fences.
Jack Valenti was an advertising executive and political consultant who later became Special Assistant to President Johnson.
Jack Valenti: My own particular role was in Houston where I was managing the big dinner there, which was really to celebrate [U.S. Representative] Albert Thomas. It was the notion of [Texas Governor John] Connally and Johnson and Kennedy that they would tie in Kennedy's trip with the Thomas dinner and that the President and the Vice President would appear at the dinner. So I was busily engaged in making this Thomas dinner a success. I presume Vice President Johnson was interested in making the whole trip a success.
He called me about four days before they were due to come down and wanted me to put together a magazine program for the Austin dinner. It seems like something had happened and there was no program.
. . .
I worked my advertising agency around the clock for two straight nights and days, and we completed the program. Meanwhile I was working with the advance men on this dinner.
My first connection with the trip came when the President and the Vice President landed in Houston on their way from San Antonio in the late afternoon of November 21. I spoke to the Vice President briefly, and he invited me to join him at his suite in the Rice Hotel, which I told him that I would do. He wanted to discuss that night's dinner, as well as the Austin affair.
. . .
There was no question that Houston really turned out, mainly for the President, I think, and the Vice President, but also Mrs. Kennedy was accompanying the President, and that was an added fillip.
. . .
[Kennedy's Special Assistant and Appointments Secretary Kenneth] O'Donnell was very pleased with the reception. I guess there must have been a half million people, four and five deep lining the sidewalks.
. . .
There were a lot of people on the freeway, but once we got off the freeway and moved into downtown Houston it was unbelievable. The crowds were enormous. When we got on Main Street coming to the Rice Hotel, they were literally ten deep on the curbs. It was the biggest crowd I'd ever seen, and I so informed O'Donnell. He seemed to be pleased because, as I say, they were worried about the kind of reception that they would get. . . .
When we landed there I went up to the floor where the President's party was. [Kennedy's Special Assistant for Congressional Relations] Larry O'Brien [and] Ken O'Donnell were there, and I met with them. The first time I'd met O'Brien and O'Donnell. O'Brien wanted to know how the dinner was coming, and if we had any problems. I told him no, that they were in pretty good shape. That was really all he wanted to know. He was busy on some other things. I reported in, and then I left, because my job was to make sure that the Sam Houston Coliseum was in good shape. We were expecting about 3,000 people.
I guess it must have been about six o'clock when my wife and I joined the Vice President and Mrs. Johnson in their suite in the Rice Hotel; I think they were on the sixth floor. He was interested in how the dinner was coming, and I showed him for the first time the program that we had made for Austin. I've never known whatever happened to those programs, I've never seen them since then.
. . .
At any rate, I presented him one and he was pleased with it, very pleased, because he realized that we had done this in a spasm of work. He asked me generally what the situation was in Houston, and I remonstrated about, as I saw it, that I thought Kennedy was in trouble in Houston, but I thought this trip would be very helpful and very useful. I told him that we had not had too much trouble.
. . .
At that time the Vice President told me, "Why don't you pack a bag and come with me, fly in my plane to Fort Worth, and we can go on to Dallas the next day and then be with me in Austin for the dinner," and then I could fly back to Houston on Saturday morning when they went back to Washington. My wife didn't think much of this idea. We'd just had a baby on October 30, and this was November 21, so she took a dim view of the whole thing. I remember she told me under her breath, "Is this trip necessary?," and I laughed and said, "Well, I'll get a chance to be with the Vice President, and I would like that very much."
I think she went home and packed a bag for me for two nights' clothing and brought it back to the hotel because, in the meanwhile, I was going forward with our plans. I remember that the Vice President and the President were going to a LULAC, which was a Latin American union, affair on the mezzanine of the Rice where the President and the Vice President and Mrs. Kennedy were going to speak. I remember Mrs. Kennedy made a little short speech in Spanish. And then they were due over to the coliseum about nine o'clock. I saw them through the LULAC thing, and then I raced back to the coliseum to make sure all was in order. We had arranged on the Bagby Street side for them to come in a side entrance to the coliseum, and we would take them back into the enclosure where they were.
Up to this point, I had never met President Kennedy. I saw him of course at the airport, but that was the end of it. I remember that the Vice President, when they arrived, asked me to come back; he wanted me to meet President Kennedy. He introduced me to the President and said that I was sort of responsible for the crowd, which I wasn't, but I didn't deny it. I remember President Kennedy saying to me that he was very grateful, and he said, "Maybe I ought to take you along wherever I'm unsure of my reception. I'd like to have you along doing the advancing." Then he introduced me to his wife. She was sitting in a big red chair there, and I murmured, "How do you do," and saw Mrs. Johnson again.
Then I went back to the main part of the coliseum to sort of stage manage the affair. By this time there had been some other speeches, and Albert had said a few words and introduced all the people there, the governor and a number of congressmen—Congressmen [Henry B.] Gonzalez and [Jack] Brooks and [Albert] Thomas and [Homer] Thornberry, as I recall, were there, and a number of congressmen on the trip. Congressman Thomas had flown to San Antonio and came in with President Kennedy on his plane.
Then they all filed in to a big ovation. I stood behind the rostrum on a lower level so that I was invisible to the crowd, but I could see all of those at the head table, and I must have been no more than a foot and a half away from the main speaker's platform, so that I could be there to see that anything got done. I remember one of the things that I had already said before to somebody, that President Kennedy got up to speak, and I watched his hands. His hands trembled as he spoke. It was kind of an interesting thing to me to watch this, because it was curious that a man so used to making speeches, his hands were shaking as he held these cards. The speeches were on large index cards, not three by five but looked like four by sevens, in large typewriter type, the kind that we used for President Johnson later on. He would read one card at a time. But the ovation was very good. All in all, it had to be accounted a very spectacular trip. Thomas was beside himself with joy. It was really an enormously successful affair.
Sid Davis: That's where Kennedy made the mistake of saying, "We're going to send the biggest payroll into space." Then he said, "I'm sorry, payload," talking about the Saturn rocket, which was going to be put together in that vicinity. But it was a payroll for Texas, as you know, which Lyndon Johnson and Albert Thomas helped get the manned space center down there. But the trip was fantastic. It was a good political trip. For a reporter who liked politics, it was excellent.
Jack Valenti: The presidential party left as soon as the President had spoken. I joined the Vice President in an automobile with Mrs. Johnson and we drove out to the Houston airport. We got aboard.
Jack Valenti: We flew into Fort Worth and got there about midnight or 12:30 and landed. . . . We went directly to the [Hotel Texas] and up to the suite that the Vice President had there. I remember that we sat and talked; it was just a small group of us. It was [Advisor to the Vice President] Cliff Carter and [Administrative Assistant to the Vice President] Liz Carpenter, the Vice President, and Mrs. Johnson and myself, as I recall. We sat and chatted for about forty minutes, I suppose. I don't recall the Vice President going to see the President, but he may have. I don't remember.
. . .
We got up early the next morning and went down to the mezzanine of the [hotel] for the [Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce] breakfast. The breakfast had been well publicized; there was nothing untoward that happened. I stood over on the side and watched it all, and it went very well, and the President and the Vice President were in high good humor.
Then after the breakfast we went across the street to the parking lot where on a specially prepared rostrum Connally and Vice President Johnson and Senator [Ralph] Yarborough and the President all stood . . . on this platform and President Kennedy made a short speech.
Charles Roberts: [The correspondents] came [to Dallas from Fort Worth] by plane, got there a little ahead of the presidential plane, as did Vice President Johnson. So we saw Kennedy and Jackie get off of Air Force One; Johnson and Connally and, I guess, Yarborough were there in line—the people who greeted them as they came off the plane, although many of them had been in Fort Worth that morning or had been with us the day before. . . . Besides it being a political story, we had some feeling—not foreboding—but a lot of people were looking for signs of hostilities—what with Dallas being a center of right-wing reaction.
. . .
Any correspondent who says that the possibility of an assassination had crossed his mind is, I think, indulging in hindsight. But we were looking for signs of hostility, and we saw a few. . . . But the crowd at the airport was mostly friendly. Kennedy, at the airport, would go down the chain link fence shaking hands, a thing that Johnson later improved on and made into much more of a production. [President Kennedy] went down the fence with Jackie, and the Vice President just stayed in the background there completely, although it was his home state. I remember I asked Jackie how she liked campaigning, as they got to the end of the fence. I had walked, for some reason, the whole length of it with them—and she said, in that sort of breathless way of hers, "It's wonderful, wonderful."
Jack Valenti: From Love Field we got into a motorcade. As I recall, I got into a small bus. Liz Carpenter, Pamela Turnure, Evelyn Lincoln, and assorted other presidential aides were there. I would say from the President's standpoint it was a lower-level group, but Evelyn Lincoln was President Kennedy's secretary. Pamela Turnure worked for Mrs. Kennedy. We got aboard this smallish van, and we got in the motorcade. I would guess we were twelve or fourteen cars from the front line.
Charles Roberts: Except for a few signs on the way, it was a fantastically friendly crowd. There was a local reporter riding on the White House press bus. The only discussion I remember about possible crowd hostility was as we were going down Main Street, he remarked, "They won't let anybody get within ten feet of him today"—meaning Kennedy—"because of the Adlai Stevenson thing." [United Nations Ambassador] Stevenson had been spat upon in Dallas a couple of weeks before. . . . Along Main Street people surged out into the street and actually stopped the motorcade and pretty well swarmed all over the car, a thing that Kennedy always encouraged. He would actually slow down the motorcade. He loved to see a crowd get him behind schedule because then the next day the papers would say it took an hour to drive through downtown Dallas or wherever.
Jack Valenti: The motorcade went through Dallas, and I recall we were all remarking about how marvelous the reception was. It really was. It was about as big as it was in Houston. There were no hostile faces, not even a hostile sign, which was amazing. But the Dallas reception was extraordinary because we were worried about it. When we got on the airplane we had read in the Dallas paper that ad put out by this fellow [Bernard] Weissman, I believe his name was, really a malignant ad and vicious. So everybody was concerned about what kind of reception we would get. In truth it was without parallel, and very friendly, very warm.
Charles Roberts: Anyway, we moved on out to Houston and Elm and were just speeding up, just a little bit behind schedule for the Trade Mart, when the shots rang out.
. . .
There was wild confusion on the bus, as there was every place else. I heard two of the shots. I was sitting next to Bob Pierpoint of CBS.
. . .
I guess the two of us had ridden in maybe hundreds of presidential motorcades all over the world, and you hear backfires all the time. Motorcycles get hot when they travel at slow speed, and they backfire; sometimes they even catch fire. But Bob heard something and said, "My God, that sounded like gunfire." He was sitting next to me; we were in the front seat. I perked my head up and heard another crack, and it was almost right overhead because the distance we were behind the presidential car put us almost under the windows of the School Book Depository. As I heard that shot, I saw a cop start to run across Dealey Plaza, pulling out his pistol. Then I heard another crack: I looked up and saw a motorcycle cop ram his bike over the curb and start up what we now know as the grassy knoll. By then I realized that it must be gunfire because the rule is nobody ever bares a pistol in front of the President unless they're either going to kill him or stop somebody from killing him. So I knew that there had been a shooting incident. But we didn't know that the President had been shot.
Jack Brooks was a Democratic U.S. Representative from Beaumont, Texas.
Jack Brooks: My own experience was very interesting in that I was just sitting in the car. We were riding along, and we heard this shot; I thought it was a shot—two or three of them. Somebody said it was firecrackers, and I said, "It sounded like shots to me." It sure did, too! I looked ahead and saw those cars speeding up, so we speeded up and went on up to the hospital.
. . .
I had seen the look on people's faces, and I just had the feeling that the President had been shot and was hurt badly. I just had that premonition right then, though I had no hard evidence, of course.
Jack Valenti: I remember, I couldn't tell you where we were in Dallas, I assume it's that Simmons underpass, that all of a sudden the motorcade began without reason to speed up, tripling the speed, maybe quadrupling it. We attempted to keep up. And we knew something was wrong because all of a sudden we got separated from the cars. And the van driver, at the direction of someone, went directly to the Trade Mart. When we got there, to our amazement, no one else was there. We were by ourselves, it seemed. We got out of the bus and went around to the rear of the Trade Mart. . . . where we found nobody there.
At that point a fellow with his, I always say in retrospect, shirttail flapping out, raced up and collided with a pay phone, stuck a coin in and began to call frantically and saying, "Where are they, where are they?" We thought, this is very strange.
At that time, while we knew something was wrong, we didn't know what. We walked out of the Trade Mart onto the parking ramp and a fellow was carrying a pocket radio, and he told us the President had been shot. At that time we didn't know. And that the Vice President had been shot. Consternation invaded us all at that point. And then we found out on this radio that President Kennedy was at the Parkland Hospital.
Charles Roberts: I ran out into the parking lot [of the Trade Mart] and a cop was sitting there on a three-wheel motorcycle listening to all the traffic on the police radio. Maybe he saw my press badge or whatever, I don't know, but he looked up at me and said, "They've shot the President. They've taken him to Parkland Hospital." That was the first time I knew he'd been hit. So I ran out into the front of the building—and there I literally ran into Dr. [George] Burkley, who was President Kennedy's private physician, and he was getting into his car. He'd gotten cut off from the President, too. I said, "Will you give me a ride?" . . . And he just slammed the door.
. . .
And left me. And a cop, when I told him the situation, walked out into this throughway and just stopped the first car that came along. It was a Mexican American woman with a teenage daughter in the car, and he said, "Take this man to Parkland Hospital, and take him there fast.”
. . .
So she did. She drove me there in a hell of a hurry and drove me right around to the back.
Charles Roberts: The police lines had not yet formed.
. . .
I think I probably could have darted into the hospital, but standing in the driveway right at the emergency entrance was Senator Yarborough. I knew he had been up riding in one of the lead cars, and so I grabbed him. He was my first eyewitness, and I, at this time, still didn't have any idea that the President had been gravely wounded. So I started asking him what happened, and this has been quoted many times. He said—it was in an old, flowery, southern fashion—"A perfidious deed has been performed." Or "A terrible thing has happened, the President has been shot." And I said, "Where was he hit?" I remember saying, "Where was he hit?" And he said, "Oh, I can't tell you, I can't tell you," although he'd seen the President's body taken out of the car, so he knew. And he put his hand up to the right rear quarter of his head, which is the part of Kennedy's skull that had been blown out, and said, "I can't tell you," and then unconsciously reached up and indicated where he had been hit. Then the press bus arrived. There was much milling around. Everybody interviewed Yarborough.
. . .
It was soon ascertained [that Johnson had not been hit]. Secret Service agents who had gone in and had come back out told us no, there was no heart attack, and within an hour or so we established that if he, in fact, was holding his arm as he went in the hospital, it was probably because [Agent] Rufus Youngblood jumped on top of him . . . and squashed his arm under him probably in the car. No, the rumor that he had been hit was knocked down pretty fast because we were told, "He's in there.”
Jack Valenti: We must have arrived, I don't know, I'd say between 12:30 and 12:45 . . . and then I began to try to move around and find out what was going on. I found out that the action was in the basement.
I got down to the basement; how I got down I'll never know. I was stopped about eighteen times, but finally . . . I managed to convince a policeman guarding the basement door that I belonged there with the Vice President. I got into a room where I saw Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Connally, and they were weeping, and that's when I first found out that Governor Connally was seriously injured.
. . .
And that the Vice President had not been shot, but I did not know where he was. I didn't see him. Then I milled out in this hallway in the basement, which by this time was rather in a state of hysteria. I was standing just outside the door of the emergency room where President Kennedy lay dead, though I didn't know it.
Jack Brooks: I walked in this door and turned right to the main hall there. There were a couple of news people there. One of them said, "He looks dead to me, Jack." He was talking about Kennedy. So Larry O'Brien walked straight on in there into where I later learned Mrs. Kennedy had been standing and where Kennedy was lying. I turned to the right and saw President Johnson, and he said, "Come on in here with me." I went on in there with him. He was standing in there with a couple of Secret Service people and his wife and Homer Thornberry. He asked me to stay there, and I did. There wasn't much to do. You couldn't hear much information. The Secret Service and phones were being set up in there in that room just adjacent to there where you could see them.
Shortly after that Mr. Johnson suggested that I go with Bird to see Jacqueline Kennedy and Nellie Connally. So I went with her to see Jackie Kennedy, who was standing there somewhat disheveled and distraught, and she talked to her. I think Kenny O'Donnell was there, some of the other people connected with Kennedy. Kennedy was lying there under a sheet, and he was dead.
Sid Davis: I remember not wanting to go on the air with rumor that Kennedy was dead. A priest at the hospital, Father Oscar Huber, came out and said, "I've given him his last rites. He's dead, all right." That was before it was announced by [acting Press Secretary] Malcolm Kilduff, or the doctors had announced it officially, that Kennedy was dead. And I remember telling my office we ought not to go with that, and they agreed. We did not go on the air with that until it was officially announced, because we were dealing with the President, and there was an awful lot riding on this story. We did not put it out prematurely.
Jack Brooks: [The coroner] just told [Johnson] that the President was dead.
. . .
[President Johnson] was very sober during all of this period, very straight-faced, very cautious, thinking, planning; thinking about what needed to be done and what had to be done. There are a lot of changes, you understand, a lot of problems involved, and he was thinking about them. And the Secret Service wanted him to leave, get him out of there.
Charles Roberts: One thing about this I remember is that, even after we realized that Kennedy was perhaps dying—and we got this in driblets—we weren't thinking about succession. I talked to a nurse who burst into tears, and I realized that she wasn't crying over a superficial flesh wound or something. We saw the priest come, and that indicated last rites. So we were getting the idea gradually that Kennedy was dead or dying. But I don't remember anybody saying, "My God, Johnson is President or is about to become President." There was almost no focus of attention on him, and this was true as he left the hospital. He left the hospital after Kennedy was dead but before Kennedy's body was removed, and nobody made any attempt to follow him, although he was then President of the United States. He left, actually, just minutes—my recollection is—before the death was announced. And of course that was for security reasons.
Sid Davis: I was on the third or fourth floor of the hospital filing on a telephone I had commandeered. The telephone was priceless. You could get your weight in gold for a phone during that chaotic period. I commandeered a phone and a young secretary to help me. I was running back and forth down hallways, getting information. She guarded my phone. I was the only one for Westinghouse Broadcasting there, so I had a lot of work to do to try to file a story. They had just announced that Kennedy had died, and [Chief of White House Telegraph and Transportation Office Edwin "Jiggs"] Fauver came and said, "We need you!" He didn't say, "Could you?" He said, "You will come with us." I became a member of the pool.
. . .
I realized as a pool reporter—I'd have to write the record. As a pool reporter on a lot of stories you could leave some little thing out and still do okay, but something said, "You can't mess this one up. You've really got to know what's going on here." I had a little red notebook that I purchased in San Antonio the day before. I had left my notebooks at home, and I ran to the admin building and picked up this little red five-cent notebook. I started writing things down in my notebook that I thought I would have to remember.
. . .
I think that in my little note pad you could . . . see the stress I was under because my words turned into straight lines. I was not writing letters, E's, R's, and T's. I was writing so fast trying to catch everything that I started writing straight lines. I was going so fast I wasn't even writing. It's a good thing I remembered a lot without the notepad.
Jack Valenti: I got in the stairwell of the hospital between the basement and the first floor. I can't remember whether it was Cliff Carter or a Secret Service man, I think it was Cliff, and it could have been a Secret Service man, that grabbed me by the arm and said, "The President is dead, and the Vice President has me looking for you. He wants you to come out to Love Field and get aboard the airplane." That's my first inkling that I was going anywhere.
Charles Roberts: [President Johnson] left in Chief [Jesse] Curry's car . . . not a White House car at all. Although I didn't see this, of course, it's known that Youngblood and the other agents had him lie down on the back seat of the car as they wheeled out of the hospital grounds, perhaps all the way to Love Field, I don't know.
Lawrence F. O'Brien served as Special Assistant to the President for Congressional Relations for both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
Lawrence F. O'Brien: Our problem with an autopsy in Dallas was obvious. There was no way we were going to tolerate staying there one moment longer than was necessary, and that went to the swearing-in aspects. Our thought was overridingly, "Let's get out of here. Let's get our leader out of here." In that instance that was a normal human reaction. To have someone interfering with it was not acceptable, when you had a woman who had blood all over her suit, who had just lost her husband, and you're demanding that she sit in a chair somewhere. They said they wanted to get to some military installation where they could control the autopsy. My God, what difference did it make at that point? What were you trying to do?
. . .
I shared the anxiety of many of us to get out of there. It certainly made eminent good sense to be airborne as quickly as possible. After all we had gone through, a hassle in removing the body from the hospital in the first instance; we had gone through some horrible experiences, and you were completely beside yourself. You had no knowledge of how this happened, who, where, or what. We were in a state in which Ken O'Donnell and I knew the President was dead probably a half hour before we allowed the announcement to be made to the world. We just stood there, refusing to believe it. So you can't be held accountable under those circumstances. Then to have a coroner decide the body can't be removed from that hospital until he okays it was just too much. So he was shunted aside physically, and we moved the body out of the hospital, into the hearse, jumped into a car, and off we went to the plane.
Charles Roberts: As Kennedy's body was taken out in this bronze casket, there were probably not more than, oh, six or eight reporters present. Most reporters were then hanging around the pressroom, inside. I had gone out to the back of the hospital, so I saw the body removed . . . Wayne Hawks [acting deputy press secretary] was organizing a pool of three men, ostensibly to accompany the President's body back to Washington. And he grabbed Merriman Smith of UPI [and] Sid Davis of Westinghouse Broadcasting. . . . Then he grabbed Bob Roth of the Philadelphia Record to be the third pool man. I said, "Wait a minute. I was to be the pooler on the next leg of the trip,"—which was to Austin—"I'll take this trip."
Sid Davis: They took us down through the emergency room area—myself, Chuck Roberts, and Merriman Smith—and we went through the area where they had been treating President Kennedy. The cot was still there in this emergency room area. There was blood on the sheets that I could see as we went through. I went outside to the police car, and the presidential limousine was still parked there, and you could see the blood inside the car.
Charles Roberts: The thought had crossed my mind that Johnson—by then I had thought of Johnson as the new President—might show up on the plane that was going to fly Kennedy back to Washington, but . . . none of us knew we were going out there to see a new President, the new President sworn in . . . and even less that we were going to fly back on the plane with the dead President, the new President, Jackie, and Lady Bird, and most of their staffs.
Richard H. Nelson served as military aide to then-Vice President Johnson and as assistant to President Johnson from 1963–1967.
Richard H. Nelson: I was to leave for Texas [from Washington, D.C.] that evening and meet everybody at the Ranch when the teletypes started buzzing and we got the phone call from Texas that there had been an accident. That was the first thing we heard. There upon started the great shock of the assassination. We had first heard that Kennedy was alive, Johnson was dead. There was no clear news. We couldn't contact the party. We finally got the party at Parkland Hospital. Then there was the story that Johnson had a heart attack, because as he walked in the hospital he was hunched over holding his arm, because Rufus Youngblood hurt his shoulder when Youngblood pushed him to the floor of the car and sat on him.
Things became a blur at that point. . . . I had certain rather vital military duties to get performed. I don't know whether they were all military, but things relating to the office of the presidency at that point. This was one of the greatest cultural shocks to anybody, to suddenly be no longer in the easy-going Office of the Vice President, to be in the
Office of the President. I did certain things on my own that I didn't even know if it was in the manual or in the book, but just certain things occurred to me that had to be done that day.
. . .
They were coming back to Washington. Where was the President—Lyndon Johnson—going to go? I made the decision that he would go to the Executive Office Building [EOB], to the vice presidential office there. The Senate office was inappropriate, the Capitol office. The White House was certainly inappropriate. The usable office should be the Vice President's office at the Executive Office Building. Then there was a blur. The Elms [the Johnsons' residence] had to be converted into a White House. We had to get telephone lines. We had two or three telephone lines and one hot line, but nothing like the President requires. I went over to the Executive Office Building. It just occurred to me that when Johnson came back to the capital city, he had to come back not as the Vice President and not as the acting President, he had to come back as the President of the United States. The whole continuity, the whole government had to continue. Because this was always drummed into us in everything, the continuity of government, that the American people will carry on, will survive.
I went down to the basement with a White House guard, and we got some presidential seals and an old presidential flag. We took down the vice presidential seals over the door, and the Vice President's flag. Just the symbols, that when he walked into the Executive Office Building office, he was walking into the Office of the President, not the Vice President. But the symbols were very important at that time. The shock was just unbelievable. I mean, it was a city in tears. We really didn't know what was going on. I don't think people in Texas knew what was going on.
Jack Valenti: Cliff Carter and I and Liz Carpenter got outside and commandeered another car, this time a local policeman. We told him who we were, and there was a Secret Service man who came with us, because the Secret Service man, I think, was the one who had the orders to bring us aboard. We, again with sirens blasting, raced out to Love Field, showed the credentials of the Secret Service man to the guards because heavy guards had been set up. At any rate we got out to Love Field.
. . .
Of course we knew the President had been shot and he was dead, and that Connally was near death and he was shot. We knew that the Vice President was not shot. At this time we didn't know who shot the President or what it was, whether this was a conspiracy or a coup, or whatever it was. The whole air of those particular moments was one of total confusion, near hysteria, a kind of frantic moving around without knowing why. We were racing out to Love Field, I hadn't the remotest idea why I was going out there or what I was supposed to do, if anything. All I know is that this car took us right to the steps of Air Force One , and we climbed aboard, the first time I'd ever been inside the President's plane. I didn't know anybody aboard.
Sid Davis: They put us in an unmarked police car, and we went to Love Field. There were myself and Chuck Roberts of Newsweek magazine and Merriman Smith of UPI, selected by Fauver at the hospital to go to cover the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson, but they did not tell us what we were going to do, or that Johnson was at the airport. They just said, "We're going to the airport." They said that they couldn't make any phone calls for us. We asked if the police officer driving the car could radio his office to ask his office to tell our companies we were in his car and had to go somewhere and wouldn't file for a while. And the policeman said, "No, we have to maintain radio silence. We're not putting anything on the air right now because they don't want any broadcasts. They don't know whether this is a conspiracy or not. They don't want to let anybody know who's going where, where the traffic is going."
Charles Roberts: We got [to Love Field], of course, after both Johnson and the Kennedy casket and had a little trouble getting into the field. They had dropped pretty good security around the plane at that point, around Air Force One. But with a little exchange on the radio, we got up to the apron.
. . .
Kilduff walked up and told us—it was our first inkling, then, of what we were going to see—that we were going aboard in a few minutes to see the new President sworn in. What we were waiting for, we realized a minute later, was the arrival of Judge [Sarah] Hughes.
. . .
It was almost suffocating in the plane. I don't think to this day anybody knows that a manifest was ever made of everybody that was on that plane. It was probably grossly overloaded because not only did all of the Kennedy staff people want to ride back with their President, but all of the Johnson staff people, plus people like Jack Valenti who didn't work for either President, had poured aboard. Bill Moyers, who was deputy director of the Peace Corps or something, had been advancing Kennedy's Austin speech. He chartered a plane, flew in from Austin and got aboard.
. . .
Nearly all of the Secret Service agents who were on the trip got aboard that plane, because you had both the Kennedy and Johnson details.
Marie Fehmer Chiarodo served as Lyndon B. Johnson's secretary from 1962–1969.
Marie Fehmer Chiarodo: I remember going on the plane, and it was very dark. I couldn't imagine. It was hot outside, in the middle of the day, and it was pitch dark on the plane. I remember Rufus Youngblood going on and going through the plane and ordering everybody to slam those shades down. He was mean, he was cruel, he was yelling at us, and I didn't know what was going on. This plane was all different, and there were couches and there were doors, and there were strange faces. I had never seen these stewards before. I thought, "My goodness, here we are. What's going on?" No one ever told me, "The President's been shot." No one ever gave me that information. I just looked at the faces once we got aboard. And that seems to be when it hit everybody, when we looked around and there were all the Kennedy things. That's when I knew. Golly, so much happened then.
. . .
[Johnson] told me later that he had sent for me, that he had told Cliff [Carter] while he was in that emergency room, and I think that the stories will say this too. You know, he had the forethought to wonder where in the world Marie [Fehmer] and Liz [Carpenter] were in all that chaos. Can you imagine, that man was worrying about his people, especially the women, who was going to take care of them? Gloria Steinem would hate it today, but I don't. But Lyndon Johnson worried about what happened to the women.
. . .
The plane was divided into sort of three areas. There was an area at the back by the door where there were some seats, and then there was a hallway and a bedroom, or a stateroom-office type thing. Then there was a sofa room with chairs, and then there was a wall and there were seats, and then there was the cockpit and the front door. For the first hour or so, as far as I got was the sofa room. I didn't know about the rest of the plane. During that time, I know we called [Administrative Assistant to the Vice President] Walter [Jenkins] a couple of times in Washington. I remember hearing the Vice President say, "Do you know whether or not this is some sort of plot? Are they out to get a lot of us?" He was very much concerned at that time about whether or not it was a plot. I remember he asked that all the TVs be turned on in the plane. And I remember the search for [Judge] Sarah Hughes. It was at that time that he began to feel a little strange, in that he was in public as far as all these strangers were concerned, all the Kennedy people.
[Johnson] was almost whispering. But he was getting uncomfortable, because all he had with him of his people were Liz and myself, Mrs. Johnson, Jack [Valenti], Cliff [Carter]. And he thought and very justifiably said, "Is there someplace that I can make a phone call or two?" There was no private place except the bedroom, and I think this is where this misunderstanding has come about with people saying that he had taken over the plane. Here was just a man who needed to make maybe the biggest decision of his life and didn't want to make it in a circus, just like you might like to go into a phone booth instead of talking out in the middle of an airport. So we went into the bedroom. My memory is that the beds were made up; two single beds were on either side of the stateroom. There was a desk and a chair, and the desk was facing one of the beds. He sat on one of the beds, and I sat at the desk in the chair, where the phone was. We started looking for Sarah Hughes, and it wasn't easy.
. . .
This was when he knew that he had to take the oath of office there. This decision was made after he talked to Bobby [Kennedy] and Walter Jenkins.
Jack Valenti: When we got aboard I got as far as midships, the President's office, and there I saw [Homer] Thornberry and [Albert] Thomas, [Jack] Brooks, I think [Henry] Gonzalez, but I can't be sure. They were there, and we were all talking in hushed tones. I still had not seen the new President, didn't know where he was. We were sitting there some time when suddenly he appeared in this passageway, looming over us. I recall several things: one, we all stood up automatically. Even in that instant there was a new demeanor in all of us, and certainly in Johnson. I often thought that he looked graver. Whatever emotions or passions he had in him, he had put them under strict discipline. He was very quiet and seemingly very much in command of himself. I remember Thomas saying very quietly, "Mr. President, anything you want us to do, we're ready to carry out your orders." That's the first time I had heard him called Mr. President.
Charles Roberts: I remember as we walked aboard or pushed into this kind of mob, everybody was standing up in the aisles. There was hardly anybody sitting down at that moment. We got all the way to that midships conference
room where the swearing-in took place.
. . .
Then as we got back into that compartment, we saw—I started to say the Vice President, because we still sort of thought of him as that—Johnson sort of towering over all of these people. There were a bunch of Texas congressmen behind him: Homer Thornberry, Jack Brooks . . . Jim Wright. I think as [Johnson] looked, and he saw us, and he knew that the Judge was aboard, that it was time to begin, and he said, "Now we're going to have a swearing-in here, and I would like anybody who wants to see it to come on in to this compartment." I believe he said, "We've got the press here, so we can go ahead." He had been advised that there ought to be witnesses to it, I guess.
Jack Brooks: My position was he ought to be sworn in right away, right then, not wait one minute; that the country was too important to wait for a big ceremony in Washington or do it there on the steps of the Capitol or something or other like that. No, sir, I wanted it done then! We have national and international commitments and problems that can arise at any second, and it's not like a corporation that can have an acting manager for a month. The country is too big for that. We have too many international commitments. And any bobbling in that power is dangerous for the machinery.
Lawrence F. O'Brien: First of all there was no need for an oath, under the Constitution. No one was thinking of that at the time, but that is the reality of it. Lyndon Johnson was President. Secondly, it was not a suggestion made by any of the Kennedy people that the oath be administered on the plane. That emanated solely from the Johnson people. They were in one part of the plane; I was in another for several minutes. The question was therefore not whether the oath need be administered. The question came to the specific language of the oath, and that was garnered from the Justice Department and transmitted. Then the decision to administer the oath before the plane took off caused the problems between the Kennedy and Johnson people.
I don't recall any yelling or screaming. There was a feeling that "let's get out of here as rapidly as we can," and that feeling was based on the unknown. None of us obviously had any idea whether this was a conspiracy, whether Johnson was the next victim. That's why the plane was in an isolated part of Love Field. And now we've got the body on, let's get out of here. That was the overriding feeling.
Charles Roberts: There was not the tension, the crackling, white-hot tension aboard this plane between a Kennedy faction and a Johnson faction . . . that appears in Bill Manchester's version of the thing [The Death of a President]. . . . It simply didn't exist. Larry O'Brien is perhaps the best example of a Kennedy man who immediately went to work for LBJ.
Kenny O'Donnell and [Military Aide to the President] Godfrey McHugh were obsessed with the idea of getting the plane off the ground, because the county medical examiner had told them that the body couldn't be flown out without an autopsy, and they were determined to get that plane off the ground. There's no question about that. McHugh, who was a brigadier general in the Air Force and was Kennedy's Air Force aide, went flitting up and down the aisle trying to get the pilot to get the plane off the ground, because his President was aboard and he didn't care whether the new President got sworn in or not.
Marie Fehmer Chiarodo: I know there was some confusion about who said he should take the oath of office in Dallas. I don't remember his pushing for it. I know some people say he was pushing for it. My memory is that the decision from Walter [Jenkins] was to take it in Dallas, because the country should not be without a President for three hours. That's my honest memory. This big, tall man was very quiet, strong, quiet, and treading very softly. There was nothing blustery or take-over or unkind about him.
Jack Valenti: We determined that we were waiting for Judge Sarah Hughes to come aboard. At that point somebody said, "What's the oath of office?" A call had been placed to Washington to get it, and when the call came back in, I took the call just outside the President's office, which is midship on the plane. A disembodied voice was reading this oath, which I was checking with the secretary, and I found out later it was [Deputy Attorney General] Nick Katzenbach. . . . But I reread the oath back to him, and he checked the accuracy of it; we hung up, and then the oath was typed up neatly on a card.
Marie Fehmer Chiarodo: I had to go to the front section of that plane where the typewriters were and take the oath of office over the phone.
. . .
I think Bobby started it and turned the phone over to Katzenbach.
. . .
I heard hammering, and I couldn't find out what the hammering was. I was afraid it would bother [Johnson] when he was on the phone, so I asked one of the stewards, "What is the hammering?" He said, "They are removing seats in the rear of the plane so the coffin can be back there."
Lawrence F. O'Brien: Johnson was adamant that the oath be administered by Judge Hughes.
. . .
That caused delay, getting Judge Hughes to the airport, and that delay caused concern expressed by some, but I don't recall direct discussions. During that period is when I checked on Jackie, who was in the bathroom, to determine how she was coming along. When I went to check on her, in the bedroom there was a Bible that I picked up. People have said to me ever since, "Why did you—?" I don't know why I did it. There's such a thing as being out of it and not realizing what you're doing or why you're doing it. I've never had an experience comparable to that.
. . .
Jackie said that she wanted to come out and join the group.
. . .
I asked her first how was she feeling. She said, "I'm all right," or something to that effect. I said, "Do you want to step out here? Would you?" She said, "I'll come out."
Charles Roberts: We had a fairly short wait, waiting for Jackie to come out. She was back in the bedroom compartment. And during that time, I realized later, Larry O'Brien was looking for a Bible. As you know—I think I broke this story—it wasn't a Bible; it was a Catholic missal, a sort of prayer book in Latin and English that they found back in Kennedy's quarters.
. . .
[Everybody had been] pretty still, but trying to maintain a sort of subdued amiability. You know, everybody being very courteous to everybody else.
. . .
Trying not to be stricken, but talking banalities to try to keep from collapsing, maybe. But that stopped as [Mrs. Kennedy] came in, and this was the first time I realized how blood spattered she was. This strawberry pink wool suit had some blood on it, but one of her stockings was just completely saturated with blood.
. . .
She was really in a state of what I would call medical shock, not just shock, but an almost glazed look on her face. She seemed almost unaware of what was happening and, curiously, had a kind of a little frozen smile on her face. We lined up in sort of semicircles around the aft door to that midships compartment, and then Mrs. Kennedy came through that door. We were pretty well deployed in semicircles around that door when she came out.
Bill Manchester wrote in his book—he got carried away and wrote that it was a Bible that Kennedy often read at night while he was making trips. He would read this Bible at night before he would turn out his lights, Manchester said. I later tracked down Larry O'Brien, months later, and found out it was a Catholic missal that somebody had thrust at Kennedy, probably on that trip. It was like a souvenir, a gift that somebody had pressed on him, and the cellophane hadn't even been removed from the book. It was in its box, and it was in a cellophane wrapper.
. . .
But that's what served as a Bible. Anyway, it took a little time for Larry O'Brien to find that, a little time to get Mrs. Kennedy.
Larry O'Brien: By that time I guess enough minutes had elapsed so that you're approaching the moment that the Judge has or momentarily does arrive, and this happens quickly because there's the card with the oath, and I simply handed the Judge the Bible. I never opened it or never knew whether it was a Bible or a missal. It had a cross on the cover.
. . .
She took it, and he put his hand on it, and the oath was administered. I don't know how many minutes elapsed from the time it was determined that an oath was going to be administered and [the time] the oath was actually administered and we did take off. I'm sure there's a record of how long a period, but I never checked it.
Jack Valenti: The oath was administered in the office part of the President's plane. Of course in the famous picture that was taken, we were all crowded around, Mac Kilduff, the assistant press secretary, was holding a tape recorder, and Judge Hughes' back was to the narrow passageway leading to the rear of the plane. Mrs. Kennedy came in at that time and stood to the President's left and Mrs. Johnson to his right kind of cater-corner between the President's table and the other table across the aisle, with sort of their left shoulders to the starboard side of the airplane but not perpendicular.
Charles Roberts: Mac Kilduff had gotten the idea that there ought to be a voice transcription of the oath, and he had grabbed, not a tape recorder, but a Dictaphone, and the pictures show him holding the microphone up near the President's mouth. Cecil Stoughton, the Army photographer, had gotten up on a transom, a sofa, flattened himself against the bulkhead, so that he could make a picture of it. And I remember him asking us to move back a little. He had a wide-angle, kind of a fish-eye, lens on his camera. But even so, he had to ask us to move back a little.
Jack Valenti: In my anxiety to see this, what I knew as an historic moment, I clambered over one of the chairs, one of the chairs that faces the President's chair, and peered around the right of Albert Thomas right next to the window and watched the proceedings very clearly. I was very close to them. Judge Hughes administered the oath; the President kissed his wife and kissed Mrs. Kennedy on the cheek. Mrs. Kennedy's face was a mask of really passive grief, I suppose is the way you'd say it. She disappeared through the narrow passageway to the rear of the plane, and I never saw her anymore during the rest of the trip.
Charles Roberts: Judge Hughes spoke very softly as she read the oath, which I think Marie Fehmer had had dictated to her from the Justice Department. Of course it's in the Constitution, probably in an almanac aboard the plane for all we know. But she had it typed out on a little piece of an Air Force One memo pad. The President later, himself, brought that up to us in case we wanted the exact wording of the oath. Judge Hughes read the oath.
. . .
He repeated it very softly and added the words, "So help me God," which are not a part of that oath, and then turned to his right and kissed Lady Bird, turned to his left and, in my notebook, just took Mrs. Kennedy by the arms, kind of embraced her, holding her arms. . . .
It was, again, a situation where nobody knew what to do. You don't have a big congratulations in that situation . . . with the widow standing there. I remember what most people did was just sort of shake his hand and say, "Good luck to you" or "God bless you," "God be with you," or something. I'm not a deeply religious person, but what I said to him when I shook his hand, and I clasped his elbow—he was famous for massaging elbows—I think I clasped his elbow as I shook his hand and said, "God be with you, Mr. President."
Then my recollection is that there was
a little delay because Mrs. Kennedy was standing there and nobody
knew what to say to her. Of course, Lady Bird talked to her. Lady Bird said something like, I caught the words, “All the nation mourns your husband." And I remember Chief Curry saying to her, "You've had a hard day, little lady. You'd better go lie down and get some rest," or words to that effect. . . . But she didn't move off right away, and there was a sort of milling around with nobody knowing what to say, what to do, after shaking Johnson's hand. Then she retired
to the rear, and that's when Johnson gave what I'm sure was his first order as President. He said, "Now let's get airborne."
. . .
We do know that as Judge Hughes left, she handed that missal book to somebody, or somebody asked her for it, and somebody's got it now, and whoever has it has a historic document, but it's one of those things like a stolen painting by an old master. How are you going to boast about it or show it to anybody, because it was, in effect, swiped, taken by subterfuge from Judge Hughes as she got off the plane.
Sid Davis: I have to say this, that during that swearing-in, Lyndon Johnson—I have said this before many times to people, because there's been controversy over what took place on that airplane. I said it right after the event, and I say it now, nearly thirty years later: that period was Lyndon Johnson's finest moment. His handling of Mrs. Kennedy, the Kennedy family, could not have been done with more compassion, understanding. The country was in a state of shock; all of us were. I would say that the one person on that airplane who had all his wits about him was Lyndon Johnson.
Sid Davis: Kilduff came over and said, "There are only two seats for the press to go back to Washington and since Merriman Smith is a wire service reporter, and reports for everybody, we're going to keep him on because we need him for the record." . . . When Mac Kilduff said, "There are only two seats; you and Chuck Roberts are going to have to flip for it," I said, "I won't flip; I want to get off. My office is waiting for me to call." So I said, "Chuck, why don't you fly back to Washington with Smitty, and I'll get off and give the pool report?"
Anyway, I got off the plane, and standing next to me was the woman who had administered the oath, Sarah Hughes, because she was from [Dallas]. I didn't know who she was.
. . .
I stood there with Sarah Hughes. I started interviewing her. When did she become a federal judge? She said she was recommended by Lyndon Johnson and nominated by John F. Kennedy, the man who was on that airplane flying back to Washington.
. . .
Then I tried to get back downtown to Dallas to give my pool report to all the other press. I was the only reporter at the airport now. Air Force One had now roared down the runway, and I could see its smoke trails as it flew back to Washington, heading east. And I tried to find a way for a cop to get me back to town. They said, "The whole town is under security. You can't move off this field. This is a secure area. You're stuck." I said, "Well, I've got the only report of the swearing-in of the new President of the United States. I can't use it first myself." There were three phones staring me in the face. They had been brought there earlier in the day for the press, and I could have called my office on any of those three phones to file this story. I had the only story of Lyndon Johnson being sworn in, but I felt duty bound to give my pool report.
. . .
That's the rule. That's an established rule—if you accept the role as a pool reporter, you do not use that pool report for yourself. You must share it with everybody else before you use it yourself. That's the rule a pool member accepts, assassination or no assassination.
. . .
But before I could get off the field, I argued with sergeants. I went from privates to corporals to sergeants trying to find somebody in command who would let me get back down to the Parkland Hospital. Suddenly two press buses appeared. The press was now being brought—they had been told downtown the swearing-in was taking place. They were rushing the reporters out to the field. They all got off these buses, and I flagged them all down. Somebody picked me up and put me on the trunk of a brand new car. It was a white sedan. And I stood on the trunk and preached to these people about what had happened. I was giving them my pool report, which was probably the best I have ever done, because somehow the adrenaline—it probably was not as good as it could have been, but it was good enough, I think. I did my best.
But here I was standing on this car, giving the pool report. These three phones are now—Bob Pierpoint from CBS had come out with the others. He headed for the phone. As soon as I gave the merest details, he wanted to get on the air to say the President had been sworn in, and they were on their way back to Washington, because the press didn't know that until they had talked to me. They had wondered where Lyndon Johnson and Mrs. Kennedy were. So I stood there and answered patiently all the questions, and they all headed off to Western Union or whatever to file. And there was one man still in that audience badgering me for more information—I still couldn't file until I'd pleased everybody in the press corps—and that was Tom Wicker of the New York Times. Naturally the New York Times, the newspaper of record, had to know every smidgen of this thing, so I stood there and responded to all Tom Wicker's questions. "Read the oath to me." So I read my notes from Sarah Hughes's card. I read him the oath. "How long did it take?" I said, "Twenty-eight seconds." I had the answer for him. I talked about Mrs. Kennedy's dress being saturated with blood. Her stocking was saturated with the President's blood, because she cradled John F. Kennedy's head in her lap.
Then finally Wicker finished. He exhausted all of his questions, and I went over to file my story, and there were three reporters in the phone booths that were set up, one of them being Bob Pierpoint. I pounded on Bob Pierpoint's window, saying, "Let me in, for goodness' sakes. You've already filed your story." I was probably the last guy to file the story to my office, but I had a hell of a story, a first-person story.
Lawrence F. O'Brien: On the flight back, which I assume was a couple of hours, you really had two groups. You had the group up front beyond the President's quarters, who were members of Congress and staff and others who were Johnson people, and you had this little group in the rear with the widow.
. . .
Someone had taken the necessary step of removing seats opposite where Jackie, General [Godfrey] McHugh, Dave Powers, Ken O'Donnell, and I were to sit, so that the coffin could be strapped onto the floor of the plane.
Charles Roberts: Now it is true that there was very little mingling of the Kennedys' inner circle and the Johnson people on the flight back. That is simply for the reason that they held sort of a wake in that rear compartment where the casket was. Kenny O'Donnell, [Godfrey] McHugh, [Special Assistant to President Kennedy] Dave Powers, and for part of the time at least, Larry O'Brien, just simply stayed back there with Mrs. Kennedy, whereas the President and his staff were beginning to do the things that they had to do on assumption of office.
He was in touch with Washington by phone. He even had a conference with Larry O'Brien on what their problems were going to be with Congress as soon as he got back to Washington. I'm sure he talked to Mac Bundy, who was Kennedy's national security advisor and who became his national security advisor. There was a matter of preparing a statement to be made on his arrival back in Washington that was prepared.
Jack Valenti: [Johnson] sat at that time in the President's chair in the midships office, and the first call he made was he asked that a call be placed
to Mrs. Joseph P. Kennedy. That call came through, and he and Mrs. Johnson both talked to her.
. . .
The President had the phone, and then he passed it to Mrs. Johnson, and then he took it back again. Mrs. Johnson's eyes were brimming with tears as she talked. . . . "My God, it was a horrible thing, how I wish that it had never happened."
Marie Fehmer Chiarodo: I remember our just trying to hide and not be there. We really didn't want to be there. We didn't belong there. So Liz and Cliff and I went up, after takeoff, to the front of the plane and sat at the front, in that front section for the staff, for the whole flight. This, I later felt, was a mistake. Somebody should have been back there, listening and watching.
. . .
Watching [LBJ], watching what he was doing. I heard his conversation with Nellie Connally, and I heard his conversation with Rose Kennedy. Of course, they were superb conversations on his part. But someone should have been there.
. . .
I certainly sensed that I didn't belong [on the plane]. And so did all of us. Cliff Carter dictated some of his notes to me while they were fresh, and I wrote them down. I had to type once or twice, but I felt that I may as well have been typing in the Pope's chapel. I hated the racket, but I had to type the arrival statement.
Lawrence F. O'Brien: I was asked if I would come up and talk to the President on at least a couple of occasions. The conversations were general expressions of sympathy, regret, and concern. Mrs. Johnson had a brief conversation with Jackie, at least one conversation as part of the swearing-in, and probably at one other time during the flight.
Ultimately the flight settled down to those of us with Jackie sitting with her for the remainder of the trip, and Jackie expressing her concern about us, which was amazing to me. I think I mentioned that, because I'll never forget it. I couldn't believe that under those circumstances she would say, "You were the closest to him. What's going to happen to you?" What do you say?
. . .
I think it was a gut reaction to be negative toward or antagonistic to Lyndon Johnson under those circumstances on the part of some Kennedy people. This terrible thing, this man has replaced him, and there's something awfully unfair about what happened. This man has been killed. I don't think you probably dwell on the Constitution. The mere fact that he succeeded Jack Kennedy was an irritant to some Kennedy people from then on. Somehow or other there was some degree of responsibility on Johnson's part, as irrational as that might seem.
Charles Roberts: We didn't do a lot of interviewing of people. I was sitting opposite Roy Kellerman, I remember, who was in charge of the presidential security detail on that trip. I threw a couple of questions over to him. He was not crying, but his eyes were brimming. You've heard of strong men crying; well, we had it there. And you had people like Evelyn Lincoln and Pam Turnure. I remember Pam, especially; she was Jackie's press secretary. She'd cried
and her mascara had smeared, and so her face was just streaked, streaked with black mascara.
. . .
And much, much crying.
. . .
It was not like a chorus of sobs. But the women, the secretaries, people like Pam, Evelyn Lincoln, could be heard sobbing every now and then. And those that weren't talking or doing anything generally just rode with their foreheads cupped in their hands, probably concealing the fact that they were crying.
. . .
It was a sinking-in. We were all doing second, third, fourth takes, realizing all of the implications of the thing as we rode back.
. . .
Still not knowing whether there was a worldwide conspiracy, whether the shots were fired by three or four people or just one.
. . .
To me, Johnson's conduct in that period—I think we took two hours and twelve minutes—was, to coin a phrase, his "finest hour." He couldn't have been more considerate, not only of Jackie, but of all the Kennedy people. He was thoughtful. He was thinking ahead. There was nothing unseemly at all about his takeover. It was not a grasping for power. It would have been of course utterly absurd for him to fly all the way back to Washington without taking the oath, for the country for two hours and twelve minutes not to have a constitutionally sworn President. It would have been absurd for him not to take Air Force One, or the plane Air Force 26000, which was the plane Kennedy had gone down there on because it had better communications equipment, decoding, coding, and so forth. He was the President. He should have flown on the plane with the best equipment. Furthermore, if he had left Jackie behind to fly back on either plane with just a corporal's guard of mourners and get off the plane alone with the casket—if he hadn't stayed by the widow and paid Kennedy the honor of accompanying the body back—he would have been criticized forever after. So all of those things that he did were right, and yet the people who never did like the man and never will, found some way to criticize him for all of the right things that he did, all of the right, compassionate things he did.
. . .
Even with hindsight, I don't know how he could improve on it. It was a masterful takeover, considering the circumstances. I mean, after all, he was the first President ever to witness the murder of his predecessor, so he could have been forgiven if he hadn't been too cool. But the fact is he was cool.
Jack Valenti: When we landed at Andrews [Air Force Base], everybody began to stand up. I remember, because I recognized him, coming through the forward part of the plane, really elbowing his way, was the Attorney General, Mr. Robert Kennedy, who came really racing through, neither looking to the right nor to the left to get to the back of the plane. The only thing that I noticed was that I remember that he passed President Johnson without saying anything, going to the rear of the plane, because as it suddenly developed there was a fork lift brought forward and the coffin was to be taken out of the rear exit, but no steps were there at that time, just the fork lift.
. . .
There was a big crowd then of people that blocked the passageway and, indeed, President Johnson was blocked off. We simply could not move until that coffin had gone, because at the most you can get two abreast, and not even two abreast very well in that passageway. So you get six or seven people in there between the entrance to the passageway and the entrance to the President's small bedroom, and you literally are totally blocked. You cannot move. And that's what happened. I was maybe two people to the rear of the President, and he was stymied. He could not move.
. . .
He just stood there impassively without saying anything. Finally we did move off. After the coffin had been removed, stairs were brought up, and we alighted from the rear of the plane.
Marie Fehmer Chiarodo: We arrived here in Washington, landed at Andrews. There were lots of lights. I remember [Johnson] saying, "Get everybody together." In other words, he didn't want his people to get lost. He was very kind about that. We did not know who would be at the airport, what kind of helicopters would be there, if Secretary [of State Dean] Rusk's plane had arrived, and I think it had, if they were going to be on the ground there.
. . .
We knew there were going to be meetings at the White House that night, so we knew we should try to get there, but we didn't know how. I remember getting on a helicopter, I remember the statement, I remember a lot of lights, I remember seeing a lot of press people there. It was about this time when I was fading. I think I had just about had it.
Jack Valenti: The interesting thing is I had never before ever visited the White House. This was the first time that I ever got inside the black gates, on this night.
. . .
Which is an unusual way to visit the White House for the first time. It was of course very dark when we arrived.
. . .
I could see people around the fence. There were some people waiting there in the darkness.
. . .
When we came in, we landed on the south grounds. I followed the President and everyone else, walking through the Diplomatic Reception Room, then through the porte-cochere that attaches from the West Wing to the Mansion, through those doors, and then down the steps, which lead you to the basement of the White House. And through the basement walking out the west basement, across Executive Avenue into the EOB and onto the second floor where the President had his vice presidential office. He did not even stop in the President's office.
Richard H. Nelson: I was waiting for [Johnson] at the Executive Office Building. He came directly from Andrews, as I recall. I think he made a quick stop at the Mansion with Mrs. Kennedy. Then he came to the Vice President's Office at the Executive Office Building. I said, “Hello, Mr. President." He was a bit in shock, but in total command. Total command.
. . .
You could tell. I mean, just his bearing. He [seemed] to me to have grown about seven, eight inches in the course of the day. He seemed bigger than when I saw him off on the plane to Texas.
. . .
The first few hours were enormously traumatic and enormously difficult, because nothing worked. There were as many reporters trying to get in the door and government officials competing with telephone men trying to pull wires. We were trying to get enough telephones in there for Johnson's entire staff to occupy offices that had been occupied by four or five people prior. He was busy in his office. I was busy with not knowing what I was doing. Everybody was really in a state of shock. I had my coat and tie off, and basically I was moving furniture, which was probably as therapeutic as anything else, because that's about what most of us were doing on the staff, arranging desks and chairs. Physical labor, I think, was probably the best therapy you could have been doing at that time. We certainly weren't running the country.
Richard H. Nelson: About two hours later I was summoned into the President's office for what was really a rather remarkable session. He called me in, and he said, "Do we have any presidential stationery?" I said, "No, sir. " We had White House stationery, and we had vice presidential stationery. We did not have any of the President's personal stationery, which is pale green, and is used only for things signed by the President. . . . He said, "I want to write two letters, and they should be on that stationery." I said, "I'll go get some," and I walked across the alley to the White House. The only place the President's stationery is kept is in the President's office. And of course everybody was in tears. It was going from a beehive of physical activity at the Executive Office Building, where we were trying to establish the presidency, to the mourning for the President across the street. Evelyn Lincoln was there. She was in tears. Everybody was. And I said, "Mrs. Lincoln, can I please have a box of the green presidential stationery?" Somebody, I don't know who it was, said, "The President is dead." And I said, "The President is across the street, and he would like some stationery."
The two letters he wrote were handwritten letters, one to John, Jr., and the other to Caroline. He wanted to set down his thoughts at that time about how great a man their daddy was. He wanted to set them down at that moment in history, for those two children. I don't know if copies were ever made of those letters. I hand delivered them up to the Mansion later that evening. I don't know what became of the letters, or whether anybody got their hands on them to make a copy of them for the historical record. I don't know what they said. But I just thought it was typical of Lyndon Johnson that his thoughts were on these orphan children at that time, and that this was not for the public record. This was not for politics. This was not for anything else but those two kids, who'd lost their father, violently, that afternoon. Because I said—they were handwritten—"Do you want me to give them for copying?" He said, "No! You personally deliver them upstairs to the Mansion, and if Mrs. Kennedy is not there you give them to Mr. [J. B.] West, the chief usher. Those are for the children. And don't you shoot your mouth off that I wrote these letters," which I naturally did the next day.
But I thought this was just very typical of Lyndon Johnson. He chewed me out royally. I believe I told Bill Haddad about it the next day. Bill had been a friend of mine from the Peace Corps days, but he was then with the New York Herald Tribune, I believe I told Bill about it the next day, and of course it made the papers. Johnson was just furious with me. This was a personal thing. He really meant this [to be] of no significance except to those two children. But [it was] characteristic of the man, really.
Jack Valenti: By this time it must have been nine o'clock. About ten or eleven the President—I'm not clear on the time—came out of his office and called me to the side and said to me, "You can go home with me, and you can stay at The Elms." I said, "Yes, sir."
. . .
There was a great blur of activity that night. And then around eleven the President, Cliff Carter, and myself and Bill Moyers got into the President's car—Norman, his driver, was driving him—and we drove out to The Elms. When we got there, there were a lot of people, several hundred I suppose, around the house. The Secret Service men had set up guards, but the phones hadn't been set up so that we really didn't have the right kind of communication; we just had the same telephones that they had had. They were working immediately trying to get phones put in.
When we got to The Elms there we went into the President's den, where he sat in his chair. I remember him sitting down there; Mrs. Johnson was there and myself, Cliff, Bill Moyers, [Special Assistant to President Johnson] Horace Busby, a number of other assorted people. He had a glass of orange juice, he lifted his glass to the picture of Speaker Rayburn that was on the opposite wall, and he said: "I wish you were here."
We went into the dining room from time to time, there was food set up there, no one was really very hungry.
About midnight, one o'clock in the morning, people began to drift out, and I followed President Johnson upstairs to his bedroom where Cliff Carter, myself, and Bill Moyers sat around. I sat in a little chair next to the phone to the left of his bed, Bill sat on the edge of the bed, and Cliff had a chair in between us. We had the television set on, and the President put on his pajamas, propped himself up in the bed, and we watched the news reports. From time to time he would say, "Now, tomorrow I want to talk to So-and-So." And I made these notes. One of the great curses of my life is that I must have made ten pages of notes, which I then turned over to the secretaries the next day, and I never retrieved them. I don't know what happened to them, I've just been unable to find them. It dawned on me, to my stupidity, about ten days later that these were pretty historic, and I tried to rummage around to find them, but I was never able to locate them. So those priceless notes taken that night have long since disappeared.
At some time during the night, and I don't know when, I remember the President saying to me, leaning over, "Get hold of your wife and get some clothes sent up here. You can stay here; you can stay in the guest bedroom down the hall. I want you to stay up here and work on my staff," whatever that meant. I said, "Yes, sir." We stayed with him until about four o'clock in the morning, at which time we let him go to sleep, and all of us spent the night.
Sid Davis: That whole period was a remarkable period to cover because of the foresight LBJ had, trying to pull this country together in the aftermath of this tragedy. Anybody looking back realizes there was no way you could plan for something like that. This really was where judgment and skill, really all your energies were put into whether you were going to make it or not. I don't think any transfer of power was as orderly as that one, staff-wise and every other way—the Johnson retention of many of the Kennedy people for that whole year, even though some of those people were not Johnson fans, as you know.
Transcript, Charles Roberts Oral History Interview I, 1/14/70, by Joe B. Frantz, Internet Copy, LBJ Library.
Transcript, Jack Valenti Oral History Interview II, 10/18/69, by Joe B. Frantz, Internet Copy, LBJ Library.
Transcript, Lawrence F. O'Brien Oral History Interview VI, 2/11/86, by Michael L. Gillette, Internet Copy, LBJ Library.
Transcript, Marie Fehmer Chiarodo Oral History Interview I, 8/16/72, by Joe B. Frantz, Internet Copy, LBJ Library.
Transcript, Richard H. Nelson Oral History Interview I, 7/20/78, by Michael L. Gillette, Internet Copy, LBJ Library.
Transcript, Sid Davis Oral History Interview I, 5/10/90, by Michael L. Gillette, Internet Copy, LBJ Library.
Listen to Audio
August 29, 1966 telehone conversation concerning the missal used in Lyndon B. Johnson's swearing-in ceremony. The voices heard in this conversation include those of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, Justice Abe Fortas, Bill Moyers, George Christian, and Marie Fehmer Chiarodo. Audio courtesy the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.