From the grassy knoll... 47 years later

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

By Steven M. Gillon (PERSONALITY)

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Published: Tue 23 Nov 2010, 9:02 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:29 AM

William Manchester created the popular narrative of LBJ’s role in his bestselling book, The Death of a President. Leaning heavily on the accounts of disgruntled Kennedy aides, Manchester painted a portrait of a boorish and overbearing vice president, insensitive to the needs of a grieving widow, driven by a combination of megalomania and insecurity. Released in early 1967, Manchester’s story of presidential arrogance and deception made sense to Americans disillusioned with the war in Vietnam, student protest, and racial rioting. Manchester’s interpretation, which has been embellished over the years, has shaped our views of LBJ’s actions that day. It’s time to set the record straight.

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

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

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

Kennedy loyalists viewed Johnson’s decision to fly Air Force One back to Washington as part of the larger narrative of the day—an example of LBJ’s insensitiv.ity and his megalomania. They would later claim that LBJ was so desperate to surround himself with the trappings of presidential power that he hijacked the Kennedy plane. The charge is bogus. Johnson never requested to use the Kennedy plane. The secret service made that call for him. Johnson has also endured criticism for taking the oath in Dallas instead of waiting until after he returned to Washington. Many in the Kennedy group believed that it was insensitive to Mrs. Kennedy, who was forced to sit on the hot plane for nearly an hour waiting for Judge Hughes to arrive. Whatever his motives, Johnson made the right decision. Although Johnson would later be accused of being tone deaf when it came to the media, he brilliantly choreographed the swearing-in ceremony to provide the nation with the reassurance that it needed.

There was a great deal of confusion on the plane and in Washington about a very basic constitutional issue: When did the vice president assume the powers of the presidency? Everyone knew the vice president succeeded the president in the event of death. But did LBJ become president when Kennedy was declared dead? Or did he need to take the oath before he assumed the powers of the presidency? No one was sure. Johnson was no constitutional scholar, and the abstract debates about the oath were of little interest to him. At a time when the operating assumption was that the assassination was part of an international conspiracy, Johnson needed to make sure there was no ambiguity about who was in charge of the nation. Taking the oath in Dallas was the right thing to do.

Johnson’s decision to ask Mrs. Kennedy to participate in the swearing-in ceremony provided more fodder for critics. Once again, they charged, he was being insensitive and insecure. In reality, Johnson brilliantly choreographed the scene to produce one of the most iconic pictures in American history. What is less understandable is why LBJ often refused to take responsibility for the decisions that he made in those critical hours. He had every right to take the Kennedy plane, but he insisted that O’Donnell specifically told him to take it—a charge that O’Donnell vehemently denied. He claimed that RFK recommended that the oath be administered in Dallas, when in reality it was Johnson’s idea. What appeared as minor character flaws in those first few hours of his administration, would later balloon into a full blown “credibility gap” that would doom his presidency.

LBJ’s main goal in his first 24-hours was to comfort a shocked and grieving nation, reassuring the American people that their government was still functioning. By all accounts he succeeded. For all the scorn that would later be heaped on LBJ, and for all the animosity that his presidency would produce, on that tragic day in November of 1963, LBJ emerged as a figure of towering strength, shrewd political instincts, and national healing.

© Huffington Post

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