Angel is Airborne
Aboard Air Force One—during one of America’s most searing, perilous moments—a government was formed and a presidency begun.
“And thank God, Mr. President, you came out of Dallas alive.”
The joke was prepared, the words typed, ready to place on the Vice President’s lectern in Austin, Texas, later that evening. Lyndon Johnson was planning to close his speech on November 22, 1963, with a punch line about how John F. Kennedy had survived the city of hate.
Fears for Kennedy in Dallas had been widespread. The place was filled with extremists who thought JFK was soft on Communism and the United Nations was a red front. Just a few weeks earlier, Adlai Stevenson had been physically assaulted during a speech there; in 1961, one of Bobby Kennedy’s speeches in Dallas had been interrupted by circling cars full of noisy protesters; and in 1960, images of a crowd jostling and jeering Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson as they crossed a Dallas street had horrified the nation.
In the days leading up to the Kennedy visit, homemade posters bearing the President’s face circulated with the headline “Wanted for Treason.” That morning at their hotel suite in Fort Worth, after seeing a full-page ad in the Dallas Morning News accusing him of being a Communist lover, JFK said to his wife, Jackie, “We’re heading into nut country today.”
Kennedy’s arrival at Dallas’s Love Field, though, went better than expected. It was an almost silly, Herculean effort to fly Air Force One the 30 miles from Fort Worth, where they’d spent the night before, to Dallas, but the White House wanted the beautiful visual of the throngs embracing the Kennedys.
The flight, from wheels up to wheels down, lasted just 13 minutes, barely long enough for the President to change into his third fresh shirt of the day. Kennedy looked out the window at the huge crowd, turned to George Thomas, his valet since 1947, and joked with the Berryville, Virginia, native: “You know, George, I think this is a bigger town than you come from.”
Jackie walked off the plane first, a violation of protocol that went overlooked amid the roar of thousands of admirers gathered on the tarmac. As he always did, about halfway down the stairs President Kennedy unconsciously stuffed one hand into his jacket pocket, just as Lieutenant Colonel Lewis “Swede” Hanson, the Air Force One copilot, knew he would. “It was a small thing, but we always watched for it, and we always got a kick out of it,” Hanson later recalled.
On the ground under the crisp blue Texas sky, JFK worked the rope line and Jackie received a bouquet of red roses. (At every other Texas stop, she’d been given bouquets of the yellow rose of Texas, but in Dallas for some reason she was given red.) Then Governor John Connally and his wife, Nellie, and the President and First Lady climbed into the open-top presidential limousine, flown specially to Dallas for the day. And off they went, basking in the sun’s warmth and the crowd’s cheers.
The blue-and-white Boeing 707 sat waiting to whisk the presidential party to Austin for the final stop on the multiday Kennedy-Johnson Texas tour. Colonel James Swindal, the presidential pilot, had taken on only a small fuel load—carefully tested for contaminants before being used—because it was just another 180 miles to the state capital.
But Air Force One would never depart for Austin, and the Vice President’s joke would never be delivered.
The city of hate had, in fact, killed the President.
At 1 pm Central Standard Time, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, age 46, was pronounced dead at Dallas’s Parkland Hospital from a gunshot wound to the head.
At that moment, Lyndon Baines Johnson, 55, officially became President. The first four hours of his presidency would unfold almost entirely aboard Air Force One, where, just feet away from the body of his predecessor, he began the process of reassuring a nation and building a government. The plane became the unexpected venue for a peaceful transfer of power—that most renowned hallmark of the most powerful democracy on earth.
The 1,190-mile journey from Dallas to Washington on November 22, 1963, stands as the most famous Air Force One flight of all time. Johnson boarded the plane in secrecy, with few in the world aware that Kennedy was dead, and then after taking the presidential oath had 132 minutes to assemble his thoughts and a government before landing at Andrews Air Force Base and presenting himself to the cameras as the new leader of the free world.
While there are many individual recollections of the flight, there exist few comprehensive reconstructions of all that unfolded on the plane. But a review of dozens of memoirs and oral histories plus more than 500 pages of documents—from the White House pool report filed by the two journalists aboard to confidential Secret Service files documenting the activities of each of its agents—as well as a recently discovered two-hour-and-22-minute audio recording of Air Force One’s radio traffic with Andrews on the day of the assassination, reveals that even amid one of the most dramatic presidential transitions in history there arose very human moments of envy, anger, bewilderment, and courage, as those aboard endured what would be for all of them the most difficult hours of their lives.
I. On the Ground
Colonel James Swindal, a handsome World War II veteran from Alabama who had flown in the 1948–49 Berlin Airlift, had been President Kennedy’s personal pilot since the 1960 election. He had just been finishing lunch on Air Force One—a roast-beef sandwich—when panicked voices erupted from the radio.
Amid the garbled transmissions, he heard a shout at 12:30 pm CST: Dagger, cover Volunteer! Then lots of crosstalk. “Dagger” meant Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood. “Volunteer” meant LBJ. Then agent Roy Kellerman reported from the motorcade, “Lancer is hurt. It looks bad.” Then nothing. Lancer was the President.
Many long minutes later, a phone call finally came from Brigadier General Godfrey McHugh, the President’s military aide, at Parkland Hospital: Fuel up and file a flight plan for Washington. Swindal still didn’t know what had transpired, but he obeyed the order, rushing for the stairs and shouting to his flight engineer standing on the tarmac below: “Get fuel onboard! Get ready to go!”
Swindal only found out what had actually happened to Kennedy when he turned on the TV in the presidential compartment and heard that he’d been shot. As word spread, Love Field came alive. Military personnel streamed out of the terminal, returning to Air Force One and Air Force Two, the Vice President’s plane, parked nearby. Swindal’s copilot, Colonel Lewis Hanson, who had driven to his mother-in-law’s house close by the airport for a visit, raced back, his car straining at more than 80 miles an hour through the empty streets.
Sergeant John Trimble, one of the Air Force signalmen on the plane, was working his radio, talking to Andrews Air Force Base, when word passed through the plane that President Kennedy was dead. “All the chatter ceased,” Trimble recalled. “We were all numb and did our jobs automatically as we waited for the body to arrive.”
Extra security began to surround the plane. Twenty Dallas police officers formed a perimeter while Secret Service and police began to clear nearby parking lots and buildings. Then came the first sign of what had gone so terribly wrong: Shortly after 1:15, the presidential limousine, now empty, its back seat covered in blood, arrived back at the airfield and headed for the military C-130 transport plane that had carried the motorcade to Dallas. From the limo, Secret Service agent Samuel Kinney—who had helped carry Kennedy into Parkland Hospital before reinstalling the car’s bubble top for the drive back to the airport—radioed ahead to the Air Force cargo plane: “Have the ramp down—we’re driving right aboard.”
With Kennedy dead, Johnson’s aides and Secret Service agents pushed the Vice President to return to the plane and then to Washington. Their hastily arranged motorcade rushed back to Love Field. Agent Jerry Kivett crammed into the back of a police car with Texas congressman Jack Brooks and the new President’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson.
Lyndon Johnson arrived at the airfield at 1:33, traveling in one of two unmarked white police cars, with a motorcycle escort. Air Force One—big, gleaming, and safe—was one of the most welcome sights that the head of LBJ’s Secret Service detail, Rufus Youngblood, had ever seen. “I want us to run up the ramp,” he told Johnson as they pulled to the foot of the plane.
A hundred yards away, an agent who had spent the day standing guard at Love Field didn’t know what to make of the two vehicles that pulled up at the base of the Air Force One stairs. It wasn’t until he spotted a group darting up the ramp and Youngblood closing the door behind him that he realized: The new President is back, safely, ready to govern.
At 1:40, once aboard, Youngblood and Kivett—who had been assigned to the new First Lady—whisked the Vice President into the presidential stateroom. The Secret Service set up checkpoints at the two plane entrances. At Youngblood’s order, an agent and the Air Force stewards passed through the plane, closing each window shade—the plane darkening progressively as they moved through the cabin.
As the Johnsons boarded, the TV in the cabin was on and CBS’s Walter Cronkite was intoning, “Lyndon B. Johnson, now President of the United States.” The phrase struck Lady Bird—she hadn’t yet begun to process how different their life had become with the crack of the assassin’s rifle. Lyndon Johnson had a similar epiphany: As he entered the stateroom, the staffers who were assembled around the TV all stood. Their nervous chatter ceased, and Albert Thomas, another loyal Texas congressman Johnson had asked along for the trip, said, “We are ready to carry out any orders you have, Mr. President.”
“Nothing would ever be the same again,” LBJ said later of that moment. “A wall—high, forbidding, historic—separated us now, a wall that derived from the office of the Presidency of the United States.”
Taking the mantle of the nation’s highest office so instantaneously, so unexpectedly, left even Johnson momentarily discomfited. The stateroom where the group had gathered to watch TV featured couches and a desk as well as a private bathroom. It was the President’s only personal space on his own aircraft, and just hours earlier it had belonged to John F. Kennedy. The Texas newspapers JFK had read during the short trip to Dallas still lay on the floor.
Johnson might have been President, but the President’s room didn’t yet feel like his space. This is in bad taste, he thought. “I want this kept strictly for the use of Mrs. Kennedy,” he said, leading the others outside to the public sitting room.
LBJ was already focused on matters of state: When should he take the oath? Under the Constitution’s rules of succession, he had in fact assumed the presidency at the moment of Kennedy’s death—no oath was technically necessary. But he immediately grasped the enormous symbolic importance to the nation of demonstrating an orderly transfer of power through a traditional swearing-in. Should it be here in Dallas or in Washington? Two of the three Texas congressmen present pushed for Dallas immediately. The continuity of the US government was critical.
“You’ve got to take the oath now, Mr. President,” Representative Thomas argued. “Suppose there was weather trouble and it took three or four hours to get to Washington. The United States can’t wait that long.”
Then there was the matter of the oath itself. No one actually knew how to swear in a new President.
First Johnson called Kennedy’s national-security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, at the White House to discuss the transition. The call served to inform the Air Force One communications crew sitting up front that the new President had boarded the plane—amid the confusion and the need for the highest security, no one had bothered to tell them.
Indeed, the Secret Service agents took no chances: Agent Youngblood never left the new President’s side as the new chief executive began to order the secretaries and aides to various tasks. It was little wonder: As Lady Bird stood on the plane, herself anxious and overcome, she heard one Secret Service agent mutter in wonder and shame, “We never lost a President in the Service.”
“[It was] the most desolate voice—and I hurt for him,” she later recalled.
Around 1:50, Johnson put a call through to the attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, the President’s brother and closest confidant—a call that delicately juggled matters of state with RFK’s personal turmoil. Johnson reached him at Hickory Hill, his estate in McLean, where he was meeting with CIA director John McCone. Kennedy took the call from the extension next to the pool. It was a surreal setting for a surreal phone call.
Bobby Kennedy, who had just celebrated his 38th birthday, had never liked Johnson—would never like him—and everyone knew it. He had even tried to torpedo the invitation to Johnson to join his brother’s presidential ticket. (“When Bobby hates you, you stay hated,” his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, had said once. The feeling was mutual. Johnson had said of Bobby, “He’s a snot-nose, but he’s bright.” Johnson biographer Robert Caro called the mutual antipathy “perhaps the greatest blood feud of American politics in the twentieth century.”)
“Where should I take the oath?” Johnson asked the attorney general. “Here or there?”
Bobby Kennedy, composed and serious, first told him what information he could: It didn’t appear there was any larger plot against the government; J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime FBI director, was passing along every detail his agency collected. But RFK demurred momentarily on the question of where to take the oath and said he’d call back.
Johnson’s secretary, Marie Fehmer, entered the stateroom just as Johnson hung up the phone “Write this down as what has happened,” he told her. “I talked to the attorney general. Asked him what we should do . . . where I should take the oath . . . here or there. Said he would like to look into it . . . and would notify me whether we should take it here or not.”
Johnson wanted posterity to note that he was consulting with the Kennedys. He wasn’t grabbing power; he was being respectful in a time of great sorrow.
Moments later, McGeorge Bundy called, urging Johnson to get to Washington right away, but Johnson said he wasn’t leaving without Kennedy’s body and the widowed First Lady. He couldn’t leave them behind in Dallas; it would look like panic. As they talked, the Air Force One switchboard operator interrupted to tell LBJ that Robert Kennedy was calling back with his verdict: The new President should take the oath before leaving Dallas.
Or at least that was Lyndon Johnson’s version of what Bobby Kennedy said.
The two men had nearly diametrically opposed memories of that second telephone call from the attorney general. Robert Kennedy later insisted that he encouraged Johnson to wait until he arrived in Washington and that he was appalled Johnson wanted to go ahead with the swearing-in before his brother’s body was brought home. The different memories were the germ of all the grievances, complaints, and sniping that would arise from the events on that plane in the years ahead—would be the basis for the claim by some that Johnson had rudely grabbed power, stomping all over the widow and the late President’s body.
There were three people privy to the Dallas end of the call—Marie Fehmer, Rufus Youngblood, and Johnson—and two to the Washington end, Bobby Kennedy and his deputy, Nicholas Katzenbach. Parsing their accounts indicates that the call most likely went something like this: LBJ asked Kennedy if there was any reason he shouldn’t take the oath in Dallas, and Kennedy—confused, grief-stricken, and puzzled by Johnson’s forcefulness—simply didn’t say anything.
“A lot of people down here have advised me to be sworn in right away,” Johnson said. Did Bobby have any objection to that? Johnson took Kennedy’s silence as acquiescence. Bobby Kennedy, though, later explained his reaction: “I was too confused and upset to talk to him about it.” He was thinking, Wouldn’t it be nice if my brother came back to Washington still as President Kennedy?
But Johnson, it appears, plowed ahead, asking the attorney general who could legally swear him in, battering him with procedural questions that kept him off balance. And by the time he hung up, severing the link to Washington and to the Kennedy brother, he felt ready to assume the presidency.
Johnson would be sworn in as President in Dallas. It was an oath that had been taken by just 34 men before him, only seven of them Vice Presidents assuming office on the death of an elected President. (The last President to be sworn in outside Washington had been Calvin Coolidge, who, after Warren Harding’s passing, took the oath privately from his father, a Vermont justice of the peace.)
Johnson knew who he wanted to administer the oath: “Get Sarah Hughes.”
Hughes, a native of Maryland and a graduate of Goucher College, had been one of the only female officers on the DC police force in the 1920s and attended George Washington University Law School, where she met her future husband. They moved to Dallas to practice together, but before long she was elected to the legislature and in 1935 became Texas’s first female state district judge. Kennedy appointed her to the federal bench in 1961, and Johnson personally introduced her to Kennedy when she came back to Washington for her confirmation.
Just an hour earlier, Hughes had been at the Dallas Trade Mart, eating steak and apple pie, waiting for the arrival of the Kennedys and Johnsons. Then the luncheon’s chairman rose from his seat and grimly announced the shooting, adding, “We will be dismissed.” She recalled later how tense, subdued, and angry the 4,000 luncheon guests seemed as they moved for the exits. In the parking lot, a man told her the President was dead. On the drive back to her house, Hughes and two of her staff members had speculated about where and when LBJ would be sworn in.
“We never dreamed I might become involved in it,” she recalled. At home, she called her clerk to tell him she wouldn’t be back that day, and it was then that he passed along an urgent message from the Vice President: Get to the airport.
Johnson had called her office personally, leaving instructions with the clerk to find her quickly. At 2:02 pm, just as the hearse pulled up to the airplane, she called back to say she could be on the plane in a matter of minutes.
Still, neither Hughes nor anyone onboard knew the oath of office. One of Johnson’s secretaries called the Justice Department and asked deputy attorney general Katzenbach to track it down. (For his part, Katzenbach had been puzzled by Johnson’s call to Robert Kennedy: Any number of federal officials could have provided the procedural information Johnson sought. He felt he knew LBJ’s real motive, Katzenbach said later: “He may have wanted to be absolutely sure that there wouldn’t be an explosion on Bobby’s end.”)
Meanwhile, just outside the stateroom, the crew—pilot Swindal, copilot Hanson, flight engineer Joe Chappell, and steward Joe Ayres—had been busy tearing apart the rear of the plane. As word arrived that Air Force One would be carrying the President’s body home to Washington, everyone on the crew had had nearly the same thought: President Kennedy could not go into the baggage compartment.
They could get a casket through the rear door, but a partition would block the turn into the aisle, so the crew had taken a saw to the partition and unbolted four seats to make room. They carried the seats down the stairs and across the tarmac to the older Boeing plane that had been serving as Air Force Two. “We finished up just before the hearse arrived,” Chappell recalled.
The plane was filling fast. Decisions began to tumble over one another as the passengers’ personal priorities began to collide. Shortly after Kennedy’s death, his presidential photographer, Cecil Stoughton, had been in a Parkland Hospital hallway holding open a telephone line for the US Signal Corps when he saw Johnson and his party rush past.
Stoughton had been in the Army since 1957 as a cameraman and in 1959 had taken the only pictures of “Able” and “Baker,” the first monkeys to make it into space, after their capsule was recovered in the Atlantic. Kennedy’s personal photographer since the inauguration, Stoughton realized in a flash that he was watching the new President of the United States pass by and jumped into a car with future Johnson adviser Jack Valenti and Secret Service agent Lem Johns for the ride to Love Field.
On the plane, Stoughton pushed his way through the crowd until he found Swindal and asked if he could hitch a ride to Washington. “They’re going to have a ceremony someplace,” Stoughton told the pilot.
“Sure, you can ride up here with us if you have to,” the colonel promised.
Returning to the main cabin, Stoughton—who at 43 was nearly the same age as the late President—saw a group of women, including White House aides Mary Gallagher and Evelyn Lincoln, crying quietly in their seats with the shades drawn. “The whole cabin was dark and foreboding and sniffling,” he said later. It was also hot and getting hotter: Swindal had had the ground air conditioner disconnected in order to speed Air Force One’s departure, but now, with no takeoff imminent, the plane was just sitting there, baking like an oven in the midday Texas sun.
Kennedy’s assistant press secretary, “Mac” Kilduff, hurried into the cabin, spotting Stoughton with a look of relief. “Thank God you’re here,” Kilduff said. “The President’s going to take his oath. You’re going to have to make the pictures and release it to the press.”
Kilduff was barely holding it together. JFK aide Kenneth O’Donnell had told Kilduff earlier that fall that he should start looking for a new job—the White House didn’t want him around anymore. The swing through Texas had been meant as Kilduff’s final presidential trip before leaving—and now he found himself the ranking press aide on the trip, ushering in a new administration, while O’Donnell, his antagonist, mourned the fallen idol.
“Everybody has always said over the years, in retrospect, why didn’t you shoot that in color?” he recalled later. “Well, that’s why. Time was of the essence.”
Stoughton’s first thought was that he needed to change the film in his Hasselblad camera. He’d been shooting color film that day in Dallas, but in 1963 color film took nearly two hours to process and the wire services couldn’t even transmit a color photograph. If he was shooting for history, he needed speed.
“Everybody has always said over the years, in retrospect, why didn’t you shoot that in color?” he recalled later. “Well, that’s why. Time was of the essence.”
(It would be nearly a year, in fact, before most Americans realized that Jackie Kennedy’s suit was pink; color images from that day weren’t widely circulated until a late-1964 Life magazine special report included color photos of the Dallas arrival and still frames of Abraham Zapruder’s amateur footage of the shooting.)
His black-and-white film loaded, Stoughton heard the vehicles with Kennedy’s body arrive just after 2 pm, and he shot photos from the plane’s front entrance as the hearse pulled up at the back steps. Disregarding the Dallas coroner’s order that the President’s corpse remain in the city, Kennedy aides had manhandled the casket through the crowded hallways of Parkland Hospital, past priests, medical workers, and security, and out into a hearse—racing as quickly for Love Field as they could.
Those who had stayed behind at Parkland—among them, the widowed First Lady and aides O’Donnell, Larry O’Brien, and Dave Powers—were true Kennedy loyalists. “According to the strict letter of the law, I should now be with Johnson . . . but I felt my real duty was to take care of Jacqueline Kennedy,” recalled O’Donnell, who had been in charge of travel and security for the trip.
Now Secret Service agents pulled open the hearse doors, as those aides gathered to carry their boss home. General Ted Clifton, who had run Kennedy’s daily intelligence briefings, appraised the stairs nervously: “Do you suppose we can get it up there?”
But first things first: The casket wouldn’t budge from the hearse. Unbeknownst to the novice pallbearers, hearses have a mechanism that automatically lock a casket into place. So the men kept pushing and pulling, fighting the hidden lock. Then one crack, and a second crack. With so much muscle and emotion arrayed against it, the casket finally gave, with a piece of the trim and one entire handle tearing away.
The steps Kennedy had walked down just two hours before—vibrant and triumphant—now bore his lifeless body. “It was too narrow to accomplish this without some difficulty,” recalled O’Brien, who labored with other aides and Secret Service agents to carry the half-ton casket up. Activity on the tarmac fell eerily silent. Nearby, Air Force personnel saluted.
As the first Catholic President began his journey home, his grieving Irish Catholic aides fell back on their own traditions: Mary Gallagher fingered a rosary and David Powers, who had worked with Kennedy since his first run for Congress, stood aside and made the sign of the cross. He had been perhaps JFK’s closest friend, a partner and political adviser from Kennedy’s first political speech in Boston in 1946 until his last morning in Fort Worth. Kennedy, Powers would say later, “was the greatest man I ever met, and the best friend I ever had.”
Many hands wrestled the casket—a solid-bronze Elgin Britannia, the very best at Vernon Oneal’s Dallas mortuary—into the fuselage and around the partition cut open by the crew, then lowered it to the floor. As his hand let go and he looked up for the first time, Kennedy aide Larry O’Brien saw LBJ and Lady Bird standing in the doorway watching them: “Mr. and Mrs. Johnson on the plane had an element of surprise [for us], in the sense we hadn’t even thought about the successor. Our concentration was totally on what was transpiring at the moment.”
O’Brien’s thoughts tripped over one another. This was Jack’s plane. This was the President’s plane. LBJ had his own plane. Why was he on Kennedy’s plane? Then the realization: LBJ was the President.
Jackie had followed the casket up the stairs, and for the first time since the assassination, around 2:10 pm, the two groups—the Johnson team and the Kennedy team—came together face to face in the small, tight aft compartment. Theirs had been an uneasy alliance since the campaign. Johnson, who had traded the power of Senate majority leader for the powerlessness of the vice-presidency, was too coarse and rough for the blue-blood Kennedys. He’d been shunted aside, forced to wring his hands in silence in Cabinet meetings as his views went unexpressed. (“I detested every minute of it,” he said later of his office.)
Now the roles had been reversed, in an instant. Neither party was sure of what should—or would—come next. Jackie sat in one of the two seats left behind in the aft compartment, across the aisle from the awkwardly placed casket.
Lady Bird, who lacked Jackie’s poise and presence, summoned her courage and went to comfort the widow in the rear. “It was a very hard thing to do, but she made it as easy as possible,” Lady Bird recalled.
That’s her husband’s blood, Lady Bird thought, saying later, “Somehow that was one of the most poignant sights—that immaculate woman exquisitely dressed and caked in blood.”
Jackie Kennedy, the most glamorous woman in America, looked shattered. Lady Bird’s eyes swept over the former First Lady: Jackie’s leg was almost entirely covered in blood. Her right glove was caked with it.
That’s her husband’s blood, Lady Bird thought, saying later, “Somehow that was one of the most poignant sights—that immaculate woman exquisitely dressed and caked in blood.” But Lady Bird felt a pang of envy even as she gazed upon Jackie’s terrible grief. Jackie had always worn gloves so elegantly, so easily. It was a skill and a look that had always escaped the Texan wife.
“I would have done anything to help her,” Lady Bird recalled, “but there was nothing I could do.”
Their conversation was halting, a stream-of-consciousness expression of grief and emotion. “Oh, Lady Bird, it’s good that we’ve always liked you two so much,” Jackie said. Then later, “What if I had not been there? I’m so glad I was there.”
“Oh, Mrs. Kennedy, you know we never even wanted to be Vice President and now, dear God, it’s come to this,” Lady Bird said. Words failed her, and in an attempt to be comforting, she went a step too far: “What wounds me most of all is that this should happen in my beloved state of Texas.” The words fell flat between them. Lady Bird instantly regretted them—her Texas pride mattered little in the face of such all-consuming sorrow.
She asked if Jackie would like her to summon someone to help her change, but she declined: “Perhaps later I’ll ask Mary Gallagher, but not right now.” Then she paused and a fierceness came into her otherwise empty voice: “I want them to see what they have done to Jack.”
When Lyndon Johnson spoke with her, she addressed him out of habit as “Lyndon” before she caught herself: “Oh, excuse me. I’ll never call you that again. I mean Mr. President.”
“I hope you’ll call me that for the rest of your life,” Johnson replied, trying to be comforting.
But he wasn’t just Lyndon anymore.
“Something in the magic of the word ‘Mr. President’ caused everyone in the cabin, longtime personal friends, to view him in a totally different way,” aide Jack Valenti said later. “It was the kind of feeling that obscured old friendships.”
Time sped up for some passengers and slowed down for others. Nearly everyone later incorrectly recalled the time certain events happened—with minutes counting for hours and vice versa. What some felt was an hour between the casket’s arrival at 2:02 and the swearing-in was actually closer to 30 minutes. “The tempo and atmosphere in the plane were one of near hysteria, blank, opaque kind of grief, stunned silence,” Valenti recalled.
Generals Clifton and McHugh, the two highest-ranking military men on the plane—their pristine uniforms now soaked with sweat from carrying the casket in the heat—knew their duty. Clifton, a West Point graduate who had fought his way through Italy, France, and Germany, now stood stiffly at attention beside the coffin, the lone honor guard observing a military custom since time immemorial: A fallen commander-in-chief is never left alone.
McHugh turned to O’Donnell: “Should we get airborne?”
“Why don’t we leave?” Jackie echoed.
With O’Donnell’s assent, McHugh ran for the cockpit, breezing past the closed door of the presidential stateroom, where LBJ was once again on the phone to Washington.
In the minutes that followed, a scene ensued that would have been comic but for the plane’s weight of sadness: McHugh traversed the length of the aircraft five times, never encountering Lady Bird or President Johnson—concerned only with getting his dead commander-in-chief out of Dallas—and thus never realized the new President was aboard.
O’Donnell was concerned that official Dallas would want the deceased President back: They’d killed him—now they wanted to keep him. “I kept looking out the windows,” he recalled, “expecting to see the flashing red lights of a dozen Dallas police cars, coming with a court order to stop our takeoff.” (Unknown to anyone then, the Dallas district attorney had ordered the coroner to let Air Force One depart unhindered.)
“You leave right now,” O’Donnell commanded General McHugh when he returned to the rear and Air Force One still wasn’t moving.
“Please, let’s leave,” Jackie pleaded to McHugh a second time.
Doubling back to the cockpit after a few minutes had passed without the engines starting up, McHugh couldn’t understand why Swindal wasn’t acting immediately on his command to take off. He ordered Swindal a second time, now angrily: “Take off! The President is aboard!”
“Mr. Kilduff says we can’t,” Swindal flatly replied.
Johnson, with few of his own people around, had quickly seized on Mac Kilduff as a key liaison—and the only press aide available. He had charged Kilduff with setting up the swearing-in, and the assistant press secretary was now busily moving through the cabin, arranging a ceremony. He found Johnson aide Liz Carpenter in the plane’s aisle: “Liz, there’s a pool that wants to go on this plane—a news pool. What shall we do?”
“What do you recommend?” replied Carpenter, who had spent nearly 20 years as a reporter in Washington before becoming the first female vice-presidential executive assistant.
Kilduff burst into tears: “God, I don’t know what to recommend.”
Carpenter grabbed his arms: “Mac, tell us what you recommend. That will be what we do.”
“I recommend you have a pool,” he said.
After checking with Johnson, he ended up pulling aboard three reporters to witness the swearing-in: Newsweek’s Charles Roberts, UPI’s Merriman Smith, and Sid Davis of Westinghouse Broadcasting Co.
But meanwhile, at Swindal’s reply, McHugh’s anger boiled over, the emotion and horror of the last hour overflowing. What was some civilian press twerp doing countermanding the order of an Air Force general?
“Not until Johnson has taken the oath,” Kilduff tried to explain, when McHugh confronted him outside the cockpit.
“Johnson isn’t here,” McHugh argued. “He’s on the backup plane.”
“Then you go back and tell that six-foot Texan he isn’t Lyndon Johnson,” Kilduff replied. “We’re not going to Andrews until the President has been sworn.”
McHugh’s unwitting reply captured the entire day’s confusion and sadness and, for all intents and purposes, ended his military career: “I have only one President and he’s lying back in that cabin.”
“I was flabbergasted,” O’Donnell recalled. “Johnson could have waited until he got to Washington and spared all of us on Air Force One that day, especially Jackie, a lot of discomfort and anxiety.” But the plane’s schedule now revolved around Lyndon Johnson’s wishes. There were two Presidents onboard, yes, but only one of them counted for official purposes. JFK was no longer Passenger Number One.
It was an uncomfortable realization that each member of the traveling party came to in turn, some more abruptly than others.
While waiting for Judge Hughes, Jackie Kennedy decided that while she wouldn’t change her clothes, she could clean herself up. She took a step from the aft compartment toward the presidential bedroom and opened the door—only to find LBJ sprawled on the bed, her bed, dictating to Marie Fehmer. Johnson had realized in the interim that as uncomfortable as the room made him, it was the one space on the plane where he could have privacy.
He and Jackie looked at each other for a moment, and Johnson—hurriedly, guiltily—stood to exit, squeezing by her in the tight passageway. “We scurried out of that bedroom,” Fehmer said. “It was really embarrassing.”
Jackie was left in the room where she’d last been alone with her husband that morning. She moved to the bathroom, looking at herself in the mirror, and proceeded to wipe the blood and hair from her face with a Kleenex. She immediately regretted it, thinking, History! Why did I wash the blood off? I should have left it there, let them see what they’ve done.
Among the Kennedy men, there came a dawning resentment that a murder in Texas had put a Texan in charge, upsetting the established balance of power.
“There is a tremendous commotion going on between two groups,” McHugh recalled in a 1978 oral history, “one having lost in a dreadful way a very, very loved President and being afraid of the next President, who they knew as very nervous and choleric and very strong.”
But Johnson intuitively knew the tightrope he had to walk in the hours ahead: The voters hadn’t chosen him as their leader; they had chosen the young, promising, glamorous Jack Kennedy. He had to preserve his fallen boss’s mantle, showing continuity, and turn it to his own use. He needed Kennedy’s men.
Around 2:20, while waiting for the swearing-in, he summoned O’Brien and O’Donnell to the stateroom. “I simply couldn’t let the country think I was all alone,” Johnson said later of the sudden transition. “I was a man in trouble, in a world that is never more than minutes away from catastrophe.”
He was seated in one of the conference-table chairs when the two men arrived—they both noticed he wasn’t sitting in the President’s desk chair—and he asked them to stay on. “I need your help,” he said. “I need it badly. There is no one for me to turn to with as much experience as you have. I need you now more than President Kennedy needed you.” Johnson’s thumb gestured toward the rear. Toward the casket. Both O’Brien and O’Donnell were noncommittal, their grief clouding and confusing thoughts of the future.
More aides and officials were piling into the plane. Secret Service agent Roy Kellerman, who had been sitting in the front seat of the presidential limo and had failed to shield Kennedy after the first shot, looked around the staff cabin of Air Force One and was struck by the many new, unfamiliar faces. “Do you know all these people here?” he asked Rufus Youngblood. Youngblood didn’t, but another agent had begun tracking down names to go with all the exhausted faces.
That agent found one face everyone on the plane was pleased to see reunited with the presidential party. Chief Warrant Officer Ira Gearhart, the so-called “bagman,” had had a difficult day keeping up with the unfolding events, especially because theoretically he was never supposed to be more than a few steps from the President. His 30-pound locked black suitcase was known in official circles as “the football,” and it contained all the launch protocols for the country’s nuclear triad—its intercontinental missiles, bombers, and submarines. He carried booklet after booklet describing various target packages and how many casualties each would cause, lists carefully refined since the Cuban missile crisis the year before, when Kennedy had expressed his frustration at the lack of good retaliation choices. The plans were now grouped under three headings—Limited Attack Options, Selected Attack Options, and Major Attack Options—but the military aides who carried the football referred to the choices more colloquially: Rare, Medium, and Well Done.
For nearly ten minutes at Parkland Hospital—as the President of the United States lay dying from an assassin’s bullet and no one yet knew the scope of the attack on the government—Gearhart had been lost in the hallways because of a miscommunication between the President’s and the Vice President’s Secret Service details. Then he and General Clifton had been left behind entirely when LBJ’s entourage raced for Love Field—leaving the United States, for nearly half an hour, impotent in the face of, say, a Soviet surprise attack. They’d only just made the motorcade with Kennedy’s body.
Bill Moyers, the associate director of the Peace Corps and a Johnson confidant, had made it to Air Force One with only the most extraordinary effort—he’d been in Austin at the next stop of the presidential visit when news of the shooting arrived. He chartered a plane, receiving in the air special permission to land at Love Field, where he made it onboard to volunteer his services to LBJ.
Also pressed into service was the owner of an obscure Houston advertising and political-consulting firm. Jack Valenti had been along temporarily to help Johnson with the Texas trip and was expecting to return home to Houston that evening. But as soon as Johnson got aboard Air Force One, he pointed to Valenti: “I want you on my staff. You’ll fly back with me to Washington.”
Valenti’s instant response embarrassed him as quickly as he said it: “But Mr. President, I don’t have any clothes.” After Johnson reassured him that aides could gather some things to wear, Valenti’s second protest was almost as flustered: “But I don’t have a place to live.” Johnson volunteered that Valenti could stay with him in Washington, and that’s exactly what happened for the 11 days ahead. Valenti would become Johnson’s most loyal aide in the years to come—and call Washington home from that day forward. He never returned to Houston.
As they waited for the judge, LBJ downed a quick lunch of vegetable soup and crackers, a pause for food during which the day’s events began to catch up with him. The adrenaline rush from 115 minutes earlier, when Rufus Youngblood had climbed on top of him in the back seat of the vice-presidential limo to shield his body, began to dissipate. Johnson looked at Dave Powers and said heavily, “It’s been a week since I got up.”
The soup became a popular item onboard among hungry staffers, but the three Kennedy secretaries—Mary Gallagher, Pam Turnure, and Evelyn Lincoln—continued to decline Marie Fehmer’s offers of sustenance. William Manchester claimed in his 1967 book, The Death of a President, that the secretaries were too angry at the Johnsons to accept their food, but Gallagher strongly denied that: “We were just too numb to eat.”
Up in the cockpit, Andrews Air Force Base radioed, eager to find out the plane’s plan: “What is your estimated time of departure?”
“In a few minutes,” the crew responded.
“Do you have any passengers aboard?”
“Is Mrs. Kennedy aboard?”
As she raced to the airport in her red sports car around 2:10 pm, Judge Sarah Hughes tried to recall the presidential oath of office. “The essentials of every oath are the same,” she recalled later. “I was not afraid.” The Dallas police chief spotted her car as she approached Love Field and cleared a path. As she drove onto the tarmac, her mind registered for some reason that the wild rambler roses that covered the airport fence weren’t blooming. They were all briars and thorns.
Chief Jesse Curry escorted her to the plane. A flight steward who had been assigned to wait for the judge saw a big Texan in his Stetson approach and stepped forward to greet the man he assumed was the jurist: “Judge, will you come with me?”
“Oh, just a minute,” the chief said, awkwardly gesturing to the small, 67-year-old woman behind him.
Air Force One looked majestic to Hughes. “It seemed to exemplify the strength and courage of our country,” she recalled thinking as she walked up the ramp around 2:30. Aboard, though, she found a grim silence.
Lady Bird Johnson saw Judge Hughes, whom she had always liked, and thought briefly, I’m glad it’s her. They had spent time together at the Johnson ranch just two months earlier—a joyous day filled with barbecue, riding, and training sheepdogs. Now Hughes looked at her stricken friends. “There was nothing to say, nothing that could be said,” she recalled. “I embraced them both, silently, feeling it was the best way to express my grief for them and for all of us.”
And yet if her presence pleased and steadied the Johnsons, the bespectacled judge was a nonentity to the Kennedy team, who were frustrated by the delay and still worried that Dallas officials might try to reclaim the President’s body. “I didn’t know Judge Hughes from a hole in the wall,” Lawrence O’Brien recalled. When she was introduced to Jackie, Lyndon Johnson explained that Hughes had been appointed by the late President.
“I loved him very much,” the judge told her. Jackie was distant, not acknowledging Hughes’s sentiment. “You sensed that shock and grief had taken her almost out of reach, and yet there was that deep composure,” Hughes recalled. “It stayed with me for days afterwards.”
But Jackie may have been having a different thought entirely: She told journalist Theodore White a week later that when she got to the plane, she quickly realized: No one really wants me here. No one knew how to treat me, what to say, or what role I should be playing.
Kilduff and the Johnson aides began to herd the passengers toward the main staff area, eventually gathering more than 26 people in a space barely larger than a hotel room. One agent remained with the late President’s body in the rear.
“Where do you want us, Cecil?” Johnson said, turning to the Army photographer onboard.
The new President’s use of Stoughton’s first name marked another change. Kennedy had always referred to the photographer as “Captain.” LBJ was less formal.
Cecil it was.
Stoughton assessed the tight space and began to gesture, placing the officials as a theater director would. “You’ll have to be here,” he told LBJ. “I’m going to be over here with my back up against the bulkhead. I’m going to be standing on this leather couch so I can get up above and have eye-to-eye contact.”
Marie Fehmer had scribbled down the oath as Katzenbach had dictated it, then carefully typed it onto a little Air Force One note card for Hughes to read. (Valenti, on the phone, had asked the deputy attorney general where he’d found the correct wording of the presidential oath. Katzenbach’s smile, Valenti recalled, could almost be heard over the phone: “In the Constitution.”)
Waiting for the ceremony to begin, Johnson spotted Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s longtime personal secretary, in the room and leaned over to kiss her hand. When Jackie Kennedy didn’t appear in a few minutes, Johnson turned to O’Donnell: “She said she wants to be here when I take the oath. Why don’t you see what’s keeping her?”
O’Donnell found her combing her hair in the presidential bedroom and asked whether she’d like to step out for the ceremony. Jackie said, “I think I ought to. In the light of history, it would be better if I was there.”
By Liz Carpenter’s estimate, the entire group waited quietly for five minutes before Jackie appeared, but it might have been as short as a minute or two. Jackie took up her position in the center of Stoughton’s view. “She seemed composed, ashen, and quivering—almost as though she were in a trance,” Carpenter recalled.
The five-foot-tall jurist stood before Jackie, with the somber six-foot-four Johnson towering over both of them.
The group paused for a moment as Kilduff realized they should record the oath, but no one had a tape recorder. “There’s a Dictaphone thing on the President’s desk,” Stoughton volunteered, and after some scrambling Kilduff had his arm outstretched with the microphone, holding on tightly to the five-inch reel recorder.
Just as Hughes, in her brown-and-white polka-dot dress, began, a military aide handed O’Brien a white box containing a Bible found in the presidential quarters. O’Brien interrupted the judge, handing her the book and saying, “This is a Catholic Bible.” It was a small book, just an inch thick, with a black leather cover emblazoned with a cross. Handmade out of calfskin, it had the initials JFK embossed on the inside cover. No one noticed in the moment that it wasn’t actually a Bible—it was a St. Joseph Sunday Missal, a prayer book the Catholic Church uses to lead the faithful through the annual cycle of Masses.
LBJ rested one hand on the book, raising his other one. “Normally a jovial, outgoing man, Mr. Johnson seemed subdued and was speaking almost in a whisper,” Newsweek’s Charles Roberts recalled later that day.
Hughes began to recite the famous words. During the presidential inaugurations every four years, the phrase breaks are carefully negotiated between the chief justice and the President-elect’s staff over the preceding weeks. But there was no discussion before Hughes plunged in, pausing for Johnson to intone each phrase.
“I do solemnly swear . . .
“. . . that I will faithfully execute . . .
“. . . the Office of President of the United States . . .
“. . .and will to the best of my ability. . .
“. . . preserve . . .
“. . . protect . . .
“. . . and defend . . .
“. . . the Constitution of the United States.”
The entire process took just 28 seconds, her words and his both barely audible to those even just a few feet away over the whining jet engine.
Hughes had reached the end of Fehmer’s transcription, but she felt compelled to ad-lib one further thought.
“So help me God,” she added.
Johnson repeated the phrase. It needed to be said, Hughes thought as relief passed over her. The presidential chair was no longer empty. Great as the tasks ahead were, this tall, quiet man had the ability and determination to perform them.
Newsweek’s Charles Roberts wrote later of the ceremony, “It was careful, correct, considerate, and compassionate. Considering that it occurred at a time when no one knew the full implications of Oswald’s deed, and considering that there was no script to follow, it was a masterpiece of cool-headed improvisation. Johnson, in my eyes, was the coolest man in Dallas or aboard Air Force One.”
As they spoke, Stoughton carefully angled the camera to cut Jackie Kennedy off at the waist, obscuring her blood-soaked skirt and legs, and fired his camera 23 times during the oath. The images he captured still haunt half a century later. The faces of those around Johnson are grim and shell-shocked. Men stare off into the middle distance, lips pursed, arms crossed. Jackie’s blank mask epitomizes grief in a way no sculptor could ever depict. “Her eyes were open but unseeing,” Valenti recalled.
Newsweek’s Charles Roberts wrote later of the ceremony, “It was careful, correct, considerate, and compassionate. Considering that it occurred at a time when no one knew the full implications of Oswald’s deed, and considering that there was no script to follow, it was a masterpiece of cool-headed improvisation. Johnson, in my eyes, was the coolest man in Dallas or aboard Air Force One.”
Although at the time much was made of the fact that none of the Kennedy aides were visible in the photo that circulated—fueling rumors that they were pushed aside by the Johnson team—Stoughton clearly captured at least six Kennedy aides in other photos before and after: Admiral Dr. George Burkley, General Clifton, Kilduff, O’Brien, O’Donnell, and Powers, plus three women: Gallagher, Lincoln, and Turnure.
Yet there was certainly a sense of resentment and disbelief on the plane that the charismatic, young, and beloved New Englander was gone. No simple oath of office, many on Kennedy’s team felt, would now make the gruff Texan President.
Colonel Swindal, for one, remained in the cockpit through the hurried ceremony, busying himself with flight tasks and refusing to go back to the staff area. “I just didn’t want to be in the picture,” he said later. “I didn’t belong to the Lyndon Johnson team. My President was in that box.”
Muggsy O’Leary, the baggage master, was looking around, thinking, so many Texans. O’Brien, the anointed son of the fallen President, looked at Valenti, the newly anointed son of the new President and thought: He’s on his way now.
Oath completed, responsibility fully assumed, LBJ dropped his hand, turned, and leaned over to kiss his wife’s forehead. The ceremony’s simplicity masked its remarkableness: Even as the aides and officials gathered on the plane, they knew nothing of the assassin who had felled their commander in chief, knew nothing about the global response—whether this was a lone wacko, the start of a Soviet attack, or a subversive plot against the country.
Yet with just a few words, power transferred simply to a new man and, with it, the reins of a nation and the control of all of its nuclear weapons. There had been no discussion of any other course—the Constitution dictated that Lyndon Johnson would become President, and so he did. It was the only time in the 40 years of the Cold War—which just a year earlier, in 1962, had nearly turned hot during the Cuban missile crisis—that the leader of one of the superpowers had been murdered and control had passed seamlessly to the next in line.
After the presidential kiss, Lady Bird, her eyes still clouded by tears, stepped toward the assassinated leader’s wife, reaching forward to clasp her hand. “The whole nation mourns your husband,” she said. Then it was LBJ’s turn to hold Mrs. Kennedy’s hand. Emotions swirled in his head, but he recalled later how struck he had been in that moment by Jackie’s bravery and nobility.
“God bless you, little lady,” the Dallas police chief, Jesse Curry, said. “You ought to go back and lie down.”
“No thanks, I’m fine,” the 34-year-old widow replied, mustering what seemed to be every ounce of her energy to smile weakly.
Curry’s final comment sounded almost as if he were asking her for forgiveness: “We did everything we could.”
Jackie moved toward the plane’s rear, where the casket lay, and sequestered herself in the aft compartment with her husband’s body. She barely moved for the next two hours.
Then LBJ issued his first order: “Now let’s get airborne.”
It was 2:41 pm CST when the other three engines began to wind up.
Judge Hughes, her moment in history finished, left the plane with the other Dallas officials. At the bottom of the stairs, a man stopped her and asked for the note card with the oath, and she unthinkingly handed it to him, a piece of history now lost. Stoughton quickly left the plane, too, en route to the Dallas Morning News, where he could develop and distribute his photographs of the oath-taking, carrying his camera in one hand and the Dictaphone tape in the other.
“I had the only living, breathing record of what had just happened,” Stoughton recalled. “Turned out to be the best picture I ever made.” (During a 2007 Antiques Roadshow segment near Stoughton’s retirement home in Florida, a year before he died, appraisers valued his copy of the famous photograph, signed by LBJ “With high regard and appreciation,” at $50,000.) Yet one key picture from that day was never snapped: The plane was so crowded that Stoughton didn’t make it to the back, where Kennedy’s coffin lay. “That’s one of the sorrowful things of my career, that I didn’t get a decent picture of the casket onboard,” he said in a 2002 oral history.
The door closed behind Stoughton, Curry, and Hughes—as well as the sole broadcast journalist who had been aboard, Sid Davis of Westinghouse—and the plane began to move almost immediately.
The Love Field tower radioed Swindal: “Air Force One, you are cleared for takeoff, runway 31L.”
The four Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines, each capable of producing 18,000 pounds of thrust, began to scream as Swindal raised them to maximum throttle. The plane, which had carried Kennedy on his happiest days as President and his darkest, would bear him on one final trip. It began to move forward, slowly at first, then faster.
The President’s casket rattled next to Jackie as she sat in the aft breakfast nook. The new President in his cabin, already on the phone again, was pushed into his seat by the acceleration. As the plane sped up, O’Donnell relaxed a bit: At least now Dallas wouldn’t steal back the body of his President. John F. Kennedy was going home.
At 2:47, as the engines pushed the plane past 150 knots, takeoff speed, Swede Hanson called “V-1,” Colonel Swindal eased his yoke back, the plane tilted upward, and Air Force One’s wheels left the Texas soil.
Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had dreamed of the presidency since the earliest days of his career, who had toiled in that same Texas soil as a dirt-poor boy from the hill country, had officially been commander in chief for nine minutes. Jackie Kennedy would never return to Dallas—her first trip there would be her last.
Air Force One banked toward the northeast as news of its takeoff passed through the military radio channels, using the plane’s longstanding Secret Service code name: “Angel is airborne.”