Angel is Airborne
Aboard Air Force One—during one of America’s most searing, perilous moments—a government was formed and a presidency begun.
Part II: In the Air
The world had barely kept up with Lyndon Johnson in the turmoil following the shooting. For nearly an hour after Walter Cronkite announced on CBS that Kennedy was dead, the public had no idea where Johnson was. Reporters heard only that he would take the oath of office at Love Field at 2:35 pm, just three minutes before Judge Hughes swore him in. By the time word spread that Johnson had taken the oath officially as President, Air Force One was already flying back to Washington—the country’s new chief executive out of reach and out of sight for two seemingly interminable hours.
Nor did anyone on earth know who was and was not aboard Air Force One. No list had been left behind in Dallas. Three times, the military radioed Air Force One to ask whether Mrs. Kennedy was aboard. In the muddled news reports following the shooting, an erroneous announcement had gone out over the Associated Press wire that a Secret Service agent had been killed. At home in Washington, the wife of agent Bill Greer, who had been driving the presidential limousine, spent the duration of the flight thinking her merely incommunicado husband was the dead agent.
At one point, well after Air Force One’s departure from Dallas, the Air Force in Washington called the presidential plane as it sorted out whom to expect in Washington.
“Air Force One—this is the Air Force Command Post,” the radio squawked. “If possible, request the names of the passengers onboard, please.”
“We have 40-plus,” the plane responded.
“Forty people! Is that affirmative?”
“Can you tell me in regard to number one and number two—the top people?”
“Roger,” Air Force One explained. “The President is onboard. The body is onboard, and Mrs. Kennedy is onboard.”
Never before or since has Air Force One carried two Presidents at once—one dead, one alive. Never before or since has a Vice President witnessed the murder of his President. Never before or since in the nuclear age has an assassination forced the government into a panicked transition from one chief executive to another. And never before or since have the aides of the fallen President and the incoming President been locked together for hours in an aluminum tube, with one another and their own thoughts.
In fact, we may never know precisely how many people were aboard Air Force One as it took off for Washington—a sore point for conspiracy theorists in the decades since. A steward’s handwritten flight manifest, which now lies in the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, was obviously done hastily while the plane was still on the ground in Dallas—it lists “Capt Stoughton” as a passenger. The 41 people aboard are listed in an orderly manner, line by line, grouped by rank and organization—and then handwritten in the left margin are the names of the two journalists brought who made the flight: M. Smith and C. Roberts.
Scrawled at the bottom of the page by a hand obviously unsure where to place such a tragic piece of information are words that make a reader pause: “Also body of Pres. K—.”
Normally there would have been as many as a dozen Air Force staff on the plane, including the three-person cockpit crew—the pilot, copilot, and flight engineer—stewards, and a baggage master as well as members of the White House Communications Agency, responsible for the plane’s communications.
The Secret Service’s official manifest, recreated in February 1964 by Roy Kellerman, one of the agents aboard, lists the 13 crew members the Secret Service believes were onboard “for the entire trip to Texas,” but Kellerman also lists the photographer Cecil Stoughton as a passenger, though he wasn’t on the actual flight back to Washington. Meanwhile, agent Paul E. Landis, Jr., one of those assigned to Jackie Kennedy, was definitely onboard—he even helped carry the President’s casket on and off, and other Secret Service records confirm his presence. But he’s not listed on either the Air Force One manifest or even the official Secret Service manifest delivered to the Warren Commission.
Two of JFK’s press aides, Christine Camp and Sue Vogelsinger, were hurriedly removed from the plane moments before takeoff and so figure into some accounts of the plane’s flight even though they weren’t onboard at departure, and William Manchester’s book The Death of a President erroneously identifies as a passenger Marty Underwood, a Democratic advance man, who actually returned to DC on Air Force Two.
While the country wrestled with the news of Kennedy’s assassination and the hunt for his killer unfolded, that odd assortment of friends, rivals, and strangers who had assembled at Love Field found themselves pressed together under the most intense circumstances, eight miles above their devastated nation, dodging storm clouds at nearly 600 miles per hour as they raced home.
Much has been made in political mythology of the slights, factions, and egos present on the Boeing 707 that afternoon, how the Johnson people pushed aside the Kennedy men, disrespecting the widow even as her husband’s blood dried into her Chanel-inspired suit. But a comprehensive examination of the day’s flight reads less like a Machiavellian case study than an intensely human story of four dozen people—most of them shell-shocked, afraid, and confused—and their desperate push to figure out what had happened and how America would continue on.
They had two hours and 12 minutes together to mourn their fallen leader and create a new government. Inside the 153-foot-long fuselage, with little privacy and limited communication with the outside world, loyalties evolved and careers began—and ended. Before the plane had even left the ground, that sorting-out began: Godfrey McHugh’s distinguished military career would never recover from his grief-stricken “I have only one President” comment made to Malcolm Kilduff. Within days, McHugh would be among the first staff cut from the Johnson White House.
Now, as the clock passed 3pm CST (4pm in Washington) and the jet soared ever higher—pilot James Swindal finally leveled off at 41,000 feet, near the very edge of the 707’s performance—the bright-blue Texas sky quickly gave way to the darker blues of twilight. The pilots plotted their path home, making contact with air-traffic controllers below: Fort Worth Center, Little Rock, Nashville, then over to Charleston, West Virginia, before the final handoff to Andrews Air Force Base control. They flew this time without the standard line of prepositioned Secret Service agents below in case of a forced emergency landing, though the Air Force had hurriedly put fighter jets on alert at each base they passed—the pilots buckled in and waiting on the runway in case radar showed any suspicious craft nearing Air Force One.
But in the sky, they were alone above the earth, flying without a net. Every 15 minutes, as it burned fuel at a rate of a gallon a second and the plane’s weight lessened, Swindal or copilot Lewis Hanson reduced the plane’s throttles to maintain its maximum speed of Mach .84. In its nearly 30 years of presidential service, the aircraft—tail number SAM 26000—would never fly higher or faster than it did that day.
For the first few minutes after takeoff, nearly everyone sat silently. The cabin began to cool down once it was airborne and the air conditioning was cranked up. The Johnsons sat in the forward compartment with the three Texas congressmen—Homer Thornberry, Jack Brooks, and Albert Thomas. The mourning Kennedy group sat in the rear; Generals Ted Clifton and Godfrey McHugh remained at attention next to the casket. To half of the plane, this was the end. To the other, it was only the beginning. But for some, that line shifted minute by minute.
The military and Secret Service agents theoretically treated every President the same. Yet McHugh, Swindal, and other military men found to their surprise that Kennedy had meant something special to them—and that loyalty wasn’t painlessly transferred to this new Texan. Meanwhile, Kilduff—already elbowed aside by the Kennedy men and now pressed into service—moved quickly to Johnson’s side, where he would remain for the next two years.
The November sun set quickly as the plane moved east, but a different darkness settled in the cockpit. “Suddenly realizing that President Kennedy was dead, I felt that the world had ended and it became a struggle to continue,” Air Force One pilot Swindal wrote later. “I know that I personally will never again enjoy flying as I did before.”
It wouldn’t be easy to create a government nearly alone eight miles above the earth in a span of time roughly equal to that of a Friday-night movie. Normally, Presidents have months between being elected and assuming office to plan transitions, interview staff, and establish policy.
In the forward cabin after takeoff, Lyndon Johnson grabbed a piece of blue notepaper, printed with the presidential seal and gold letters reading aboard air force one, and wrote a numbered list, 1 through 4:
That last line sat empty, pregnant with all that he had to do.
And so the machinery of governance began to turn. He summoned Bill Moyers to help assign tasks. Then Johnson started working the phones, seeking out anyone who could help.
Technology limited communications with Air Force One. Although nine phone extensions were onboard, only three simultaneous conversations could take place with people one the ground. The top-of-the-line radiophone in the new Boeing 707 was a huge upgrade to Air Force One’s telecommunications system, but it still was hard to hold a conversation for long. “As we became airborne, I did not know what to expect,” the signalman and radio operator, Sergeant John Trimble, later recalled. “However, since they had to go through me, I knew that I was in for one hell of a ride.”
Trimble was busy every minute of the flight. “Andrews always had a waiting list of various officials who wanted to communicate with the plane,” he said. “Many times I had to decide with whom we would talk next.”
Each phone call was a struggle, the communications channel full of static and with a significant transmission lag. A typical conversation required lots of repeating and confirming that the other party had actually understood the transmission.
“You get that, operator?”
“Air Force One, Andrews. Say again, please.”
“. . . Helicopter . . . .”
“You getting that?”
“Let’s try them again.”
As Trimble summed up: “People talking to and from Air Force One on November 22 showed a great amount of patience.”
The new President’s calls, though, always took precedence. In stark contrast to later claims that Johnson had grabbed for power, one of his first orders of business was to reach out to the wounded.
Air Force One was somewhere over Nashville when Sergeant Trimble heard that LBJ wanted to speak to Rose Kennedy, the fallen President’s mother. Trimble cleared the best of the plane’s three frequencies, called down to Andrews, and was patched through to the White House, which in turn called Mrs. Kennedy on Cape Cod. After several handoffs and false starts, Lyndon and Lady Bird finally connected with the matriarch.
“Yes, Mr. President?” she said, formally—addressing the man with the title that until two hours earlier had belonged to her son.
“Mrs. Kennedy, I wish to God that there was something I could say to you, and I want to tell you that we’re grieving with you,” he said.
“Thank you very much. That’s very nice. I know you loved Jack and he loved you,” she replied warmly but formally.
“If there is anything we can do—” Lady Bird began. Then the two women’s words tripped over each other.
“Thank you, Lady Bird. Thank you, Mr. President,” Mrs. Kennedy said, ending the call.
The couple’s next call was back to Parkland Hospital, again routed through the White House switchboard, to the hospital room of the wounded governor John Connally.
“Can you hear me?” Lady Bird asked Nellie Connally. “The surgeon speaking about John was so reassuring. How about it?”
“The surgeon that just finished operating said that John is going to be all right unless something unforeseen happens,” Mrs. Connally reported.
“I know that everything’s going to be all right,” said LBJ, who in fact knew no such thing.
“Yes, everything’s going to be all right,” Lady Bird added.
“Good luck,” Mrs. Connally wished the new First Couple.
As the President worked his way through his calls, inbound messages stacked up. Four times, Tazewell Shepard, Kennedy’s naval aide back at the White House, tried unsuccessfully to reach Air Force One. And the White House communications team tried several times to put through a condolence message from Queen Elizabeth. They finally passed it along—in addition to three or four other calls from heads of state—to General Clifton’s aide to give LBJ when he arrived at the White House later that night.
Not all of the radio traffic, though, involved the President or covered matters of the highest urgency. Congressman Thomas, for instance, realized that no one was expecting him in Washington—he had been scheduled to stay in Texas a few days longer—and needed a favor from his staff.
“I need Capital 4-3121 extension 493,” Trimble radioed to the White House. “I’ll talk to anyone there.”
“Say again?” the White House switchboard replied. “It was Capital 4-3291 extension 493?”
“That’s 4-3121 extension 493.”
“Roger, roger. Understand. Anyone in particular there?”
“Roger. Anyone at that number.”
“Roger. Stand by.” Long pause. “Air Force One, Air Force One from Crown. Was that extension 493?”
“That is affirmative. Congressman Thomas’s office.”
“Say again the congressman’s name, as they say they have no such extension.”
“Congressman Thomas. Tango—Hotel—Oscar—Mike—Alpha—Sierra . . . .”
“Roger, roger, stand by,” the White House finally reported back. “Congressman Thomas’s office on the line.”
“Roger. This is the airplane. The congressman is requesting that you place his door keys under the doormat of his residence. Go ahead.”
“Oh, okay. Hello?” a confused female congressional aide replied.
“Hello, did you hear me?”
“There will be someone at his residence,” the aide said.
“I understand the house will be open. And someone will be in the residence. Is that correct?” the Air Force One signalman radioed. “Hello? I understand that the house will be occupied. That someone will be home. Is that right?”
Finally the White House chimed back in: “Air Force One, this is Crown, that is a Roger. She said that there will be someone at the residence.”
“Okay. Fine, Crown. Thank you very much,” Air Force One concluded the call.
Congressman Thomas wouldn’t be without clean clothes.
Between phone calls, the Air Force weather station kept the flight crew informed about tornados around Arkansas as they flew over around 3:30 pm. The glorious sunny day that the passengers had left behind in Dallas had given way to violent thunderstorms across much of the middle of the country. Andrews Air Force Base was concerned, but Air Force One was too high for it to matter much. Swindal and Hanson could see the storms out their windows on both sides, the plane weaving between the thunderheads, but the flight stayed smooth.
Johnson plopped into one of the chairs in the stateroom and gathered Bill Moyers, Jack Valenti, and Liz Carpenter around him. “I want you to put something down for me to say when we land at Andrews,” he said as he sipped a glass of water. “Nothing long. Make it brief. We’ll have plenty of time later to say more.” During the short conversation, Valenti’s eyes were drawn to the President’s large hands—they were absolutely steady. Valenti didn’t understand how someone under such immense and immediate pressure could ever be so collected. “I want to make clear that the presidency will go on,” Johnson said.
The three set to their own drafts, which Johnson then began to edit himself. Normally a regular drinker, he didn’t touch any alcohol on the flight; instead he sipped Sanka nearly the entire time.
Meanwhile, Marie Fehmer busily took dictation from passengers as they recounted the day’s events, each of them trying to piece together more than just snapshots of trauma. Congressman Brooks remembered hearing the three shots. Johnson aide Cliff Carter recalled Ken O’Donnell entering the room at Parkland and telling Johnson simply, “He’s gone.” Then the ride in unmarked cars back to Love Field, the motorcycle escort carefully guiding them through intersections. Admiral Burkley, the President’s physician, had been riding in the rear of the motorcade and never really had a chance to help the man whose life had been entrusted to him. Lady Bird commented to Carpenter, “It’s all been a dreadful nightmare.”
The plane’s arrival at Andrews preoccupied LBJ. Even as aides cautioned that Air Force One’s landing should be conducted secretly, Johnson wanted a standard press arrival. It mustn’t, he said, “look like we’re in a panic.” Everything must be normal.
“It’s the Kremlin that worries me,” Johnson said later, sitting at the stateroom desk. “It can’t be allowed to detect a waver.” He had seen Kennedy humiliated at the Vienna Summit early in his own presidency; he couldn’t show the same weakness. “Khrushchev is asking himself right now what kind of man I am. He’s got to know he’s dealing with a man of determination.”
Johnson, after all, was a man of determination. Once the Senate majority leader and among the most powerful people in Washington, he’d been sidelined by the Kennedy men, then ridiculed by them. They’d referred to him behind his back as “Uncle Cornpone,” but they’d done it so often that Johnson himself knew of it. He called the Kennedy men “the Harvards,” intending the label to show just as much disrespect as they meant toward him.
He had been a good soldier, fiercely loyal to Kennedy, all anyone could ask of a Vice President. Yet there had already been talk that Johnson might be dumped from the ’64 ticket.
Just that fall, the TV show Candid Camera had used the Vice President’s increasing obscurity to comedic effect, asking random people: “Who is Lyndon Johnson?” Everyone demurred; one man suggested the questioner look in a phone book.
Just that fall, the TV show Candid Camera had used the Vice President’s increasing obscurity to comedic effect, asking random people: “Who is Lyndon Johnson?” Everyone demurred; one man suggested the questioner look in a phone book. Others guessed a baseball player or an astronaut. No one correctly identified the man who was now leader of the free world, the man who had suddenly after three rifle shots assumed control of the largest weapons arsenal in the history of the planet, the man now huddled in the sitting room of Air Force One with just two hours until he had to introduce himself to the world and reassure a devastated nation.
Before Dallas, official Washington was so uninterested in Lyndon Johnson that his home telephone number at his estate, The Elms, in DC’s Spring Valley, was listed in the phone book. No one would bother harassing LBJ.
Now he was king. For as John Adams had said, there was but one piece of magic in the otherwise most worthless job in Washington: “I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.”
Johnson had wanted to be President more than anything. Texas governor John Connally, who now lay wounded in the Dallas hospital, had once said about him: “He’s never had another thought, another waking thought, except to lust after the office.” Even as a teenager, working with mules on a back-breaking road gang building an unpaved highway outside Austin, Johnson had told the older men that he had big plans: “I’m going to be President of the United States one day.”
But he hadn’t wanted it like this. Not with his leader’s murder. Not even Lyndon Johnson was that hungry for power.
Now he and his wife were entering a new world. Lady Bird had never even seen the inside of Air Force One before boarding it to fly back to Washington. Vice President Johnson had begged to ride with the decade-younger Kennedy on Air Force One—and eventually given up after being rejected too often. “You don’t mean to say that Mr. Johnson is again insisting on riding with me?” Kennedy had once asked Evelyn Lincoln. Now it was Johnson who had brought Kennedy aboard to ride with him, holding the plane on the tarmac to wait for the widow and the casket.
It was an instant transition and transformation difficult for nearly anybody in the country to grasp, especially the four dozen people on Air Force One who had lost a friend, a boss, and a commander. Yet even far removed from their leader and the situation on that plane, the nation ground to a stop as word of Kennedy’s assassination spread.
In New York, the stock market tanked before trading was suspended altogether, and Broadway shut down for the night, the neon lights of Times Square blinking out one by one. People clustered in the streets around car radios. By the time the plane and its two Presidents landed at Andrews, nearly the entire country had heard news of Kennedy’s death and the tragedy had united Americans around their televisions. (Over the three days following the assassination, the average family watched 31.6 hours of news coverage—ten hours a day.)
JFK’s murder stunned the world like few other events in modern times. Sir Laurence Olivier stopped a performance at London’s Old Vic theater, announced the news, and asked the audience to stand as the orchestra played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Big Ben tolled for an hour. In Berlin, the city that had so loved JFK, 60,000 gathered for a torchlight procession. Even Moscow residents cried in the street.
As presidential historian Henry Graff put it later: “Lyndon Johnson’s ascent to the presidency came at the most traumatic moment in American political history.”
Charles Roberts and Merriman Smith, the two reporters aboard the plane, worked frantically to write their stories using scrounged supplies and borrowed typewriters. Aides and officials stopped by their workspace to whisper details or offer memories of the day. Brigadier General McHugh made one trip forward to remind them that he’d otherwise stood guard by the casket throughout the journey. Mac Kilduff passed along decisions as the staff made them, and President Johnson himself stopped by the newsmen’s table at one point to explain that he intended to ask the Kennedy Cabinet to stay on.
“We had so darn much work,” Newsweek’s Roberts said later. “This was the only time in my life that I ever felt like saying to a President of the United States, ‘Look, I know you want to talk, but I’ve got a lot of work to do.’ ”
In the main staff cabin, Roberts tried to ask Roy Kellerman some details of the shooting but couldn’t bring himself to interrogate the Secret Service agent for long. “His eyes were brimming,” Roberts later said, and Kellerman was far from alone: Many “strong men [were] crying on the plane that day,” Roberts recalled.
Next to Roberts, Merriman Smith—the mustachioed 50-year-old UPI wire correspondent known to everyone as “Smitty”—was trying to hide his inner turmoil as the day’s events unfolded. He had broken the news of JFK’s shooting—the 15 bells that had rung in every newsroom in the country alerting editors to his urgent FLASH from the motorcade press car: “Dallas, Nov. 22 (UPI)—THREE SHOTS WERE FIRED AT PRESIDENT KENNEDY’S MOTORCADE IN DOWNTOWN DALLAS. JT1234PCS—”
Then just five minutes later: “FLASH FLASH KENNEDY SERIOUSLY WOUNDED PERHAPS SERIOUSLY PERHAPS FATALLY BY ASSASSINS BULLET JT1239PCS.” Then more.
Within 11 minutes of the shooting, Smith had dictated a 500-word story. He’d been feeding updates to UPI about the President’s death when Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood stopped him in the Parkland Hospital hallway and explained that he’d better get back to Love Field quickly: “Smitty, the President wants to go back to Washington.” It took the reporter a moment to process the words. I thought the President was dead. But then it clicked: Youngblood was Johnson’s Secret Service agent—Johnson was President now.
The reporter’s work that day would earn him a Pulitzer Prize. Sadly, this flight was now his second trip back to Washington with a fallen leader—he had been in Warm Springs, Georgia, in 1945 when FDR died. At the time, he hadn’t considered it fair to have to trade the great FDR for the nobody Harry Truman. Now—older, grayer, but just as prone to emotion—Smith found himself sitting with another presidential interloper.
“In JFK’s death,” he wrote in his diary a year later, “my sense of loss had taken the form of simply being unable to accept in my guts the coarse image and patois of LBJ.”
At times, it was as if there were two entirely different plane trips in progress.
The front of the aircraft was a hive of activity—Johnson aides and military and press officials scrambling for free radio time, workspace, and typewriters as they tried to report, assemble, and organize a government from miles above the earth. The rear, though, often seemed like the tomb it was, or an airborne Irish wake.
The trio of Kennedy aides whom the President had always jokingly called “the clowns”—O’Donnell, Powers, and O’Brien—joined Jackie there. There was little additional room in the aft compartment, so the other Kennedy aides were left to visit one at a time: Jackie’s press aide, Pamela Turnure; JFK secretary Evelyn Lincoln; and Secret Service agent Clint Hill. As they flew north, O’Donnell encouraged Jackie to have a Scotch. “I’m going to have a hell of a stiff drink,” he said. “I think you should, too.”
“I’ve never had Scotch in my life,” she replied, then paused. “Now is as good a time to start as any.”
But she barely touched the whisky. (Jackie drank only Scotch in the months ahead. She never once liked it, but it reminded her of the pain of that flight—a pain she didn’t want to forget.) The aides, though, took to the bottle with abandon.
Seated around a small table, one of the only things in the space not removed to fit the casket, they drank and drank. “It was like drinking water,” O’Donnell recalled. “It left us cold sober.”
Their drinking, though, made an impression on the new President, and not a favorable one. “I thought they were just wineheads,” Johnson said in a 1969 interview. “They were just drinkers, just one drink after another coming to them trying to drown out their sorrows. It was a peculiar situation that they sat back in the back and never would come and join us.”
LBJ asked O’Donnell three times to come forward to speak with him, but the Kennedy aide refused to budge. “I sat with her the entire trip,” he said of Jackie Kennedy. “She just wanted to talk. She talked the entire way.” They reminisced about the President, about the family, about the Kennedy family home in Hyannis. Dave Powers recounted the glorious days of the presidential trip to Ireland and the President’s favorite Celtic songs.
“You were with him at the start, and you’re with him at the end,” Jackie said to Powers and the others.
She was also already doing her own thinking.
The former First Lady was so far from her two children, so eager to be home—wherever home would now be after she moved out of the residence that she, her husband, and their children had known for the last two years. In some ways, she and JFK had never been closer than at the moment of his death.
Their marriage had strengthened and blossomed in the preceding months, the loss of newborn baby Patrick in August—their second child to die, after Arabella was stillborn in 1956—having brought the couple closer together. She had been gearing up for the campaign; Texas was the first time she’d been out on the campaign trail since becoming First Lady. But there would never be another day of campaigning together. Never another shared smile. Never another embrace. Never another laugh.
The couple hadn’t even slept together the night before; the hard mattress the President brought along on road trips was big enough for only one. She had slept in the other bedroom of their three-room hotel suite. “You were great today,” he had said before they went their separate ways at bedtime.
Yet she was holding it together—barely.
“That frail girl was close to composure, bringing to the surface some strength within her while we three slobs dissolved,” O’Brien said later.
Jackie began to plan. She remembered how her husband had loved Luigi Vena’s singing and decided that the Italian tenor should sing “Ave Maria” at the funeral. Next she determined that Cardinal Richard Cushing, the archbishop of Boston, who had married them, should say the Mass.
Dave Powers and Ken O’Donnell recalled visiting the grave of the couple’s deceased son, Patrick, the previous month in Hyannis with President Kennedy. Powers told Jackie what her husband had said as he stood at the grave: “He seems so alone here.”
“I’ll bring them together now,” Jackie said, the plans already forming in her mind. Her husband would be buried at Arlington, she decided, and Patrick would join him.
Conversations were halting; starting, stopping, and then restarting, overlapping. Evelyn Lincoln, at a loss for words, said, “Everything’s going to be all right.”
Jackie just looked at her: “Oh, Mrs. Lincoln.”
Throughout the flight, no one touched what Jackie called “that long, long coffin.” Mary Gallagher resisted leaning over to kiss it. The others around her—O’Brien, O’Donnell, and Powers—sat vigil, many of them lost in their own thoughts, of both remembrance and guilt: O’Donnell, speaking to the Secret Service that morning, had given the order to leave the armored bubble top off the presidential limo. (“Politics and protection don’t mix,” he had told the White House security chief, Jerry Behn, during one argument.)
At one point, Jackie Kennedy mused openly that her husband had been martyred like Abraham Lincoln. It was a theme the Kennedy people returned to again and again as their conversations—half wake, half plans—unfurled like the fields passing far below.
Jackie already worried about her husband’s legacy. He had been such a student of history. What would history now say about him? Not knowing that mere feet from her the UPI reporter was grieving deeply for her husband—holding LBJ’s accidental presidency against him even in its first hours—she worried about how the emotion-prone journalist would record the day: What is history going to see in this except what Merriman Smith wrote, that bitter man.
When the two camps collided, emotions—anger, fear, grief, often interconnected—ran high.
“Why don’t you get back and serve your new boss?” O’Donnell barked at General Clifton at one point when the intelligence aide came to the rear to ask a question.
“What’s eating him? I’m just doing my job,” Clifton said to General McHugh, who wasn’t in much better shape than O’Donnell. Standing stiffly at attention near the casket, McHugh repeated from time to time under his breath a phrase that was part statement, part question, part exclamation: “He’s my President, my President.” There was no confusion: He didn’t mean Johnson.
“To be the confidant and trusted emissary of the President, and now, by a freakish, ghoulish act of assassination to be isolated, alone, adrift, with the captain missing and a new helmsman in charge, this abrupt transition could not be handled by mere mortals,” Jack Valenti wrote later. “I didn’t see hostility. All I saw was grief—bitter, dry-teared grief.”
O’Donnell concurred: “Whatever resentment some of us might have felt, neither Dave [Powers] nor I remember any open display of antagonism against Johnson.”
Up front, Kilduff drank gin-and-tonics. He later estimated that he downed two-thirds of a bottle of gin while single-handedly juggling the duties of an entire press office.
“I needed that White House staff,” Johnson said later. “Without them I would have lost my link to John Kennedy, and without that I would have had no chance of gaining the support of the media or the Eastern intellectuals. And without that support I would have had absolutely no chance of governing the country.”
But he also knew he needed to be patient. Toward the end of the flight, Johnson canceled the staff meeting he had planned upon returning to Washington; he realized he couldn’t press the Kennedy men to transfer their loyalty immediately. He had with him Valenti and Moyers, though—the men who would replace O’Donnell and O’Brien in the inner circle of the new occupant of the Oval Office—and they worked steadily on his behalf, their loyalty already deepening even as the Kennedy men, the so-called Irish Mafia, stared into the abyss.
“All of us tried to comfort them in a quiet way, but they were still dazed from the whole thing,” Johnson aide Liz Carpenter explained. When Moyers went back at one point to ask for O’Donnell’s help on a matter, O’Donnell looked at him blankly: “Bill, I don’t have the stomach for it.”
And that was that. That night in Washington, only the congressional leadership would join Johnson at the White House.
General Ted Clifton called national-security adviser McGeorge Bundy to plan for the President’s arrival. “Two meetings tonight—[Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara and Bundy and the leadership about 7:30,” Clifton said.
“Does he mean the Democratic leadership only?” Bundy asked.
“Bipartisan leadership, and I’ll give you some names,” Clifton said, reading off the list Johnson had dictated: “Speaker of the House [John McCormack], Carl Albert, Hale Boggs, Leslie Arends, [Mike] Mansfield, [Hubert] Humphrey, [George] Smathers, [Everett] Dirksen, [Thomas] Kuchel, and [Bourke] Hickenlooper.”
Bundy—who referred to Johnson as “the Vice President” throughout the conversation out of habit—suggested that because the Cabinet Room was being rearranged and might not be ready in time, they should plan to meet with the congressional leadership in the Oval Office. But Clifton stopped him: Johnson didn’t want to be seen taking control too quickly. The White House wasn’t his home yet.
“He does not want to go into the mansion or in the Oval Room or the President’s Office or the President’s Study. So if the Cabinet Room isn’t ready, then put it in the Fish Room,” Clifton ordered over the scratchy connection.
“All right, I will,” Bundy said.
Given how carefully LBJ, even in the midst of a national crisis, orchestrated the power shift to lessen the pain of the Kennedy camp, he was stung by the accusations voiced four years later in William Manchester’s book that Johnson had brazenly seized the crown, shoving aside the grieving Kennedy team. “I did everything I could to show respect and affection and grief to Mrs. Kennedy,” LBJ said later. “I don’t know of any niceties that were overlooked at all, and what’s more, I think everybody in the party will say that.”
On the flight, the Secret Service pushed their new President to spend the night in the White House. It was safe there, they knew, and Rufus Youngblood urged him “to think of security first.”
But Johnson cut off the conversation: “We are going home to The Elms. That’s where we live. If you can protect us at the White House, by God you can protect us at home, too.” He did not want to seem presumptuous.
Because the Vice President of the United States didn’t have an official residence at that time—and wouldn’t until a house on the grounds of the Naval Observatory was designated as such in 1974—Johnson had commuted in to the White House each day from the Spring Valley neighborhood. (His home at 4040 52nd Street, Northwest, is now the Algerian ambassador’s residence.) He would continue to do so now as President—at least until the Kennedys had time to arrange their affairs.
His orders clear, Youngblood squeezed himself into the plane’s communications shack to call the White House security chief. The connection, again, was patchy at best—beset with static and garbled transmissions and packed with code names.
What are commonly known as “Secret Service code names” are actually designations given by the White House communications agency to officials and their families and are grouped around the same letters: All the Kennedy family names began with L: Lancer for JFK, Lace for Jackie, Lyric for Caroline, and Lark for John Jr. The Johnson family had received V names: Volunteer for Lyndon, Victoria for Lady Bird, Velvet for Lynda, and Venus for Luci. White House staff had names that began with W. Altogether, more than 200 were in use at a given time.
“I committed about 50 to memory and instructed others to use their last name,” radioman Trimble recalled later. Then there were separate code names for major destinations: Crown was the White House, Valley the Vice President’s residence at The Elms. “Originally, the code names were a good idea and did facilitate communications, but like most everything else in government, [they’ve] gotten out of hand,” Trimble recalled. It was a lot to keep straight in a conversation.
“Volunteer will reside at Valley for an indefinite time,” Youngblood transmitted. “I repeat: Volunteer will reside at Valley for an indefinite time. Victoria requests that Venus will go to Valley with agent.”
“Will you say again?” Jerry Behn asked from the White House. “Will you say again?”
“Venus should go out to Valley with agent,” a White House operator, also on the line, tried to clarify.
“That is a roger,” Youngblood said, sounding very far away from his colleagues at just the moment they needed to be working closely together. “That is a roger. Venus will go to Valley with agent. Victoria will go to Valley after first to Crown. Do you understand? Over.”
“Victoria will go to Valley after first going to Crown,” the White House operator repeated.
“Okay, that’s affirmative,” Behn said, but Youngblood still wasn’t sure the White House had actually heard the main piece of information he was trying to convey: The Secret Service had only a few hours to be ready for the President of the United States to live outside the White House indefinitely for the first time since Harry Truman had moved to Blair House during a post–World War II renovation.
“Do you also understand that for residential purposes Volunteer will reside at Valley?” he asked.
“That is affirmative,” Behn said, understanding. There was another short pause before Behn repeated for emphasis, “That is affirmative.”
Youngblood signed off: “All right—that is all the traffic I have at present.”
A few minutes passed, and then a further thought from Air Force One. The plane called back to the White House: Now that Johnson was President, the public telephone line at his house—the one that was in the phone book—should be disconnected and new, secure phones installed.
LBJ also talked to McGeorge Bundy directly throughout the flight, attending to what seemed to be a growing list of matters of state. Johnson was hungry for details of the unfolding assassination investigation. Half an hour after takeoff, word had come that a Dallas policeman, J.D. Tippitt, was dead. Then word that the suspected assassin was in custody, some guy named Lee Harvey Oswald. Who was he? The FBI implied he had ties to Russia. Was this a larger plot?
American military commanders around the world were moving their forces to a higher state of readiness, but neither Bundy nor Johnson advocated a general alert or a move to a higher so-called DEFCON.
Kilduff and Valenti made several trips to the rear of the plane to ask if anyone needed anything. The Kennedy men and Jackie barely acknowledged them. At one point, she looked at Clint Hill—the Secret Service agent whom she had helped clamber onto the trunk of the presidential limousine as it began to speed from the shooting scene—and asked, “What will happen to you now?”
Around 5 pm, Admiral George Burkley, Kennedy’s physician, spoke with the Secret Service and the military aides, realizing that one of the hardest conversations of the trip fell to him. He passed through the President’s sitting room and entered the silent, hallowed rear compartment to kneel next to the widow, her Scotch before her on the table. He explained that her husband would have to be autopsied.
“The doctors must remove the bullet—the authorities must know the type. It becomes evidence.”
“Well, it doesn’t have to be done,” she said.
“Yes, it is mandatory that we have an autopsy,” explained the admiral, who had served as Kennedy’s doctor since the second month of his administration. “I can do it at the Army hospital at Walter Reed or at the Navy hospital at Bethesda or any civilian hospital that you would designate.”
Burkley hoped he could arrange it at a military hospital—the commander in chief deserved that, and it would be the most secure facility possible. But in that moment he was willing to indulge almost anything Jackie wanted. She thought for a minute and then chose Bethesda; Jack, after all, had been a Navy man.
General McHugh later knelt beside her and asked again if she’d like to change clothes before landing. She said what she’d said in Dallas: “No, let them see what they’ve done.” She already regretted wiping the blood away earlier: If I’d just had blood and caked hair on my face when Cecil took that photograph, she thought.
Someone else suggested that Jackie could deplane on the right side of the aircraft, away from the press and the television lights.
“We will go out the regular way,” she said.
Ted Clifton volunteered that an Army honor guard would be ready to carry the President off the plane, but Jackie stopped him: “I want his friends to carry him down.”
She summoned Roy Kellerman, the head of JFK’s detail, and Dave Powers explained that the Secret Service agents who were with the President would bear him off the plane. Mrs. Kennedy wanted Bill Greer, his driver, to drive the ambulance. Greer, who had spent the plane ride replaying in his mind the turn onto Dealey Plaza, was touched. “Greer had been remorseful all day, feeling that he could have saved President Kennedy’s life by swerving the car,” O’Donnell recalled. “Jackie felt sorry for him.”
General Chester Clifton was known to most of his friends as Ted, but for official purposes he was code-named Watchman. After Kellerman had arranged for the autopsy, Clifton took over to plan the reception at the Air Force base.
“This is Watchman,” he radioed Behn, the White House security chief. “I understand that you have arranged for an ambulance to take President Kennedy to Bethesda. Is this correct?”
“It has been arranged to helicopter the body to Bethesda.”
“Okay, if it isn’t too dark. What about the First Lady?”
“Everyone else will be helicoptered into the South Grounds.”
“Are you sure that the helicopter operation will work? We have a very heavy casket.”
“According to Witness [naval aide Tazewell Shepard], yes.”
“Don’t take a chance on that,” Clifton ordered. “Also have a mortuary-type ambulance stand by in case the helicopter doesn’t work.”
“Now some other instruction. Listen carefully: We need a ramp put at the front of the aircraft on the right-hand side just behind the pilot’s cabin in the galley. We are going to take the First Lady off by that route.”
“Also, at the left rear—at the rear of the aircraft where we usually dismount, we may need a forklift rather than a ramp. A platform to walk out on and a forklift to put it on. The casket is in the rear compartments, and because it is so heavy we should have a forklift there to remove the casket. If this is too awkward, we can go along with a normal ramp and several men.”
“Affirmative. We will try for the forklift.”
“Next item,” Clifton continued. “There is to be normal press arrangements at Andrews. They should be in front of the aircraft because that is where he’ll come off. He is going to the White House by chopper.”
“Should the Secretary of Defense and others be at Andrews on your arrival?”
“No,” Clifton said. “I am about to call the White House. President Johnson wants to have the White House staff, the leadership of Congress, and as many of the Cabinet members available at the White House at 1830 [hours].”
“Affirmative,” Behn said from the ground, but Clifton wasn’t sure he’d been understood.
“Repeat that to me.”
“All the leaders of Congress, as many Cabinet members as possible at the White House at 1830.”
“And key members of the White House staff—[Ted] Sorensen, Bundy, et cetera,” he trailed off, then prepared to hand the call over to the head of Kennedy’s Secret Service detail. “Hold for Kellerman.”
“Have helicopter to transport President Johnson and party to the White House lawn,” Kellerman commanded Behn, who technically was his boss.
“Have White House cars 102 and 405 for transportation to hospital,” Kellerman said. “I will join [agent Clint] Hill and party at the Navy hospital.”
Two hours after leaving behind the city that had killed Kennedy, Colonel Swindal began his descent, swinging east over Middleburg toward the lights of DC in the distance.
Johnson excused himself from the group and stepped into the presidential bathroom. He gave himself a quick shave and combed his hair, wanting to present a polished look to the world as it gazed upon the new President for the first time. He put on a fresh shirt, straightened his tie, and put his suit jacket back on. The man whom critics thought too unpolished, too crude, too brusque to lead a nation stared at himself in the mirror: Was this presidential enough?
Air Force One glided home, over the Potomac River and a capital already in mourning, a distant yellow light resolving into an airplane as it neared the runway and the thousands of eyes searching the night sky for the first glimpse of the majestic hearse. Up and down the East Coast, commercial planes circled in midflight, diverted to clear a path for the presidential aircraft.
Colonel Swindal eased it onto the runway, the back wheels touching down first with a puff of white smoke, then the front, then the braking as Air Force One slowed to a stop. Reporter Charles Roberts looked up from typing the final pool report that would be handed out to the media. He checked his watch.
It was 5:59 pm in Washington.
The 35th and 36th Presidents of the United States were both home—Kennedy for the last time, Johnson for the first.
A military honor guard stood ready on the tarmac along with a Navy ambulance and a catering truck to lower the casket from the plane.
The press were all arranged with their microphones set, the TV lights ablaze. Diplomats had arrived en masse, as had the public, who gathered by the thousands outside the gates at Andrews. US government and military officials stood uneasily in the darkness. Senators Everett Dirksen, Hubert Humphrey, and Mike Mansfield waited near the press area. Nearby, helicopters were poised to whisk the President, the new First Lady, and her widowed predecessor across to “Crown”—the White House, the home that for the moment seemed to belong to neither the Johnsons nor the Kennedys.
As he stood to disembark, Johnson’s massive hand clenched a small piece of aboard air force one notepaper printed with the presidential seal— his seal now—with seven typed sentences to read to the press below, the sum total of his staff’s wisdom during the preceding flight. He had thoughtfully edited the statement, making changes to nearly every sentence, adding personal touches to the cold words on the page, changing, for instance, “the nation” to “we.”
Instead of a joke at the podium in Austin about his charismatic leader having survived the trip to Dallas, his final public words of the day would now be to claim control of a tragedy in his leader’s absence and to reassure a nation that he, Lyndon Baines Johnson—the poor boy from the Texas hill country who had graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers College—stood ready to inherit command.
The words were hard to read, and he would stumble over them, trying to decipher in the cool Washington night air the pencil-scratched edits he had made:
“This is a sad time for all people. We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. For me it is a deep personal tragedy. I know the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bears.
“I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask only for your help—and God’s.”
His plea was heartfelt. The raw power Johnson had inherited in an instant—not just the office but ultimate control over the Polaris submarines hidden beneath the waves, the nuclear-armed alert bombers making lazy circles over the Midwest, the Minuteman missile crews sitting quiet vigils in their silos across the plains—had never before been given to a man under those circumstances.
“This is a sad time for all people. We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. For me it is a deep personal tragedy. I know the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bears.
History’s trajectory had been altered, and the world now waited to see what would come next. Ahead lay the unknown pressures of the Cold War, Fidel Castro, and Nikita Khrushchev; the drama of Martin Luther King Jr., a bridge in Selma, and the civil-rights movement; Vietnam, the Tet Offensive, and the draft; the Great Society, the ’68 Democratic convention in Chicago, Richard Nixon, and the moon landing. The seeds of what followed had already been laid—there were 16,300 advisers in Vietnam on November 22, 1963, and unknown to anyone aboard the plane, that very day a British rock band named the Beatleshad released their second album.
The 1960s were poised to upend American life outside Air Force One. The accidental group of passengers brought together for this flight—all the friends, all the strangers, all the enemies, all the allies—would in the minutes and hours ahead disperse, never to reconvene. A decade later, the same airplane, SAM 26000, would fly Lyndon Johnson home to Texas for the final time after his own death in January 1973.
But all of that lay in the future.
For one last minute, as the stairs were brought forward, the plane and its emotionally spent occupants stayed silent. “Let’s get everybody together,” Johnson said, and the passengers clustered in the rear—the Kennedys closest to the door with the casket, then Johnson, then his aides and the congressmen behind him. Johnson reached through the crowded aisle to kiss the hand of Kennedy aide Pam Turnure.
Then, as those inside waited for the back door to open, a murmur passed through the length of the aircraft: The attorney general had boarded unexpectedly through the front door. Robert F. Kennedy, his face streaked with tears, ran through the communications shack staffed by the exhausted radioman Sergeant Trimble, passed through the forward galley with its depleted liquor cabinet, pushed his way through the crowded staff area where LBJ and Jackie had stood earlier with Judge Sarah Hughes, past the secretaries and the typewriters that just hours before had written out the oath of office, and through to the President’s cabin.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” he said, pushing through the knots of people. “Where’s Jackie? I want to be with Jackie.”
As Bobby Kennedy stepped into the President’s cabin, the new President of the United States—just hours into the greatest role of his life, hours into achieving his life’s sole dream under the worst imaginable circumstances—stuck out his hand, a gesture of warmth from a man not known for that.
His voice weighed down with emotion, Lyndon Johnson greeted RFK simply: “Bob.”
But the attorney general never broke stride, pushing right past his new boss, past everyone until he reached his brother’s widow, standing next to the bronze casket with the broken handle.
Her brown eyes turned toward him.
“I’m here,” he said.
“Oh, Bobby,” she said.
And the rear door of Air Force One opened.
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