Attention is appropriately focused this week on John F. Kennedy as the nation observes the 50th anniversary of the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of a president in Dallas. That same day, another president was created.
Robert Caro made that a thesis of his new book, “The Passage of Power.” Lyndon Johnson’s emergence was an equally important, but often overlooked, part of the drama.
The Johnsons were riding in a car behind that of the Kennedys and Connallys when shots rang out. Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood quickly threw the physically formidable vice president to the floorboard. Their car sped off with the caravan to Parkland Hospital. The march of history quickly thrust Johnson from the bottom of that floorboard to the leadership of the free world.
Caro described the Texan’s rapid, turbulent transition this way in an interview last month:
“There was something magnificent in how he took over. There are about 11 weeks between when a president is elected and when he takes office. Political scientists now say that is not long enough to prepare to be president. Well, Johnson had only two hours and six minutes. That was the length of time between the moment at Love Field that he took the oath of office and the time that Air Force One arrived in Washington. He had to step out of that plane and be ready to become president. It was awesome to watch him take the reins with such a sure, strong grasp.”
What kind of person could rise to meet the demands of such a moment? It is difficult to imagine such a transformation. For most of us, the temptation would be to retreat within ourselves.
But Johnson stepped forward. Caro describes the president-in- the-making as possessing a sense of calm as the chaos unfolded around him. Johnson started working on what had to be done, including making sure he had the oath of office, ensuring that federal Judge Sarah T. Hughes could get on the plane to swear him in and making sure that Air Force One did not leave without Jacqueline Kennedy and her late husband’s coffin aboard.
Others have described Johnson similarly. Johnson’s reaction went beyond an ability to handle emergencies; I think another factor was in play.
He was absolutely comfortable using his authority to achieve his goals. That trait separates political leaders from those who follow in their wake. Johnson’s indomitable will certainly helped him prepare to lead from the moment he arrived at Andrews.
Kennedy’s X factor was his charisma, which he had in large doses. But Johnson’s ability to tower over others was his X factor. He used it often as Senate majority leader in the 1950s to move legislation. And, of course, he put it to use in carrying out JFK’s domestic legacy.
He particularly put his weight behind Kennedy’s civil rights bill. As Caro described Johnson’s passage of that bill: “To watch Johnson do that — threatening, charming, cajoling and bullying — is to see a master of political tactics at work.”
Of course, he couldn’t tower over the Vietnam War like he could a lawmaker whose vote he needed on Medicare or civil rights. His powerful will eventually was broken when he watched that far-away conflict slip out of his grasp.
Fifty years ago this week, the nation was fortunate that Johnson possessed that will. He had no time to plan a transition. He had no time to absorb an election. He had no time to contemplate themes for an inaugural address. He had to summon the ability to lead, from the moment he got off that plane.
Kennedy is the focus of Nov. 22, but there is another character in this narrative, one whose leadership that day was his own profile in courage.
Let us remember him, too, as we pause to recall the meaning of a national tragedy half a century ago.
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