Introduction, The Kennedy Assassination and the Transfer of Power

By Max Holland, editor, The Presidential Recordings: Lyndon B. Johnson. The Kennedy Assassination and the Transfer of Power, vol. 1

[Reprinted from The Presidential Recordings: Lyndon B. Johnson. The Kennedy Assassination and the Transfer of Power, November 1963–January 1964, vol. 1 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), liii–lxviii]

At the end of John F. Kennedy’s two-day visit to five Texas cities, the schedule called for the President to spend Friday night and Saturday morning relaxing at Vice President Johnson’s 438-acre ranch in the Hill Country outside Austin. The respite from official duties was purposeful, because the President was going to be faced with an especially vexing problem when he returned to Washington. On Sunday, President Kennedy was scheduled to confer at Camp David with U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge about the deteriorating situation in South Vietnam.1

Lyndon Johnson rarely got to spend an extended amount of time with the President under such casual circumstances and intended to use the occasion to discuss his most pressing concern: his place on the November 3 ballot less than one year away. Within political circles and in the media, rumors abounded that Johnson would be unceremoniously dumped from the Democratic ticket. Republican leaders, naturally, were doing their utmost to stoke the speculation, on the grounds that any other Democratic combination in 1964 was bound to be weaker than a reprise of the Kennedy-Johnson ticket. The Vice President’s pride was deeply wounded, for he had taken great pains to be completely loyal to the administration and believed he did not deserve to be treated this way. Such rumors did not arise on their own in Washington; someone credible in the administration had to be generating the speculation or doing something. Consequently, the Vice President intended to use the evening of November 22 to deliver a stunning message of his own. Lyndon Johnson did not want to be on the Democratic ticket in 1964.2

The 55-year-old Vice President had confided his intention to very few friends and political associates. One was Horace Busby, a former aide and still Johnson’s preferred speechwriter. Busby later recalled that Johnson even expressed a clear notion about what he wanted to do after leaving office. A leading Texas newspaper was up for sale and Johnson intended to bid for it. “I’m going to buy the newspaper,” he told Busby, a former newspaperman. “You be the editor and I’ll be the publisher.” Yet Busby was also cognizant of Johnson’s tendency to engage in self-pity and wondered about the Vice President’s resolve. Was he genuinely determined to step aside, or did he want to be implored to stay on by the only person whose opinion really mattered? “Mr. Johnson [was] like a star performer [who] needed to be cajoled every once in a while,” observed Busby in 1986. “He would have been cajoled by the President. He would not have declined to run in 1964.”3

Either way, Johnson’s position was never made known to the President. And John Kennedy never had the opportunity to implore his vice president to stay on the ticket, if that in fact would have been his position. By Friday evening the political universe had been turned upside down.

The upheaval was so brutally swift that it may have subtly colored Busby’s recollection of the episode more than two decades later. The conventional accounts promulgated after the November 22 assassination depict the Vice President as loyally emerging from the shadows to pick up the reins of a presidency cut tragically short. In truth, the vice presidency was probably never more desolate and humiliating than it seemed on the morning of November 22. On the very day he would achieve the office he longed for with every fiber of his being, Lyndon Johnson arguably reached the nadir of his vice presidency.

It was, of course, not supposed to turn out that way. Being marginalized to the point of ridicule before backing into the presidency was not what Johnson had in mind when he stunned many observers by accepting John Kennedy’s offer of the vice presidential nomination in 1960. Johnson had agreed to take the number two spot for complicated political reasons, none of which included diminution of his ambition for the presidency itself. In fact, any remaining hope that he had of becoming the first southern President since the Civil War depended on joining the ticket.

Johnson’s calculus of the contingencies had gone something like this: If he refused the second spot on the ticket and Kennedy went on to lose, liberal Democrats would continue to typecast Johnson as a regional candidate disloyal to the national party—and any bid for the 1964 nomination would face the identical barriers he had failed to overcome in 1960. Similarly, if Johnson turned Kennedy down and the Democrats went on to win in 1960, then the odds of becoming Kennedy’s anointed successor at some future point would be almost nonexistent.

If Johnson accepted, however, his admittedly slim chance of becoming President actually improved even if the Democrats lost. In that event Johnson’s party loyalty would be unquestioned, and, depending on his performance on the stump, he might decisively shed the stigma of being a regional (i.e., southern) candidate with no appeal to Democrats nationwide. In defeat he would also likely emerge as the front-runner for the 1964 nomination.4 Finally, Johnson hoped to have a political future if the Democratic ticket proved victorious. As Vice President, he would do everything in his power to make the Kennedy administration succeed while being perceived as an invaluable and visible cog in that success. Then he might plausibly claim to be John Kennedy’s legitimate successor in 1968. As Johnson explained the decision to his Senate mentor, Richard Russell, if he declined the vice presidency he would be “left out” of party politics in the future.5

A keen student of Washington, Johnson even had a predecessor in mind that he intended to emulate should the Democrats win: former House Speaker John Nance Garner, Franklin’s Roosevelt’s vice president from 1933 to 1941. To the degree that Garner, a fellow Texan, was publicly remembered at all, it was for his harsh appraisal of the vice presidency; in Garner’s oft-quoted formulation, the job wasn’t “worth a pitcher of warm spit.”6 But serious students of the White House—and none were more serious than Johnson—knew that Garner’s observation had been made after his falling out with Roosevelt over such issues as enlarging the U.S. Supreme Court. During Roosevelt’s first term of high achievement, Garner had actually played an absolutely vital role, and as a young congressional aide Lyndon Johnson had witnessed Garner’s handiwork almost firsthand.7 With Roosevelt’s full backing and confidence, the former House Speaker had served as the White House’s point man vis-à-vis the House and the Senate. As such, Garner negotiated passage of key provisions of what would become known as the New Deal. “The last time a great program was put on the books in this country,” Johnson later recalled, “[Garner] put it on, whatever else they say about him. . . . He damned sure passed the stock exchange and the holding company act, and the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the NRA, and everything else.”8

In essence, Johnson took a last-ditch but calculated gamble in 1960 in order to emancipate himself from Texas. The vice presidential nomination was the only way left for Johnson to transcend his limited political base, as nominee Kennedy well understood when he extended the offer.9 And in return for keeping his presidential hopes modestly alive, Johnson agreed to accept a lesser role if the Democrats managed to retake the White House. He convinced himself, if few others, that with Kennedy’s blessing he could fashion the vice presidency into a productive office if need be. During the negotiations at the Democratic convention, nominee Kennedy explicitly promised Rayburn that he would give Johnson “important domestic duties and send him on trips abroad.”10

Friends who spent election night with Johnson later observed that he showed no signs of jubilation at the narrow victory over the Nixon-Lodge ticket.11 Clearly, the best outcome for Johnson personally would have been a Democratic defeat not attributable to the vice presidential nominee. Nonetheless, he had struck a bargain and resolved to do his best. Besides Kennedy’s promise to Rayburn at the convention, Johnson probably found consolation in the thought that the President-elect would surely want to exploit the political talents of one of the most effective Senate majority leaders the Congress had ever seen. Even Johnson’s harshest critics acknowledged his mastery of the legislative process.

As the administration organized itself, President Kennedy issued one very significant directive regarding his vice president. Though Johnson was already a member of the National Security Council (NSC) by statute, Kennedy went a step further and made sure that he was a fully briefed participant. The President ordered the key national security bureaucracies—State, Defense, and the CIA—to keep Johnson informed of their policies and operations; in addition, he appointed Johnson to preside over NSC meetings in the President’s absence.12 Such consideration was eminently sound policy given the exigencies of the missile age. It also represented the exception which proved the rule. The reality of being vice president would fall way short of the terms Johnson thought he had achieved.

For one, owing to his narrow victory or cautious nature, and probably both, President Kennedy did not embark on the kind of sweeping legislative agenda favored by his vice president. John Kennedy was not like Lyndon Johnson, a creature of Congress whose formative experience was the New Deal. Whereas Johnson believed administrations were largely judged, all things being equal, on their legislative accomplishments, President Kennedy had only modest legislative goals in mind for his first term. Still worse from Johnson’s perspective, and irrespective of its legislative ambitions, the White House had no intention of giving Lyndon Johnson authority to speak and deal on the President’s behalf, a la John Nance Garner, and run Congress from the vice presidency. A preinauguration effort by Johnson to establish himself as a kind of super majority leader proved controversial and died before it got started.13 Although Johnson kept, with the President’s blessing, the magnificent suite in the Capitol that had been his as majority leader, early on the word went out from the White House not to pay any attention to Lyndon. And soon no one in Congress did. Accurately or not, Johnson came to believe that the Kennedy White House harbored the fear that Johnson, if permitted an enhanced role, would get too much of the credit for any legislative accomplishments. The press would be too prone to attribute any success on Capitol Hill to the “master craftsman” Johnson.

Another proposal advanced by Johnson in the early days of the administration was treated even more brusquely. Days after the inauguration, Johnson proposed that Kennedy sign an executive order that would have given the Vice President a copy of every major document sent to the President by Cabinet secretaries or agency directors, along with “general supervision” over a number of entities, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). If Johnson were going to render advice that counted, he had to be guaranteed a place in the flow of paper. The President simply ignored the proposal. Meanwhile White House aides, eager to put the Vice President in his place, promptly leaked the proposal to the press, which depicted it as a typically Johnsonian grab for power.14

It soon became obvious that Kennedy’s convention promise of “important domestic duties” was going to be interpreted as narrowly as possible. In the White House, where physical proximity and/or access to the President denoted power almost perfectly, Johnson’s request for an office adjacent to the President’s was turned down. Instead, Johnson was assigned a six-room suite in the Old Executive Office Building, figuratively miles from the preferred nest of offices in the White House’s West Wing. While the Vice President was invited to attend Cabinet meetings, weekly strategy sessions with House and Senate leaders, and pre-press conference briefings, he usually attended these meetings without portfolio, unlike virtually everyone else in the room. The President gave Johnson just two major statutory responsibilities: leadership of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, in recognition of Johnson’s role in fathering NASA, and chairmanship of a newly created entity, the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity (CEEO), which was designed to combat discriminatory hiring practices in the federal government and by private businesses with federal contracts.15 The combination did not come close to exhausting Johnson’s ambitions and protean energy.

The other element of President Kennedy’s convention pledge—trips abroad—proved no less disappointing. Over the next two years, Johnson would make more than two dozen trips abroad in an official capacity, occasions he had hoped to use to burnish his foreign policy credentials, perhaps the only genuine weakness in his resume. But when the President needed an emissary to discuss sensitive matters, he invariably turned to his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson got the state funerals, the inaugurals, and the “show-the-flag” missions that more important administration officials preferred to avoid.16 The same pattern repeated itself during inevitable foreign policy crises. After the Bay of Pigs debacle, and at the height of the Cuban missile showdown, President Kennedy looked to his brother rather than Johnson, and the Vice President was also deliberately kept in the dark about the genuine terms of the October 1962 settlement.17

To be sure, President Kennedy was not oblivious to Johnson’s predicament on a personal level. He insisted that White House staff treat Johnson with respect and warned staffers that if they strayed from this rule he would fire them. “You are dealing with a very insecure, sensitive man with a huge ego,” Kennedy reportedly told his close aide Kenneth O’Donnell. “I want you literally to kiss his fanny from one end of Washington to the other.”18 And for the duration of the Kennedy administration, there was a notable absence of criticism in public about the Vice President by the President; the reverse held true as well. The mutual restraint astonished veteran Washington reporters, schooled in detecting the slightest differences of opinion between politicians. Whenever someone in the press claimed a disagreement existed, both men went far beyond routine denials; to the degree differences existed, they were aired in private. The self-control Johnson exercised here was unprecedented, given his well-known penchant for mimicry and mocking other politicians behind their backs. As one White House official would later observe, Johnson’s greatest testament as vice president was his relative patience and self-discipline in the face of political impotency.19

As the administration wore on, nonetheless, the toll on Johnson was increasingly obvious. He grew remote and disengaged. At the weekly breakfasts for the Democratic congressional leadership, where he was most likely to have a strong opinion, Johnson became sphinxlike, seldom offering a suggestion even as Kennedy’s modest legislative proposals became mired in Congress. If asked directly by the President for an opinion, the usually voluble Johnson would reply in monosyllables “so low he could scarcely be heard.” At NSC meetings, the Vice President often deflected President Kennedy’s efforts to draw him out by saying that he simply did not have enough information to contribute to the discussion.20 Johnson’s brooding did not escape President Kennedy’s notice. “I cannot stand Johnson’s damn long face,” Kennedy complained on one occasion to Senator George Smathers, a friend to both running mates. “He comes in, sits at the Cabinet meetings with his face all screwed up, never says anything. He looks so sad.”21

Though lukewarm efforts were made to propagate the image of an upgraded vice presidency, nothing could really hide the fact that the most important Democrat during Eisenhower’s second term had been reduced to a cipher. By 1963, Johnson was almost unrecognizable from the domineering majority leader of just a few years before. His vigor had never been questioned then, but suddenly he seemed to belong to an older generation. Among the President’s young, mostly Ivy League aides, Johnson was known as “Uncle Cornpone,” so ill-suited was his nature to the cool demeanor favored by the New Frontier.22 The contrast between the over-bearing, gangly Texan and “the best and the brightest” from the country’s northeastern seaboard left Johnson even more self-conscious about his lackluster upbringing than he already was. Meanwhile, his antics overseas, where he sometimes acted as if he were campaigning for Congress, were often relayed back home by word of mouth and made him the butt of many Georgetown dinner jokes. Inexorably, albeit astonishingly, the same man who used to commandeer the Senate came to be seen as a light-weight—a politician only at ease in the backrooms, ill-equipped for the 1960s. “Whatever happened to Lyndon?” became a cliché in the salons of Washington, and Johnson fared no better among the public. The popular TV show Candid Camera exploited his growing obscurity by asking unwitting participants, “Who is Lyndon Johnson?” People guessed that he was a baseball player, an astronaut—everything but Vice President of the United States.23

Still, as difficult as the situation was, Johnson was probably prepared to endure being on the administration’s fringes so long as there remained the faint possibility that he could make another run at the White House. That, in turn, now seemed to hinge on his becoming John Kennedy’s successor in 1968. Consequently, the greatest part of Johnson’s frustration would stem from his not altogether incorrect perception that this opportunity was also evaporating before his eyes.

The news media were already talking in terms of a Kennedy dynasty, and that the natural successor to John Kennedy would not be his vice president but a family member, specifically Robert Kennedy. Certainly the President was giving every indication of grooming his brother for higher office. Robert Kennedy influenced a host of issues far removed from his duties as attorney general. Yet, having never run for elective office, Robert Kennedy was not obviously a viable candidate in 1968. He seemed to prefer operating behind the scenes, and his name tended to elicit great antipathy from segments of the Democratic Party. Southern Democrats were finding fault with his support for civil rights demonstrators, and liberals had never forgotten his stint as assistant counsel to Senator Joe McCarthy in 1953.

Regardless of his own ambition, one thing was manifest: Robert Kennedy’s personal animus toward Lyndon Johnson was such that he was determined to eliminate the possibility that Johnson might succeed his brother. The hostility between the two men was the worst-kept secret in Washington. “They were just oil and water,” recalled Nicholas Katzenbach, who eventually gained the confidence of both men, “and they could not get along together.”24 While Robert Kennedy enjoyed throwing his weight around—literally browbeating presidential appointees as well as career bureaucrats for failing his brother—inside the administration there was probably nothing he relished more than the constant opportunity to remind Johnson of his subordinate place.

Their antagonism dated back to the 1960 race for the Democratic nomination, if not before.25 The Johnson campaign, desperately seeking to stop a first-ballot victory for Kennedy, had pulled out all the stops while attempting to focus attention on two vulnerable points in the Massachusetts senator’s bid: his health and his father. Well before the convention, Johnson began describing John Kennedy as “a 'little scrawny fellow with rickets’ and God knows what other kind of diseases.”26 Then, during the convention, Johnson’s campaign manager John Connally held a news conference where it was revealed that Senator Kennedy had Addison’s disease (which was true), making him possibly unfit for the presidency.27 From Robert Kennedy’s perspective, Johnson compounded these sins by openly referring to Joseph Kennedy, the family patriarch, as a “Chamberlain-umbrella policy man” who thought “[Adolf] Hitler was right.”28

For John Kennedy, an experienced campaigner who seldom let his emotions get the better of him, the political hardball reflected no ill will, only the depth of Johnson’s desperation. But John Kennedy’s campaign manager, Robert Kennedy, was livid and unforgiving. When John Kennedy—prodded, notably, by Joseph Kennedy—shrewdly picked Lyndon Johnson as his running mate, there was no consoling Robert Kennedy. He awkwardly tried to dissuade Johnson from accepting the offer during a series of convention encounters that neither man would ever forget. For Robert Kennedy, the “best day of his life”—winning the nomination for his brother—had been followed by the “worst day”: finding Lyndon on the ticket.29

For his part, Johnson had tried to wipe the slate clean with Robert Kennedy after the 1960 election. The Vice President worked hard to assure approval of Kennedy’s controversial nomination for attorney general. Getting the nomination through was “the first thing the President asked him to do” as vice president, and Johnson pleaded with his former Senate colleagues to help him pass his initial test.30 Yet, and despite myriad responsibilities, Robert Kennedy seldom missed an opportunity to embarrass or humiliate the Vice President. As tensions over civil rights issues rose, Robert Kennedy warned his brother that Johnson’s supposed “do-nothing” record as CEEO chairman would cost the President many votes in 1964. Then, in the spring of 1963, the Attorney General chose to attend several CEEO meetings himself, chiefly for the purpose of ridiculing Johnson about the ostensible lack of progress in achieving the committee’s goals. Johnson felt particularly abused because he was far from the southern obstructionist that Robert Kennedy was trying to depict him to be. Privately, Johnson was one of the administration’s most passionate internal advocates for getting the White House ahead of the political curve on civil rights.

Given Johnson’s suspicious nature, it would have been wholly out of character if he had not seen Robert Kennedy’s invisible hand behind two genuine scandals that threatened Johnson’s renomination. Texas politics reeked of big money, and when the FBI arrested a quintessential wheeler-dealer from Texas named Billie Sol Estes in March 1962, it only seemed a matter of time before Johnson became tainted. Estes had a stake in a dizzying array of businesses and, not coincidentally, was a generous contributor to the state Democratic Party. Rumors swirled that Johnson, in addition to receiving extravagant gifts from Estes, had engaged in joint ventures with the flamboyant schemer and intervened on Estes’ behalf before federal agencies. It was even alleged that Johnson tried to impede the FBI’s investigation. Robert Kennedy insisted that the FBI mount a thorough investigation, and the Bureau found no corroboration for any of the allegations.

No sooner had the Estes case died down than another scandal erupted to take its place, and this one posed even tougher questions for Johnson. Bobby Baker had risen from being a Senate page to secretary of the Senate Majority under Johnson’s tutelage, so identified with the former majority leader that some senators called him “Little Lyndon.” The storm over Baker broke in the fall of 1963, when the Washington Post revealed that he had enriched himself through a dazzling variety of ventures; suspicion immediately arose that Johnson had profited from Baker’s indefatigable deal making. Though the FBI investigation was instigated solely by Baker’s corrupt practices, in the marrow of his bones the Vice President believed that Robert Kennedy had initiated the inquiry as a sure means of turning Lyndon Johnson into a political liability. Johnson had been around Washington long enough to know that major investigations rarely just happened of their own accord; he thought it spoke volumes, for example, that the first newspaper reports about Baker’s misdeeds were written by reporters who worked the Justice Department beat rather than Capitol Hill. Johnson’s ire was especially aroused when he learned that Robert Kennedy was deploying, against Baker, some of the crack lawyers who were part of the effort to prosecute Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa, Robert Kennedy’s oldest nemesis. As the Baker scandal unfolded in early October, Johnson walked into the office of one of his closest friends from the Texas congressional delegation and unburdened himself. ‘Why does the White House have it in for me?” he asked.31

Fueled by the Baker scandal, rumors about Johnson’s future became rampant in the fall of 1963. The fact that it was also the only parlor game question on the Democratic side, with implications for 1968, did not help matters. Then too, the nature of Kennedy’s prospective Republican opponent contributed to the speculation. The GOP front-runner, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, appeared to be nowhere near as formidable a candidate as Richard Nixon had been in 1960. If Goldwater garnered the Republican nomination, the vital political center would virtually be ceded to the Democrats before the general election commenced. This prospect delighted President Kennedy, and he understandably relished the thought of running against Goldwater. An easy reelection, however, would tend to make Johnson dispensable if he appeared to be the slightest drag on the ticket. While the Democrats would have lost in 1960 without Texas’s 25 electoral votes, the Kennedy-Johnson slate had carried the state by only 46,000 votes.32 And Goldwater’s nomination would create an entirely new electoral college calculus.

In what would turn out to be his penultimate televised news conference, President Kennedy was asked point-blank about Johnson’s renomination on October 31. “Now, sir, assuming that you run next year,” asked a reporter, “would you want Lyndon Johnson on the ticket? And do you expect he will be on the ticket?” Without missing a beat the President replied, “Yes, to both of those questions. That is correct.”33 The brisk answer was everything Johnson could hope for and accorded with everything President Kennedy was saying privately to journalists and leading Democrats. Still, in the often Byzantine world of politics, the fact that the President had even been asked the question in such a visible forum was simultaneously troubling and did not relieve Johnson’s nagging suspicions.

Though the President supported him now, that did not remove the clear and present danger posed by Robert Kennedy’s relentless campaign to turn the Vice President into a liability. In politics, ten months before the Democratic national convention in Atlantic City was a lifetime. After he returned from a trip to Western Europe in early November, Johnson was “gloomy and morose” about his future, preoccupied with the fear that Kennedy would pick someone else in 1964.34 He admitted to close friends and advisers—men like Donald Cook and Edwin Weisl, Sr.—that the bargain he struck in 1960 had turned out to be a terrible mistake. Rather than clear a possible path to the White House, the vice presidential nomination had consigned Johnson to oblivion. It was “the end of his political road.”35

President Kennedy’s trip to Texas, in this context, was far more important than it otherwise should have been. It represented a test of Johnson’s political value when it scarcely needed examination. The trip was occurring in the midst of chronic feuding between the conservative and liberal wings of the state Democratic Party, now personified by ceaseless bickering between Governor John Connally and liberal Senator Ralph Yarborough. Inexorably, the President’s trip itself became a battleground for their differences. Johnson found himself whipsawed between his protégé Connally, who had distanced himself from Kennedy’s liberal policies, and the voluble, flowery Yarborough, a staunch supporter of the White House whom Johnson could barely abide. They had quarreled for years over federal patronage in Texas, among many other things. Nonetheless, it was incumbent on Johnson to turn the other cheek and bridge the Democrats’ divide in his home state. If he proved incapable of doing that, it would add one more arrow to the combative Attorney General’s quiver, and a potentially fatal one at that. Though an effort to win over reluctant supporters in the Texas business community had been the principal reason for the trip, this factional dispute had also become a significant matter.

Johnson went to Texas early, helping to get everything ready for the President’s weekend visit to the LBJ Ranch. While Kennedy had been there before, Jacqueline Kennedy had not, and Johnson was particularly anxious to make her visit enjoyable.36 When Johnson joined the presidential entourage in San Antonio on the afternoon of November 21, to his immediate chagrin he became the story. Not without reason Senator Yarborough was convinced that Governor Connally, who controlled most of the arrangements, was determined to humiliate him at every stop on the President’s tour. Yarborough was going to be treated as if he represented some obscure district in the Panhandle rather than with the dignity he deserved as Texas’s senior Democratic senator. Yarborough was livid, and since he could not retaliate immediately against Connally he took his anger out on Johnson, whom he considered Connally’s “co-conspirator.” As the motorcade left the airport, Yarborough refused to ride with the Vice President and Lady Bird Johnson. Instead of bland news articles that were all variations on one theme—San Antonio Gives Kennedys Boisterous Welcome—Yarborough’s snub became the lead story.37

After the whole entourage moved to Houston, Kennedy and Johnson met alone in the President’s hotel suite that evening and discussed the state’s feuding Democrats. The President felt Yarborough was not being treated fairly and according to one account, “expressed himself with unusual force.”38 Johnson undoubtedly denied any responsibility for the intended slights, but in truth, he was nursing his own grievance against Yarborough. The Vice President suspected the senator was secretly plotting with those who wanted him dumped from the national ticket, and in turn, Johnson was urging Fort Worth congressman Jim Wright to run against Yarborough for the senatorial nomination in 1964.39 The tenor of the President’s last conversation alone with his vice president, and whether they disagreed over how to keep up appearances, would become a point of contention after November 22. Yet there is little doubt the inauspicious beginning to the Texas trip weighed heavily on Johnson. The expression on his face was tired and drawn as he left the President’s suite.40

Friday morning newspaper headlines did not lighten the Vice President’s mood. The strife between Johnson/Connally and Yarborough had become the biggest political story of the moment, and all the Texas papers were giving it prominent play. No admirer of John Kennedy, the Dallas Morning News of November 22 published three stories: “storm of political controversy swirls around Kennedy on visit” and “Yarborough snubs LBJ” ran on the front page; “President’s visit seen widening state Democratic split” ran inside. Adding insult to injury, the News also printed a story quoting Richard Nixon, who just happened to be in Dallas on business. Johnson was fast becoming a “political liability” for the Democratic Party, according to the 1960 GOP nominee, and his place on the 1964 ticket was only secure so long as the race appeared to be a “shoo-in.”41 A displeased President promptly called Kenneth O’Donnell and told him that he wanted Ralph Yarborough in Lyndon Johnson’s vehicle the entire day, and no excuses would be accepted; either Yarborough rode with Lyndon or he walked.42

Coincidentally, November 22 was John Nance Garner’s 95th birthday. Before leaving Fort Worth for Dallas, President Kennedy called the former Vice President at his home in Uvalde, Texas, to wish him well. For Lyndon Johnson it was a bittersweet reminder—which he did not need—of how far his hopes for the vice presidency had fallen. Instead of being an influential Vice President with a future, he had been reduced to a character in a political comic opera. Would the senior senator from Texas sit next to the Vice President from Texas? Friday morning that appeared to be one of the questions of the day for newsmen following the presidential entourage.43

The inauspicious beginning to the President’s Texas trip may have subtly tipped the balance insofar as Johnson was concerned. It may have finally resolved, in his own mind, what he wanted to do and planned to tell the President on the evening of November 22. If Johnson remained susceptible to being implored, as Horace Busby believed, perhaps just a little extra cajoling by President Kennedy was all that was going to be required. On the other hand, it is entirely plausible that this latest humiliation had stiffened Johnson’s resolve and inured him to flattery. He was not going to endure any more and wanted a dignified exit while one was still available. All that is certain is that the vice presidential nomination, from Johnson’s perspective, had little of its 1960 luster.

There was no such discussion, of course, because there was no such evening at the LBJ Ranch. Instead, a host of stricken officials gathered at Andrews Air Force Base to pay their respects to the assassinated President. Simultaneously, and reflecting the cruelly sudden shift in power, many of these same officials, despite their grief, found themselves trying to remember the last time they had said a kind word to the most forgotten man in the Kennedy administration.


[1] William Manchester, The Death of a President, November 20—November 25 1963 (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), p. 29. The outstanding work on the fall crisis in South Vietnam is Ellen J. Hammer, A Death in November: America in Vietnam, 1963 (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1987).
[2] Kenneth W Thompson, ed., The Johnson Presidency: Twenty Intimate Perspectives of Lyndon B. Johnson (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986), p. 253. Another version had Johnson stepping down to become president of his alma mater, the Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos. Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1967), p. 332.
[3] Thompson, Johnson Presidency, p. 253.
[4] Through a quirk in Texas law engineered with Johnson in mind, he was permitted in 1960 to run simultaneously for a third Senate term and the vice presidency. Thus, had the Democratic ticket lost, Johnson would have remained majority leader and a leading contender for the 1964 nomination. John Kennedy would have been handicapped by the perception that a Catholic nominee could not yet win the presidency.
[5] Gilbert Fite, Richard B. Russell, Jr., Senator from Georgia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), p. 377. In this 1993 autobiography, John Connally, Johnson’s 1960 campaign manager, recalls pointing out these very contingencies to LBJ. John Connally with Mickey Herskowitz, In History’s Shadow: An American Odyssey (New York: Hyperion, 1993), pp. 162–63. This line of thinking may have also persuaded House Speaker Sam Rayburn, one of Johnson’s mentors, who initially opposed the idea but then changed his mind after a conversation with John Kennedy. When Johnson asked why, Rayburn replied, “I’m a damn sight smarter [today] than I was last night.” Merle Miller, Lyndon: An Oral Biography (New York: Putnam, 1980), p. 257. Only a few political reporters recognized the true nature of Johnson’s 1960 calculation, and among his many other friends and advisers, only Donald Cook immediately understood the import of the decision in Los Angeles. See Evans and Novak, Lyndon B. Johnson, pp. 287–88.
[6] After Garner’s retirement from politics, he complained that “pantywaist” newsmen had been afraid to put into print what he really said. His actual words, Garner claimed, were that the office of Vice President wasn’t “worth a pitcher of warm piss.” O. C. Fisher, Cactus Jack (Waco, TX: Texian Press, 1978), p. 118. According to Theodore White, the “sage of Uvalde” was one of the politicians Johnson consulted while he was pondering Kennedy’s offer, and during the conversation, Garner repeated his famous observation. Theodore H. White, The Making of the President 1960 (New York: Atheneum, 1961), p. 211. The question of how Johnson came to be selected in 1960 attracted renewed attention after he assumed the presidency, and a little more digging. Writing in 1964, Philip Potter reported that Garner also told Johnson that a vice president “could influence many a situation” in the Senate. Philip Potter, “How LBJ Got the Nomination,” The Reporter, 18 June 1964, p. 18.
[7] A trenchant essay on Garner’s vice presidency can be found in Mark Hatfield et al., Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789–1993 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1997), pp. 387–93. Johnson was especially aware of the ins and outs of Garner’s relationship with President Roosevelt because as a young Texas congressman, he had played a significant role in thwarting Garner’s effort to deny Roosevelt a third term. See Evans and Novak, Lyndon B. Johnson, pp. 11–12.
[8] Telephone Conversation with Hubert Humphrey, 11:25 a.m., 6 March 1965, Tape WH6503.02, Lyndon B. Johnson Library. In this conversation with his own vice president, Johnson frankly describes his experience in the job; the roles played by predecessors Garner, Henry Wallace, and Richard Nixon; and what he expected from Humphrey. It ranks as Johnson’s most candid and insightful assessment of the position he held for three years.
[9] According to Johnson, as John F. Kennedy offered the number two spot on the ticket to Johnson, he remarked that “a Southerner could not be nominated.” Potter, “How LBJ Got the Nomination,” p. 17.
[10] Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961–1973 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 8.
[11] Hatfield et al., Vice Presidents, p. 458.
[12] Letters, John F. Kennedy to Lyndon B. Johnson, 28 January 1961, Box 35, Records from the Johnson Presidential Library, John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection.
[13] Evans and Novak, Lyndon B. Johnson, pp. 305–8. The proposal to allow Johnson to preside over the Democratic caucus was actually approved by a majority of Democratic senators, but opposition was sufficiently intense that Johnson felt humiliated and instantly abandoned the idea.
[14] Ibid., pp. 308–9, and Dallek, Flawed Giant, pp. 8–9.
[15] Dallek, Flawed Giant, pp. 9, 11. As Vice President, Johnson also served as chairman of the Peace Corps National Advisory Council and on the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents.
[16] Johnson’s visits to Southeast Asia in the spring of 1961 and to West Berlin in August 1961 rank as his most important overseas missions. Although both occurred during perceived crises, neither were designed to accomplish more than “show-the-flag.” See Evans and Novak, Lyndon B. Johnson, pp. 320–21; Dallek, Flawed Giant, 12–20.
[17] Johnson was the highest-ranking official in the administration to be unaware that President Kennedy secretly pledged to remove Jupiter missiles from Turkey as part of the deal that settled the Cuban crisis. And concealing the true terms of the compromise left a mythology about the crisis that all successor presidents, but especially Johnson, had to labor under. See Barton Bernstein, “Reconsidering the Missile Crisis: Dealing with the Problems of the American Jupiters in Turkey,” in James Nathan, ed., The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), pp. 105–7.
[18] Dallek, Flawed Giant, p. 10.
[19] Evans and Novak, Lyndon B. Johnson, pp. 310, 334.
[20] Ibid., p. 313.
[21] Hatfield et al., Vice Presidents, p. 459.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Dallek, Flawed Giant, p. 44.
[24] Thompson, Johnson Presidency, p. 210.
[25] On the tensions prior to 1960, see Robert Dallek, Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908–1960 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 490–91, 599.
[26] Dallek, Flawed Giant, p. 34.
[27] Connally, along with India Edwards, a prominent Democrat for Johnson, decided in Los Angeles to bring up the question of John Kennedy’s health if questions were asked about Johnson’s health because of the serious heart attack he had suffered in 1955. By prearrangement, they agreed to have Mrs. Edwards “do the dirty work.” Letter, India Edwards to Drew Pearson, 15 December 1967, Johnson-President 1965, Box 68, Pearson Papers, Records from the Johnson Presidential Library, John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection. For the Kennedy campaign’s handling of the health issue, see Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 38–39.
[28] James W Hilty, Robert Kennedy: Brother Protector (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997), pp. 150–51.
[29] Ibid., p. 164. Hilty’s analysis of the confusion concerning the vice presidential offer (pp. 155–65) makes a persuasive case that John Kennedy deceived his brother regarding his preference for Johnson.
[30] John A. Goldsmith, Colleagues: Richard B. Russell and His Apprentice, Lyndon B. Johnson (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998), p. 85.
[31] Evans and Novak, Lyndon B. Johnson, pp. 332–33. Johnson was so suspicious that he could not appreciate the fact that the Attorney General had reason to fear a no-holds-barred inquiry into Baker’s activities. One of the ways Baker curried favor with politicians was to provide them with call girls, and one of these introductions allegedly involved President Kennedy and Ellen Rometsch, whom the FBI suspected of being a Communist bloc spy. Involving some of the Justice Department’s “Get-Hoffa” lawyers on the investigation was, in all likelihood, a means of containing the scandal. Ultimately though, the Vice President was right to be suspicious. While protecting his brother, the Attorney General was trying his hardest to implicate Johnson by leaking damaging information to Senate Republicans looking into the Baker scandal. Seymour Hersh, The Dark Side of Camelot (Boston: Little, Brown, 1997), pp. 406–7.
[32] Manchester, Death, p. 3
[33] Lyndon Baines Johnson, Vantage Point: Perspective of the Presidency 1963—1969 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), p. 2. A Kennedy-Johnson ticket was also the presumption of key administration officials who met on 13 November 1963 to begin planning for the presidential election. See Lawrence O’Brien Oral History, 11 February 1986, p. 39, Lyndon B. Johnson Library.
[34] Evans and Novak, Lyndon B. Johnson, p. 332.
[35] Edwin L. Weisl, Sr., Oral History, 13 May 1969, Lyndon B. Johnson Library, p. 24.
[36] Johnson, Vantage Point, p. 4.
[37] Manchester, Death, pp. 73–74.
[38] Ibid., p. 82.
[39] Evans and Novak, Lyndon B. Johnson, p. 333.
[40] Manchester suggests that Kennedy and Johnson “had words” over the state’s political feud during their last meeting alone, and that Johnson “looked furious” when he left the hotel suite. President Johnson’s recollection was that while an “active discussion” occurred, there “definitely was not a disagreement.” Manchester, Death, p. 82; “Jacobsen Analysis-Manchester Book,” Box 18, Records from the Johnson Presidential Library, John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection, National Archives and Records Administration.
[41] “Nixon Predicts JFK May Drop Johnson,” Dallas Morning News, 22 November 1963.
[42] Manchester, Death, p. 113.
[43] The other question on reporters’ minds was whether there would be an incident in Dallas during the President’s visit. Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had been spat on and jostled by demonstrators opposed to the administration’s foreign policy during an October visit.