Chapter 21: Rorschach Test
Feeling the Elephant
At 2:38 PM CST on 11-22-63, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, just moments after Kennedy's successor Lyndon Johnson pressured Kennedy's widow Jacqueline Kennedy, still wearing her husband's blood and brains on her clothes, to stand beside him at a completely unnecessary swearing-in ceremony (an act Godfrey McHugh, the General in charge of Air Force One--the site of the swearing-in--said was "obscene"), Johnson turned to his right, and looked to his long-time political ally, Texas Congressman Albert Thomas. Thomas rewarded him with a wink and a smile.
Now this unguarded moment could have been lost to history, except for one fact: it was captured on film by White House photographer Cecil Stoughton. Stoughton would later tell writer Richard Trask that when he first looked at the photo he saw "an enigmatic expression which could be innocent, or sinister, and I have leaned to the latter." Trask himself would note that the negative to Stoughton's photo of the "wink" "may have been excluded from those given over to the Johnson Library, due to what someone may have construed as its picturing what the public might perceive as a seemingly inappropriate gesture." He claimed that it is now, from what he can tell, "missing."
Trask should be a politician. Kennedy's trip to Texas, the site of his murder, was built around an honorary dinner for Albert Thomas. It was held the night before the assassination. The "missing" negative shows Thomas winking at President Johnson just as Johnson becomes the most powerful man in the world, mere hours after his predecessor, a man whom he'd routinely and viciously insulted but a few years before, and a man who came to Texas in part to honor the terminally-ill Thomas, had been murdered. As a result, people looking at the "wink" photo don't think "Hmmm, what an inappropriate gesture..." No, they think, "Hmmm, I wonder if something happened there that we're not supposed to know about..."
The echoes of this thought grow louder, moreover, when one realizes that the negative revealingThomas' wink didn't disappear in transit to the Johnson Library, as one might assume, but sometime before, during Johnson's presidency, and almost certainly on orders of someone close to Johnson...
Let's reflect... By early 1967, word had gotten out that William Manchester's upcoming book The Death of a President would criticize Johnson's behavior on the plane. As a result, those loyal to Johnson were looking for ways to combat the image of Johnson presented in both the book and the soon-to-be released serialization of the book in Look Magazine. Well, the easiest way to do that was to attack Manchester's mistakes. Perhaps the worst of these mistakes was Manchester's embarrassing assertion Kennedy's aides boycotted the swearing-in ceremony on the plane. This mistake was embarrassing, to be clear, not to Johnson, but to Manchester, as the (previously unreleased) photos of the swearing-in ceremony showed most all of Kennedy's aides on the plane to have been in attendance.
It seems clear, then, that the Johnson Administration released these photos for political reasons. The presence of Kennedy's aides in the photos of the ceremony was first mentioned in the Boston Globe and New York Times, just prior to Manchester's claim in the 2-21-67 Look that they'd boycotted the ceremony. The 2-24-67 issue of Time Magazine then published these photos. The article on these photos--and Manchester's inaccurate claim Kennedy's aides had boycotted the ceremony--asserted: "All of the photographer's taken—the full existing photographic record of what happened that day on Air Force One—are printed on the following two pages." Well, the "wink" photo was--yes, you guessed it--not included. Thus, the photo was no longer part of the "full existing photographic record" in February 1967.
Thus, outside the copy negative made from an original print found and published by David Lifton in 1980, it no longer existed.
Now, to the point: the suspicious disappearance of this photo and negative is just a drop in the bucket compared to what else one can discover when studying Johnson's behavior in the aftermath of the assassination.
Yes, I admit it. It took me many years to get here (I began writing this on-line book in 2004, and I'm writing this section in 2012) but I now believe Lyndon Johnson had a role in Kennedy's murder. I don't pretend to know what this role was--whether he was the instigator, or merely the guy asked to cover it up afterwards--but his involvement to me seems likely.
There was no single factor in my coming to this conclusion. My sense of Johnson's guilt built up within me over time. And not from reading conspiracy literature, either. From reading statement after statement of Johnson's which I came to suspect was untrue--and from listening to conversation after conversation of Johnson's in which it seemed likely he was lying--and from reading defenses of Johnson by historians in which they sugar-coated his constant lying by saying he was only saying things "for effect," I came to distrust the man. The grandfatherly presence on my TV when I was a child was really a pathological liar, obsessed with his role in history, and convinced others were out to deny him his proper role.
Not all liars are killers, of course. But my conclusion there was more than one shooter leads me to suspect there was a conspiracy...and Johnson's setting up a commission in part to clear himself makes me wonder if he was involved...and his actions in the immediate aftermath of the killing--and subsequent excuses for those actions--make me think he was trying to hide something...
Let us then discuss Johnson's behavior on 11-22-63. What he did, and why...
Now, look into this Rorschach blot...and tell me what you see...
On 11-22-1963, shortly before 1:00 PM CST, President John F. Kennedy was pronounced dead in Parkland Hospital, Dallas, Texas. Within moments, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, who was also in the hospital, decided to return to Washington. Although his bodyguards told Johnson he should get in the air immediately, there was instead a significant delay. As a result, Johnson spent the second chaotic hour of his presidency on Air Force One, waiting around on the tarmac in Dallas.
The cause of this delay? Johnson himself. The reasons for this delay? Well, for many, they remain as shrouded in mystery as they were on the day of the assassination.
But who doesn't love a good mystery? Now let's explore the record regarding this delay.
First up is a witness who, according to writer William Manchester (who interviewed this witness on 6-15-64) started taking notes on the events of 11-22-63 while waiting at the hospital. Eight days later, she committed her recollections to tape. The transcription of her tape, as provided the Warren Commission on 7-16-64, relates that after Kennedy Aide Kenneth O'Donnell told Vice-President Lyndon Johnson "'The President is dead.' and Acting Press Secretary Mac Kilduff addressed Johnson as "'Mr. President'', "It was decided that we would go immediately to the airport. Quick plans were made about how to get to the car, who to ride in what...When we got to the airplane, we entered airplane No. 1 for the first time...On the plane, all the shades were lowered. Lyndon said that we were going to wait for Mrs. Kennedy and the coffin. There was discussion about when Lyndon should be sworn-in as President. There was a telephone call to Washington--I believe to the Attorney General. It was decided that he should be sworn-in in Dallas as quickly as possible because of international implications, and because we did not know how widespread this incident was as to intended victims. Judge Sarah Hughes, a Federal Judge in Dallas--and I am glad it was she--was called to come in a hurry. Mrs. Kennedy had arrived by this time, and the coffin..."
This witness, as you've probably surmised, was Lyndon Johnson's wife, Lady Bird Johnson. Note that her husband's decision to wait for Mrs. Kennedy was announced on the plane, and not before. Note as well that Mrs. Kennedy had "arrived" by the time Judge Hughes was told "to come in a hurry." This suggests either that she'd come onto the plane before Johnson spoke to Hughes or had, at the very least, pulled up outside.
This second scenario is supported, moreover, by our second witness. Johnson secretary Marie Fehmer's typed-up notes on what happened on the plane before Mrs. Kennedy's arrival are of particular interest, and are reproduced in full. The ellipses reproduced come from the typed-up notes. They read "1:40 P.M. Arrive Air Force One. Go into bedroom of plane to use phone. (Note: this is presumably a reference to Johnson's going into the room alone.) The President had talked to McGeorge Bundy via WH line before I got there. When I walked in, the President looked up and said 'Write this down as what has happened. I talked to the Attorney General...Asked him what we should do...where I should take the oath...here or there...said he would like to look into it...and would notify me whether we should take it here or not... McGeorge Bundy and Walter called me...thought we should come to Washington as soon as could. Told them I was waiting for the body and Mrs. Kennedy. The Attorney General interrupted the conversation to say that I ought to have a judicial officer administer the oath here.' Then I tried to get Waddy Bullion for the President...he was out of his office. Called Judge Sarah Hughes' office...they said she was not there. The President said that he'd talk to anyone in her office. He got on the phone and told the person at the other end that he needed someone to administer the oath...and to find her...and to get her to Love Field. Judge Hughes called in at 2:02--said she could get to the plane in ten minutes. The President left the bedroom in the plane--where above had taken place--and came into the stateroom to wait Mrs. Kennedy's arrival and to join Mrs. Johnson, J. Valenti, Cong. Thornberry, Cong, Brooks, Cong. Thomas, Rufus Yongblood and MF. Mrs. Kennedy arrived at 2:02 with the body. She was met by the President and Mrs. Johnson and comforted."
Ms. Fehmer's notes further detail that Johnson was finally sworn-in at 2:40. As this was two minutes past what would come to be the official time for the swearing-in, one might presume that the clock or watch upon which Miss Fehmer was relying was not 10 or 12 minutes slow, as some might wish to believe, but was, if anything, two minutes fast. This suggests, then, that Mrs. Kennedy actually arrived at 2:00.
Hmmm... The 11-29-63 Secret Service report of one of Johnson's bodyguards, Jerry Kivett, further relates that Acting Press Secretary "Malcolm Kilduff asked me to inquire of the Vice President if he wanted any press to go back on the plane with him. I inquired of the Vice President his wishes in this matter and he said yes, let me talk to Kilduff. I then asked Kilduff to come in and talk to the Vice President. About this time we received word that Mrs. Kennedy and the President's body were on the way. During the discussions that took place in the State Room, the Vice President stated that he had talked with the Attorney General and they agreed that the Vice President should take the oath of office of President of the United States as soon as possible. The Vice President added that he had been able to contact Judge Sarah T. Hughes and she would be at the plane in 10 minutes to administer the oath of office. About this time Mrs. Kennedy and the President's body arrived at the airplane." Well, heck, this suggests that Johnson knew his swearing-in would delay Mrs. Kennedy's departure from Dallas well before the arrangements for his swearing-in had been finalized.
It's actually worse than that. Shortly after the assassination, apparently in December, 1963, Westinghouse put out a 2 album compilation of news reports and discussion regarding the assassination and its aftermath. This was entitled November 22: Dialogue in Dallas. One of the contributors to this album was Malcolm Kliduff. The 2003 book President Kennedy Has Been Shot quotes Kilduff from this album, as follows: "As soon as I got to the plane, Jim Swindal, the President's pilot, said 'The President has been looking for you.' I walked in and I talked to the President. He said, 'Mac, I've got to get sworn-in here in Dallas. We're trying to get hold of the judge.'" Well, hold it right there. Kilduff left the hospital in the same caravan as Mrs. Kennedy and the body, and arrived at Air Force One just afterward. He almost certainly walked up the steps at the front of the plane while the coffin was being loaded in the back of the plane. So Kivett's recollections were a bit foggy. Johnson had almost certainly received word "Mrs Kennedy and the President's body were on the way" before Kilduff's arrival, and not afterward. This makes Kilduff's quoting of Johnson even more intriguing... He said Johnson told him upon his arrival (presumably a few minutes after Mrs. Kennedy's arrival) that he was trying to get hold of the judge--not that they'd talked to Sarah Hughes and she was on her way. Well, this suggests that Mrs. Kennedy arrived before Judge Hughes called in, and not after.
And this wasn't the only indication this was so. For his book, The Death of a President, ultimately released in 1967, William Manchester interviewed Maj. General Chester Clifton, Kennedy's military aide, four times, on 4-21-64, 8-21-64, 1-22-65, and 5-28-65. He interviewed Johnson assistant Jack Valenti two times, on 6-5-64 and 4-26-65. And interviewed White House photographer Cecil Stoughton on 4-27-64. Well, surprise surprise, Manchester gathered from these interviews that, upon Mrs. Kennedy and the body's arrival on the plane, Kenneth O'Donnell had dispatched Maj. General Clifton, who'd traveled in the Kennedy caravan from Parkland, to the front of the plane to find out why the plane was not preparing to take off. In Manchester's account, Clifton was surrounded by Valenti, Stoughton, and Congressman Homer Thornberry, who told him "We can't go yet," and "We've got to find a federal judge."
Yeah, you got it. "We've got to find," not "we are waiting for."
And there's more. In his 12-19-63 report on his activities on the day of the shooting, Dallas Chief of Police Jesse Curry described his driving President Johnson out to the airport. He then related: "Sometime later, an ambulance and several other cars arrived. Mrs. Kennedy and others of the official party alighted from the vehicles. A casket was removed from the ambulance and placed on the plane. A short time later I was informed that Judge Sarah Hughes was enroute to administer the oath of office to President Johnson." And this wasn't a typo. In November 1969, Curry published a short book, JFK Assassination File, comprising some of the Dallas police records regarding the shooting, and his personal recollections. Curry had driven the lead car in the motorcade, and had driven Johnson to Air Force One after the shooting. He had stood outside Air Force One to "direct security operations" and had witnessed the swearing-in ceremony. And yet, in his book, Curry described the arrival of Mrs. Kennedy and her husband's body, and then claimed "A short time later I was informed that President Johnson would take the oath of office before leaving Dallas. At that moment, respected U.S. Federal Judge Sarah T. Hughes was already en route to Love Field for that purpose." Hmmm... Curry was directing the security around the plane. If Judge Hughes was already on her way before Mrs. Kennedy's arrival, wouldn't Curry have known about it?
And no, Curry's not the last of our witnesses... In 1998, Larry Sneed published No More Silence, a book in which some less-than-famous witnesses to the assassination and investigation finally had their say. One of these witnesses was FBI agent Vincent Drain. Well, Drain told Sneed that he followed Kennedy's body out to Air Force One, and that "Johnson hadn't been sworn-in yet when I arrived...they were waiting on the federal judge to arrive to swear in Vice-President Johnson" and that, to be clear, "They had trouble locating the lady who was a federal judge to get out there to swear in Johnson."
It seems likely, then, that Marie Fehmer's notes--which suggest that Mrs. Kennedy arrived just after Judge Hughes called in--were somewhat misleading, and that Mrs. Kennedy actually arrived (at the plane if not inside the plane) just before Judge Hughes called in.
In any event, it's reasonable to conclude from all this that Johnson left for the plane without an announced plan, then decided to wait for, first, the body and Mrs. Kennedy, then second, Judge Hughes. The 11-29-63 report of Johnson bodyguard Jerry Kivett also reflects that, upon leaving Parkland and arriving at Air Force One, "There followed a series of conferences between the Vice President, Congressman Homer Thornberry, Congressman Jack Brooks, and Albert Thomas... I do not recall what necessarily was discussed and at one time or another various members of the White House staff came back to the State Room to talk to the Vice President. It was decided that the plane would remain and wait for Mrs. Kennedy and the President's body." And Kivett wasn't alone in his suggestion the decision was made on the plane. The 11-29-63 report of Kennedy bodyguard John Ready reflects that he traveled to the airport with the Johnson entourage, and that "Upon my arrival at Love Field I boarded the Presidential Aircraft (USAF#I), expecting to depart immediately. It was at this time that I was notified that Mrs. Kennedy and the late President were returning to Washington, D.C. on this plane."
The reports of the agents traveling with President Kennedy's body largely support Kivett's and Ready's recollections. None of them mention that they expected Johnson to be waiting for them when they approached the plane. In his 11-29-63 report, Roy Kellerman, the agent-in-charge of the Presidential detail in Dallas, who stayed behind with Mrs. Kennedy at Parkland when Johnson left for the airport, declared: "The Vice President and Mrs. Johnson had preceded us with Roberts' shift to the airport and when we had arrived, the field had been secured and we rushed to AF 26000. All available special agents carried the casket from the ambulance up the rear steps and placed it in the rear section of the plane. When we boarded the plane, Vice President Johnson and his party were aboard the plane." It's subtle, but the implication is that Johnson's presence on the plane came as a surprise.
That this was indeed the case is supported, moreover, by Kellerman's subsequent statements. He was interviewed by author William Manchester on 11-17-64 and 5-12-65. In Manchester's book, it is presented that Kellerman was not only not told that Johnson was leaving the hospital, but that Kellerman was surprised and disappointed to find Johnson on Kennedy's plane. The reason for his disappointment? According to Manchester, Kellerman had a fresh shift of agents ready to take over from the shift that had just lost Kennedy. He'd assumed Johnson would be flying out on his own plane, however, and had ordered this shift to meet Johnson there. Upon arrival at Kennedy's plane, then, and seeing Johnson, Kellerman realized that the tired morning shift traveling with Kennedy's body would have to stay on for a few more hours, only now protecting Johnson.
Of course, the public was told none of this in the days after the shooting. On the night of the assassination, shortly after the arrival of the President's Plane in Washington, Charles Roberts of Newsweek was interviewed on NBC. When discussing the swearing-in, Roberts--one of three newsmen invited to observe Johnson taking the oath of office--said that when the newsmen arrived at Air Force One's conference room, President Johnson "was waiting for Mrs. Kennedy, who had come aboard with her husband's body, to come to the conference room so that she could witness the swearing-in." Roberts was then asked about the arrival of the "lady judge." He answered "The judge arrived there about the same time we did." He then reported "Eventually Mrs. Kennedy came into the room..." Well, this created the illusion that Judge Hughes reached the plane just after Mrs. Kennedy, and that she, along with everyone else on the plane, including the new President, was forced to stand around while Mrs. Kennedy composed herself.
One might only hope, then, that the newspapers took a closer look, and reported that Mrs. Kennedy's arrival on the plane preceded that of Judge Hughes...by as much as a half an hour.
But such hopes are sadly misplaced. No, what the public got instead were articles like the one found in the 11-23-63 New York Times, written by Tom Wicker the day before, in which Mrs. Kennedy was reported to have left the hospital "about 2 P.M.," and in which the setting then switched to Johnson's swearing-in ceremony, which was "delayed about five minutes for Mrs. Kennedy's arrival." The effect of this juxtaposition, of course, made it appear the ceremony was all set to go before Mrs. Kennedy arrived on the plane, but then held up so Mrs. Kennedy could be in attendance.
And the Times was not alone in this strange juxtaposition. Consider the paper of record of Dallas, the Dallas Morning News. It reported that Mrs. Kennedy left Parkland Hospital at "2:05 P.M." en route to "Air Force 1," and that "There Mrs. Kennedy joined the few people who were able to crowd into the small forward compartment. Her dress and hose still spattered with the blood of her dead husband, she stood on Lyndon Johnson's left while a weeping Judge Sarah T. Hughes, a Kennedy appointee, administered the oath of office to his successor."
This, as we know, was just not true. The AP's article on the swearing-in, however, was also misleading. The version found in the 11-23-63 Sarasota Herald-Tribune (a morning paper) reads: "The new chief executive repeated the oath in a low, but firm, voice at 1:38 p.m. Central Standard Time." It then filled in some details: Dallas Police Chief "Curry had driven Johnson to the airport about 40 minutes before the ceremony. Their destination was not announced when Johnson left the hospital where Kennedy died. White House officials said it was kept secret for security reasons. Johnson decided to delay his swearing-in ceremony until Mrs. Kennedy arrived. She came at 2:18 p.m. when the president's body was brought to the plane. When newsman boarded, Johnson was in a conference room with three Democratic congressmen from Texas--Homer Thornberry, Albert Thomas, and Jack Brooks." The article then detailed how the swearing-in was further delayed while Mrs. Kennedy composed herself. It even noted that while Johnson was waiting for Mrs. Kennedy, he saw Kennedy's secretary Evelyn Lincoln in the crowd, and kissed her hand.
Now this last bit seems curious... The photo above shows Johnson talking to Hughes just before the swearing-in. Evelyn Lincoln is in the background, and no one seems to be paying her any attention. (From L to R, the photo shows Judge Sarah Hughes, someone behind Johnson's head, perhaps Jack Valenti, Johnson, Ladybird Johnson behind her husband's neck, Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry behind Johnson's head, Kennedy's personal Secretary Evelyn Lincoln, Congressman Homer Thornberry, someone behind Thornberry's head, perhaps Albert Thomas, Congressman Jack Brooks, Secret Service agent Paul Landis over the shoulder of Johnson aide Clifton Carter, Clifton Carter, and Johnson aide Bill Moyers.)
If the southerner Johnson actually kissed Lincoln's hand, then, it was probably just for show. Johnson and Lincoln actively disliked and distrusted each other--to such an extent on Lincoln's part that she considered Johnson the top suspect in Kennedy's murder, and to such an extent on Johnson's part that he asked Lincoln to clean out her desk the next morning.
And no, I'm not kidding. Lincoln later admitted that she'd killed her time on the plane by creating a list of top suspects in her long-time boss' murder. She may very well have been thinking about this in the photo above, Here's her list...
Now, beyond Lyndon, only three men are named, and one of them, Diem, the former President of South Vietnam, was already dead. (One might presume, then, that, Lincoln meant Diem's family--as revenge for his recent assassination.) In any event, the other two men on Lincoln's list were former Vice-President Richard Nixon, a political rival who'd claimed Kennedy had cheated him out of the Presidency in the most recent presidential election, and "Hoffa", as in Jimmy Hoffa. This guy.
Yes, that's Hoffa testifying before congress. His questioner, and the guy to whom he was giving the finger? Robert Kennedy. Well, in case you forgot, or never knew, Hoffa was a corrupt union official--he pretty much ruled the Teamsters union--which meant he controlled lots and lots of cash. And he allowed organized crime to use this cash like a bank. Teamsters money funded the mob's creation of Las Vegas, etc. In any event, RFK hated Hoffa's guts, and was determined to put Hoffa and his middle finger in jail. And Hoffa returned that hate in spades. (Perhaps even literally. Think about it.)
Now, here's the thing. After John F. Kennedy's murder--and after Evelyn Lincoln made her list--Hoffa was quoted as saying that Robert Kennedy was just another lawyer now.
Well, think about that as well. This cuts both ways. It suggests the obvious--that Robert Kennedy would have less influence in a Johnson Administration than he had had in the Kennedy Administration. But it goes further than that, doesn't it? It suggests as well that LBJ would not support RFK in his war on crime, or at least organized crime.
And this came true. When the HSCA re-investigated the Kennedy assassination in the 1970's, it found that Federal cases against organized crime figures slowed after JFK's murder, and dropped down to a trickle after RFK left the Justice Dept.
Of course, this didn't help Hoffa much. The Justice Department had already ensnared him. He was destined to go down. While he was later granted clemency by Nixon, moreover, he was unhappy with the terms of his release, and reneged on his promise to stay clear of the Teamsters. Instead of quietly retiring to Florida, he sought to re-gain control of his beloved union. He then disappeared. And not of his own free will.
So, yeah, one of the curious coincidences (or perhaps not coincidences) of American history is that JFK and Hoffa were on opposite sides of RFK's war on organized crime, and that they both were "disappeared," one in public, and one in private, and that neither of their "disappearances" was ever explained to the satisfaction of the public.
Now let's go back to the timeline. According to the earliest reports of the AP, the largest news service in 1963, the swearing-in of President Johnson was at 1:38 CST, after having been delayed by Mrs. Kennedy, who arrived at 2:18. Well, the only way to read this is that someone got confused, and meant to write that the swearing-in took place at 2:38 CST, and not 1:38. This would place Mrs. Kennedy's arrival at a point 20 minutes prior to the swearing-in. So why did the article suggest that Johnson had held up the ceremony for Mrs. Kennedy's arrival? Were we supposed to conclude she'd kept everyone waiting for 20 minutes or so?
Now, here's where it gets interesting. The only reporters to fly back on the plane were from Newsweek and AP's rival, United Press International. Perhaps, then, this article was built upon the briefing in Dallas by Westinghouse TV newsman Sid Davis, who'd witnessed the swearing-in, and stayed behind in Dallas to brief the rest of the press corps. But there's a problem with this. Davis reached the plane after Mrs. Kennedy. So where did the AP get that Mrs. Kennedy arrived at the plane at 2:18? It seems likely, then, that this time came courtesy the same "Washington officials" telling the AP the secrecy around Johnson's departure was for "security reasons."
And that's but the half of it. A subsequent version of the story--this one found in the Miami News (an evening paper)--changed bits and pieces of the story, but still screwed up the most important fact in the story--the time of the swearing-in ceremony. This article started off by describing the swearing-in itself; it then went back and described the events leading up to the swearing-in. It reported: "The new chief executive repeated the oath in a low but firm voice at 2:38 p.m. Miami time." It then detailed: "Police Chief Curry had driven Mr. Johnson to the airport about 40 minutes before the ceremony. For security reasons their destination was not announced when Mr. Johnson left the hospital where Mr. Kennedy died. Mr. Johnson decided to delay his swearing-in ceremony until Mrs. Kennedy arrived. She did when the President's body was taken to the plane." It then repeated the information about the newsmen coming aboard to find Johnson talking with the Texas congressmen, and the swearing-in's being delayed by Mrs. Kennedy.
Note that the time previously provided for Mrs. Kennedy's arrival had vanished. Had someone realized that the time provided--2:18--meant (if one interprets it as being EST) that Johnson's departure wasn't actually delayed until after Mrs. Kennedy's arrival, or (if one interprets it as being CST) that the time provided for the swearing-in earlier in the article (2:38 Miami time) was inaccurate?
And the AP wasn't alone in its confusion. Yes, in a surprising congruence, AP and UPI made the same mistake on 11-23-63; both news services made it seem as though Johnson had held up his departure for Mrs. Kennedy, instead of what had actually happened--that he'd delayed Mrs. Kennedy's departure so he could be sworn-in. Yes, in yet another nationally syndicated article, found in the Central Oregon Bulletin, UPI's Merriman Smith reported that after being sworn-in, Johnson "turned and kissed his wife on the cheek, giving her shoulders a squeeze. Then he put his arm around Mrs. Kennedy, kissing her gently on her right cheek. Johnson had deliberately delayed the ceremony to give Kennedy's widow time to compose herself for one of the grueling aspects of her husband's assassination. The ceremony took only two minutes. As members of the group of 27 persons jammed in the compartment started to shake his hand, Johnson seemed to back away. 'Now, let's get airborne,' he said." Note that Smith went out of his way to describe the sweet gentle manner in which Johnson treated Mrs. Kennedy. He failed to report that Johnson had just forced Mrs. Kennedy--a woman who'd just witnessed her husband's head get blown off, and then held his brains in her hands--to sit around on a hot, sweaty plane for perhaps a half an hour, only to be used as a prop in a photo op. In fact, in a recorded account of the swearing-in found on youtube, Smith indicated the opposite--that Mrs. Kennedy's arrival had held up Johnson's ceremony. He described the arrival of Judge Hughes, and then and only then described the arrival of the casket at the back of the plane, Mrs. Kennedy's taking a moment to compose herself in the bedroom, and her dramatic appearance at Johnson's side. Yucch, and double yuccch. And, yes, Virginia, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the assassination and swearing-in.
Smith's sloppy reporting--or deliberate spreading of a pro-Johnson myth, take your pick--became the first draft of history, moreover. In Lyndon Johnson: Man and President--a book rushed out within weeks of the assassination--writer Henry A. Zeiger regurgitated Smith's account, even though it made no sense. Zeiger detailed that, after the announcement of Kennedy's death... "It was essential that Johnson act fast to stem what could become national panic. He reached the official Presidential plane shortly after 2:00 P.M. A judge had been sent for. Johnson waited only for Jacqueline Kennedy, who was coming from the hospital with the body of her husband. At 2:18 Mrs. Kennedy arrived and was ushered into the conference room of the plane, which was packed to capacity with 27 other witnesses. Then Johnson heard Federal Judge Sarah T. Hughes read the oath of office."
Zeiger failed to realize--or admit to his readers if he did realize--that Judge Hughes did not actually leave for the plane until Mrs. Kennedy was already on the plane, and that, as a result, Johnson did not take the oath of office until 20 minutes or more after Mrs. Kennedy's arrival on the plane.
And the mainstream press' misrepresentation of the swearing-in was not confined to the timing of the swearing-in. An 11-25-63 article in the Houston Post (reported nationwide by the Associated Press) suggested that Robert Kennedy was responsible for Johnson's delay in leaving Dallas. The article, written by the paper's editor, William Hobby, Jr., a political crony of Johnson's, with a close working relationship with Johnson's freshly-hired assistant, Jack Valenti, related that Johnson had spoken to Robert Kennedy by phone from Air Force One, and that the two had agreed both that Johnson should be sworn-in immediately, and that he should not leave Dallas before taking the oath.
This did not go unnoticed. In his 1976 book on Johnson, A Very Human President, Valenti admitted that he passed Robert Kennedy in a hall in early 1964, and that Kennedy warned him "I don't appreciate the leaks coming from the White House and from you. I suggest you cut it out." Although Valenti then claimed "I could not for the life of me pinpoint any specific story Bobby was referring to," Max Holland, in his book The Kennedy Assassination Tapes, concludes it was the Houston Post story on the swearing-in. Holland is probably right about this. Houston was Valenti's home town. He'd had a newspaper column at the Post for years. He was hired on the spot by Johnson at the hospital, and he flew with Johnson on Air Force One to Washington. His specialty, moreover, was public relations. It only makes sense, then, that Robert Kennedy would think the Post story came from Valenti.
Perhaps, then, Valenti failed to realize why this story would be so upsetting to Kennedy. Perhaps he'd failed to realize that, as Robert Kennedy would subsequently confide, he'd never "agreed" with Johnson that Johnson should be sworn-in in Dallas, and had merely failed to voice an objection.
It's clear, then, that Robert Kennedy had good cause to be angry. Not only had Johnson unnecessarily delayed Mrs. Kennedy's departure from Dallas, he'd been successful in keeping this from the public, and in offering up an excuse should this come to light--an excuse in which Robert Kennedy could be held responsible for the delay.
This led to a rift. While researching his book Mutual Contempt (1997) at the Johnson Library, Jeff Shesol discovered two memos regarding an 11-27-63 conversation between President Johnson and Robert Kennedy. According to Robert Kennedy's 1964 oral history interviews for the Kennedy Library, Sargent Shriver, Kennedy's brother-in-law, had told Johnson aide Bill Moyers that the Kennedys were unhappy with Johnson's behavior since the shooting, and Moyers had told this to Johnson. In an attempt to clear the air, then, Johnson requested a meeting. As discussed by Shesol, the first memo, presumably written by Moyers, outlined the topics to be discussed. The very first point to be discussed read as follows: "The question of the plane's departure. Is it true that LBJ said the plane couldn't take off until he was sworn-in? Did Johnson hold up the departure? Why?" Next on this list was Johnson's treatment of Mrs. Lincoln. The second memo, apparently on the conversation itself, reflected that Johnson had tried to convince Kennedy that the plane "took off as soon as Jackie got there." Hmmm...this is the same falsehood reported by the Associated Press. Was Johnson--or someone working for Johnson--their source? In any event, if this memo is correct, and Johnson really said this, well then, Robert Kennedy's subsequent actions should not come as much of a surprise--he admitted in his oral history that he didn't feel much like seeing Johnson after this discussion, and did not, in fact, talk to him for several months.
And should one doubt Robert Kennedy's opinion of Johnson was so low that he'd avoid him for months at a time, one should consider that on 2-27-65, in an oral history interview for the Kennedy Library, Kennedy told historian Arthur Schlesinger both that his brother had denounced Johnson on November 21, 1963, the night before the shooting, as one "incapable of telling the truth," and that his own experience with Johnson had borne this out. According to Kennedy, Johnson had tried to convince him at a dinner in 1962 that he'd never actually wanted to be President. Kennedy then added "my experience with him since then is that he lies all the time. I'm telling you, he just lies continuously, about everything. In every conversation I have with him, he lies. As I've said, he lies even when he doesn't have to."
But that is neither here nor there. For now. At this stage we need only realize that this question--the question of whether or not Johnson had held up Mrs. Kennedy--and how long she was held up as a result of his decision to be sworn-in in Dallas--was at the center of a Johnson/Kennedy rift on 11-27-63, and may very well have been on the minds of the Secret Service agents writing reports over the next few days.
It's undoubtedly intriguing, then, that the 11-29 and 11-30-63 reports of Secret Service agents Roy Kellerman, Paul Landis, Winston Lawson, and Clint Hill reflect that Mrs. Kennedy left Parkland Hospital at 2:04 and that these same reports of agents Landis, Lawson, and Hill reflect that she arrived at Air Force One at 2:14 or 2:15, and came aboard with her husband's casket at 2:18. If accurate, this cuts the length of Mrs. Kennedy's wait on the plane considerably. It also gives weight to the possibility Johnson thought Judge Hughes would be but minutes behind Mrs. Kennedy when he decided Mrs. Kennedy should wait for the swearing-in.
But something is just off. These reports reflect that it took 10 or 11 minutes to drive the 3 1/2 miles between the hospital and the airplane in a speeding hearse when the 11-22-63 notes of Johnson aide Cliff Carter and Marie Fehmer reflect that Johnson left Parkland at 1:35 and reached the plane at 1:40. These notes are supported, moreover, by the 11-29-63 report of agent Emory Roberts, who specified both that Johnson left at 1:35 and arrived at 1:40. I mean, really...does that make much sense? After interviewing most everyone aboard the Johnson and Kennedy caravans to the airport, William Manchester concluded, in The Death of a President, that the Kennedy party traveled "at least as fast as the Johnson party." Why would this trip take the Kennedy party--who were purportedly racing toward the airport--10 or 11 minutes--a time suggesting they drove cautiously in the normal flow of traffic--when it took the Johnson party but 5?
Above: Lyndon Johnson leaving Parkland Hospital for the safety of Air Force One. At left is Johnson's head bodyguard, Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood. At right is Congressman (and soon-to-be judge) Homer Thornberry. Johnson's watch reads 1:25.
And so...the million dollar question... Did the agents claiming it took 10 or 11 minutes for Mrs. Kennedy to reach the plane fudge their data to help Johnson? Or is it just a coincidence that the reports of these agents reflect that Mrs. Kennedy arrived 12-13 minutes after Judge Hughes returned Johnson's call and said she would be there in 10 minutes?
These reports, it should be noted, were not just at odds with the notes taken by Johnson and Fehmer, but the 3-23-64 testimony of the Assistant Deputy Chief of the Dallas Police, M.W. Stevenson, before the Warren Commission. Stevenson, who escorted the hearse in which Mrs. Kennedy and the coffin containing her husband traveled to the airport, testified that they left the hospital "About 1:40 or 1:50. It's got to be somewhere in there, because the body was not held at the hospital but a short while."
That Mrs. Kennedy had arrived within moments of Johnson's talking to Hughes--either before or after--is confirmed, we should recall, by the already discussed 11-29-63 report of Johnson bodyguard Jerry Kivett. Kivett claimed "During the discussions that took place in the State Room, the Vice President stated that he had talked with the Attorney General and they agreed that the Vice President should take the oath of office of President of the United States as soon as possible. The Vice President added that he had been able to contact Judge Sarah T. Hughes and she would be at the plane in 10 minutes to administer the oath of office. About this time Mrs. Kennedy and the President's body arrived at the airplane." Let's be clear about this. Marie Fehmer's notes--the accuracy of which we have some reason to doubt--reflect that Judge Hughes called in at 2:02 and said she'd be there in 10 minutes. If Johnson told Kivett "she would be at the plane in 10 minutes" and this was "about" the time of Mrs. Kennedy's arrival--which the other agents place around 2:14--well, then Johnson was telling Kivett that Judge Hughes would be there in 10 minutes at a time already past the time she'd said she'd arrive. And that makes no sense.
That Kivett--one of Johnson's own bodyguards--would write such a report, moreover, suggests that the other agents weren't lying, at least not deliberately. Perhaps, assuming they had actually arrived at 2:02, or 2:00, someone had told them they'd arrived at 2:14, or had suggested they add that into their reports. Perhaps they then did so, not realizing it could be used to help Johnson in his brewing war with Robert Kennedy. Or perhaps one of them was mistaken as to the time, and accidentally misled the others. The 3-9-64 testimony of Roy Kellerman before the Warren Commission reflects, intriguingly, that he received the 1:00 PM estimate for Kennedy's death from Kennedy's doctor, George Burkley. Perhaps Burkley had supplied him with the other times as well. Or perhaps Kellerman and the Kennedy detail had received their information from the same "Washington official" telling the AP Mrs. Kennedy had reached the plane at 2:18.
Or perhaps Fehmer's notes were wrong about the "2:02"s provided for Hughes' call and Mrs. Kennedy's arrival. Perhaps she'd meant to write "2:20". Or perhaps someone changed her notes to say "2:02" because "2:20" was too embarrassing.
And as long as we're playing "perhaps"... Perhaps Johnson had failed to subtract the minutes since his phone call with Hughes from the "10 minutes" he'd mentioned to Kivett... And perhaps Kivett had used the expression "about this time" in an equally sloppy manner. If so, Johnson could honestly have said Judge Hughes would be there in 10 minutes at 2:07, and Kivett could observe Mrs. Kennedy arrive "about that time" at 2:14. One just can't say for sure.
It is fortunate, then, that we have a report written by someone other than Johnson's secretary or Secret Service detail, on which we can rely. Within the LBJ Library one can find the "Notes Dictated By Colonel James B. Swindal, Aircraft Commander of Air Force One, 21-22 Nov 1963." These notes reveal "At approximately 1330 hours (Dallas time) the country was informed that President John F. Kennedy had died at Parkland General Hospital, a victim of an assassin's bullet. By this time, Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson had arrived at the field from the hospital and was on board Air Force One. Mr. Johnson stated that he would not leave for Washington without Mrs. Kennedy and the body of the President. The decision was made that the Vice President of the United States should take the oath of office before take-off and a hurried call was made to Federal Judge Sarah T. Hughes to come to the aircraft and administer the oath. At 1415 hours, Mrs. Kennedy arrived at the plane. The casket bearing the body of the 35th President of the United States was brought aboard and placed in the aft compartment. A partition and four seats had been hurriedly removed by the crew for this purpose. Mrs. Kennedy joined the Vice President and Mrs. Johnson with the White House staff members in the Presidential stateroom and at 1438 hours Judge Sarah T. Hughes held out the Bible and Mr. Johnson was sworn-in as the 36th President of the United States. The aircraft taxied out and was airborne at 1447 hours arriving at Andrews Air Force Base at 1800 hours Washington time."
So there it is. Johnson arrived at the plane around 1:30, Mrs. Kennedy arrived around 2:15, Judge Hughes arrived shortly before 2:38, and the plane took off at 2:47.
There's no getting around it.
Conclusion number 1: Johnson's decision to be sworn-in in Dallas delayed Mrs. Kennedy's departure.
This fact was met with much resistance. On 11-29-63, an AP article by Frances Lewine on Mrs. Kennedy (found in the Telegraph Herald) reported that "A little over an hour and a half after Kennedy had been taken to Parkland Hospital, his body was taken out a rear entrance. Mrs. Kennedy walked beside it and entered a cream colored ambulance for a police-escorted dash to the airport where the presidential jet plane waited to take the slain president home. Inside, 27 persons crowded into the gold-carpeted presidential compartment. Together, the Johnsons moved to press Mrs. Kennedy's hands in deep emotion as she arrived. Her first public appearance as the grieving widow was to stand there, blood stains still on her clothing, as Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office as President. It was mercifully short--just two minutes." Well, heck. What nonsense. This suggests that everyone, including Sarah Hughes, was piled into the presidential compartment waiting for Mrs. Kennedy's arrival on the plane.
An 11-30-63 article in the Deseret News presented a similar scenario. It held that a "beige Cadillac hearse backed into the hospital ramp" at 2:00, and was then loaded up with Kennedy's casket. The article then switched locations for its narrative to Air Force One and claimed "The body of President Kennedy arrived about a half an hour later and was lifted aboard the big jet." It then reported that Johnson was sworn-in aboard the plane at 2:38. Well, the net effect of this was to suggest (yet again) that Mrs. Kennedy arrived just prior to the swearing-in, and held up the swearing-in ceremony. Hmmm... Where did the approximate time for Mrs. Kennedy's arrival on the plane come from? Did someone provide the uncredited writer of this article false information, or did the writer of this article just guess the time of Mrs. Kennedy and the body's arrival, while assuming she'd arrived just before the swearing-in took place?
Other articles were equally curious. On 12-1-63, the Boston Globe ran an article on "Those Four Days That Changed History." It claimed: "The casket was closed and wheeled from the hospital, Mrs. Kennedy walking beside it. Declining to ride with the driver she climbed into the rear of the hearse with her husband's body and rode back to the airport where they had been so warmly welcomed a few hours earlier. Even ahead of the hearse, Johnson had been hustled under tightest security to the airport. Now he was waiting in the presidential conference room aboard the big jet, jammed with 25 other persons into a room 12 by 15 feet. At 2:18 pm the hearse pulled up and the casket was lifted aboard the plane. Mrs. Kennedy followed it, and then was taken into the conference room where she stood to Johnson's left, Mrs. Johnson to his right. Standing before them was US District Judge Sarah T. Hughes, 67, summoned urgently by telephone from her office. With the huge fanjet engines already whining, Johnson placed his left hand on a small leather covered Bible, raised his right hand and had the 36 word oath of office' administered by Judge Hughes." Well, there it was again: 2:18. Where did this come from? And, more to the point, was the person telling agents and reporters the casket arrived at 2:18 the same person telling reporters Mrs. Kennedy boarded Air Force One, and walked right into the swearing-in ceremony?
And then there's this. On 1-19-64, the Boston Globe published a second account of Johnson's "first hectic hours" that made an even stranger mistake. It reported that, upon reaching Air Force One, Johnson's "first order was to hold the plane on the ground until Mrs. Kennedy and the body of President Kennedy were ready. Plugged into the nose of the plane, as always, was a direct telephone connection to the White House in Washington. Through the White House switchboard, Mr. Johnson could reach anyone he needed. At 1:35 pm Mr. Johnson called Robert Kennedy at his home in Washington. The purpose of the call was both personal--to extend his condolences to the late President's brother--and official. Mr. Johnson wanted to know whether it would be legal to be sworn-in at the Dallas airport before he flew to the capital. When the government's chief legal said it would be proper, Mr. Johnson decided to take the oath before take off. He reasoned that it would reassure the country and the world and would help stifle rumors that might otherwise have sprung up before he reached Washington. A second call went to Washington on behalf of Federal Judge Sarah Hughes, who had been summoned to swear in Mr. Johnson. Called from her home to the plane, she had no copy of the presidential oath. Carter called the Justice Department for it-and Deputy Atty. Gen. Nicholas Katzenbach dictated it at 1:45 pm out of a copy of the Constitution. Marie Fehmer typed it out and handed it to Judge Hughes. O'Brien told the President that Mrs. Kennedy wanted to be present at the oath-taking, and when all was ready she was called. At 2:38 pm, Mr. Johnson took the oath."
Well, did you catch it? Beyond telling us that Johnson called Kennedy within minutes of his arrival on the plane--something that would later be proven untrue--and telling us that Robert Kennedy advised Johnson to be sworn-in in Dallas--something Kennedy would later deny--the article claimed that Marie Fehmer received the words to the oath of office at 1:45--and handed them to Judge Hughes. Well, this was, according to Marie Fehmer's notes, 17 minutes before Hughes had even left for the plane!
So what was going on here? Was some person or entity trying to hide that Judge Hughes had arrived after Mrs. Kennedy, and that Mrs. Kennedy's departure had been delayed as a result?
And that's not nearly the last article in which this simple fact was denied, or concealed. No, the most recent article I've found to deny Mrs. Kennedy's departure was held up by Judge Hughes was published years after the writers of the article should have known better. On 11-20-88, the Dallas Morning News published an extensive overview of the assassination and aftermath. It presented the events in chronological order. Consistent with the reports of the Secret Service, it presented Mrs. Kennedy's arrival at the plane at 2:15. This was not a surprise. What was surprising, even shocking, however, was that the previous entry in the timeline was "2:12 p.m. Judge Hughes boards Air Force One." Well, where did that come from? I've looked far and wide and have uncovered no reason to believe she arrived any earlier than 2:30. Perhaps someone working on this article had read Fehmer's notes claiming Hughes called in at 2:02 and said she'd be there in 10 minutes, and had accepted Hughes at her word.
Yes, the "2:12" in this article, 25 years after the assassination, remains a mystery. Could it really be that the people writing and editing this article were unaware that Johnson and Hughes' delay of Mrs. Kennedy had long since bubbled to the surface?
In the aftermath of the assassination, the Associated Press put together a book comprising its photos of the events of November 22-25, 1963, and a narrative describing these events, written by four of its reporters. This book, The Torch is Passed, sold upwards of a million copies in December 1963 and January 1964. About the delay of Air Force One's departure, the reporters related first that Mrs. Kennedy and those gathered around her husband's casket at the back of the plane failed to realize Johnson was on the plane until they asked why the plane had not taken off upon their arrival, and were told by Acting Press Secretary Malcolm Kilduff that Johnson was on the plane and waiting to be sworn-in as President. The reporters then defended Johnson's presence on the plane. They asserted: "Lyndon Johnson rightfully occupied the very private presidential sanctum with its desk, easy chairs and twin beds. There at his elbow was the telephone that could connect him, through the plane's complex communications apparatus, with any sector of the globe. Already, Lyndon Johnson was using that phone. It was the one instrument at hand that enabled him to take a quick firm grip on the reins of government."
But this was nonsense. I mean, really. This was the height of the cold war. If there was a problem with Kennedy's plane, would the President have been grounded? Of course not. If Kennedy's plane had been shot down, or the President incapacitated while overseas, would the Vice President have been forced to go without a plane? Of course not. It seems clear then that Johnson's plane was perfectly equipped to handle a crisis, and the writers of The Torch is Passed knew it, and were providing him with political cover.
Should one think the book pure propaganda, however, one should think again. After describing Mrs. Kennedy's arrival on the plane, and defending Johnson's taking over her bedroom, it reported: "It was 30 minutes before Lady Bird Johnson arrived with U.S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes..." Well, this was incorrect on the first part--Mrs. Johnson arrived around the same time as her husband, albeit in a separate car--but it was almost certainly correct on the second. The swearing-in took place at 2:38. Judge Hughes arrived just before this, around 2:30. If Mrs. Kennedy arrived 30 minutes before that it would mean she arrived around 2:00, the same time suggested for her arrival by Marie Fehmer's notes. Assuming Fehmer's notes were not its actual source, then, the timeline pushed in The Torch is Passed suggests Fehmer was indeed correct regarding the time of Mrs. Kennedy's arrival on the plane.
Fehmer was probably wrong, however. Shortly after 2:00, NBC's Robert MacNeil told a nationwide audience: "The President's body has just been carried out of the hospital in the bronze casket...It has been placed in an ambulance...I can hear the motorcycle escort outside with the ambulance starting up. And the President's body with some police motorcycle escorts is now pulling away from the hospital. It is about one and a half hours since he was shot. The President has been dead for about an hour and 7 minutes." So, there it is. From a live broadcast. The body left the hospital circa 2:00 to 2:07 (NBC would subsequently say it was at 2:05), and presumably arrived at the plane circa 2:10 to 2:17.
The Secret Service reports claiming Mrs. Kennedy and the body left the hospital at 2:04 were reliable after all.
Conclusion number 2: the mainstream media was incredibly slow to recognize that Johnson's taking the oath had inconvenienced Mrs. Kennedy.
Conclusion number 3: Mrs. Kennedy reached the plane within a few minutes of Judge Hughes' calling in.
Conclusion number 4: the sequential order of Mrs. Kennedy's arrival at the plane, and of Judge Hughes' calling in, are not entirely clear.
Long Distance Runaround
We can now focus on two other points of contention: the roles of Robert Kennedy and Kennedy aide Kenneth O'Donnell in Johnson's decision to wait for Mrs. Kennedy at the airport, and fly home on the fallen president's plane.
In his 11-29-63 Secret Service report Kennedy bodyguard Emory Roberts relates that, after arriving at Parkland Hospital and checking on Kennedy's condition, "I said in effect to the Vice President, in the presence of Mrs. Johnson, Mr. Cliff Carter, Executive Assistant to the Vice President and SAIC Youngblood, as well as others, that I did not think the President could make it and suggested that we get out of Dallas as soon as possible. We (SAIC Youngblood and myself) suggested that he (Vice President) think it over, as he would have to be sworn-in. I suggested that we leave Dallas via AF 1, and SAIC Youngblood agreed and suggested that we return to the White House... One of the Special Agents assigned to Vice President Johnson called the airport and requested the Presidential plane to stand by to take Vice President Johnson to Washington, D.C...." Roberts then relates that, after escorting Mrs. Johnson to visit Mrs. Kennedy, and then returning to Johnson's side "I left again, this time upon request of the Vice President to double check with Mr. Kenneth O'Donnell if it would be O.K. for the Vice President to take AF I and return to Washington, D.C. I located Mr. O'Donnell in hallway and he said "yes." The Vice President was informed that Mr. O'Donnell stated that he could leave. The Vice President said in effect, that he didn't want to leave without the approval of a staff member or the Secret Service. At 1:15 p.m. (according to my watch) the Vice President, in the presence of Mrs. Johnson, Mr. Cliff Carter, SAIC Youngblood and others, was informed by me, that the President was dead. Vice President Johnson said to Mr. Carter to make a note of it and someone mentioned the time as 1:13 p.m. Mr. Malcolm Kilduff, Assistant Press Secretary to President Kennedy, came into the room about that time and it was decided that he would not release the death of the President, until the now President Johnson had left the hospital. 1:35 p.m. The now President Johnson, and I believe Mr. Cliff Carter, departed Parkland Hospital in an unmarked police car, accompanied by SAIC Youngblood."
The 11-29-63 report of Johnson bodyguard Rufus Youngblood further relates that after being told of Kennedy's death "The Vice President was concerned about wanting to leave quickly as he had been advised to do, and which he now felt that he should, but he was also very much concerned about leaving without Mrs. Kennedy. It was finally agreed, at the advice of Mr. O'Donnell and others of us, that we would leave the hospital and go to AF-I (President Kennedy's former airplane), with Mr. O'Donnell and others bringing Mrs. Kennedy as soon as they could remove the body." Youngblood then reported that, upon Johnson's arrival on the plane, and his determination that the oath of office be administered on the plane, "He also asked me to check on the status and location of Mrs. Kennedy and the President's body, and inform him of their estimated time of arrival."
Note that at this early date Youngblood claimed merely that "Mr. O'Donnell and others of us" had advised Johnson to leave the hospital and go to Air Force One. This plan, it follows, was not necessarily O'Donnell's idea.
The 11-29-63 report of Johnson bodyguard Lem Johns, however, was more specific. After describing a discussion with Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry, Johns reported: "I returned to the Vice President and ASAIC Youngblood and heard Ken O'Donnell inform Vice President Johnson that President Kennedy had died. To the best of my knowledge I believe that the Vice President learned from Mr. O'Donnell that Mrs. Kennedy was getting a casket, and would proceed as soon as she could to AF-I for return to Washington, D.C., with President Johnson on the same plane."
Well, hmmm. First note the phrase "To the best of my knowledge I believe"... This is the language one uses when testifying about something they want you to believe but about which they are unsure. Now note the awkward phrase "with President Johnson on the plane," which has been added onto the otherwise fine "Mrs. Kennedy was getting a casket, and would proceed as soon as she could to AF-I for return to Washington, D.C." Johns' words thereby suggest that someone--quite possibly the large Texan he was tasked with protecting--had asked him to make sure that his report included that O'Donnell had told Johnson to wait for Mrs. Kennedy on the plane. As we've seen, the delay of Mrs. Kennedy's departure from Dallas was the subject of a Robert Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson discussion but two days before. Perhaps Johnson had simply asked Johns "You remember O'Donnell telling me that, don't cha?" Perhaps Johns had simply been reluctant to say "No, Mr. President, I don't recall that."
Or perhaps Johns was just mistaken. This is all just guesswork, of course.
Still, it seems more than a coincidence that here, a few days after Johnson had failed to convince Robert Kennedy that Mrs. Kennedy's flight from Dallas had not been delayed at all, were three of his most trusted SS agents placing the blame for this delay on an old school chum of Robert Kennedy's: Kenneth O'Donnell. The implications for this are nightmarish, of course. One would like to think that members of the Secret Service were beyond playing politics, and would not let their reports be skewed by political considerations.
And one can find reasons to believe so. Rufus Youngblood was interviewed by writer William Manchester on 11-17-64. Lem Johns was interviewed by Manchester on 11-19-64. And Emory Roberts was interviewed by Manchester on both 12-4-64, and 4-26-65. Manchester's book, The Death of a President, was released in 1967. It offered that discussions and actions regarding Johnson's departure from Dallas were clouded by the belief among some there was only one plane at the airport. This was understandable. While waiting at Parkland, Johnson had discussed the usefulness of moving his plane from Love Field to Carswell Air Force Base, for security purposes. This never took place. But some of the agents apparently thought this had taken place. This led them to build their plans for an immediate get-away around Kennedy's plane, and to assume any discussion of a plane at Love Field was a discussion of Kennedy's plane. According to Manchester: "It may be (as Roberts and Johns later came to believe) that the talk of Carswell had confused them, leading them to think the Vice-President's plane was being moved there." He then countered "It is equally possible that the agents, like the man they guarded, were drawn by the halo the press had given Angel." Angel, of course, was the Secret Service's code name for Kennedy's plane.
Hmmm... So Manchester didn't readily accept Johns' and Roberts' explanation for why they steered Johnson to Kennedy's plane, and why they tried to blame it on O'Donnell.
He was correct not to do so. For, when one studies the bulk of the evidence, it seems clear a secret war was brewing between Johnson and the Kennedys, with the Secret Service in the crossfire... A memo found in the Johnson Library, and discussed by Max Holland in The Kennedy Assassination Tapes, reflects that on 12-14-63 General Godfrey McHugh, the Air Force General in charge of Air Force One on 11-22-63, and a close ally of the Kennedys, attempted to determine if the phone calls between Johnson and Robert Kennedy on the day of the shooting had been recorded. One can only assume, then, that Kennedy had asked McHugh to look into this, in an effort to both derail the already published claim Kennedy had told him to be sworn-in in Dallas, and prove Johnson the liar he believed him to be. No tapes were found.
On 12-23-63, however, Johnson's position was propped up for the public via a nationally syndicated article by Robert Buckhorn, of UPI. It was on the events at Parkland Hospital and Love Field as observed by Assistant Press Secretary Malcolm Kilduff. According to the article (which I found in The Modesto Bee), Kilduff claimed that when he boarded Air Force One, "Johnson revealed he had been in contact with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Kilduff quoted Johnson as saying 'They feel I should get sworn-in here.'" Well, there it was--the Assistant Press Secretary quoting Johnson himself, and indicating that Robert Kennedy and others had told Johnson to be sworn-in in Dallas.
But, apparently, that wasn't enough for Johnson, who still worried about the loyalty of those around him. On 1-6-64, at his home, Johnson's bodyguard Rufus Youngblood received a most unusual phone call. It was from Johnson, who was extremely angry about a memo he'd received, written by a former Kennedy staffer. (The name of this staffer is unknown, as the memo from which Johnson was reading has never been located... but it may very well have been Kenneth O'Donnell.) Johnson told Youngblood: "I've received a memorandum that disturbs me, Rufus. I'll read you some of it. 'I'm alarmed at the situation that has developed between the President and the Secret Service. Morale in the Secret Service is at an all-time low. A number of the members of the White House detail are asking for transfers. This is a great body of men. These men feel they are being prevented from doing their job properly. These men do not want favors; they just want to be accepted. We need them badly, especially in campaign years. They must feel the President appreciates their efforts. If they do something wrong, they do not want to be reprimanded in public over a radio system which lots of people listen to. The attachment this week from Sports Illustrated is an example. I'll do anything you think proper.' Johnson then continued "I just told Rowley (i.e., Secret Service Director James Rowley) to call all of them in and to take any of 'em's resignations that wanted to. And I'd be glad to have his, if he wants it, or yours or anybody else's. And if they don't want to handle it, well, we'll get the FBI to do it." Johnson then complained about Secret Service agents following his car too closely when he went for rides on his ranch. He then urged: "So you get ahold of Rowley and you all call a meeting of your group and (decide) whatever you decide you want to do; and if you want to resign, I'll be glad to accept it forthwith. And if the Secret Service wants to go back to counterfeiting, they can go back to counterfeiting, then I'll get the FBI to just assign me a couple of men to stay by my side without all this God damn big push! I don't know who it is bellyaching. First I heard of it. I'm sorry it didn't come to me. It had to come through some of Kennedy's staffers." Youngblood then asked who wrote the memo. Johnson responded "I don't think I ought to do that, but one of Kennedy's top people and somebody has been bellyaching to him. And there's enough truth in it (to see) that somebody talked. And I can't have disloyalty, and I can't talk in front of your people and have them repeat it." Youngblood then responded: "You're absolutely right. You cannot have disloyalty and I don't want any transfer, reassignment, or any other damned thing, sir." Johnson then returned to complaining about agents driving too close to his car. He then repeated his threat: "So you find out whose morale is low and get rid of the son of a bitch. And if the whole Secret Service is low, I'll tell Dillon (i.e., Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon--Rowley's boss) the first thing in the morning that we'll just change the damned law in about five minutes and turn it over to the FBI because Hoover thinks that I could be handled a lot better anyway. I don't want any of it. I think now's a good time, after Dallas, to make the change, if they want to do it. Now I thought I did pretty well after Dallas and I thought I reflected credit on the Secret Service. I did my damnedest to compliment you and everybody else. But if the appreciation I get is going to be articles like this--Kennedy people coming in and telling me that the morale is the lowest in the history--I'm not going to be run by them, you know that." He then repeated:"You get ahold of Rowley and y'all see who the hell has been bellyaching and get it straightened out. Take their resignations, get them out of here, and get Lem Johns back and you and Lem Johns handle me. You handle me safer than the forty can, 'cause they're liabilities instead of assets. And if y'all don't want to do it, just honestly say so and I'll get you a good reassignment and I'll get Hoover to send me over a couple of 21-year-old accountants over here and they'll probably do as good a job." Youngblood then said "We'll stick with you, sir." Johnson then finished "Okay, but I want something done about it, you understand? Good night, Rufus." (Note: a tape of this phone call is available for listening on The Miller Center website.)
So yes, it's clear. Johnson was not only not above firing individual members of his protection detail should they fail to protect him from criticisms from the "Kennedy people" still among his staff, he was ready and willing to dismantle the entire Presidential Protection Division of the Secret Service should they fail to demonstrate their personal loyalty to him.
(One might note as well that the two agents Johnson specifies for their loyalty--Youngblood and Johns--are two of the three agents whose 11-29-63 reports suggest O'Donnell told Johnson to wait on Air Force One.)
Johnson's concern, or obsession, with how his behavior on the plane would be recorded, moreover, seems evident. In March 1964, Lyndon Johnson, a book by Harry Provence, was re-released in paperback with a new chapter on Johnson's actions in the aftermath of the assassination. Provence was editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald, and had known Johnson for years. It may be presumed he spoke to Johnson during its preparation. Johnson's close aides Walter Jenkins and Cliff Carter, in fact, were given special thanks in the acknowledgements section of the book. And yet the book held that Johnson called Robert Kennedy from the hospital, and quoted Kennedy as telling Johnson "you had better be sworn-in as President before you start back to Washington." Well, Provence was a professional journalist, an editor no less. A journalist--a good one anyhow--wouldn't put something in quotes unless it was something someone had actually said, either the person being quoted, or someone else quoting that person. The probability exists then, that Provence's quote of Kennedy came directly from Johnson, or at the very least, one of his assistants, Jenkins or Carter.
It seems clear, then, that Johnson was committed to spreading the word that taking the oath in Dallas had not been his decision.
It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that on 3-8-64, when Rufus Youngblood testified before the Warren Commission, he offered a slightly different slant on the events of 11-22-63--one that appeared to further blame Robert Kennedy's school chum O'Donnell for the problematic delay in Dallas. Youngblood explained that at Parkland, after telling Johnson of Kennedy's death, "Ken O'Donnell said for us to return to Washington, and to go ahead and take the President's plane." He then expanded:"O'Donnell told the Vice President that Mrs. Kennedy would not leave the hospital without the President's body. And O'Donnell suggested we go to the plane and that they just come on the other plane. And I might add that, as a word of explanation, there were two jet planes, one Air Force 1, in which the President flew, and the other Air Force 2, in which the Vice President and his party flew on. And O'Donnell told us to go ahead and take Air Force 1. I believe this is mainly because Air Force 1 has better communications equipment and so forth than the other planes. President Johnson said that he didn't want to go off and leave Mrs. Kennedy in such a state. And so he agreed that we would go on to the airplane and board the plane and wait until Mrs. Kennedy and the body would come out."
Well, wait a second. Who is the "he" in this last sentence? If it's O'Donnell, then Youngblood's recollections seem to support that O'Donnell told him, and not Roberts, that they should go ahead and take Air Force One. If Johnson, well, then Youngblood was essentially stating that Johnson, on his own, had decided to wait on the plane for Mrs. Kennedy and the body. Youngblood doesn't say, after all, that O'Donnell was still standing there when Johnson agreed to wait on the plane. It seems possible, for that matter, that Youngblood's claim "O'Donnell told us to go ahead and take Air Force 1" was just a mutation of what Emory Roberts had told him, and that Youngblood himself had never heard O'Donnell say as much, or specify that by saying Air Force One, he meant Kennedy's plane.
In any event, if Johnson's bodyguard Youngblood had taken to exaggerating O'Donnell's influence on Johnson on the day of the shooting, it may have been from instinct--that he was trying to protect Johnson. The "Kennedy people," it seems clear, were now openly complaining about Johnson's behavior on the plane, and Secret Service agents are not deaf, nor above sharing gossip with other agents. Talk was in the air. Historian Arthur Schlesinger's Journal entry for 3-25-64, in fact, reflects that he had lunch with Kennedy's former secretary Evelyn Lincoln, and that she continued to resent the fact that "LBJ and his entourage moved into Air Force One instead of letting JBK (Jackie) and the President's friends take the body back to Washington by themselves."
That this talk had made its way to Youngblood, moreover, is also supported...by Youngblood. In his 1973 book 20 Years in the Secret Service, Youngblood described the events at the airport, then admitted: "Months later, amid all the sniping and second-guessing, Johnson was criticized for 'usurping' the Presidential aircraft." Note that he says "months later." This would be right around the time he testified.
And apparently that wasn't the limit of the criticism of Johnson. In his 1973 book on FBI Director J.Edgar Hoover, Washington insider Ralph de Toledano reported that in the months after the assassination of President Kennedy, "Kennedy hostility" surrounded the Director, and that it was also all "around President Johnson, whose thoughtfulness and patience knew no bounds in those trying days." De Toledano then reported that "the Kennedy attitude, expressed at every opportunity to a Washington press corps unashamedly partisan, was that Hoover was somehow responsible for John F. Kennedy's death" and that "Lyndon Johnson shared that implied accusation."
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, William Manchester began work on his book The Death of a President. This was to be an authorized book, one for which Manchester was granted unparalleled access. On 4-10-64, Manchester interviewed CIA Director John McCone. (A transcript of this interview was placed in the CIA's files. It was declassified in October, 1998. It is 15 pages long. Manchester's notes on this interview were first made available in 2009, and are only 4 pages long. This suggests that McCone taped his conversation with Manchester, but that Manchester was not allowed to tape McCone. I guess this isn't much of a surprise.) In any event, McCone told Manchester that after hearing of the shooting, he called Robert Kennedy "through the White House. When I got him at his home he told me he was at home, and he asked if I would come right over." McCone then described Kennedy's mood and activities. He then claimed he'd overheard Robert Kennedy's conversations with Johnson on the day of the shooting, and that after being asked about the oath of office in a first call "He contacted his office--and I've forgotten just who in that office--to find out exactly just who could or should administer the oath. He found that any federal judge could do it, and he transmitted that information together with appropriate references so they could get the exact oath down to Dallas. He insisted that the swearing-in be done immediately. I think President Johnson felt the same way. He did not want the country to go the two hours and a half that President Johnson would be in the air without a President. And that was arranged. This involved several phone calls." McCone then described the arrival of a Catholic Priest. He said that this priest "sensed that the Attorney General was involved in the myriad of problems that arose almost at once, you know--his concern over Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy, his concern over the swearing-in of the President." He then continued: "There was a period of half an hour, I suppose, that he was debating whether to fly to Dallas himself to return with the body and with Mrs. Kennedy. I urged that he not do that, stating that there was an element of time--that the best thing to do would be to bring the president's body up as quickly as possible, as quickly as it could be released, and he couldn't possibly get down there for three or four hours, by the time he got aboard a plane and got down there, and he would be out of touch all the time that he was in the air. He agreed with this, and as a result either decided or agreed with the decision that the body should be brought up with President Johnson and Mrs. Kennedy just as quickly as possible."
Hmmm...so McCone told Manchester Robert Kennedy not only told Johnson he should be sworn-in in Dallas, but that he--Robert Kennedy--had "either decided or agreed that the body should be brought up with President Johnson and Mrs. Kennedy." Hmmm...is this credible? This not only exonerates Johnson for the swearing-in's taking place in Dallas, but Mrs. Kennedy's returning on his plane. This is mighty curious, and suspicious when one takes into account Robert Kennedy's statements on the matter. Perhaps, then, Johnson had gotten to McCone.
Or perhaps McCone was on board with Johnson from the beginning.
Yeah, yeah, I know this smells like dog dirt, but indulge my paranoia for a second... McCone told Manchester that upon hearing of the shooting, he called Robert Kennedy, and that Kennedy asked him to come right over to his house. He then claimed he'd spent the next hour or so walking around Kennedy's house and grounds, talking to him about the assassination in between the incoming calls.
Well, wait a second. McCone was the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, not some retired businessman or old friend. Didn't he have a job to do? Shouldn't he have been at CIA Headquarters, digging up everything he could regarding a possible conspiracy? Shouldn't he have been on the phone, calling up everyone he knew to find out everything he could? His holding Bobby's hand in a time of national crisis simply makes no sense--unless one is to assume this was something previously agreed upon by the person to whom McCone would now be reporting, Lyndon Johnson. Yes, shockingly, there is no record of McCone talking to Johnson--who purportedly suspected a Russian or Cuban attack from the outset--on the day of the shooting. Johnson received briefings from National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, but there is no record of him talking to CIA Director John McCone until the next morning.
Heck, the record of what was discussed the next morning is also kinda suspicious. On 11-25-63 McCone created a memo on this, his first meeting with his new boss after the killing of his old boss. This memo reveals that they met at 9:15 in the office of National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, and that the meeting lasted "approximately 15 minutes." The memo reveals as well that they discussed their own personal and professional relationship--that there were a number of issues that had arisen during the Kennedy Administration on which they'd "seen eye to eye." It then reveals that McCone had "confirmed" his confidence in Johnson, as well as his "desire to help and support him in every way..." McCone then describes their reviewing details of the "President's checklist" and their agreeing to meet every morning for the next few days. That's it. The meeting lasted but fifteen minutes. Apparently, there was no extended discussion of Oswald, or of Russian activity.
Now contrast McCone's 11-25-63 memo with the transcript of his 8-19-70 interview with the Johnson Library. When asked when he first saw Johnson after the shooting, McCone replied "I think I saw him at his home that night." (This was incorrect. Johnson's calendar of phone calls and visitors shows it was the next morning-- a fact confirmed by McCone's 1964 interview with Manchester, where he claimed "I did not see him that evening when he arrived--I saw him the next morning, and I saw him every day for a long time--sometimes several times a day.") In any event, when then asked Johnson's mood during this meeting, McCone replied: "Well, his mood was one of deep distress over the tragedy, and grave concern over how to get his arms around the problems that confronted him--some concern over how to properly handle the men in the organization whose competence he recognized, but also whose allegiance to President Kennedy-- And, of course, you know the background of issues that arose that dated 'way back to the convention here in Los Angeles and even before."
Well, wait a minute. The man whose competence Johnson recognized, with whom he'd had a problem dating back to the convention and even before, was Robert Kennedy. Did Johnson spend his first meeting with John McCone, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency--the agency tasked with determining the likelihood Russia, our number 1 enemy of the day, had backed the main suspect in the shooting, Lee Harvey Oswald--talking about "Bobby"?
And, if so, is it all that far-fetched to assume McCone visited "Bobby" on the day of the shooting--at a time when he had serious business to attend to--at his new boss Johnson's direction?
On 5-16-64 Manchester interviewed Robert Kennedy. The recording of this interview, while still withheld from the public, was made available to Arthur Schlesinger for his 1978 book Robert Kennedy and His Times. According to Schlesinger, Kennedy claimed "John McCone called me and said 'I'll come out,' and he came out..." Hmmm... McCone told Manchester that Kennedy had asked him to come over, while Kennedy, in his interview with Manchester, said nothing of the sort, and suggested instead that McCone had come over without even being invited.
And that's just the little "hmmm..." According to Schlesinger, Kennedy described the phone call Johnson made to him as follows: "First he expressed his condolences. Then he said... this might be part of a worldwide plot, which I didn’t understand, and he said a lot of people down here think I should be sworn-in right away. Do you have any objection to it? And – well, I was sort of taken aback at the moment because it was just an hour after... the President had been shot and I didn’t think – see what the rush was. And I thought, I suppose at the time, at least, I thought it would be nice if the President came back to Washington – President Kennedy... But I suppose that was all personal... He said, who could swear me in? I said, I’d be glad to find out and I’ll call you back." Schlesinger then wrote that Kennedy called Katzenbach, and found out any federal judge could give Johnson the oath. Schlesinger then returned to quoting Kennedy: "So I called Johnson back and said anybody can..." Kennedy's account of the call was thus in line with Marie Fehmer's notes on every point but one--a big one--Kennedy didn't mention telling Johnson he should be sworn-in in Dallas during the second phone call.
And Kennedy wasn't the only one pushing against the tide. In his 5-18-64 testimony before the Warren Commission, Kenneth O'Donnell insisted that, at Parkland Hospital "As soon as I was assured that he (Kennedy) was dead, and it was definite, I went back to the Vice President and informed him the President was dead, and that in my opinion he ought to get out of there as fast as he could. We had a general discussion. The President's first words to me were that we must look upon this in a sense that it might be a conspiracy of some nature, and that all security must be taken..." O'Donnell then claimed Johnson started discussing some security measures he might take at the airport, such as moving the plane to a nearby military base, but that he shot Johnson down on this matter, reiterating that Johnson should leave without delay, and that "it would be much better if he got to the field immediately, where he was under security, and got aboard one of the aircraft." O'Donnell then claimed that he didn't specify which plane Johnson should board, Air Force One or Air Force Two, which were nearly identical. He then testified that when he arrived at Air Force One with Mrs. Kennedy and the president's body "I didn't know whether it was 1 or 2, to be honest, until I saw the members of the crew" and that, prior to the loading of President Kennedy's casket onto the plane, "I didn't know President Johnson was on the plane." He was then asked point blank if there had been any discussion of President Johnson's waiting for Mrs. Kennedy on Air Force One while at Parkland, and responded: "There had been no discussion of that to my knowledge. Once the President--the Vice President--left, I left him, I had not seen him again. I had been notified he had departed, I had been notified that he arrived, and that was the last I heard of it, until I got on the airplane." He was then asked what happened after he realized Johnson was on the plane, and waiting to be sworn-in: "the President and I carried on a conversation, which, again my recollections might be hazy--that it had been brought to his attention that I had asked for the plane to take off, and that there was some difference of opinion between him and me. He said to me that he had called the Attorney General, and that the Attorney General had indicated that it was, if not mandatory, at least preferable that he be sworn-in prior to the aircraft taking off. I didn't describe what I saw as the problems. I realized it was an inevitable delay. So I don't believe I commented on it. I just listened to him. We sat there." Hmmm... O'Donnell backed down after being told Robert Kennedy had said the swearing-in was preferable. Apparently, Johnson had said something similar to Jacqueline Kennedy. Presumably, Robert Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Kenneth O'Donnell were now telling everyone who would listen that Robert Kennedy had never said such a thing...and that Johnson had lied and manipulated them when they were at their weakest.
Unfortunately for Johnson, for that matter, one of his closest cronies was unable to help him in his ongoing effort to blame O'Donnell and Robert Kennedy for the decisions made in Dallas. On 5-20-64, Johnson assistant Clifton Carter provided an affidavit to the Warren Commission that tried to keep the peace. It read: "At 1:12 p.m. Special Agent Emery Roberts brought the news that President Kennedy was dead. At that moment the only people present were Vice President Johnson, Congressman Thornberry, Special Agent Lem Johns, and I. Special Agent Roberts advised Vice President Johnson to return to the White House forthwith because of the concern of the Secret Service that there might be a widespread plot to assassinate Vice President Johnson as well as President Kennedy. Vice President Johnson then asked that Kenny (O'Donnell) and Larry (O'Brien) be consulted to determine what their views were on returning promptly to Washington. Kenny and Larry came down and told Vice President Johnson that they agreed he should return to Washington immediately. Vice President Johnson then asked me to try to alert some of the members of his staff to go to the airport for the return trip to Washington. I then proceeded to look for those members of the staff, and I was later driven to Love Field by a young Dallas policeman. By the time I returned to the Presidential plane (AF-1), Vice President and Mrs. Johnson had already boarded the plane and arrangements had already been made to have Vice President Johnson sworn-in as the President. I do not have any personal knowledge of Vice President Johnson's conversation with Attorney General Kennedy concerning the advisability of a prompt swearing-in or of the arrangements to have Judge Sara Hughes participate in that ceremony. I was present at the swearing-in and shortly thereafter the President's plane took off for the Washington area."
And that wasn't the end of a bad week for Johnson. Unfortunately for Johnson, one of Kennedy's closest cronies was in a position to help, but did not. On 5-26-64 Lawrence F. O'Brien testified before the Warren Commission. O'Brien had been a close Kennedy aide. Unlike O'Donnell, however, he'd retained much of his influence under Johnson. This made his statements especially intriguing. And they didn't disappoint. First and foremost, he suggested that Johnson's presence on Kennedy's plane came as a surprise to both Kenneth O'Donnell and himself.He told the Commission that, after helping lift Kennedy's coffin onto the plane, he "noticed that seats to the left of the door had been removed, leaving a floor space in the plane to place the coffin. We placed the coffin on the floor. Then I looked up, and the President and Mrs. Johnson were at the corridor that would go into the compartment from that area of the plane." He then testified "During the course of these few minutes, it was my understanding that we were going to immediately depart. There was some confusion for a couple of minutes about departure. I was not privy to that. And the President asked the two of us to sit with him, at which point he said that he was awaiting a judge who was en route to swear him in--that he had secured the advice of the Attorney General, which, as I understood it, was a preference in his view to have a swearing-in ceremony immediately. And that this would be accomplished within a matter of minutes."
O'Brien's subsequent words were more descriptive on this point. In his 1974 book No Final Victories, written after Johnson's death, O'Brien claimed that when he and O'Donnell first spoke with Johnson on the plane "I told Johnson about the problem we'd had at the hospital and said I thought we should take off immediately. I knew that the delay was terribly painful to Jackie. 'No, I've talked with the Attorney General,' Johnson said. 'He thinks I should be sworn-in here.' Then it hit me. This man is President of the United States. After that, I didn't argue." Although a bit murky, O'Brien's words suggest that he'd actually explained to Johnson that further delay would be "terribly painful to Jackie," and that Johnson had nevertheless responded by invoking Robert Kennedy as the authority indirectly causing her this pain. Hmmm... If Johnson had really done this, and had lied to O'Brien about Kennedy's comments, well, he was indeed quite the weasel.
That Johnson had lied about what O'Donnell and Kennedy had told him, and had lined up the likes of Rufus Youngblood, Lem Johns, and John McCone as support for his lies, however, seems a very real possibility. One can only assume the Kennedys thought as much. They most certainly doubted Johnson's reasons for being on the plane in Dallas. In a 6-2-64 interview of Mrs. Kennedy, conducted by historian Arthur Schlesinger and finally released in 2011, she volunteered "I don't know if Lyndon had an Air Force One just like it or one of the older planes, but he always kept pushing for a bigger plane. And--or for more--all the kind of things like that he wanted, the panoply that goes with power, but none of the responsibility."
Mrs. Kennedy's words, one can only assume, stuck with Schlesinger. When one looks at June 1964 in his journal, published 2007, one finds that he talked about the flight back from Dallas with Air Force General Godfrey McHugh on 6-5-64, and was told that neither Kenneth O'Donnell nor McHugh knew Johnson was on Air Force One when they arrived at the plane. McHugh told Schlesinger, furthermore, that, upon arrival on the plane, he'd initially been told the plane was being held until Mrs. Johnson's luggage could be brought over from the other plane, and not that they were waiting for Judge Hughes.
This, apparently, whet Schlesinger's appetite. His journal reflects further that he tried to talk about the flight with Mrs. Kennedy at a get-together on 6-16-64, but was cut-off when a third party changed the subject.
This, then, brings us to Johnson's account of his actions. In his 7-10-64 statement to the Warren Commission, Johnson related: "It was Ken O'Donnell who, at about 1:20 p.m., told us that the President had died. I think his precise words were, "He's gone." O'Donnell said that we should return to Washington and that we should take the President's plane for this purpose... When Mr. O'Donnell told us to get on the plane and go back to Washington, I asked about Mrs. Kennedy. O'Donnell told me that Mrs. Kennedy would not leave the hospital without the President's body, and urged again that we go ahead and and take Air Force 1 and return to Washington. I did not want to go and leave Mrs. Kennedy in this situation. I said so, but I agreed that we would board the airplane and wait until Mrs. Kennedy and the President's body were brought aboard the plane... Despite my awareness of the reasons for Mr. O'Donnell's insistence--in which I think he was joined by one or more of the Secret Service agents--that we board the airplane, leave Dallas, and go to Washington without delay, I was determined that we would not return until Mrs. Kennedy was ready, and that we would carry the President's body back with us if she wanted...When we got to the airport, we proceeded to drive to the ramp leading into the plane, and we entered the plane. We were ushered into the private quarters of the President's plane. It didn't seem right for John Kennedy not to be there. I told someone that we preferred for Mrs. Kennedy to use these quarters. Shortly after we boarded the plane. I called Robert Kennedy, the President's brother and the Attorney General. I knew how grief-stricken he was, and I wanted to say something that would comfort him. Despite his shock, he discussed the practical problems at hand--problems of special urgency because we did not at that time have any information as to the motivation of the assassination or its possible implications. The Attorney General said that he would like to look into the matter of whether the oath of office as President should be administered to me immediately or after we returned to Washington, and that he would call back. I thereafter talked with McGeorge Bundy and Walter Jenkins, both of whom urged that the return to Washington should not be delayed. I told them I was waiting for Mrs. Kennedy and for the President's body to be placed on the plane, and would not return prior to that time. As I remember, our conversation was interrupted to allow the Attorney General to come back on the line. He said that the oath should be administered to me immediately, before taking off for Washington, and that it should be administered by a judicial officer of the United States. Shortly thereafter, the Deputy Attorney General, Mr. Katzenbach, dictated the form of oath to one of the secretaries aboard the plane. I thought of Sarah Hughes, an old friend who is judge of the U.S. district court in Dallas. We telephoned Judge Hughes' office. She was not there, but she returned the call in a few minutes and said she would be at the airplane in 10 minutes. I asked that arrangements be made to permit her to have access to the airplane. A few minutes later Mrs. Kennedy and the President's coffin arrived. Mrs. Johnson and I spoke to her. We tried to comfort her, but our words seemed inadequate. She went into the private quarters of the plane. I estimate that Mrs. Kennedy and the coffin arrived about a half hour after we entered the plane, just after 2 o'clock. About a half hour later, I asked someone to find out if Mrs. Kennedy would stand with us during the administration of the oath. Mrs. Johnson went back to be with her. Mrs. Kennedy came and stood with us during the moments that the oath was being administered. I shall never forget her bravery, nobility, and dignity. I'm told that the oath was administered at 2:40 p.m."
Let's note first that Johnson's statement is largely based on Marie Fehmer's notes. It repeats that Robert Kennedy called Johnson back to tell him the "oath should be administered immediately." It also claims Mrs. Kennedy arrived at the plane just after 2:00. That Johnson was willing to admit this last fact in his statement, moreover, supports that the Secret Service claim she arrived at 2:14 or 2:15 was, if not true, an innocent mistake, or at least not a lie pushed by Johnson.
Now note that Johnson stressed that, upon reaching the plane, he was ushered into the president's "private quarters" and that he told "someone" that "we preferred for Mrs. Kennedy to use these quarters." Well, this hid that Johnson turned around and used these "private quarters" to make a series of phone calls. And that's not all. While it's widely reported that Mrs. Kennedy spent the bulk of the flight in the back of the plane with her husband's casket and companions, the location of Mrs. Johnson on the flight back from Dallas is rarely discussed. In a 10-18-69 Oral History interview with the Johnson Library, however, Johnson aide Jack Valenti was asked point blank her whereabouts on the flight back from Dallas, and admitted "most of the time she was back in the little bedroom." Apparently, the Johnsons' preference the private quarters be reserved for Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy alone was asking too much...of themselves.
Now note that Johnson and O'Donnell's stories were at odds on two key points. Johnson claimed that before he (Johnson) left Parkland Hospital for the airport he was told by Ken O'Donnell to fly back on "the President's plane," which in this context would mean Kennedy's plane, number 26000. O'Donnell denied doing any such thing. Johnson then indicated that he (Johnson) had told O'Donnell at Parkland that he would wait for Mrs. Kennedy on "the President's plane." O'Donnell denied this as well.
Johnson's story was also at odds with Robert Kennedy's, of course. He claimed Kennedy told him the oath should be administered immediately in Dallas, while Kennedy--at least in Schlesinger's account--recalled no such thing.
Even so, the writers of the Warren Report--not surprisingly, in light of the fact their report was designed in part to clear Johnson--chose to take his word on these matters. In Chapter 2 of the report--a chapter written by Arlen Specter, then edited by Norman Redlich--it is claimed that O'Donnell told Johnson of Kennedy's death. It then relates: "When consulted by the Vice President, O'Donnell advised him to go to the airfield immediately and return to Washington.245 It was decided that the Vice President should return on the Presidential plane rather than on the Vice-Presidential plane because it had better communication equipment.246" The citation for footnote 245 reads "Id. at 152; 7 H 451 (O'Donnell); 5 H 561 (Johnson)." The claim is accurate and the citation is accurate. The citation for footnote 246, however, reads simply "Ibid." The Free Online Dictionary defines "Ibid" as "In the same place. Used in footnotes and bibliographies to refer to the book, chapter, article, or page cited just before." Note the words "just before." The page cited just before was a page from Johnson's statement. By placing a sentence in which O'Donnell "advised" Johnson before a sentence in which "it was decided" Johnson should return on the Presidential plane, the report had implied O'Donnell was a party to this decision. The writers of the report had thereby chosen to ignore O'Donnell's sworn testimony--the testimony they'd found credible enough to cite in the preceding footnote--and had decided to instead push the facts as related in Johnson's un-sworn statement. They'd then hidden this fact from the public.
It should come as no surprise then that they also accepted Johnson's word on the conversation he'd had with Robert Kennedy. The report claimed "From the Presidential airplane, the Vice President telephoned Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who advised that Mr. Johnson take the Presidential oath of office before the plane left Dallas.263" They, of course, never double-checked this with Kennedy.
As a result, the Johnson/O'Donnell and Johnson/Kennedy conflict on these matters was little recognized. It lay hidden beneath the surface of Washington politics.
Conclusion number 5: the Warren Commission was deceptive in its reporting of the aftermath of the assassination, and showed undue deference to Johnson's version of events.
Above: author William Manchester, reading the back of his own book.
The Kennedy Response
It bubbled up again, however, in August 1966, when William Manchester's book The Death of a President was being prepared for release. On 8-29-66, Johnson and his close adviser Abe Fortas made a number of phone calls trying to get to the bottom of one of Manchester's more sensationalistic claims--that the Bible on which Johnson had taken the oath had belonged to Kennedy and had disappeared afterwards. Fortas uncovered that it was not a Bible, but a prayer book, and that it wasn't stolen, but placed into the White House archives. Even so, the phone calls, now available on youtube, do much to damage Johnson's credibility. He mentions offhand that he thinks the bit about the Bible being stolen is part of a "well-laid out deliberate thing" designed to damage his presidency, and that the "most serious aspect" is that "somebody working for us...had some knowledge of this" and "informed Manchester of this." He then complained that the press covered the walk-out of a few students from a recent speech of his, and suggested that they must have been warned in advance, and that the whole thing was part of some much larger plot to discredit him. It's clear, moreover, whom Johnson thought was behind this plot: Robert Kennedy.
Was Johnson losing his grip? Or was he merely admitting what he'd long decided was true--that Bobby was out to get him? And, more to the point, was Johnson's paranoia the product of a guilty conscience?
In anticipation of the release of Manchester's book, U.S. News and World Report published its own account of the shooting on 11-14-66. This was based almost entirely on the 26 volumes of Warren Commission testimony and exhibits published in 1964. There was one interesting addition, however. The writers of the article had either stumbled upon, or been warned of, the Johnson-Youngblood and O'Donnell divide, as to whether O'Donnell had told Johnson he should fly back on Air Force One, and if the plane had in fact had a superior communications capability to the other planes in the president's fleet. To no one's surprise, they came down on the side of Johnson.
Here's why: "A former White House official explained that, at the time, the three jet planes in the presidential fleet were being 're-geared for communications of a classified nature, Naturally, the first plane to be re-equipped was AF-1. Most of the new gear had been installed in AF-1. The other two jet planes had not been completed. Now they all have the same gear, so it doesn't make any difference any more, whether a President travels in AF-1, 2 or 3.'"
Well, that was mighty convenient, don't you think? An unnamed former White House official told them AF-1 just so happened to have been superior to AF-2 during the day in question? And the exact way in which it was better is classified? And they believed it? To such an extent, even, that they were willing to suggest O'Donnell had lied to the Warren Commission?
Manchester himself was more subtle in his bias. After first reporting that Johnson claimed O'Donnell had told him to take Air Force One, Manchester wrote: "O'Donnell declares this version to be 'absolutely, totally, and unequivocably wrong.' He says that Johnson raised the possibility of a conspiracy and that 'I agreed that he should get out of there as soon as possible.' Then, he recalls, 'He asked me whether they should move the plane--meaning, I thought, Air Force Two--to Carswell Air Force Base. I said no; it was 35 miles to the Air Force base, and it would take too long to move the plane. Besides, no one would know that he was going from Parkland Hospital to Love Field anyway; they had no way of knowing.' Concerning 26000, O'Donnell says, 'The President and I had no conversation regarding Air Force One. If we had known that he was going on Air Force One, we would have taken Air Force Two. One plane was just like another.'" Manchester then concluded: "The discrepancy between the two versions" (that of O'Donnell and of Johnson) "is probably a consequence of confusion." He also offered that Johnson "may have had...thoughts about the value of identifying himself with what he called the 'aura of Kennedy," and to have decided that it was in his best interests, politically, that he return to Washington with the President's widow at his side.
The "discrepancy" between Robert Kennedy and Johnson on the swearing-in also saw light at this time. Manchester wrote that the substance of Kennedy's return phone call to Johnson was unclear, that Johnson thought it was about whether he should take the oath, and Kennedy thought it was about who could give the oath. He wrote as well that Johnson told the Warren Commission Kennedy told him to take the oath, and that, on this issue "Youngblood's memory is foggy. He tends to support his superior, with qualifications, but he explains--quite reasonably--that he only heard one voice. Kennedy who was on the other end, does not remember recommending an immediate ceremony, and it should be noted that such a recommendation would have been inconsistent with his mood. It is his recollection--and that of Ed Guthman, who was with him, that he said 'Anybody can swear you in. Maybe you'd like to have one of the judges down there whom you appointed. Any one of them can do it.'" (Note: Manchester interviewed Guthman on 3-24-64, 5-3-64 and 6-10-64, Kennedy on 5-14-64 and 1-12-65, and Youngblood on 11-17-64. The notes and/or transcripts of these interviews are not yet available.)
It should be noted that Kennedy was playing it cool here. He had Ed Guthman as a witness that he'd never told Johnson he should be sworn-in in Dallas, and yet still refrained from calling Johnson a liar. Perhaps, then, Manchester had told Kennedy of his interview with McCone, and McCone's insistence Kennedy had indeed told Johnson he should be sworn-in. One might assume from this as well that Manchester covered this topic in his first interview with Kennedy, at a time Kennedy was still functioning as Johnson's Attorney General, and still hoping for a slot on the Democratic ticket as Johnson's Vice President. When Kennedy was interviewed by Schlesinger the next year, we should recall, he was much more forthcoming.
Manchester, for his part, didn't stop there, either. Not only did he not tell his readers of McCone's recollections, he later wrote that Kennedy's disavowal of telling Johnson to take the oath was "supported by Kennedy's opening words to Katzenbach: 'Lyndon wants to be sworn-in in Dallas.'" (Note: Manchester interviewed Katzenbach on 6-5-64)
Manchester returned to this topic later in his book, for that matter, and made sure the reader knew where both Kennedy and he stood on the matter. Of Robert Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy's first conversation after she'd landed in Washington, he wrote: "a disjointed conversation ensued, touching upon the probable future of Kennedy aides, the delayed take-off from Love Field...and the explanation which the new President had offered at the time. 'He said he'd talked to you, Bobby,' Jackie told her brother-in-law, 'and that you'd said he had to be sworn-in right there in Dallas.' The Attorney General was startled. There must be some misunderstanding, he said: he had made no such suggestion." In a footnote, Manchester then offered "The author invited President Johnson to comment on this misapprehension. He replied that he had nothing to add to his statement to the Warren Commission." (Note: beyond his interviews with Robert Kennedy, in which this conversation between Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy was undoubtedly discussed, Manchester interviewed Mrs. Kennedy on 4-7-64, 5-4-64, 5-7-64, 5-8-64, and 7-20-64. The notes and/or transcripts of these interviews are, you guess it, not yet available.)
Manchester's interviews with Mrs. Kennedy, of course, were not confined to discussion of the swearing-in. In fact, when one studies the events of 11-22-63 closely, one finds that they revealed something far worse than Johnson's misunderstanding or lying about Robert Kennedy's attitude towards the swearing-in. In his book, Manchester relates that, after arriving on Air Force One, Mrs. Kennedy headed for the bedroom. He reports that "Because she regarded the bedroom as hers, she did not knock. She simply grasped the latch and twisted it. Inside, reclining on the bed, was Lyndon Johnson, dictating to Marie Fehmer." Manchester then reported that Johnson and Fehmer quickly left the room, and that Kennedy aide Lawrence F. O'Brien was a witness to their doing so. (Manchester interviewed O'Brien on 5-4-64 and 6-4-64.)
Well, yikes! Why hadn't this been mentioned before? Let's recall that Johnson had told the Warren Commission, that, upon arrival at the plane, "We were ushered into the private quarters of the President's plane. It didn't seem right for John Kennedy not to be there. I told someone that we preferred for Mrs. Kennedy to use these quarters. Shortly after we boarded the plane. I called Robert Kennedy, the President's brother and the Attorney General." Hmmm... Johnson failed to mention that he'd made this call from the private quarters. Of course that could have been an oversight... But that's just the half of it. In his statement to the Warren Commission, Johnson proceeded to describe his discussions with Robert Kennedy, and his decision to have Sarah Hughes perform his swearing-in ceremony. He then asserted that a few minutes after talking to Hughes "Mrs. Kennedy and the President's coffin arrived. Mrs. Johnson and I spoke to her. We tried to comfort her, but our words seemed inadequate. She went into the private quarters of the plane."
He'd totally concealed that he'd been using the private quarters of the plane, and had been caught in the act by Mrs. Kennedy! He'd made it seem, moreover, that he'd avoided using these quarters out of respect for her late husband!
Conclusion number 6: Johnson lied about the first time he saw Mrs. Kennedy on the plane.
Through December 1966, Johnson had largely had his say. His time had passed. Now the Kennedys were having theirs...
Led by Kenneth O'Donnell... When interviewed for a 12-6-66 AP article (found in the Spokane Daily Chronicle), O'Donnell sought to clarify Manchester's claim Johnson had over-ruled him (O'Donnell) after he (O'Donnell)--not having been told the plane was set to be the site of Johnson's swearing-in ceremony--had ordered Air Force One to take off. O'Donnell explained that upon arrival at Air Force One "I didn't know that he (Johnson) was on the plane. I was under the impression he had already left." If he'd been told Johnson would wait for Mrs. Kennedy on Kennedy's plane, as Johnson insisted, O'Donnell would never have made that impression.
O'Donnell had thereby signaled that he wasn't about to back down. Johnson had not told him he would wait for Mrs. Kennedy. Period... This reflected badly on Johnson, and supported Manchester's supposition he'd orchestrated his return flight to Washington for political reasons.
Other articles fanned the flames. A UPI article on Mrs. Kennedy's efforts to further edit Manchester's book (found in the 12-16-66 Washington Reporter) relates: "Bennett Cerf, the publisher and television panelist, said Thursday that Mrs. Kennedy is sensitive to a passage describing Lyndon B. Johnson's taking over the presidential plane after Kennedy was shot in Dallas. Cerf, who said he wishes his Random House was publishing Manchester's book, read an unedited version of the manuscript and described it as 'a wonderful book which will sell a million copies.' Cerf said that the book relates that the presidential jet--Air Force One--and the vice-presidential jet were at Love Field in Dallas Nov. 22, 1963. The planes were identical--except for the "football," a bag containing information regarding procedures in case of nuclear attack. The book, according to Cerf, says the Kennedys were 'shocked and infuriated' when they returned to Air Force One with Kennedy's coffin and found Johnson occupying the presidential jet."
The Johnson Counter-attack
This demanded a response. On 12-16-66, one of Johnson's advisers, Robert Kintner, a former news executive for ABC and NBC, proposed that they plant an article telling Johnson's side of the story in either Time or Newsweek.
On 12-17-66, Johnson snapped. In a taped phone call, he discussed the Manchester book with his most secret and trusted adviser, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas. At one point, Johnson asked "Who is the perpetrator of the fraud on us, Kenny O'Donnell, or General McHugh, or who?" Fortas then answered "Both. Those two... it's pretty obvious that those are the two villains." At another point they discussed Manchester's treatment of the disagreement between Johnson and Robert Kennedy on whether or not Kennedy had told Johnson he should be sworn-in in Texas. Johnson complained "there's also an implication that Bobby didn't want us to take the oath, when the implication to me was that he thought it better to take it there. And that he would have somebody call me and give me the oath." Well, I'll be. Johnson had as much as admitted to Fortas that Bobby had never told him to take the oath--and that he'd only implied as much.
And that's just the beginning. At a later point, Johnson went on a tirade about the book being but a slender part of a wider conspiracy: "I believe that Bobby is having his governors jump on me, and he's having his mayors, and he's having his Negroes, and he's having his Catholics... and he's having 'em just, systematically, one after the other, each day. And I think this book is just... I believe that each one of these things are timed." A bit later, he went even further. Aware that one of the issues at hand was the length of time he'd made Mrs. Kennedy wait on the plane, he asked Fortas "What does the evidence show about how long she waited? I was under the impression we waited for her." Fortas then responded "there was just under half an hour between the time that she arrived, and the time that the plane took off." Well, this would suggest he bought into the Secret Service timeline, and not the timeline suggested by Marie Fehmer's notes. A few seconds later, however, Fortas further confused this issue. He told Johnson:"Judge Hughes came about ten minutes later. And the takeoff was about fifty minutes after Mrs. Kennedy came aboard." Well, yikes. Fortas was now pushing the Fehmer timeline, and not that of the Secret Service. But wait, it gets weirder. He then continued "I had the impression it was the other way, I guess, because of what you told me. But this morning we checked the log... so she did have to wait awhile before Judge Hughes could come and before the plane could take off." Well, double yikes. This suggests that Johnson had been telling those close to him that Mrs. Kennedy had arrived after Judge Hughes, and not before.
Could his memory have really been that bad? Or was he simply willing to lie about anything?
The recollections of Congressman Jack Brooks, who'd waited with the Johnsons at Parkland, and returned to Washington with them on Air Force One, become relevant at this point. Brooks made some comments to Marie Fehmer while still aboard Air Force One. (Fehmer's notes on these comments, as Fehmer's notes on Johnson's actions, can be found on the Johnson Library website.) About Johnson's decision to leave Parkland, Brooks said merely that, after being told by the Secret Service that Kennedy had expired, and urged to "leave now," Johnson "thought he should not do that until they got a medical determination rather than a non-professional comment." When interviewed for the Johnson Library on 2-1-71, moreover, Brooks once again said nothing of Johnson's deciding, while still at Parkland, that he would wait for Mrs. Kennedy and the body when he got to the plane. Instead, when asked if Johnson was committed to the suggestion he be sworn-in on the airplane when Brooks first raised the issue, Brooks claimed: "He hadn't been committed to anything, he had just got there! The question hadn't come up. He agreed that that was the thing he ought to do. They got hold of Sarah Hughes and Sarah came out. We were waiting, of course, until Mrs. Kennedy, who wanted to ride back with us apparently, and the coffin."
Hmmm... How did Brooks come to believe it was Mrs. Kennedy's desire she ride back with Johnson? There's no evidence she was ever asked about this. Was this something Johnson had told Brooks?
And why did Brooks make it sound as though Mrs. Kennedy had arrived after Hughes? Was this something he'd come to believe, over time? Or was this something Johnson had told him, as well as Fortas?
In any event, Johnson's being told by Fortas that he would have to concede this point--that his decision to be sworn-in in Dallas had indeed inconvenienced Mrs. Kennedy--was not readily accepted. He began grasping at straws... He asked Fortas: "Is that gonna react on us or on them? That the president shouldn't be on the plane where the black bag is and where the communications is, and he should have gone on and taken off without takin' the oath?"
This was balderdash, of course, and bald-faced balderdash at that. The "bag," or "football," was a briefcase containing the nuclear launch codes. It was carried by an officer in the Signal Corps named Ira Gearhart. It was not on Air Force One. It was portable, and was designed to follow the President wherever he went. Johnson knew this, of course. He almost certainly knew as well that the bag could be used on his plane as easily as it could be used on Kennedy's plane. If he was so concerned about Gearhart and the bag when he left for the airport, for that matter, why did he leave without Gearhart, and force Gearhart to find his own way to the airport?
On 12-20-66, Johnson discussed the matter further, this time with Robert Kintner. Kintner told him that he'd had a talk with Mike Cowles, the publisher of Look Magazine, which was preparing to syndicate excerpts from Manchester's book. Kintner reported that "Bobby Kennedy does not agree that he told you to be sworn-in on Air Force One," but that, on the brighter side, Cowles claimed to have cut 90% of the material harmful to Johnson from the upcoming excerpts. According to Kintner, Cowles also offered to let Kintner come by and read the excerpts in secret. This, presumably, calmed Johnson down a bit just in time for Christmas.
On 12-26-66, however, he got reheated. Press Secretary Bill Moyers had received a copy of the January 2, 1967 issue of Newsweek. An article in this issue on the upcoming Manchester book relates: "Mr. Johnson's own recollection of his succession to power differs sharply from the Kennedys' evident perception of it. The Secret Service, he recalled, wanted to put him aboard Air Force One with its superior communications gear and to place Mr. Kennedy's coffin on the Vice Presidential plane, Air Force Two, which had flown LBJ to Texas. But Mr. Johnson ordered the body put aboard Air Force One. 'I wasn't going to let Mrs. Kennedy fly back alone with his body,' he explained to intimates."
Hmmm... This story was not only different from O'Donnell's recollections, it was different from Johnson's previous statements to the Warren Commission. To all appearances, Johnson was now trying to blame the Secret Service for his decision to fly back on Air Force One--a decision he'd previously attributed to O'Donnell.
As to the other main point of contention--whether or not Robert Kennedy had told Johnson he should be sworn-in in Dallas--Johnson appeared to stand firm. Newsweek reported: "He recalls telephoning Bobby ('I hate to bother you at a time like this, but') and asking for a ruling. Kennedy, he said, told him 'I think you should be sworn-in there,' but Bobby also said he would check it and call back. The return call came instead from then Deputy Attorney General Nicholas DeB Katzenbach, who advised Mr. Johnson to take the presidential oath at once and dictated its wording to a Johnson secretary."
Now, let's look at that again, in slo-mo. Johnson had told the Warren Commission, that after initially talking to Kennedy, "I thereafter talked with McGeorge Bundy and Walter Jenkins, both of whom urged that the return to Washington should not be delayed. I told them I was waiting for Mrs. Kennedy and for the President's body to be placed on the plane, and would not return prior to that time. As I remember, our conversation was interrupted to allow the Attorney General to come back on the line. He said that the oath should be administered to me immediately, before taking off for Washington, and that it should be administered by a judicial officer of the United States. Shortly thereafter, the Deputy Attorney General, Mr. Katzenbach, dictated the form of oath to one of the secretaries aboard the plane." Hmmm... He was thereby claiming Kennedy had told him in a brief second conversation that he should be sworn-in in Dallas. His story had changed. He was now telling people Kennedy had told him in their first and only conversation that he should be sworn-in in Dallas. While he may have simply forgotten about the second conversation, it doesn't say much for Johnson's credibility that he couldn't even keep his story straight.
If it was even his story... The tape of the phone call between Moyers and Johnson on 12-26 reveals that Moyers had called Charles Roberts of Newsweek and complained that, despite Newsweek's representations, Johnson had not actually spoken to Newsweek for the article. According to Moyers, Roberts freely admitted that they had not spoken to Johnson, but claimed "I talked to people to whom the President talked, and I'm confident of the information that we received." Johnson then told Moyers "I think we better write a nice paragraph and say, I've had no interviews on the subject at all. And this is completely inaccurate, and untrue, and unfair...that I've asked my staff not to discuss it. And ask 'em to publish it..." Johnson had thereby indicated his dissatisfaction with the article.
He was unhappy with the article and he wanted everyone to know about it. Johnson Press Secretary George Christian spoke about the article hours later, and his comments were picked up in the evening papers. A 12-26-66 UPI article found in the Eugene Register quotes Christian as follows: "The President has granted no interviews to anyone including Mr. Manchester and has asked his staff to refrain from discussing the subject--the entire subject of the book...He did not talk to Newsweek." The article then quotes what would appear to be an official statement by Johnson: "I'll not discuss the various attributions credited to so-called friends and alleged intimates except to say that I believe them to be inaccurate and untrue."
And yet...there's reason to believe Johnson was bluffing. Over the course of their long and winding phone call, Johnson and Moyers came to agree that the writers of the article hadn't just made stuff up, and that a number of those close to Johnson had in fact spoon-fed them the article. While several segments of the article were misleading and inaccurate, it seems more than a coincidence that, but 10 days before Moyers' called Johnson to complain about an article telling Johnson's side in Newsweek, Robert Kintner had suggested the administration plant a story in Newsweek.
And that was but one of the coincidences. It also seems more than a coincidence that the claim in the article that Johnson was pressured to fly back on Air Force One, due to its superior communications, was something Johnson had just told Fortas. And it's also a bit odd that, while it was Moyers who'd called Johnson to tell him about the article, it was Johnson who told Moyers several minutes into their discussion that Charles Roberts' co-writer on the article was a woman named Norma Milligan, and that she'd flown in from Oklahoma to work on the article. And it also seems odd that, a short time after completing his call with Johnson, Moyers called him back to tell him he'd just spoken to Fortas, and that Fortas had said that Johnson should be "careful" in his complaining about the article because "most of it is good for our side," and that "it makes you look good, even if it is based upon an inaccurate thing." This, then, led Moyers and Johnson into a discussion of the problems inherent with too many people thinking they know the President's thoughts, and their sharing these thoughts with hungry journalists, desperate for an inside scoop. At one point, Johnson even admits "i would imagine it's (Washington insider and Johnson adviser) Clark Clifford, or Abe, or somebody that just had these feelings."
The probability, then, is that the article was indeed fed Newsweek by Johnson's people, with Johnson's approval, but behind Moyers' back. While historian Max Holland, for one, takes Johnson's complaints about the article, and Johnson's professed desire to stay above the fray, seriously, it seems more likely Johnson was lying through his teeth to Moyers, at one time one of his most trusted assistants, but by December 1966 a no-longer entirely trusted lame duck on his way out the door.
Johnson's problem with telling the truth, after all, is more than apparent when one studies his phone calls. At one point in this call, Johnson reads sections of the Newsweek article to Moyers, and complains about each section. When he comes to the section on the oath of office, and reads "'I think you should be sworn-in there,' Bobby said," he complains "I don't think Bobby said that at all. I don't think Bobby took any initiative or any direction. I think that Bobby agreed that it would be all right to be sworn-in, and said he wanted to look into it, and he would get back to me, which he did."
Oops. Let's recall that Johnson had complained to Fortas on the 17th that "there's also an implication that Bobby didn't want us to take the oath, when the implication to me was that he thought it better to take it there. And that he would have somebody call me and give me the oath." Johnson had thereby indicated that Kennedy had never actually told him to take the oath. Now, in this call with Moyers, he confirmed that Kennedy had never specified such a thing. And yet, Johnson had told the Warren Commission on 7-10-64 that Kennedy had "said that the oath should be administered to me immediately, before taking off for Washington." And yet, Jackie Kennedy had told William Manchester in early '64 that Johnson had told her on the plane that Kennedy had "said he had to be sworn-in right there in Dallas." And yet, Marie Fehmer's notes from 11-22-63, typed up on the plane en route to Washington, reflect that Johnson had told her that he'd just been talking to Walter Jenkins, and that "The Attorney General interrupted the conversation to say that I ought to have a judicial officer administer the oath here." And yes, she put this in quotes, indicating it was a direct quote from Johnson.
Johnson had been telling people from day one that Robert Kennedy had specifically told him he should be sworn-in in Dallas, and was now admitting to his advisers, in phone calls he'd never dreamed would become available to the public, that Robert Kennedy had done no such thing!
Hmmm... This makes McCone's claim to Manchester--that he'd overheard Kennedy tell Johnson he should be sworn-in immediately--even more curious, yes?
Conclusion number 7: Johnson lied both on the plane, and afterwards, about the substance of his call with Robert Kennedy.
The Rorschach Blot As Seen By Victor Lasky
The Kennedy/Johnson divide over what happened on the plane was by now the talk of the nation. On 12-26-66, newspaper columnist Victor Lasky wrote a column on the feud (which I found in the Youngstown Vindicator), which could only have fanned the flames. No fan of the Kennedys, or of Johnson, Lasky defended Johnson from the beginning of his column--not so subtly entitled "The Way LBJ Took Reins is Among His Finest Hours"--to the end. He started out by claiming the Kennedys' disapproval of Johnson had long been apparent. He then wrote: "Now it turns out that Mrs. Kennedy gave author Manchester a highly emotional account of what transpired aboard Air Force One shortly after the assassination. As she apparently told the story, Lyndon Johnson was boorishly insensitive to her feelings at her time of supreme trial. Among other things, she resented Mr. Johnson's appropriation of Air Force One and his insistence that she be present when he was sworn-in as President. The truth is that it was the Secret Service that made the crucial decision for Johnson to fly back to Washington immediately, and it was the Secret Service that rushed him--in an unmarked car--to Air Force One. At the time, no one really knew what lay behind the assassination. The fact that the alleged assassin was known to be some sort of communist, a defector to the Soviet Union, led to the fear that the Russians might have decided to attack this country. It was Johnson himself who decided that he take the oath as President, believing--and very wisely--that in a time of such grave emergency the nation should not be leaderless." Lasky then proceeded to claim "If anything, it was Kenneth O'Donnell, the late President's appointments secretary, who acted boorishly on Air Force One...He actually barred the way to prevent the new President from accompanying the widow as she left the plane with the coffin." He then offered: "My information, obtained for a new book on Robert F. Kennedy, suggests that Johnson acted with great restraint and dignity. The manner in which he assumed leadership may well go down in history as one of his finest hours. The memory of those tragic days should not be sullied by the hysterical recollections of Mrs. Kennedy and O'Donnell...The fact remains, too, that no matter what she might have believed later, Mrs. Kennedy apparently had thought differently a month after the assassination. Then Mrs. Kennedy, in praising the new President for his behavior toward her, sent him a gift that 'Jack would have wanted you to have.'"
This column is intriguing for a number of reasons. First, it followed Johnson's most recent lead and blamed the Secret Service for Johnson taking Kennedy's plane. Second, it acknowledged it was Johnson's decision to be sworn-in Dallas. Third, it grossly disguised the circumstances under which Johnson decided to be sworn-in; Johnson knew nothing of Oswald or his background when he decided to take the oath in Dallas, and his suggestions to Robert Kennedy and others that he thought a foreign power may have been behind the shooting--when the clear LOGICAL assumption under the circumstances was that it was a domestic hit--is surprising, if not downright suspicious. Fourth, it was grossly insulting to Mrs. Kennedy; it points out that she gave an "emotional account" to Manchester, and later describes her recollections as "hysterical." The clear intent, then, is to paint her as a weak and silly woman lacking in credibility. This is reinforced in the last sentence of the column, in which Mrs. Kennedy's private words to Johnson are quoted. This quote could only have come from someone close to Johnson. Thus, through his words, Lasky had showed his cards. His column was an attack piece, almost certainly fed him by the same people behind the article in Newsweek. It was also a threat--it sent a signal to the Kennedys that Johnson was willing to use Mrs. Kennedy's letters to discredit her.
On 12-28-66, Jake Jacobsen, a Johnson assistant tasked with reading through a draft of Manchester's book, identifying potential problems, and double-checking details, received a memo from the White House Communications Agency detailing Robert Kennedy's phone calls on 11-22-63. This memo established that Johnson called Kennedy at 1:56 CST, and that Kennedy called Johnson back at 2:02 CST. This information was never leaked to the public.
We can only guess why. Marie Fehmer's notes show that Hughes called in at 2:02. They also show that her office was first contacted a few minutes earlier. If Kennedy had told Johnson he should be sworn-in during their second phone call, as Johnson claimed in his initial statement, and this was at 2:02, as purported by the White House Communications Office, it meant that Johnson called Sarah Hughes to ask her to swear him in before Robert Kennedy had ever told him he should be sworn-in in Dallas.
It's even worse than that. Let's recall that Fehmer's notes reflect that the oath of office was administered at 2:40, while the watches of the reporters in attendance reflect that it took place at 2:37 or 2:38. This suggests that the watch or clock she was using for guidance was a few minutes fast. The times for the calls on the White House Communications Office memo received by Jacobsen are presumably accurate. It seems possible, then, that Judge Hughes said she was on her way at 2:00, 2 minutes before Robert Kennedy called Johnson back, and supposedly told him he should be sworn-in.
This is at odds, however, with Fehmer's notes. They quote Johnson talking about his phone call to Robert Kennedy before they mention Judge Hughes' calling in and saying she'd be there in 10 minutes.
Perhaps, then, the times on her notes were just wrong... Perhaps Johnson was trying to hide that it took so long to find Hughes, and had asked Fehmer to claim Hughes called him back at 2:02, when she'd really called back at 2:14, just as Mrs. Kennedy was pulling up outside. Now, that would explain not only the discrepancy between Fehmer's notes and the White House Communications Agency on the timing of the phone calls, but the discrepancy between Fehmer's notes and the Secret Service on the timing of Mrs. Kennedy's arrival on the plane. Perhaps the two "2:02's" provided in her type-written notes were supposed to read "2:14," or even later.
But this point is not as clear as one would hope. A brief quote attributed to pilot James Swindal in the 11-20-88 Dallas Morning News supports that Hughes called in at the earlier time. According to Swindal, "It took quite a little bit" of time for Judge Hughes to reach the plane. If she'd called Johnson back at 2:18, or even 2:14, and arrived at 2:30--after telling Johnson she'd be there in 10 minutes--it seems unlikely Swindal would complain in such a manner. It seems more probable, then, that she called in much earlier, shortly after 2:00 (2:02 by Fehmer's watch), and was incredibly slow in arriving.
No matter what--whether Hughes called in at 2:00 or 2:14--however, the list of calls provided Jacobsen presented a new problem for Johnson. By his account, he called Robert Kennedywithin a few minutes of reaching the plane. By most accounts, including Fehmer's notes, he reached the plane at 1:40, or earlier. So what did Johnson do for 16 minutes or more, after reaching the plane, but before calling Kennedy? Did he sit there watching TV with Congressmen Jack Brooks, Homer Thornberry, and Albert Thomas, discussing his next move? Really? For 16 minutes or more? While he was purportedly scared that a conspiracy was afoot? While the Secret Service was begging him to leave?
I suspect not. I suspect that Johnson, in fact, decided to be sworn-in in Dallas within a few minutes of his arrival on the plane. I suspect that he then had someone call Hughes, in an effort to get her to come out and swear him in. Only they couldn't find her. I suspect that he then, and only then, decided to call Robert Kennedy, and get some political cover for his decision to be sworn-in in Dallas.
This isn't as wild as one might first suspect. Judge Hughes was interviewed on the night of the shooting. An 11-23-63 article in the Dallas Morning News reports: "'I went home and then I called my office,' Judge Hughes said Friday night. 'First, the vice-president was on the line and then Barefoot Sanders. He (Sanders) told me the vice-president wanted me to swear him in. I drove by myself to the airport.'" Wait...by saying Johnson was on the line, was she saying that she actually spoke to him? Or simply that he, as Sanders, had called her office?
Apparently the latter. She told a similar story to the Houston Post's Gene Goltz for his 11-23-63 article on the swearing-in. Goltz related: "Federal District Judge Sarah T. Hughes was sitting at home when she received word that Lyndon Johnson wanted her to swear him in as President of the United States. She had just returned from the Trade Mart, where 3,500 persons had gathered for a luncheon to honor the late President Kennedy only to learn that he and Gov. John Connally had been shot. 'On the way to my car, I learned that he (President Kennedy) was dead,' Judge Hughes told the Houston Post by telephone. 'I went home because I felt there was nothing I could do at the courthouse...everything there would be so upset.' As soon as she got home, she called her office, she recalled. U.S. Atty. Barefoot Sanders was in her office, and he told her Johnson wanted her to swear him in. Johnson and his wife were waiting aboard the presidential airplane at Love Field, ordinarily a 10-minute drive from Judge Hughes' home. Mrs. Jackie Kennedy and various aides and Secret Service men were there, too. 'I made the trip in about 5 minutes,' Judge Hughes said."
So, yes, it appears Johnson called Hughes' office, but never actually spoke to her.
Hughes would later make this clear, moreover. When interviewed for the Johnson Library on 10-7-68, Judge Hughes described her non-conversation with Johnson in the following manner: "The first call was by an aide of the Vice-President, and my law clerk had answered the phone, and he had said that he didn't know where I was. Immediately after he hung up, the phone rang again and it was the Vice-President. He told John Spinuzzi, who was my law clerk--said that he wanted to find me, and John says, 'Well, we'll find her.' Just at that time Barefoot came in the office and at that time the phone rang and I was on the other end of the line." It seems likely, for that matter, that she told this same story to William Manchester when interviewed by him on 9-19-64.
Now, let's backtrack. Hughes told Goltz Mrs. Kennedy was waiting on the plane when she received the call from Sanders.
And this wasn't a one-time mis-statement... Judge Hughes was interviewed by the Dallas Times-Herald for an article on the tenth anniversary of the assassination. In this article, published on 11-21-73, Judge Hughes explained that "It was 2:15 PM that Friday...and I had just reached home from the Trade Mart..." when she first called her clerk. Hughes then reported "She told me that Barefoot Sanders, U.S. attorney, wanted to speak to me...Then I heard his familiar voice. 'The vice president wants you to swear him as president. How soon can you get to the airport?'"
Well, there it is. Strong support from Judge Hughes herself that she was still at home at 2:15, the time of Mrs. Kennedy's arrival at the plane, and was told to go the airport by Sanders, not Johnson. This supports then what we've already come to conclude: that Johnson's swearing-in had not been arranged when Mrs. Kennedy reached the plane, and that Mrs. Kennedy was forced to wait for Judge Hughes' arrival.
We can now accept this as a fact, moreover. In 2016, Secret Service agent Clint Hill (Mrs. Kennedy's bodyguard) addressed this very issue in his memoir, Five Presidents. Hill recalled that upon placing President Kennedy's casket on the plane "we got word that Johnson needed to be officially sworn-in by a federal judge before we took off. Calls were made, and soon thereafter federal judge Sarah Hughes arrived and boarded Air Force One."
But that still doesn't tell us when Johnson first started looking for Judge Hughes And who's this "Barefoot?"
"Barefoot" was Barefoot Sanders, the U.S. Attorney in Dallas. He'd been in the motorcade, and had reported for work, compiling lists of right-wing suspects, after realizing the President had been shot. On 3-24-69, he was interviewed for the Johnson Library, and claimed that he was called at work by a friend of Johnson's named Irving Goldberg. He added "I think I told Irving I was going to locate Judge Hughes. I went up to her office; she could not be found and when I was up there, a call came in--A call came in to me downstairs from the plane. I don't know who it was; it was not the Vice-President. "Can you find her?" Irving and I talked about it. I went tearing upstairs to her office. She was not there. When I got up there...I was on the third floor, she was on the fourth. And when I got up there, which must not have been forty seconds, the phone was ringing and it was the plane trying to reach her. And I said 'I'll try to get her.' So then I got her on the other phone, and I gave that agent--whoever it was-- to one of the secretaries there, and I reached her at home and asked her to get on out there." Sanders was interviewed by Manchester on 9-22-64, 9-26-64, and 5-27-65, and apparently told a similar story. Similar, but not identical. In Manchester's book, and Judge Hughes' account with the Johnson Library, she calls in by pure chance just as Sanders comes into her office, and Sanders is handed the phone.
Hmmm... So Judge Hughes thought she'd called in, and just so happened to call when Sanders was in her office trying to find her, and Sanders later claimed he'd actually tracked her down. Well, that could be an honest conflict of memories. More interesting, by far, is Sanders' recollection Goldberg asked Sanders to find Judge Hughes before Sanders ever spoke to Fehmer, or Valenti, or whoever called him from the plane. This suggests that someone--perhaps Johnson--had called Goldberg first, and asked him to find Hughes. And this suggests, in turn, that it wasn't such a bang-bang-bang operation after all...
So what about Goldberg? Did he confirm he'd been called by Johnson?
Yes. Goldberg was interviewed by Manchester on 9-24-64. Note that this is 5 days after Manchester first spoke to Hughes, and 2 days after he first spoke to Sanders. It follows then that Hughes led Manchester to Sanders and Sanders led Manchester to Goldberg. He must have felt he was really onto something. Johnson hadn't mentioned Sanders or Goldberg to the Warren Commission. He'd made it seem as if he called Robert Kennedy seeking advice on the swearing-in, that Robert Kennedy called him back a few minutes later telling him he needed to be sworn-in, that he then and only then called Hughes' office, and that she returned his call a few minutes later. If that was the way it all went down, however, why did Johnson even call Goldberg?
Manchester provides some help on this question. He presents that after getting off the phone with Robert Kennedy, Johnson had Fehmer call Mrs. Johnson's lawyer, J.W. Bullion, only to find that he was out of town. He says that he then asked her to "Get Sarah Hughes," and that when that effort failed, he told her to "Try Irv Goldberg." Well, let's note right here that Bullion and Goldberg were lawyers, not Judges. They couldn't swear him in, they could only offer advice. Now, does it make a lot of sense for us to believe he'd reached out for their advice after talking to the Attorney General, and being told he needed to be sworn-in? Of course not.
Now, if he'd had any reason to believe Bullion or Goldberg had an inside track on Hughes' whereabouts, that would be one thing. But, as presented by Manchester, Johnson never asked Goldberg about Hughes's whereabouts. Instead, he quoted Johnson as asking Goldberg "This is Lyndon. Do you think I should be sworn-in here or in Washington?" and Goldberg as responding "I think here." He then quoted Johnson as asking "Who should do it?" and Goldberg answering "Sarah Hughes." He then quoted Johnson as telling Goldberg "We're trying to get her here. You try, too." And then described Goldberg's decision to call Sanders. That's it. Goldberg had no inside track on Hughes. And Johnson knew it. He'd called Goldberg for advice, pure and simple.
And he even admitted this to Manchester. While Johnson refused to grant Manchester an interview, he did respond to some written questions on 6-24-65. Apparently, some of these were on his contact with Goldberg. While Johnson's answers are apparently still unavailable, Manchester does quote a few of them in his book. In a footnote regarding Goldberg's claim he told Johnson "I think here," to be clear, Manchester cites that Johnson in his written statement claimed Goldberg had been more definitive, and had "advised" him "he should be 'sworn-in at once, and undertook to locate Judge Sarah Hughes to administer the oath.'"
Well, if Robert Kennedy had already told Johnson he'd look into this question, and had called him back insisting that he needed to be sworn-in immediately--before leaving Dallas--would Johnson waste precious minutes seeking further advice? I think not.
That Johnson had called Goldberg before talking to Kennedy becomes even more clear when one reads Goldberg's subsequent statements. Goldberg was interviewed for the Johnson Library on 11-2-69. There, he said he'd been at the Trade Mart with his wife awaiting the President's arrival, and had just been informed of the shooting. He then recalled "I said, 'Well, Marian, let's get on out of here as quickly as we can.' So we went to the car and I said, 'I'm going home. I'm not going to go on.' So I went home. When I got in the house, I immediately went upstairs and flipped on the TV. I was in the contour lounge. I turned it on and the picture had not even come on. I just turned it, hadn't gotten a picture, and the phone rang and it was my office, my switchboard operator says that the Dallas White House is trying to get you. I said, 'Well, we better hang up.' So I hung up and the phone rang within seconds. I heard, 'Is this Irving Goldberg?' I said 'Yes.' 'Well, this is the Dallas White House. Hold the phone.' Well, I held the phone, I kept hearing a lot of noise, booping and beeping around, I didn't know what it was. I hung on for about a minute, and I hung up. I thought maybe we missed connection. I didn't know what to do. Electronics is something I don't understand at all...Sure enough the phone rang again and the same voice says 'Would you please hold the phone?' Maybe they had to do something, I don't know. Anyway, I held this time and pretty soon--it wasn't too long really--a voice says, 'This is Lyndon.' He said, 'Irving, I want to talk to you. I want to ask some questions awful fast. I need some quick opinions.' I said, 'I'll do my best.' He said, 'First, should I take the oath here or go to Washington?' I said 'Take it here.' He said, 'Who should give the oath?' I said, 'Mr. President, you are now the president of the United States, in my opinion, by constitutional devolution, but I could be wrong. I would take the oath, though I think you are now the president.' He said, 'Who can give the oath?' I said, 'Well to be perfectly blunt, a notary public could give it, anyone that can take an oath. But I suggest that you have a federal judge.' I was not a judge, of course. 'I would have a judge.' He said, 'Well, who do you have in mind? Do you have anyone in mind?' And I said, 'I would have Sarah Hughes.' He said, 'I think that is excellent. Everything you said I agree with.' Then he said the strangest thing. He said, 'Will you try to get her for me?' To me, the President of the United States asking me sitting in my home, well this doesn't make [sense]. I said, 'Well, Mr . President'...I said 'Mr. President of course I'll try to get her, and I am sure you are going to try to get her. By the way, you haven't told me where you are.' He says, 'I'm at Love Field in Air Force One.' And I said, 'I'll work on it and you work on it.' We hung up and I thought for about a second or two, half a minute, what to do. Then it hit me. So I called Barefoot and luck was with me. I knew his secretary. I said, 'This is Irving Goldberg. I don't want any preliminaries. I want Barefoot now.' She said, 'He is here,' and put him on for me. I said, 'Barefoot, no time for conversation, listen to me and act. The President is at Air Force One. He wants Sarah Hughes to swear him in. You find her. Use the FBI, use the Secret Service, use the Chief of Police, you know who to use. I don't know who to use. You get her there.' So he hung up, and he tells me he ran down to her floor. Well, anyway he went to her office and she happened to be on the phone talking to her secretary when he walked in her office, so he was able to tell her exactly what to do and what it was all about."
And that wasn't the only time Goldberg told his story. As discussed in his 1995 obituary in the Dallas Morning News, Goldberg was interviewed for Litigation Magazine in 1991. This is a legal publication, and not one readily found online or in in your local Library. The quotes from this article cited in his obituary, however, indicate that he repeated his much-earlier recollections to the Johnson library almost word for word. The one notable addition, however, was that Goldberg now claimed that when he told Johnson he'd automatically became president upon Kennedy's death, and didn't need to be sworn-in, Johnson expressed surprise, and asked "Don't I need to be sworn-in?" Perhaps, then, this reflects that someone--most likely Jack Brooks or Albert Thomas--had told Johnson it wasn't just desirable he be sworn-in, but necessary.
In any event, hmmm... Johnson asked Goldberg the same questions he asked Bobby. Hmmm... Goldberg made no mention of Johnson's saying he'd already talked to Bobby. Hmmm... When Bobby talked to Manchester, months before Johnson issued his statement to the Warren Commission, he said Johnson told him that "a lot of people" had told him he should be sworn-in in Dallas--"a lot of people." That suggests more than Jack Brooks and Albert Thomas--the two congressmen with Johnson encouraging him to take the oath. It's reasonable to assume, moreover, that Johnson wouldn't even mention this to Bobby if these "people" were unfamiliar with the law. It seems likely, then, that Johnson called Bobby after talking to Goldberg, after he'd already decided to be sworn-in by Hughes. In such case it follows that Johnson only called Bobby for political reasons, and that the story he'd told Marie Fehmer on the plane--that he'd called Bobby to find out about the oath, and that he only called Hughes after being told to take the oath by Bobby--was a deliberate fabrication.
But what does Marie Fehmer have to say about all this? Well, she's kind of all over the map. Manchester interviewed her on 6-11-64. Note that this is before he spoke to Hughes and discovered Sanders' role in tracking her down, spoke to Sanders and discovered someone had called him from the plane, and spoke to Goldberg and discovered he'd actually spoken with Johnson. Although Manchester's notes on their discussion are still not widely available, it seems probable she told him the story as it's written in her notes. In Manchester's book, after all, he describes her walking into the bedroom on the plane, and Johnson telling her to write down what happened when he called Robert Kennedy. It does not reveal that she was actually in the room when he called Kennedy.
And yes, you read that right. In an 8-16-72 interview with the Johnson Library, she described her activities on the plane: "For the first hour or so, as far as I got was the sofa room. I didn't know about the rest of the plane. During that time, I know we called Walter a couple of times in Washington. I remember hearing the Vice President say, 'Do you know whether or not this is some sort of plot? Are they out to get a lot of us?' He was very much concerned at that time about whether or not it was a plot. I remember he asked that all the TV's be turned on in the plane. And I remember the search for Sarah Hughes. It was at that time that he began to feel a little strange, in that he was in public as far as all these strangers were concerned, all the Kennedy people...Here was just a man who needed to make maybe the biggest decision of his life and didn't want to make it in a circus, just like you might like to go into a phone booth instead of talking out in the middle of an airport. So we went into the bedroom. My memory is that the beds were made up; two single beds were on either side of the stateroom. There was a desk and a chair, and the desk was facing one of the beds. He sat on one of the beds, and I sat at the desk in the chair, where the phone was. We started looking for Sarah Hughes, and it wasn't easy."
So Johnson went into the bedroom to look for Hughes. Hmmm... It's usually reported that he went into the bedroom to call Bobby. Fehmer thereby supports the possibility Johnson went into the bedroom to call Goldberg and Hughes' office and only called Bobby after failing to find Hughes.
Fehmer, however, ruled this out in her oral history. She claimed Johnson's phone call to Hughes came after Johnson "knew that he had to take the oath of office there. This decision was made after he talked to Bobby and Walter Jenkins." Hmmm... Perhaps she'd been misled by Johnson. Perhaps she was covering for Johnson. Or perhaps she was simply mistaken. It's tough to say for sure.
But this we can say for sure: there's something odd about Fehmer's notes and recollections regarding Johnson's discussions with Bobby. Her notes reflect that "The President had talked to McGeorge Bundy via WH line before I got there." They later reflect that Bundy called in between Johnson's phone calls with Bobby. On 1-30-69, Bundy granted an interview with the Johnson Library. He said "I telephoned first that afternoon to say to him what I'm sure he had already decided...The burden of my message was simply that he must come back as fast as possible, and of course that was everybody's view from here, and he'd already decided that. I did not get involved in this sort of take the oath here or there kind of question. I think that phone call came after that." Well, if Marie Fehmer came into the room after Johnson talked with Bundy, and Johnson then described to her a second conversation with Bundy in the middle of a phone call with Robert Kennedy, which she'd supposedly just missed, why single out the first call as one that occurred before she got there? They both occurred before she got there, right? Perhaps, then, she was actually there when Johnson talked to Bundy the second time, and her notes on this were replaced by what Johnson had told her to write.
Let's read the notes again, with the problematic section highlighted. "1:40 P.M. Arrive Air Force One. Go into bedroom of plane to use phone. The President had talked to McGeorge Bundy via WH line before I got there. When I walked in, the President looked up and said 'Write this down as what has happened. I talked to the Attorney General...Asked him what we should do...where I should take the oath...here or there...said he would like to look into it...and would notify me whether we should take it here or not... McGeorge Bundy and Walter called me...thought we should come to Washington as soon as could. Told them I was waiting for the body and Mrs. Kennedy. The Attorney General interrupted the conversation to say that I ought to have a judicial officer administer the oath here.' Then I tried to get Waddy Bullion for the President...he was out of his office. Called Judge Sarah Hughes' office...they said she was not there. The President said that he'd talk to anyone in her office. He got on the phone and told the person at the other end that he needed someone to administer the oath...and to find her...and to get her to Love Field. Judge Hughes called in at 2:02--said she could get to the plane in ten minutes. The President left the bedroom in the plane--where above had taken place--and came into the stateroom to wait Mrs. Kennedy's arrival and to join Mrs. Johnson, J. Valenti, Cong. Thornberry, Cong, Brooks, Cong. Thomas, Rufus Yongblood and MF. Mrs. Kennedy arrived at 2:02 with the body. She was met by the President and Mrs. Johnson and comforted."
Now let's re-read her typed-up notes, without the part put in by Johnson: "1:40 P.M. Arrive Air Force One. Go into bedroom of plane to use phone. The President had talked to McGeorge Bundy via WH line before I got there. Then I tried to get Waddy Bullion for the President...he was out of his office. Called Judge Sarah Hughes' office...they said she was not there. The President said that he'd talk to anyone in her office. He got on the phone and told the person at the other end that he needed someone to administer the oath...and to find her...and to get her to Love Field." (Note: the section in Fehmer's notes on the phone calls with Kennedy most probably resided here prior to Johnson's replacing them with his own version.) The notes continued: "Judge Hughes called in at 2:02--said she could get to the plane in ten minutes. The President left the bedroom in the plane--where above had taken place--and came into the stateroom to wait Mrs. Kennedy's arrival and to join Mrs. Johnson, J. Valenti, Cong. Thornberry, Cong, Brooks, Cong. Thomas, Rufus Youngblood and MF. Mrs. Kennedy arrived at 2:02 with the body. She was met by the President and Mrs. Johnson and comforted."
Now, the notes read much better, and make a lot more sense, without the part put in by Johnson. This supports the possibility the notes Fehmer typed up on 11-22-63 were inaccurate, and deliberately so... Let's reread the offending passage: "When I walked in, the President looked up and said 'Write this down as what has happened..." Well, there it is. Fehmer had pointed her finger at Johnson in her notes.
And this isn't just silly conjecture on my part. In her 1972 oral history, Fehmer as much as admitted the section of her notes on Johnson's phone call to Bobby was a lie. Yes, amazingly, she claimed she was in the room during the Johnson/Robert Kennedy phone calls about the swearing-in. She asserted: "I heard the President's end of it, but I didn't overhear anything that Bobby said, because I was just there." And that was just the half of it. When discussing the second phone call, she said "I think Bobby started it and turned the phone to Katzenbach." When then asked what their voices were like, she said Katzenbach's was "controlled; he was like steel. Bobby's was not when he started. I remember when he started, I kept thinking, 'You shouldn't be doing this.'"
So, she was not only in the room when Johnson talked with Robert Kennedy, she remembered the sound of Kennedy's voice!
This brings us back to Spinuzzi, Judge Hughes' law clerk. Spinuzzi was never interviewed by the Warren Commission, nor by the Johnson Library. He never made a statement to the FBI. He was, however, interviewed by the Dallas Morning News in 1983 and 1988, and quoted in The Dallas Morning News on 11-20-88. He claimed that, after receiving the initial phone call from Marie Fehmer: "I think the phone rested on the cradle 20 seconds, and it rang again. It was Vice-President Johnson... He said 'I want Sarah Hughes to meet me at the airport. President Kennedy is dead, and I want her to swear me in. I don't care what you have to do--find her.' About 20-25 minutes later, she just by chance called in. She immediately asked us to locate the oath of office."
So, Fehmer suggested there had been some trouble finding Hughes, and Spinuzzi thought Fehmer's first phone call to Hughes came 20-25 minutes before he told Hughes anyone was looking for her. Their recollections are thereby consistent, and consistent with the implications of Sanders' statement he'd first been called by Goldberg, and Goldberg's statement he'd just got home when he received the call from Johnson. Fehmer's notes say Hughes called in at 2:02. If accurate, this suggests that Johnson decided to have the oath administered by Hughes around 1:42--a few minutes after reaching the plane. This suggests as well that he first called Robert Kennedy to discuss the oath 14 minutes or so after he'd already decided to have the oath administered by Hughes.
But what if Fehmer's notes were inaccurate, and Hughes really called in as Mrs. Kennedy arrived, at 2:15? Well, that's no better for Johnson. That would mean, if Spinuzzi's memory is to be trusted, that Johnson called Hughes' office between 1:50--1:55, just before calling Kennedy at 1:56.
It seems clear then: Johnson called Hughes before talking to Kennedy.
And Spinuzzi wasn't the only one suggesting this scenario in an article written for the 25th anniversary of the shooting. On 11-22-88, the Washington Post published an article on Johnson's first day in office by former Johnson aide--and chief defender--Jack Valenti. Valenti, who sat with Johnson in the presidential compartment for much of the flight back from Dallas, asserted that on the plane "LBJ made a decision that proved to be wise. He made a phone call to Robert Kennedy, the attorney general, and told Kennedy he was determined to be sworn-in on the plane before taking off. Kennedy reminded him he didn't have to be sworn-in there. He was president by virtue of the Constitution, and the swearing-in was not immediately required. Johnson murmured that he understood, but he would be sworn-in as soon as U.S. District Judge Sarah Hughes had arrived and the body of the late president was safely on board." So, there it is--straight from the mouth of Johnson's biggest defender--Johnson not only was not told by Robert Kennedy he needed to be sworn-in in Dallas, as Johnson later insisted, but he'd decided to have Judge Hughes give him the oath before he'd even called Bobby.
Now, to be fair, there are reasons not to trust Valenti's memory. When interviewed on 10-18-69 as part of the Johnson Library Oral History project, and asked about the events leading up to Johnson's taking the oath of office on the plane, he replied "I was told that he had talked to the Attorney General, but I'm not aware of that. By the time I came aboard, I think that probably the decision was already made."
But there are reasons to doubt this as well. Johnson was still alive in 1969. And the controversy surrounding Manchester's presentation of Johnson's behavior on the plane was still fresh. And here was Valenti being interviewed by Johnson's Library. Well, do you think the ever-loyal Valenti would tell what he knew about Johnson's phone call to Kennedy, or just play dumb? I believe we should suspect the latter.
So how did Valenti describe these events after Johnson's death? Well, his 1975 book on Johnson entitled A Very Human President declares that, after coming aboard a bit after Johnson, and seeing Johnson come into the office area of the plane: "Unknown to me LBJ had just placed a call to Robert Kennedy, the attorney general, both to express his deeply felt condolences and to officially ask for advice. Both Johnson and the attorney general had determined that the oath of office should be given on the plane before Air Force One departed for Washington." Well, okay. He's repeating the story Johnson told the Warren Commission. The book was a tribute to Johnson, after all.
So, then, the first time Valenti let on that Johnson had decided to be sworn-in before talking to Bobby was 1988, 25 years after the shooting. Should we believe him?
I suspect so. An 11-23-86 article by Valenti for the Los Angeles Times foreshadowed his subsequent comments, and asserted that the decision to take the oath in Dallas was Johnson's alone. Valenti wrote: "Constitutional lawyers state that when a President dies, the Vice-president automatically becomes chief executive. No oath is necessary. But LBJ was not beguiled by what is merely legal. He knew the nation and the world were inspecting this alien cowboy assuming command of the greatest industrial and military power on the face of the earth. He knew that symbolism and perception meant far more than a mere legal opinion. So he ordered Federal District Judge Sarah Hughes to be brought to administer the oath."
And that wasn't the last time Valenti indicated it was Johnson who'd made the decision about the oath. A 7-15-91 interview with authors Deborah Hart Strober and Gerald S. Strober, published in The Kennedy Presidency, An Oral History of the Era, quotes Valenti as claiming "Johnson had determined he'd be sworn-in in Dallas, which was a brilliant move, although Robert Kennedy and Katzenbach suggested he get out of there fast." While this shores up the probability Johnson made the decision he be sworn-in in Dallas, it does little, unfortunately, to clear up the related question of when Johnson came to this decision--before or after talking to Kennedy.
In 2007, Valenti published This Time, This Place, a memoir. Thankfully, this clears it up a little. In that Valenti presented the phone calls Johnson made once in the air--such as his phone call to President Kennedy's mother--as taking place when Johnson first reached the plane, this book revealed that Valenti's latter-day memories weren't particularly credible. And yet, it's still of interest that Valenti claimed Johnson consulted with Deputy Attorney General Katzenbach and Attorney General Kennedy before his departure from Dallas, and that they urged "swift departure," and that Katzenbach had further told Johnson the oath was just a "formality" and that he could be "formally sworn-in later." Hmmm... No mention of Kennedy's opinion. Perhaps Valenti was trying to steer clear of that controversy. In any event, he then wrote that, against the advice of Katzenbach and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Johnson decided to stay put and get sworn-in in Dallas. He then asserted that "Johnson was seeing clearly what others didn't. The swearing-in ceremony wasn't essential to grant him presidential authority, but he saw that the entire world, not just the United States, was in a state of shock. LBJ judged it crucially important that he try to stanch the flow of fear before it spread too far too fast. Though I did not know it, LBJ had already summoned Judge Sarah T. Hughes."
Well, that confirms it. By 1988, if not long before, Valenti had come to believe Johnson's claim Robert Kennedy had told him to be sworn-in before leaving Dallas was untrue, and that Johnson had come to this decision entirely on his own, almost certainly before he'd even spoken to Kennedy.
Conclusion number 8: Johnson lied about the timing of his call to Robert Kennedy, and from the very beginning tried to conceal that he'd called Irving Goldberg and Sarah Hughes' office before ever calling Kennedy.
And so, as you can see, the "2:02" time provided Jacobsen for Robert Kennedy's return call to Johnson was a most inconvenient truth...for Johnson, and his claim he only called Hughes after first clearing it with Bobby.
There was just no getting around it. If Bobby called Johnson at 2:02, as seems unassailable, and Fehmer's notes claiming Hughes called in at "2:02" were incorrect, as seems possible, even likely, and Hughes really called in at 2:15 or 2:18 and told Sanders she would be at the airport in 10 minutes, was this really any better for Johnson? Was it better for Johnson if people believed he'd sat on the ground in Dallas without having a specific plan, and that he'd waited 16 minutes or more before calling Robert Kennedy, and then 6 more for Kennedy to call him back, and then another 13-16 for a judge to call in, and another 12 or so for the judge to arrive?
No, I think not. It's no wonder then that Johnson decided not to talk about the information received by Jacobsen. If Johnson had pursued this matter, and had a public debate on the events of 11-22-63, his house of cards (and lies) might very well have collapsed.
An article in the 12-29-66 New York Times, however, signaled that the criticisms of Johnson in Manchester's book, when coupled with the Kennedy's own feud with Manchester, had hurt the Kennedys more than they had hurt Johnson. The article featured a number of claims by an unnamed Kennedy associate. This associate asserted that neither Robert Kennedy or Jacqueline Kennedy had complained about Johnson's behavior to Manchester, and that the complaints in the book had come from others. It asserted as well that Mrs. Kennedy had written Johnson a number of complimentary notes since the assassination, and that Johnson retained these in his possession. It climaxed in a denial, that really wasn't a denial: "'Mrs. Kennedy never felt that it was wrong for Mr. Johnson to ride on Air Force Once,' the associate said. 'To the contrary, she felt that it would be wrong to leave Mr. Johnson behind."
Now read that again. The quote gives the appearance of being a denial of hard feelings on Mrs. Kennedy's part. But it's a total dodge. Of course, it wasn't "wrong" for Johnson to be on the plane--that wasn't the issue. The issue was his taking over the plane, and holding up its departure so he could be sworn-in in Dallas, and then falsely claiming this swearing-in had been Bobby's idea. And, of course, it would have been "wrong" to leave Johnson behind. Once again, that wasn't the issue. There was never any question of Johnson being left behind. There was a second plane, after all. The issue was Johnson's failure to leave Dallas when advised to do so, and his refusal to fly home on any plane without Mrs. Kennedy and/or the body. It seems clear, then, that this article signified a concession by the Kennedys to Johnson. They'd acknowledged Johnson had received complimentary letters from Mrs. Kennedy, and were willing to publicly support him in his PR battle against Manchester's book, provided he not release these letters to the public.
The Rorschach Blot As Seen By Drew Pearson And Jack Anderson
In any event, if Johnson and his people were unhappy with the recent article in Newsweek, fate in the form of columnist Drew Pearson gave them a second chance... A 1-11-67 column by Pearson on the controversy surrounding Manchester's book asserted that Pearson and his assistant Jack Anderson had talked with "various members of the Kennedy and Johnson staffs" and had discovered what really had happened on the tarmac at Dallas. Pearson then described some of the difficulties those close to Kennedy were having with the local authorities at the hospital. He then reported: "Meanwhile, Air Force One, the Presidential plane, had been waiting for Kennedy's body. This delay was on the personal order of the new President, and contrary to the wishes of the Secret Service. Emory Roberts of the Secret Service staff had ordered the plane to take off immediately...But Johnson ordered the plane to wait for Kennedy's body." Well, that much seems clear. Pearson then came down on the side of the Kennedy's on at least one crucial point. He continued: "Meanwhile, he telephoned Robert F. Kennedy, the Attorney General, in Washington to ask for a legal opinion as to whether he should take the oath of office immediately or wait till he got back to Washington. Bobby Kennedy did not reply immediately. But Deputy Attorney General Katzenbach called back to advise that Johnson should be sworn-in immediately." Now, this was significant in that it directly contradicted what Johnson had told the Warren Commission--that Kennedy himself had told him to take the oath. It is also significant in that it signifies yet another version of the story. To be clear, Johnson had told the Warren Commission only that "the Deputy Attorney General, Mr. Katzenbach, dictated the form of oath to one of the secretaries aboard the plane;" he said nothing of speaking to Katzenbach, or of Katzenbach's advising him to take the oath.
(It seems possible, in fact, that Johnson never even spoke to Katzenbach. In his 2008 memoir Some Of It Was Fun, Katzenbach not only failed to admit advising Johnson he should be sworn-in, he suggested that he'd never spoken to Johnson on the issue. There, in Katzenbach's final words on the subject, he said that Robert Kennedy called him and asked him "They want to swear him in right away, in Texas. That's not necessary, is it?", and that he'd told Kennedy "No...Not necessary," but that a few minutes later he received a call in which Jack Valenti told him "We want to swear Vice President Johnson in as President" and then asked him to verify the words of the oath.)
And that's not the end of the hmmms... In his column on the Manchester book, Pearson went on to explain "Jackie Kennedy expressed indignation in the original version of the Manchester book that Johnson used her husband's plane. However, the plane contained secret electronic communications equipment which only the President could use in case of emergency. Johnson had flown to Dallas in the Vice Presidential plane, but it did not carry this equipment. The Secret Service had decided that he must use Air Force One for the return journey in order to be able to use this equipment. Besides, he was now President." Well, this supported the Newsweek article from the week before. Clearly, this was the new line being pushed by those close to Johnson. This story was at odds, of course, with Secret Service Agent Rufus Youngblood's and President Johnson's 1964 statements to the Warren Commission, both of which attributed this decision to O'Donnell.
That Johnson had been telling people it was O'Donnell's idea he fly back on Air Force One, and had suddenly switched to telling people it was the Secret Service's idea he fly back on Air Force One, amazingly, finds solid support in an unexpected place. On 10-1-68, while Johnson was still President, his former aide Clifton Carter was interviewed for the as-yet-unbuilt Johnson Library. When asked the topic of discussion while Johnson awaited final word on President Kennedy, he said "I think he counseled back and forth with Johns and Youngblood and it was decided that they would leave quickly and come on back to Washington." When later asked if he'd been involved in any of the discussions on 11-22 leading to Johnson flying home on Kennedy's plane, he responded "No, I was not. I have understood that this is conceivably a part of the discussion Mr. Johnson had with Kenny O'Donnell and Larry O'Brien and conceivably with General Clifton. The judgment seems to have been made largely on the fact that Air Force One had certain sophisticated communication equipment that Air Force Two did not have and that if a man is going to be President of the United States he's got to be in constant contact with all elements at his command. It was thought that that was not entirely possible on Air Force Two. This is what I've been told, and as I said, I had nothing to do--did not participate in any discussion." Note that Carter, one of Johnson's closest associates, was told (presumably by Johnson himself) that Kennedy's advisers (Clifton was Kennedy's military adviser) were responsible for the decision Johnson fly back on Kennedy's plane, and not the Secret Service, or, more specifically, Johnson's bodyguards Johns and Youngblood.
There is reason to suspect, then, that Johnson's new-found excuse circa 1966-1967--that the Secret Service as an entity had ordered Johnson to fly back on Kennedy's plane--was no more true than Johnson's previous excuse circa 1963-1964--that Kenneth O'Donnell had told him to fly back on Kennedy's plane. Lawrence F. O'Brien, the closest aide to Kennedy to retain a closeness with Johnson, and one of the men Carter thought told Johnson to fly back on Air Force One, sat with Mrs. Kennedy at Parkland, and accompanied Mrs. Kennedy, Ken O'Donnell, Kennedy aide Dave Powers, and Kennedy Air Force Aide Godfrey McHugh on the flight back from Dallas. In his 1974 book No Final Victories, O'Brien claimed that those sitting with Mrs. Kennedy had resented Johnson's "taking over Air Force One when his own vice-presidential plane, with identical facilities, was available."
Well, this is most interesting. The Secret Service was responsible for the President's physical security. The responsibility for the security of Air Force One, and its communications capabilities, rested with McHugh. And yet, a 5-19-78 oral history performed for the Kennedy Library, declassified in 2009 and first reported by historian Steve Gillon in his 2010 book The Kennedy Assassination--24 Hours After, quotes McHugh as follows: "When the President was killed and we were going to fly him back, President Johnson refused to fly on Air Force Two because he said the communications were not the same as Air Force One, which of course was not the case. He just wanted to be on Air Force One. But they were identical."
Of course, McHugh's credibility is open to question. It seems readily apparent that he didn't like Johnson. By the time of his 1978 oral history, he'd taken to claiming that, after failing to find Johnson on the plane, he finally "walked in the toilet, in the powder room, and there he was hiding, with the curtain closed." He then claimed that Johnson "was hysterical, sitting down on the john there alone in this thing," and crying "They're going to get us all. It's a plot. It's a plot. It's going to get us all.'" And this wasn't the first time he'd told this story. When interviewed for a 1976 program broadcast on Canadian radio station CTFR entitled Thou Shalt Not Kill, McHugh had related that he and O'Donell had discovered Johnson hiding in the President's bathroom, and that upon discovery Johnson had told them "This is a plot, and I've been told to keep in hiding. I am staying here and you close that door again."
Well, this is pretty hard to believe. If this incident occurred, it seems clear it would have to have taken place after Mrs. Kennedy first discovered Johnson in the bedroom. What, did Johnson have a sudden breakdown after she'd left the bedroom, and run into the bathroom crying? I suspect not. Perhaps, then, McHugh had taken to exaggeration over the years.
This brings us back to Pearson's column. Pearson, building upon the accounts of McHugh's behavior aboard the plane found in Manchester's book, reported that McHugh had "rushed through the plane looking for Johnson and Mrs. Kennedy" and that McHugh "later said that he had found Mrs. Kennedy kneeling beside her dead husband, while Johnson was in the washroom changing his clothes." Now, this suggests McHugh had changed his story over time. That Johnson had been in the bathroom, in retrospect, only makes sense. McHugh had raced up and down the plane looking for Johnson multiple times, and had failed to find him. There was nowhere else for Johnson to have been.
But he hadn't been blubbering in the bathroom, as later claimed by McHugh. McHugh was interviewed by William Manchester on 5-6-64. And yet Manchester, in his book, not only failed to recount McHugh's subsequent claim he'd found Johnson in the bathroom, he claimed McHugh had deduced Johnson had been in the bathroom after seeing him in the hallway outside the bedroom, and realizing there was no other place for him to have been but a few minutes earlier, when he had checked the bedroom.
That McHugh was telling a reasonable-sounding story regarding his encounter with Johnson to Pearson (or Anderson) in 1967, and to Manchester in 1964, moreover, suggests that his other statements to Manchester might also be credible.
This brings us back to the eye of the controversy, William Manchester's The Death of a President. McHugh and others intimately familiar with Kennedy's plane including pilot James Swindal were interviewed by Manchester in 1964. And yet there is nothing in his book built upon these interviews suggesting Kennedy's plane had a superior communications ability. According to Manchester, McHugh twice refused to help plan Johnson's return to Washington after Kennedy's death; his stated reason for this, moreover, was that Johnson had "his own plane." He wouldn't have done this, one can only assume, if he'd known the communications equipment on Johnson's plane (86970) was significantly inferior to that on Kennedy's plane (26000).
It's important, then, that we find some support for O'Donnell's, O'Brien's, and McHugh's statements regarding the comparative capabilities of the planes. Well, some support can be found in the initial reports of the Secret Service agents assigned to Johnson at Parkland. None of them mention that Johnson was sent to Kennedy's plane (26000) because it was superior.
It seems likely, then, that Johnson was not just mistaken about the comparative capabilities of the two planes, but lying about his reasons for wanting to be on the plane. On 1-25-67, Johnson tried to defend his taking Kennedy's plane in a phone call to former Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. Johnson complained about sections in Manchester's book he found inaccurate or offensive, and then added "And the thought that I oughta go to a plane that didn't have the bag, and didn't have the communications--by God, after this terrible thing had happened--is inconceivable to me!"
He was repeating the lie he'd told Fortas to anyone who would listen!
If he had a legitimate reason to take Kennedy's plane, for that matter, why did he lie to Katzenbach?
His lying about his reasons, after all, suggests an uncomfortable possibility: that his actual reasons were not legitimate.
Let's recall here what Mrs. Kennedy told Schlesinger: "I don't know if Lyndon had an Air Force One just like it or one of the older planes, but he always kept pushing for a bigger plane. And--or for more--all the kind of things like that he wanted, the panoply that goes with power, but none of the responsibility."
Over the next six weeks, Manchester's book was finally allowed to bubble to the surface. It was serialized in four parts, in the 1-24, 2-7, 2-21, and 3-7 issues of Look Magazine. The flight home from Dallas was covered in the third part.
The Rorschach Blot As Seen By Charles Roberts
Within a few weeks of the publication of the last of these articles, moreover, came the release of a new book on Kennedy's assassination and aftermath, not-so-humbly entitled The Truth About The Assassination. This book was written by Charles Roberts--yes, the very same Charles Roberts who'd written the 1-2-67 Newsweek article so supportive of Johnson. It should come as no surprise, then, that Roberts' book was a defense of both the Warren Commission and Johnson. Only 128 pages long, and available exclusively in paperback, it was clearly a rush-release, designed to reach a mass market--in a hurry. In fact, when one thinks of the odd fact this rush release was released but weeks before Manchester's book, and was serialized in newspapers the very week Manchester's book finally hit the streets, and included a list of criticisms of Manchester's book, it's hard not to view Roberts' "book" as a Johnson Administration-sponsored press release.
If so, it served its purpose: it attacked the critics of the Warren Commission, it attacked Manchester, and it even got a dig in at Jackie. At one point, while complaining about Manchester's book, which had only been serialized, and was yet to be published, Roberts complained that the book "gives the impression that Jackie Kennedy, eager to return to Washington, had to wait endlessly for a Texas judge to come and swear in Johnson. ('Then the full force struck her. An hour, she thought. My God, do I have to wait an hour!') The fact is that Mrs. Kennedy had to wait just 20 minutes. She boarded the plane at 2:18, Judge Hughes boarded at 2:30, and the oath was administered at 2:38."
This was, of course, unfair, to both Manchester and Jackie. Manchester was almost certainly just repeating what Jackie had told him, and Jackie was responding to what, as she recalled, Johnson had told her. If anything, Roberts should have noted that Mrs. Kennedy's words suggested she'd spoken to Johnson before he'd talked to Judge Hughes and had found out she was just ten minutes away, and have proceeded to discuss the ramifications of Johnson's deciding to be sworn-in in Dallas without even knowing how long it would take.
Besides--where did Roberts get off criticizing Manchester on this issue? Roberts was one of but two newsman on the plane back from Dallas. He wrote a number of articles on the assassination. And yet he never once mentioned that Johnson's deciding to take the oath of office in Dallas had delayed Mrs. Kennedy's departure by even one minute.
He'd actually suggested the reverse--that Mrs. Kennedy had held up Johnson's departure. As we've seen, on the night of the assassination, shortly after the arrival of the President's plane in Washington, Roberts was interviewed on NBC. When discussing the swearing-in, he said that when the newsmen arrived at Air Force One's conference room, President Johnson "was waiting for Mrs. Kennedy, who had come aboard with her husband's body, to come to the conference room so that she could witness the swearing-in." Roberts then described the search for a Bible and the writing down of the oath. Well, this proves that Johnson was not yet prepared to receive the oath when Roberts arrived, and that he was not in fact waiting for Mrs. Kennedy. So why did Roberts claim he was? Roberts was then asked about the arrival of the "lady judge." He answered "The judge arrived there about the same time we did." He had thereby misled NBC's audience. He had failed to mention that the judge arrived AT THE PLANE about the same time as the reporters, but that the reporters, who had arrived just after Mrs. Kennedy, had stood outside the plane for fifteen minutes or more while Merriman Smith filed a report on a nearby telephone. Presumably, Roberts failed to realize that he'd made it seem as though Mrs. Kennedy had held up the swearing-in, and thereby the departure of the plane, when the reverse was true--that her departure had been held up by Johnson and his decision to take the oath in Dallas. Roberts then returned to his narrative; he claimed "Eventually Mrs. Kennedy came into the room..." "Eventually..." It's strange how Roberts, in his book, criticized Manchester for quoting Jackie and her fears the oath could delay her departure for as much as an hour, because the delay was actually but 20 minutes, when he himself had up to that time failed to report there had been any delay whatsoever, and had in fact made it seem as though Mrs. Kennedy had held up Johnson's departure.
Perhaps Roberts considered Johnson's delaying the departure of a shocked widow from the scene of her husband's murder--for 20 minutes or so--no big deal, but this shocked widow's delaying Johnson's taking the oath of office--an unnecessary ceremony for which she was even more unnecessary--by 5 minutes or so while she composed herself...big time news.
There was just something disingenuous about Roberts and his book. The foreword to his book, written by Kennedy and Johnson's former Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, offered a smug criticism of the Warren Commission's critics, conveniently dividing them into three categories: 1) scholars with a sincere interest; 2) opportunists after notoriety or money; and 3) "persons who clearly have to be labeled as psychotic."
And the bulk of the book was no better. Roberts was supposedly a newsman, and yet, on point after point, issue after issue, he took Johnson's side based purely on Johnson's say-so. He actually cited Johnson's claim he'd discussed taking Air Force One with O'Donnell as proof O'Donnell knew Johnson was taking the plane. He failed to mention that O'Donnell had not only told Manchester this was untrue, but had said as much in his Warren Commission testimony--sworn testimony--the kind Johnson had failed to provide.
Roberts was clearly under Johnson's influence. He even repeated the newest Johnson party line--that Johnson had to take Kennedy's plane because, you know, the communications... He wrote: "In Manchester's book, Johnson's performance that day was marred from the start by his decision to fly back to Washington aboard Air Force One—USAF 26000, the plane on which Mr. Kennedy flew into Dallas. USAF 26000 was then the newest of four Boeing 707 jets converted into luxurious flying offices for use by the President and other VIPs, (There is, incidentally, much public misunderstanding of the term 'Air Force One.' The Alr Force uses it to designate any plane on which the President is embarked, whether it is a 707, a Jet Star or a puddle-jumping Convair. Thus any plane Mr. Johnson might have taken from Texas automatically would have become Air Force One. Manchester suggests—by invoking a Kennedy staffer who was 'dumbfounded' by LBJ's action — that Mr. Johnson should have left town on Air Force Two, the Presidential backup plane on which he had been flying..." Roberts then complains about O'Donnell. He then offers: "There was a solid reason—never mentioned by Manchester—for Mr. Johnson to board the plane on which Mr. Kennedy had arrived. USAF 26000 then contained far more and better communications equipment — transmitting, receiving, coding and decoding— than any of the backup jets. What orders the new President would have to give during that return flight no man knew. It would have been reckless for LBJ to take any but the best-equipped plane."
Roberts failed to relate his source for this malarkey, of course, and failed to explain why no one, but no one, had mentioned anything like this to the Warren Commission.
And he didn't even believe it. If he had, one can only assume, he wouldn't have offered up a second excuse towards the end of the book. Yes, strange as it may seem, Roberts eventually concluded "the argument that Johnson should have limped home aboard a back-up plane, leaving Jackie and the dead President behind, is a conspicuous example of frivolous, biased nit-picking. Whether or not Manchester or O'Donnell approves, the propriety of Johnson accompanying the body of his martyred predecessor home is unassailable. I shudder to think of the charges of haste and callousness that would have been leveled at Johnson if he had dispatched Mrs. Kennedy on that lonely journey bearing only the casket, herself, and a corporal's guard of aides. Kennedy, at that point, belonged to the ages, not to his aides."
Well, that's pretty sick, wouldn't you say? It is a long-standing tradition of civilized societies that the bodies of the fallen belong to the families of the fallen, not their co-workers. Upon departure from Parkland, Kennedy's body belonged to his wife. It did not belong to Johnson. As not even Roberts could possibly believe Johnson's holding court in the next compartment over on the plane--not to mention the sound of Roberts and Smith tapping away at their typewriters further away on the plane--could be of any comfort to Mrs. Kennedy, it seems clear he considered her comfort a low priority. As he "shuddered" to think of the awful charges that could have been leveled at Johnson should he have allowed Mrs. Kennedy to fly home without distraction, moreover, it's clear Roberts considered President Kennedy's casket Johnson's property, to parade before the cameras as he pleased, or whatever it took to avoid the "awful charges" he anticipated in his clearly selfish mind.
The Rorschach Blot As Seen By Ralph de Toledano
On 4-7-67, after months and months of editing, re-editing, and delays related to its serialization in Look Magazine, William Manchester's The Death of a President finally hit the bookstores. It was an immediate best-seller. It was followed just days later, however, by a book on Robert Kennedy, "RFK: The Man Who Would Be President," by Ralph de Toledano. In discussing Robert and Jacqueline Kennedy's fight with Manchester, de Toledano asserted that this was in large part because "both of them realized that their account of Lyndon Johnson's behavior on the Presidential plane which flew John F. Kennedy's body back to Washington would not stand up to objective scrutiny." Well, this was obviously untrue--the discussion of Johnson's behavior on the plane considered so controversial in the months leading up to the book's publication was still there in the final version--after receiving Jackie's approval.
And that was just the beginning of de Toledano's discussion of the book. He then put the book in context. He asserted that in the weeks before the assassination Robert Kennedy was conspiring to push Johnson off the ticket in 1964, and that Kennedy could have "put a stamp of disapproval on the books and magazine articles" suggesting "Lyndon Johnson was somehow responsible for Jack Kennedy's death" but did not, because "the Kennedys wanted to keep it going." Well, this might as well have been Johnson speaking. He'd made these very same charges to Abe Fortas in taped phone calls going back to the previous October.
De Toledano then specified some of what he claimed were problems in Manchester's book. He wrote that the book "tried to obscure the fact that Johnson had taken the oath of office as President in Texas at Bobby's suggestion." This was a lie. Manchester dealt with this "fact" head-on by pointing out that it might not be a fact, and that there were two witnesses to it not being a fact. De Toledano then claimed "There was Kennedy resentment that Johnson had been taken to the Presidential cabin in 'Air Force One,' though this had been done at the insistence of the Secret Service." This was another lie. Assuming that by the 'cabin' de Toledano meant the bedroom, it was Johnson's own decision to use the bedroom. Yes, he'd initially been led to the bedroom, but he declined to make use of it, only to enter at a later point to use the phone. De Toledano then attacked O'Donnell for ordering the plane to take off upon his arrival on the plane, which, while true, hid that O"Donnell hadn't realized Johnson was on the plane when giving this order. De Toledano then complained that the "Kennedy party made it a point to ride in the rear of the plane, as far from Johnson as possible." Well, this was another lie. They were riding with the coffin in an area just behind the presidential area where Johnson was riding. They were riding with their friends' coffin and widow, reminiscing about his life. What did de Toledano expect--that they sit around and talk shop with Johnson, or line up to kiss his ring?
De Toledano's, and apparently Johnson's, blindness, even sickness, on these matters is confirmed, moreover, by his final complaint. He wrote: "the real blow to Johnson came when Air Force One arrived in Washington. President Johnson had asked that a ramp be brought up to the plane so that he and Mrs. Kennedy could leave together with the President's body. ('He felt,' a Johnson aide later said, 'that it was necessary to show himself to the nation and to the world, so that everyone could see that the traditional transfer of power had taken place.') But Bobby had made different arrangements. The moment the plane came to a stop and steps were pushed up to the forward entrance, Bobby raced up into the plane and down its entire length to join the Kennedy party. At the rear door, he had arranged for a forklift to lower the casket. When President Johnson tried to make his way to the rear of the plane, he was blocked by Kennedy aides. Bobby Kennedy, and not Johnson, escorted Jacqueline Kennedy off the plane. By the time Johnson was able to emerge, the casket which bore Kennedy's body had been loaded into the ambulance, with Bobby and Jacqueline, and started for the naval hospital at Bethesda. And while the nation grieved, Bobby, Jacqueline and the Kennedy staff, held a council of war at the White House to plan ways to use the funeral as a means to 'build up the Kennedy image.'"
Feel free to read that again, and ponder how sick one would have to be to find Kennedy's supposedly awful behavior anything but heroic.
Imagine that your extremely successful older brother has had a somewhat contentious relationship with the Vice-President of his company.
Imagine that your extremely successful older brother has been murdered on a business trip to this Vice-President's home-state, after meeting with many of this Vice-President's top supporters.
And not only that, but that your brother's head was blown-up in your sister-in-law's face...
Now imagine that your sister-in-law, who not only witnessed the murder of your brother, but was splattered with his blood and brains, has been corralled into returning to company headquarters with the new head of the company.
And you know how this man is with your sister-in-law, showering her with attention, even while ignoring his wife...
And you know how this man plays politics, and it's clear to you he wants to arrive at headquarters with your brother's widow on his arm--as if to show the world Mustapha is dead, and that only Scar lives on...
Well, wouldn't YOU, or any decent person, try to help your blood-stained sister-in-law, and get her away from such a man as fast as possible?
I know I would. And I bet you would, too.
We would race onto the plane, and sneak her out the back if necessary...
...just as Bobby did.
And yet Ralph de Toledano, after speaking to a Johnson aide, took Johnson's side on this matter.
It seems likely, then, that the timing of de Toledano's book was no accident, and that de Toledano, as Roberts, was making Johnson's case to the public...
Conclusion number 9: Johnson engineered a media response to Manchester's book which was both insulting to Robert Kennedy, and dishonest.
And he wasn't alone. What happened next belongs in the "truth is stranger than fiction" file. In July 1967, Commentary Magazine featured an article on the Manchester controversy entitled "Manchester Unexpurgated." The writer of this article had reviewed an early draft of Manchester's book, and had noted a bias against Johnson. This author attacked Manchester for this bias, and even went so far as to claim Manchester had created "fictitious episodes for the purpose of heightening the melodrama." Chief among these purportedly fictitious episodes was the scene in Manchester's book where Mrs. Kennedy walked into her bedroom on Air Force One, only to find Johnson in the bedroom with his secretary. The writer of this article was Edward Epstein, the author of Inquest, perhaps the most prominent conspiracy book from the year before, and a book Manchester sought to discredit in his book. Apparently, Epstein was out for revenge.
But in his zest for revenge, Epstein missed out on something--something big. Manchester's account proved Johnson's statement to the Warren Commission to have been incomplete and misleading. Epstein, and the research community he'd help spawn, should have seized upon Johnson's omission, and cited it as a possible indication of further omissions. But instead he attacked Manchester.
Epstein chose the wrong target. Manchester was telling the truth. When he responded to Epstein in his 1975 book Controversy, Manchester claimed that Johnson's being discovered in the bedroom by Mrs. Kennedy was "described to me by Jackie during a taping session on May 4, 1964." Well, that wasn't much of a surprise. What was surprising, however, was that he also claimed he'd received confirmation from not one but two other witnesses: first, by Sgt. Joseph Ayres, "an Air Force One steward who was standing in the corridor just outside the compartment," on September 6, 1964, and second, by Marie Fehmer, "Johnson's personal secretary, who was present in the aircraft's bedroom at the time," on November 6, 1964.
Hmmm... Let's return to Marie Fehmer's notes. These notes, we should recall, were written on the plane. They were, at least in part, dictated by Johnson. Now read how she described the period leading up to Mrs. Kennedy's arrival on the plane... She wrote: "Judge Hughes called in at 2:02--said she could get to the plane in 10 minutes. The President left the bedroom of the plane--where above had taken place--and came into the stateroom to wait Mrs. Kennedy's arrival and to join Mrs. Johnson, J. Valenti, Cong. Thornberry, Cong. Brooks, Cong. Thomas, Rufus Youngblood, and MF. Mrs. Kennedy arrived at 2:02 with the body. She was met by the President and Mrs. Johnson and comforted." Well, heck. Fehmer had admitted that Johnson had gotten off the phone in the bedroom at 2:02, and that Mrs. Kennedy had arrived at 2:02. She'd also claimed, however, that Johnson had already left the bedroom before Mrs. Kennedy had arrived. She'd even included a list of witnesses to this fact!
Well, this is quite revealing. Was Marie Fehmer on her own, or under President Johnson's guidance, creating a false history--from Johnson's first moments as President--that could then be used to protect him from outside criticism? Could he really have been so worried about what might otherwise be considered an embarrassing incident, that he would knowingly falsify the history of his presidency from its very beginnings?
Sadly, it appears so. On 8-16-72, Marie Fehmer was interviewed for the Johnson Library Oral History program, and revealed more than anyone could reasonably have expected. She claimed that Johnson made his first calls from the President's office space (the eventual site of the swearing-in), and that he'd decided to go into the presidential bedroom to call Mrs. Hughes. She then admitted: "No one notified us that Mrs. Kennedy was coming. Obviously if they had, the arrival would have been different. But we were still in there making phone calls. I don't know how they slipped up or how the Secret Service missed it, but we were not notified. The only thing that happened is that he started to leave the bedroom to go somewhere, and I followed him. As he opened the door, there was Mrs. Kennedy. Well now, you see what a misunderstanding that can bring about to her. She was entering her private bedroom. She was surrounded by her husband's friends, who saw a stranger, in his shirt sleeves yet. It was hot on that plane, no air conditioning on the ground. So she saw the stranger in his shirt sleeves in the hallowed ground...we, of course, scurried out of that bedroom. It was really embarrassing."
Fehmer--by then married and with the last name Chiarodo--was not asked why the notes she'd written up on the plane had specifically ruled out such an incident. Nor did she volunteer an explanation.
Conclusion number 10: the notes created by Marie Fehmer on the plane were incomplete, and deceptive.
The Rorschach Blot As Seen By Dick Schaap
The R.F.K./L.B.J. divide was further discussed that October, with the publication of R.F.K., by Dick Schaap. Although this book was written with the cooperation of Robert Kennedy's staff, it was far from a fan letter to Kennedy. When discussing R.F.K.'s behavior in the aftermath of J.F.K.'s assassination, for example, it noted that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told Kennedy's supporters "I'm afraid he'll get into a fight with Johnson," and then pressured R.F.K. into taking a vacation.
Schaap was less than empathetic, moreover. When discussing the "Manchester Affair"--the scandal revolving around Manchester's book--Schaap relates that from this scandal Bobby "emerged as a man using the story of the death of his brother as a sword in his personal duel with Lyndon Johnson." He then backpedaled a bit: "The indictment may be too severe; perhaps, as Bobby's associates indicate, he did object to unjust criticism of Johnson in The Death of The President. Yet his comments to Manchester about the telephone calls from Dallas on the day of the assassination, those comments alone, were sufficient to paint an unpleasant portrait of Lyndon Johnson. Bitterness came through clearly enough to show Kennedy as a man at war with his President."
Schaap then discussed the future. In what would prove to be one of the most ironic bits of political writing ever written, he observed: "Bobby Kennedy may once have dreamed of running for President in 1968, but he realizes now that this is impossible, barring the death of Lyndon Johnson, or, equally unlikely, a decision by Johnson not to seek a second full term."
Equally ironic, (or haunting, take your pick), he predicted: "Kennedy...will support Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and will campaign for him, but this token display of inescapable party loyalty will not erase the President's bitterness. The feeling now is that Johnson wants Bobby never to be President and will do everything in his power, which is considerable, to keep him from the White House."
So, here's where this gets dark...
On March 12, 1968, Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy defeated President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. This opened the door for Robert Kennedy to join the race for the presidency. He announced his candidacy on March 16. He quickly became the front runner. After winning the California and South Dakota primaries on June 4, he was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He died on June 6.
The Rorschach Blot As Seen By Jim Bishop
In May, 1968, just days before Robert Kennedy was killed, newspaper columnist Jim Bishop interviewed President Johnson for The Day Kennedy Was Shot, a pro-Johnson alternative to Manchester's The Death of a President. Johnson purportedly proof-read this book prior to its publication that November. And yet Bishop's account of the decisions made at Parkland largely supported O'Donnell's recollections...
To be clear, Bishop claimed that, in defiance of the Secret Service, Johnson refused to leave Mrs. Kennedy behind at Parkland and fly off on Air Force One before President Kennedy's death could be confirmed. Well, everyone agreed on that. Bishop also reported, however, that, while the doctors were still working on Kennedy, O'Donnell told Johnson to go to the airport without Mrs. Kennedy, and that Johnson then "conceded it would be just as well to wait for her on the plane." Bishop does not, one should notice, have O'Donnell agree to such a thing. In fact, on the next page, after O'Donnell has excused himself, Bishop has Johnson decide it would be okay to board Air Force One and wait "for President and Mrs. Kennedy." Bishop put this last bit in quotes, moreover, indicating these were Johnson's words, not his. Bishop then related that Johnson was concerned that a quick return to Washington would make him look like he was "fleeing"--again, Bishop put this in quotes, indicating that this was Johnson's word, not his. Bishop then claimed Johnson sought advice from "everyone around him," and that they all agreed he could not leave Dallas on Air Force One without Mrs. Kennedy, or it would look like a "precipitous power grab."
Bishop then came to the crucial moment in Johnson's original story--the return of O'Donnell confirming that the President was dead. It was here that Johnson had told the Warren Commission, "O'Donnell said that we should return to Washington and that we should take the President's plane for this purpose." In Bishop's take, however, O'Donnell tells Johnson of Kennedy's death, and quickly excuses himself to see to Mrs. Kennedy. Johnson then decides to leave on his own, but feels uncomfortable doing so without O'Donnell's "endorsement." He then sends his bodyguard Rufus Youngblood to ask O'Donnell if he should use Air Force One, and leaves after Younglood returns with O'Donnell's one-word answer: "Yes." Bishop then adds, in a footnote: "Mr. O'Donnell denied that he was asked about Air Force One. There is no doubt that Johnson, thinking ahead, wanted to show that, even in tragedy, the continuity of government would be smooth. Therefore, from the start, he wanted to be aboard 26000 with his dead chieftain and the widow."
Bishop then described Johnson's rapid departure from the hospital, his arrival on Air Force One, and his initial phone call to Robert Kennedy. Surprisingly, Bishop said that Johnson's call to Robert Kennedy was "one of the first calls" made by Johnson on the plane, and not the first call, as claimed by Johnson in his statement to the Warren Commission. Even more surprising, Bishop failed to take Johnson's side in his dispute with Robert Kennedy. Instead of supporting Johnson's assertion to the Warren Commission that Robert Kennedy then called him back "and said that the oath should be administered...immediately, before taking off for Washington," Bishop described but one phone call between Johnson and Kennedy, one in which Kennedy "wasn't sure when it should be administered or by whom," and "promised to have Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach call back with the correct answers." Hmmm... This was pretty much the same line pushed by Pearson in his article the year before. Had they used the same sources? Had Johnson retreated from his position on this matter?
Or was Bishop just a lousy journalist? Its' tough to say for sure. But one can say for sure that in the long run Bishop's book hurt Johnson's position nearly as much as it helped it. It seems clear that much of the discussion on the swearing-in in Bishop's book came from Johnson. And yet, Bishop reported that after Johnson made his decision to call Sarah Hughes, "The communications people required a couple of minutes to find out her local office number." This added delay, of course, pushes the presumed time for Johnson's deciding to call Hughes even further forward of the time she called in (which Fehmer placed at 2:02), which was already way too early to have come as a result of the call from Robert Kennedy (which the White House Communications Agency placed at 2:02).
Bishop then described the difficult removal of Kennedy's body from the hospital, and the arrival of those traveling with the body at Air Force One. He was surprisingly fair on these points as well. In keeping with O'Donnell's claim he assumed Johnson had departed before those traveling with the body arrived at the plane, Bishop reports that Lawrence O'Brien was "flabbergasted" to see Johnson coming down the aisle to greet Mrs. Kennedy, and reports further that "there can be no doubt" Mrs. Kennedy was surprised to see the Johnsons on the plane she knew as Air Force One, "not number two." He even allows "It is understandable if she felt resentful, because the trip home to Washington would normally be a 'wake,' a private mourning."
Bishop's take was thereby consistent with Manchester's on three crucial points: 1) it was Johnson himself who'd decided to fly back on Kennedy's plane; 2) Robert Kennedy hadn't told Johnson he should be sworn-in in Dallas; and 3) the Kennedy entourage had no idea Johnson was on the plane before their arrival on the plane. The one clear mistake in Bishop's account, moreover, was his bit about Youngblood following O'Donnell out into the hall. Youngblood had never described such a thing.
But someone else had. Let's recall here that Emory Roberts, in his 11-29-63 report, declared that, after escorting Mrs. Johnson to visit Mrs. Kennedy, and then returning to Johnson's, "I left again, this time upon request of the Vice President to double check with Mr. Kenneth O'Donnell, if it would be O.K. for the Vice President to take AF I and return to Washington, D.C. I located Mr. O'Donnell in hallway and he said "yes". The Vice President was informed that Mr. O'Donnell stated that he could leave. The Vice President said in effect, that he didn't want to leave without the approval of a staff member or the Secret Service." He then related that Johnson was told of Kennedy's death at 1:15, and left the building at 1:35.
So, hmmm, what to make of this? Well, Roberts' report is somewhat harmful to O'Donnell in that it appears to support that O'Donnell was-- yes, indeed--asked about Johnson's using Kennedy's plane. But look again. Roberts said that he was asked to double-check about Johnson's taking Air Force One and flying back to Washington, and that Johnson was then informed that O'Donnell said it was okay for him to leave. Leave... No mention of which plane. The plane flying the President is automatically deemed Air Force One. It seems possible, then, that Roberts realized that he'd failed to properly specify the plane on which Johnson would be leaving when talking to O'Donnell, and was unwilling to specify that he'd told O'Donnell Johnson was planning to fly back on Kennedy's plane.
This possibility is supported, moreover, by William Manchester's book from the year before. Manchester interviewed O'Donnell on 5-4-64, 6-4-64, 8-6-64, and 11-23-64, and Roberts on 12-4-64 and 4-26-65. His account of their encounter would presumably be balanced. And yet Manchester reported that, when Kennedy's death seemed apparent, and the Secret Service was begging him to leave Parkland, Johnson "told the agents he would not move without approval from a member of Kennedy's staff, preferably Ken O'Donnell. Roberts sought out O'Donnell in Major Medicine. 'Johnson wants to go,' he said. 'Is it O.K. if he uses the plane? O'Donnell nodded--a gesture to be borne in mind in the light of the subsequent confusion--and Roberts reported back to Johnson, 'Ken says it's O.K.'"
Roberts' statements are much more harmful to Johnson, then, as they support that Johnson had misled the Warren Commission when he told them "O'Donnell said that we should return to Washington and that we should take the President's plane for this purpose." Not only was it not O'Donnell's idea for Johnson to take Kennedy's plane, but Johnson was so uncomfortable with it being his own idea that he forced Roberts to head down the hall and ask O'Donnell if it was O.K. To which O'Donnell nodded. Nodded. Not exactly a confirmation he understood that "the plane" on which Johnson was planning on leaving was Kennedy's plane.
Roberts' statements are also harmful to Bishop. Not only did Bishop have the wrong Secret Service Agent talking to O'Donnell in the hall, he had him talking to O'Donnell after Kennedy's death just before Johnson left for the airport when Roberts' report presents the incident as taking place 20 minutes or more earlier, before Kennedy's death had been confirmed.
And that's not remotely the worst part of Bishop's book. There were so many questionable parts in his book, it would be difficult to pick but one. But certainly among these was Bishop's defense of Johnson's decision to be sworn-in in Dallas. He'd read the Constitution, and had concluded that Johnson NEEDED to be sworn-in before he could perform any duties as President. He actually claimed that, upon reaching Air Force One, "Lyndon Johnson was no longer Vice-President and had none of the powers of that office; he was now President of the United States, with none of the powers of that office. He could not have protected the country if, as some surmised, the death of Kennedy was part of a much larger plot to bring the government to its knees."
Well, this, of course, was nonsense. The Vice-President is sworn-in when he becomes Vice-President, and becomes President upon the death of his predecessor. It's the same oath and everything. The swearing-in as President is just a ceremony. I mean, really. Bishop fancied himself an historian. An hour or so at the library would have shown him that Johnson was the eighth Vice-President to assume the office of President upon the death of his predecessor, and that 1) John Tyler had taken the oath of office 2 days after the death of William Henry Harrison, 2) Millard Fillmore had taken the oath of office the day after the death of Zachary Taylor, 3) Andrew Johnson had taken the oath of office 4 hours after the death of Abraham Lincoln, 4) Chester A. Arthur had taken the oath of office 3 days after the death of James Garfield, 5) Theodore Roosevelt had taken the oath of office 13 hours after the death of William McKinley, 6) Calvin Coolidge had taken the oath of office 4 hours after the death of Warren G. Harding, and 7) Harry Truman had taken the oath of office 2 hours after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The oath could have waited, although Johnson, apparently, could not.
Slouching Towards Consensus
Even so, with the release of Bishop's book, it appeared the dispute between Kennedy and Johnson was slouching towards consensus...a consensus in which the Kennedy clan were the winners and Johnson was the loser. When interviewed on 7-23-69 for the Johnson Library, Kenneth O'Donnell said that, after John F. Kennedy was officially pronounced dead, he (O'Donnell) went to Johnson and "strongly urged him to go right to Love Field. Number one, if it was a conspiracy no one would know what hospital we were at and no one would have any route covered and he'd be safer than if they had had a route in the newspaper. It only took ten minutes, and speed was of a necessity. Get back to Washington. Which he agreed to do." He then described the Secret Service's removal of Kennedy's body from the hospital, the arrival of the Kennedy entourage on Air Force One, and their subsequent discovery that Johnson was on the plane. He then said that, when he approached Johnson, "Before I could say anything he said he'd talked to Bobby and that Bobby told him he ought to be sworn-in right there. On the surface it doesn't make any sense, because he's president of the United States the minute they say "you're dead." You don't need to ever be sworn-in. I think the man wanted to be sworn-in in Texas, and there's nothing really wrong with that except if you've got a crisis and a conspiracy you ought to be up in the airplane, which I thought at the time. But that's not my business, he's president. I was just concerned about Jackie."
When, later asked a follow-up question, on whether Bobby had actually told Johnson he should be sworn-in right there, more surprising, O'Donnell continued to vent. He said:"Bobby's recollection of the conversation--obviously, he's hazy, must be. I reconstructed it in the fashion that he called Bobby to tell him what happened and also to get what the legal views were. I don't know who suggested that, maybe Homer Thornberry did, because really that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, to be frank with you. He is president of the United States the minute they say, "You're dead," with all the powers of the presidency. He never has to be sworn-in ever in his life. He says Bobby said, and he really sort of hedges that, and he said Bobby put Katzenbach on. In the first place Bobby wouldn't have the slightest idea, I would think that very few people off the top of their head could find what the Constitution really says. I know it is the fact. The fact is you're president. You can get sworn-in eight months from now if you feel like it...And I think Bobby got irritated at that because that didn't make any sense, but Bobby didn't know any of the background either. I'm sure he just threw the phone to somebody. There's no question in my mind that Lyndon Johnson wanted to be sworn-in by Judge Sarah T. Hughes, an old family friend, and he was afraid somebody was going to take the thing away from him if he didn't get it quick."
Note that O'Donnell not only expresses doubt about Johnson's version of his conversation with Robert Kennedy, but contradicts Johnson's claims on the same two points on which their statements to the Warren Commission were in conflict. He'd thought Johnson was leaving as soon as he reached the airport, on an unspecified plane, while Johnson was under the impression he'd told O'Donnell he would wait for Mrs. Kennedy at the airport on Kennedy's plane. Perhaps O'Donnell had simply failed to hear Johnson's telling him he would wait on the plane. Or perhaps Johnson had made this decision after O'Donnell had left the room.
Johnson himself was unclear on this matter. On 3-8-69, in preparation for his upcoming memoir, The Vantage Point, Johnson was interviewed by Bob Hardesty. (The transcript for this interview can be found on the Johnson Library website.) After being told that his long-time assistant Jake Jacobsen (who would subsequently become a lobbyist for the dairy industry and entangle John Connally in a payoff scandal), had prepared answers to many of the questions still lingering over his presidency, Johnson asked "Who told us to get on Air Force 1? Ken O'Donnell, wasn't it?" And was told yes. He then offered: "I talked to Kennedy and he called me back and I think went over the oath with me as I remember it." He then went on the defensive. He continued: "I was in the President's bedroom. Hell, I was the President..." Presumably unaware he was now contradicting his statement to the Warren Commission, in which he affirmed "When we got to the airport, we proceeded to drive to the ramp leading into the plane, and we entered the plane. We were ushered into the private quarters of the President's plane. It didn't seem right for John Kennedy not to be there. I told someone that we preferred for Mrs. Kennedy to use these quarters." Johnson then asserted "I don't see any difference (between my sitting on the plane) in the bedroom and the sitting room. He wasn't going to sleep in the bed and I was trying to talk to (Robert) Kennedy and take pills and locate the Judge and do all these things I had to do." Johnson then proceeded to criticize O'Donnell and Powers and Mrs. Kennedy, who got drunk on the return flight. He complained: "I wouldn't want to say this in the book, but I thought they were just wine heads, just one drink after another to drown out their sorrow..."
On 8-19-69, Johnson granted a second interview to the ghost-writers of his upcoming memoir, Harry Middleton and Bob Hardesty. Portions of the transcript of this tape were published in the December 2001 Texas Monthly. On the events at the hospital and airplane, Johnson reminisced: "Mrs. Johnson wanted to see Mrs. Kennedy. And Nellie Connally. Then from there on, there were frequent conversations, and pretty soon they came back and said (Kennedy) was dead. It’s all vague in my mind who said what, and where, and who it was. But somewhere in my mind, I knew that this conceivably could be part of something even bigger. So I said, 'Let’s get back to Washington as soon as we can.' We went in Air Force One, just as they told us to. I called the attorney general from the plane, and I asked him if I should come back to Washington and take the oath. He said he would call me back, but he thought offhand I should take it there. He was calm and unexcited. Katzenbach came on. The plane was full of people. We stepped into (the presidential stateroom) to get the oath from Katzenbach. I called a lawyer in Dallas, Irving Goldberg. He said he’d get Sarah Hughes. Everyone was saying, 'Let’s get this plane off the ground.' I said, 'No, we’ll wait for Mrs. Kennedy.'"
Well, hmmm... Note that Johnson now claimed "they told us" to go to Air Force One, and not that O'Donnell had told him as much. Note also that he now claimed Kennedy had said "offhand" that he should take the oath in Dallas in the first call, and not that he'd insisted on it during the second call, as claimed in his statement to the Warren Commission.
And that was unsurprising compared to what Johnson claimed elsewhere. When discussing his strong-arming Earl Warren to chair the commission investigating Kennedy's murder, he confirmed that he'd done this in part to clear himself. He admitted "I shudder to think what churches I would have burned and what little babies I would have eaten if I hadn’t appointed the Warren Commission. If there was no Warren Commission, we would have been as dead as slavery." Hmmm... if only he'd told us who this "we" was... And what evidence he thought Robert Kennedy was planning to use against them...
And that wasn't the last time Johnson discussed his fantastic fear of Kennedy. An 11-28-85 UPI article (found in the Altus Times) reported that historian Francis Loewenheim had just reviewed a recently declassified 30 page transcript of a 1969 interview with Johnson, and had found it of historical interest. (This may very well have been the same transcript later excerpted in the Texas Monthly.) In this interview, reportedly conducted eight months after Johnson left office, Johnson claimed: "I think that the attorney general seriously considered whether he should let me be president, whether he should really take the position the Vice-President didn't automatically move in. I thought that was on his mind every time I saw him the first few days, after I had already taken the oath. I think he was seriously calculating what steps to take. For several days he really kept me out of the president's office. I operated from the Executive Office Building because it was not made available to me. It was quite a problem."
Well, I'll be. We either had a paranoid for a President, or someone with an incredibly guilty conscience. Johnson had told Jackie and everyone who would listen that Robert Kennedy had told him to be sworn-in in Dallas--that the country needed continuity, etc. And yet, in his scrambled-egg of a mind, he'd apparently held the concurrent fear Kennedy would try to prevent him from being president. Now, this suggests he'd been lying about Kennedy's telling him to be sworn-in, yes? I mean, he couldn't simultaneously believe Robert Kennedy told him to be sworn-in and was trying to prevent him from being sworn-in, could he? That Johnson's paranoia ran deep, for that matter, is suggested by his similarly-stated belief the brief delay in his gaining access to the oval office (so that Kennedy's papers and possessions could be organized and transferred to the archives) amounted to his being "kept out" of the oval office. Wow. What did he expect? A crown to descend from the ceiling when he walked into the room? And every sign of Kennedy to magically disappear?
It seems clear from this that Johnson was every bit as twisted as the Warren Commission's depiction of Oswald. And yet there's a key difference: Johnson had a plausible motive.
That Johnson had been lying about O'Donnell as well, and had made the decision to leave Parkland and go to Air Force One after O'Donnell had left the room, was supported, moreover, by Congressman (later Judge) Homer Thornberry, who'd waited with Johnson at Parkland, and had accompanied him to Air Force One... When interviewed for the Johnson Library on 12-21-70 and asked about the events of 11-22-63, Thornberry related that as soon as Johnson received official word of Kennedy's demise "right then he took charge. He said, 'Now what should we do?' He talked to this agent in charge, a Secret Service man, Rufus Youngblood. He thought perhaps they ought to go on to the plane." Note that in Thornberry's recollection, Johnson conferred with Youngblood, and not O'Donnell. This supports the previously-discussed possibility that when Youngblood told the Warren Commission that, after being told of Kennedy's demise by O'Donnell, Johnson "agreed that we would go on to the airplane and board the plane and wait until Mrs. Kennedy and the body would come out" the agreement was between Johnson and himself--Youngblood--and not O'Donnell, who'd already left the room.
The historical record suggests, then, that if Johnson had told O'Donnell at the hospital he would wait for the First Lady and the fallen president on Kennedy's plane, as he suggested to the Warren Commission, that he did so in a private discussion with his bodyguard Rufus Youngblood, whereby the only one who actually heard him or knew about this plan was agent Youngblood, who then failed to share this information with his fellow agents, including his immediate superiors, Emory Roberts and Roy Kellerman.
This logical deduction, however, has proved a bridge too far for some to cross...
Starting with Lyndon Johnson...
In his 1971 memoir The Vantage Point, Johnson kicked the hornet's nest and repeated the story he'd told the Warren Commission. He insisted: "O'Donnell thought that we should depart for Washington immediately. I asked what Mrs. Kennedy wanted to do. O'Donnell replied that Mrs. Kennedy would not leave the hospital without the President's body. He said that they were waiting for a casket. I could not desert Mrs. Kennedy in that situation and emphatically said so. I told O'Donnell that I would not return to Washington until Mrs. Kennedy was ready to go, and that we would carry the President's body back with us if that was what she wanted. I did agree to go immediately to Air Force One and to wait there until Mrs. Kennedy and the President's body were brought aboard the plane."
He also stood his ground on the question of the swearing-in. He wrote that, after calling Robert Kennedy, and offering his condolences: "I told him that both the Secret Service and the members of the late President's staff felt that I should return to Washington at once. Attorney General Kennedy said he would look into the matter and report to me whether the oath should be administered immediately or after we returned to Washington. He also said that he would provide the proper wording of the oath. I then received a call from McGeorge Bundy, the President's national security adviser, and from Walter Jenkins of my staff. They both said that my return to Washington should not be delayed. I told them that Mrs. Kennedy had not arrived with the President's body and that I would not leave under any circumstances until she was aboard. At that point the Attorney General came back on the line. He said that the oath of office should be administered immediately--before taking off for Washington--and that it could be administered by any official officer of the United States. The next call came from Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, calling, I presumed, at the Attorney General's direction. He dictated the wording of the oath to my personal secretary, Marie Fehmer." Note that Johnson had reverted to form, and was once again claiming Bobby had told him to be sworn-in in Dallas--a claim he'd admitted wasn't true in his 1966 call to Moyers.
But he was not afraid to add something new: Irving Goldberg. After Manchester first exposed the Goldberg connection, and after Goldberg subsequently confirmed his role to the Johnson Library, Johnson really kinda had to say something about him in his account of the day. Johnson continued "I then called Irving Goldberg, a lawyer friend for many years. We agreed that Judge Hughes, whom President Kennedy had appointed to the U.S. District Court in Dallas, should be asked to administer the oath. Goldberg telephoned Judge Hughes at her office. She was not there, but was expected in momentarily, and a few minutes later she called in." Note that Johnson had thereby removed both his first call to Hughes' office, and Goldberg's call to Sanders, from the story.
Johnson then continued: "I explained the situation, and told her that we would send a car for her immediately. She replied that she could get to the airfield faster on her own and would be there in ten minutes. As soon as I hung up, I asked Agent Youngblood to check on the location of Mrs. Kennedy and to let me know the second she arrived."
Now this is pretty interesting. Marie Fehmer's notes relate that "Judge Hughes called in at 2:02--said she could get to the plane in ten minutes." They do not specify that Judge Hughes called President Johnson. Judge Hughes was interviewed by KRLD's Eddie Barker shortly after the swearing-in, and wrote a first-person account of the swearing-in ceremony for the Washington Post that evening. At neither time did she mention talking to Johnson. She gave the Johnson Library an oral history on 10-7-68. There, she repeated the same story. After hearing of the shooting, she left the Trade Mart where Kennedy was scheduled to speak. She went home to Highland Park. Upon reaching home she called into her office, and was told Johnson was looking for her. She told U.S. Attorney Barefoot Sanders, who had come into her office after being asked to track her down by someone on the plane with Johnson, presumably Marie Fehmer, she would leave for Love Field immediately, and be there in 10 minutes. She did not change clothes. She drove straight there. Sanders, in his own oral history, however, relates that after asking Hughes "to get on out there," he "told them." It seems clear, then, that Sanders, not Hughes, told Fehmer she'd be there in 10 minutes. Yes, it appears that Johnson, or his ghost-writers, or both--perhaps misunderstanding Fehmer's notes--came to believe he'd actually spoken to Judge Hughes prior to her arrival, and invented a conversation in which he offered her his help, etc. It was a President's account of the first moments of his presidency. And it was pure fiction.
Johnson then described the approach of a small plane to Love Field, and of its pilot's seeking permission to pull up alongside Air Force One and unload its very important passenger, his young associate Bill Moyers. He then claimed: "a few minutes later, Bill joined us aboard the plane." Note that by adding these "few minutes" in between his call with Hughes and Mrs. Kennedy's arrival, Johnson had created the illusion he'd spoken to Hughes minutes before Mrs. Kennedy's arrrival.
He then described Mrs. Kennedy's arrival. Here, he unveiled yet another shift. While he'd told the Warren Commission "I estimate that Mrs. Kennedy and the coffin arrived about a half hour after we entered the plane, just after 2 o'clock" he now declared "About 2:15 the moment arrived against which I had been steeling myself--and dreading to the depths of my being. Mrs. Kennedy was coming aboard with the President's body." Apparently, someone close to Johnson had pointed out to him that the Secret Service reports written a week or so after the assassination were more helpful to his cause than the notes of his secretary written on the plane, and used as the source material for his statement to the Warren Commission.
Johnson then proceeded: "Lady Bird and I went to the rear of the plane to meet her. I had not seen Mrs. Kennedy since morning, when we had gotten into our cars at the airport to begin the motorcade." Hmmm... That's interesting. Both Mrs. Kennedy and Marie Fehmer insisted he'd seen her just a minute or two before, when Mrs. Kennedy found him in her bedroom... It seems likely, then, that Johnson was lying on this point as well.
There's also this. While Sid Davis', Merriman Smith's and Charles Roberts' published accounts of Johnson's swearing-in fail to note the arrival of Judge Hughes, and suggest they'd arrived just after she'd reached the plane, Johnson now claimed "We were still waiting for Judge Hughes when the press pool entered." If true, this suggests they'd deliberately left her arrival out of their reports, and had thereby misled their readers into thinking Jackie Kennedy had held up Johnson's departure from Dallas, as opposed to the reverse.
There's another possibility, of course. Seeing as no other account places the arrival of the reporters before the arrival of Judge Hughes, Johnson's sudden insistence that this was so years after the fact suggests that perhaps, just perhaps, Johnson's swearing-in and Mrs. Kennedy's departure from Dallas were delayed not only by their waiting for the arrival of Mrs. Hughes, but by their waiting for the subsequent arrival of the press corps Johnson desired as witnesses to his assuming office.
But there's a much more likely scenario. Charles Roberts was interviewed as part of the Johnson Library Oral History program on 1-14-70. He claimed the press pool arrived before Judge Hughes, but stayed outside the plane so Merriman Smith could make use of a nearby pay phone. He then offered: "I think he was in the booth as Judge Hughes arrived. She was sort of whisked up the ramp, then Kilduff took us up into the plane right behind her."
And that's not the only claim by the journalists themselves that they arrived before Hughes. An 11-22-13 article on Sid Davis in the Dayton Daily News quoted him as follows: “We arrived at Love Field just as they were unloading the casket from the hearse that had brought President Kennedy to the airport with Mrs. Kennedy.” Unfortunately, he didn't say at what point they entered the plane.
Perhaps, then, Johnson thought the press pool had arrived after Mrs. Hughes, and was worried this could be used to suggest he'd held up Mrs. Kennedy's departure, not just to take the oath, but to have the press corps present while he took the oath... And had then decided to lie about it...
Or perhaps he was simply mistaken on this point. If Johnson were the biggest liar in the world, he would still be bound to make an honest mistake from time to time. Perhaps this was one of those times.
In any event, Johnson's book was not the last word. In 1972, O'Donnell published a biography of Kennedy, Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye. Here, he addressed the different stories and tried to make sense of them. He pulled no punches. He called Johnson a liar.
On pages 31 and 32, he insisted that, after Kennedy was pronounced dead: "I figured that Johnson, who had flown to Texas separately from the Kennedys on Air Force Two, the second 707 jet plane in our party, which was identical to Air Force One, would be taking off for Washington immediately. We did not know then whether or not President Kennedy's assassination was part of a planned conspiracy that might also threaten Johnson, and, in any case, it seemed imperative to get the new President out of Dallas right away. I knew, however, that Jackie would not leave Dallas until she could bring her husband's body with her. This would take at least a little time, so I assumed that Johnson would be leaving for Washington ahead of us. This presented no problem; with the two planes waiting in nearby Love Field, he could take one and leave the other one for us. If Johnson wanted to use Air Force One, as more fitting to his new office as President, that would be all right with Jackie and with us. Both planes had the same equipment and facilities. The only difference between Air Force One and Air Force Two was the identification numbers on their tails. I went to Johnson to urge him to go to Washington immediately and to explain to him that I wanted to remain in the hospital with Jackie until President Kennedy's body was ready to be moved to the airport...'You'd better get the hell out of here,' I said, 'and get back to Washington right away...Get the police to seal off Love Field, and go there right now,' I said. 'And take off for Washington as soon as you get there.' Johnson agreed that I should stay behind at the hospital until Mrs. Kennedy was able to leave with the President's body. 'You take good care of that fine lady,' he said. He never suggested that he might wait at the airport for Jackie and the body of President Kennedy before he left for Washington. If he had made such a suggestion, I would have vetoed it...He never discussed with me whether he should use Air Force One instead of Air Force Two, a question which would have seemed highly unimportant at the time."
O'Donnell then related an incident at Parkland Hospital, where the local coroner Earl Rose refused to release President Kennedy's body to the Secret Service and Mrs. Kennedy, and where they up and took it anyway. By page 37, O'Donnell, along with Mrs. Kennedy and the body of President Kennedy, finally reached Air Force One, where Mrs. Kennedy found Johnson in the bedroom. O'Donnell then pushed Johnson to have the plane take off immediately, only to be rebuked. According to O'Donnell, Johnson told him "We can't leave here until I take the oath of office...I just talked on the phone with Bobby. He told me to wait here until Sarah Hughes gives me the oath..." O'Donnell then claimed: "I was flabbergasted. I could not imagine Bobby telling him to stay in Dallas until he had taken the Presidential oath...Taking the oath is just a symbolic formality and there is no need to hurry about it. Johnson could have waited until he got to Washington and spared all of us on Air Force One that day, especially Jackie, a lot of discomfort and anxiety." O'Donnell then added: "Later that night, Bobby gave me an entirely different version of his conversation with Johnson about taking the oath. He said Johnson had telephoned him...to express his sympathy, and then said to Bobby that 'a lot of people down here had advised him to be sworn-in right away,' and asked if Bobby had any objection. 'I was too surprised to say anything,' Bobby said...'Then he began to ask a lot of questions about who should swear him in. I was too confused and upset to talk to him about it, so I switched him over to Nick Katzenbach...'"
O'Donnell then dismissed reports of the flight back from Dallas as one in which open hostility was displayed between the Kennedy and Johnson camps, but nevertheless acknowledged "Some of us did feel that he was using Mrs. Kennedy and the Kennedy aura when he moved into her husband's Presidential plane so he could stage his oath-taking ceremony there with her present, and so he could arrive in Washington with her and President Kennedy's casket. I think Johnson sensed that he might be criticized for taking over Air Force One instead of going back to Washington earlier on his own plane, as we assumed he would do. This must have been why he later made a big point of insisting in his testimony before the Warren Commission, and in interviews with reporters, that I had specifically told him to take Air Force One when we talked before he left Parkland Hospital. He was trying to shift the blame for his being on Air Force One to me, just as he insisted that he waited in Dallas to take the oath on the plane because Bobby Kennedy had told him to do so, which was not true at all."
Hmmm... Johnson and O'Donnell were hopelessly at odds. Who was telling the truth?
Let's check back in with Rufus Youngblood. In his 1973 book 20 Years in the Secret Service, Youngblood offered up a slightly different version of O'Donnell's comments at Parkland. Here is what he ultimately wrote regarding Johnson's decision to wait for Mrs. Kennedy on the plane: "'Sir, we must leave here immediately!' I said to Johnson. The President's life was no longer in the balance. The reason for staying at the hospital no longer existed. 'I can't leave without Mrs. Kennedy,' Johnson replied. O'Donnell said, 'She won't leave without the body. A casket has been ordered but it isn't here yet.' 'We can wait for her on the plane,' I said. O'Donnell agreed that Johnson should go to Air Force One at once. Months later, amid all the sniping and second-guessing, Johnson was criticized for 'usurping' the Presidential aircraft. What these critics chose to ignore was the simple fact that Air Force One--or to more correctly identify the plane in question, Number 26000--had superior communications capabilities that were absolutely essential in the uncertain conditions that prevailed at the time. Lyndon Johnson was President, even though the formality of the swearing-in had not yet taken place. As President, his duty to the country was to take every possible measure to insure the safety of the nation. In Dallas, Air Force One was an extension of the White House, and as Johnson said himself, he saw nothing strange about the President using the President's plane.'"
Well, this is most interesting. While Youngblood had previously claimed it was O'Donnell's idea Johnson take Air Force One, he now offered Johnson's rationale for taking the plane--that it had superior communications and was the President's plane--and said only that O'Donnell "agreed" Johnson should take Air Force One. He mentioned nothing of his being sent down the hall to get this agreement--the story, we can only assume, either Johnson told Bishop, or Bishop came up with on his own, while confusing Roberts for Youngblood. He said nothing, moreover, of O'Donnell's agreeing that Johnson would wait for Mrs. Kennedy on the plane. In doing so, for that matter, Youngblood had put his Warren Commission testimony into context. When he'd testified "he agreed that we would go on to the airplane and board the plane and wait until Mrs. Kennedy and the body would come out" he was talking about Johnson, and Johnson's agreeing with his (Youngblood's) suggestion they wait at the airport.
Conclusion number 11: Kenneth O'Donnell never told Johnson to take Air Force One. (He agreed that Johnson should leave immediately, without realizing Roberts, Youngblood, and Johnson took this to mean he should leave on Air Force One immediately.)
Conclusion number 12: Kenneth O'Donnell was never told Johnson would be waiting for Mrs. Kennedy on Air Force One.
In opposition to Johnson's statement to the Warren Commission, then, it seems quite clear that O'Donnell never actually "said that we should return to Washington and that we should take the President's plane for this purpose" or "urged again that we go ahead and and take Air Force 1 and return to Washington." O'Donnell had at best only agreed to such a thing, and did not know Johnson would be on Air Force One when he arrived with Mrs. Kennedy. President Johnson had misled his own Commission...charged with discovering the truth about the assassination of his predecessor, and he'd done so, apparently, for political reasons.
He'd orchestrated the return flight from Dallas so that Mrs. Kennedy would have no alternative but to fly home on his plane. He then lied about it. If Bobby Kennedy hadn't charged onto the plane on its arrival back in Washington, for that matter, Johnson would almost certainly have forced Mrs. Kennedy to exit the plane on his arm.
He was afraid folks might think he'd killed his predecessor, and sought to hide behind the widow's skirts.
Conclusion number 13: President Johnson lied in his statement to the Warren Commission when he suggested it was Kenneth O'Donnell's idea he leave on Kennedy's plane.
Still, it's hard to see this clearly. And here are a few of the reasons why...
In 1980, Merle Miller published Lyndon: An Oral Biography, a book in which Johnson's story was told by numerous witnesses, including Johnson himself. In writing this, Miller used only direct quotes, from previously published materials, oral histories performed for the Johnson Library, and interviews performed by Miller specifically for his book. When describing what happened on the plane, however, Miller made a surprising choice. He picked someone who wasn't even there: Johnson assistant Walter Jenkins. He quotes Jenkins as follows: "I began to get calls from President Johnson who was on the plane which was sitting on the ground in Dallas. The first question was whether he should be sworn-in right away. He asked me to get hold of Bobby Kennedy and ask him, which I did. He was for the swearing-in. He said that there is no question but that he is president, but we don't know but that this is an international conspiracy and maybe there are others that are going to be attacked, and that he should be sworn-in as quickly as possible. And then he talked to Mr. Johnson and reiterated
what he had said to me."
And this wasn't the only time Jenkins said such a thing. On 11-12-80, he gave an oral history to the Johnson Library, and claimed that Johnson called him "several times" after reaching the plane. He then specified: "the first thing he said was that he wanted to find out whether he should be sworn-in in Dallas or in Washington and wanted me to get hold of the attorney general which was difficult at that time because he was the president's brother and ask him which I did, and he said it didn't make any difference, that he was president in either case whether he was sworn-in or not, automatically, but that in case there was an international conspiracy, right at that time, nobody knew whether they were going to kill everybody or what, you know, and it might instill confidence in the American people for him to be sworn-in as soon as possible so he suggested that he be sworn-in in Dallas."
Well, that's mighty interesting. Johnson mentioned calling Jenkins, but said this had happened after he'd called Bobby, and that Bobby's return call had come in the middle of this call. Neither Johnson nor Kennedy had ever mentioned Jenkins' first calling Bobby, and Bobby's telling Jenkins Johnson should be sworn-in at once. Jenkins was reportedly loyal to a fault. Was he flat-out lying to help support Johnson's claim Bobby said he should be sworn-in asap?
It appears so. Let's recall that Victor Lasky's 1966 column on the swearing-in held that Johnson's knowledge of Oswald's background had led him to suspect an international conspiracy. Lasky then concluded: "It was Johnson himself who decided that he take the oath as President, believing--and very wisely--that in a time of such grave emergency the nation should not be leaderless." Well, this was nonsense. Johnson's decision to take the oath was made before he'd even been told Oswald's name. And yet Jenkins was now attributing this non-linear thinking to Robert Kennedy. I mean, really, the President--a liberal politician from New England, a Yankee--is killed on the streets of Dallas, the most anti-liberal and gun-lovin' city in America, by a man with a rifle, and Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General of the United States, tells the new president, Lyndon Johnson--a Texan well familiar with the peculiar ways of Dallas--that they should react as though they were under attack from foreigners?
This smells like crappola, particularly in that sources beyond Lasky have it that it was Johnson, not Robert Kennedy, who, at a time when any person in his right mind would have strongly suspected a domestic conspiracy, immediately started talking about a foreign conspiracy. Acting Press Secretary Malcolm Kilduff, for one, admitted in a 11-22-91 interview on WTVQ that he immediately suspected a Dallas-based right-wing conspiracy had killed Kennedy, but that when he spoke to Johnson to ask if he could announce Kennedy's death, Johnson told him, coolly, "Well, now Mac, before you make that announcement, we don't know what kind of a communist conspiracy this might be" and then asked him to hold off the announcement until he (Johnson) was safely aboard Air Force One.
And this wasn't the first time Kilduff had said such a thing. No, not by a long shot. A 12-23-63 radio interview of Kilduff (quoted by UPI in a syndicated article, which can be found in the next day's Lewiston Morning Tribune) supports that Johnson's first concern was of an international conspiracy. Kilduff quotes Johnson as follows: "I think I had better get out of here and get back to the plane before you announce it" (Kennedy's death) ..."We don't know whether this is a world-wide conspiracy, whether they are after me as well as they were after President Kennedy, or whether they are after Speaker McCormick, or Sen. Hayden. We just don't know." Then, as if to confirm the infirmity of human memory, Kilduff recounts how he waited for Johnson to leave the hospital before announcing Kennedy's death (as opposed to his later claim he'd waited till Johnson had arrived on the plane).
Still...isn't this all a bit weird? Johnson was from Texas, and was well aware of Dallas' peculiar concept of Southern hospitality. On November 4, 1960, while Johnson was campaigning for Kennedy, a large crowd of right-wingers (including a local congressman) holding signs calling Johnson a "traitor" and a "Judas," and cheering "We Want Nixon," first blocked Johnson's arrival at the Baker Hotel, where Johnson was staying, and then invaded the lobby of the nearby Adolphus Hotel in an attempt to stop Johnson's scheduled appearance. It took Johnson a half an hour to cross the lobby. And that was not the last time a prominent Democrat was attacked in Dallas. Liberal icon Adlai Stevenson was attacked in Dallas just a few weeks before Kennedy was assassinated. The Dallas right hated Kennedy. And now Kennedy had been killed, in Dallas. But did Johnson blow a fuse, and swear revenge upon the Dallas right? Or call up Federal troops, in case they were needed to put down a rebellion? Nope. He told Kilduff he needed to sneak out the back door of the hospital because the shooting could be the work of communists. Communists--who had no known presence in Dallas--as opposed to the local loonies, who Johnson knew were all around him! Go figure.
In any event, the rest of Miller's quote of Jenkins is also suspicious. Jenkins continued "Then there was the question of the oath. Johnson wanted me to find Sarah Hughes, which I did. I knew her closest friend was Irving Goldberg, so I called him, and he was able to locate her and get her to the plane. He said: 'She may not know the oath for the President of the United States.' So we had to get a copy and read it to them. Somebody dug it out from the White House archives and it was given over the phone to Jack Valenti, who wrote it down on an involce and gave it to Judge Hughes."
Jenkins repeated this story, moreover, in his oral history. When asked if he called McGeorge Bundy after first talking to Johnson, he replied: "I don't think in the first call. The first call had to do with taking of the oath. I had to call him back on that a couple of times. He decided that since he was going to be sworn-in in Dallas, he wanted Sarah Hughes. Of course, a woman judge, you know, who was his recommendation and he asked me to find her. I found her from Washington; he couldn't find her in Dallas. Well, Irving Goldberg, who was a friend of hers--she was at lunch--we found her and got her out to the plane and then she didn't have the oath and didn't remember it so he had to call back and have us read him the oath over the phone so she could give it properly. So the first two or three calls had to do with taking the oath of office."
Well, here, Jenkins was taking credit for the actions of Sanders, who claimed he'd tracked down Hughes, and Kennedy, who admitted asking Katzenbach to find the oath. Tellingly, he also claimed he'd talked to Goldberg, when Goldberg specified that he'd spoken to, first, an operator, and then Johnson. And Johnson admitted calling him.
So that is why I call this all a Rorschach blot. The patterns we see among all these statements and contradictions may say more about us than about the creators of these patterns.
As for me, I see Jenkins, and Johnson, as liars. In 1980, Jenkins was but 62 years of age, presumably too young to be drifting off into dementia. It follows, then, that Johnson's close associate Jenkins almost certainly lied to protect Johnson against the charge he'd lied about Bobby. And that Johnson had almost certainly lied as well...
And that they'd largely gotten away with it... Yes, for many years after Johnson's ever-changing story on the why's and how's of how he ended up on Kennedy's plane taking the oath of office with Kennedy's widow by his side should have been brought to light, most of those writing on the events of the plane either presented them as a he said/she said situation or, unbelievably, took Johnson's side.
Here's a good, er, bad example. In 1985 former Secret Service Agent Dennis McCarthy published Protecting the President. a best-selling account of his years as an agent, sprinkled with a bit of history. His discussion of the flight back from Dallas was bizarre, to say the least. He wrote: "Some of Kennedy's staff later criticized Johnson's use of Air Force One immediately after Kennedy's death. Perhaps one can understand their feelings, but from a security standpoint it would have been utterly ridiculous for the new President to have returned to Washington on older, propeller-driven Air Force Two, while Air Force One, with its superior communications equipment, was used as a hearse for the dead president."
Well, where do we begin? First, the bit about Air Force Two being prop-driven... Absolute horse-pucky. It was a jet, a Boeing 707 nearly identical to Kennedy's plane. It had, in fact, BEEN Kennedy's plane, and Eisenhower's plane before that. Yes, Johnson's plane on the morning of 11-22-63--the one upon which he refused to fly back to Washington--tail number 86970--had been Kennedy's plane as recently as August 1962. And it wasn't retired because it was out of date. It was, in fact, in perfect condition, and would remain so for decades to come, remaining in the presidential fleet until June of 1996. Over that stretch, moreover, it would be used in a number of famous flights. In 1981, ironically, it served as Air Force Two for Vice-President George Bush when he flew back to Washington after President Reagan was shot. In 1967, even more surprisingly, it was pressed into service as Air Force One when Johnson flew around the world.
In 2008, the pilot on this flight, James Cross, wrote a book on this experience, entitled, appropriately enough, Around the World with LBJ. Cross reported that Kennedy's former plane, tail number 26000, was being overhauled in December 1967, and that during this time Johnson decided to fly to Australia, and then continue on around the world. He reported that Johnson was at first upset he couldn't take 26000, which he called the "big plane" due to its being all of 7 feet longer than the back up planes, including 86970, and its having a 15 foot wider wingspan. He quoted Johnson as insisting "No, I don't like those planes...They don't have good sound-proofing and I don't like the seats, and they don't have a bed in them like I'm used to." Cross reported that Johnson soon realized he couldn't get his way, and agreed to fly on 86970--which Cross said he personally preferred, due to its having "more powerful engines" than 26000--under the condition it be refurbished to his liking before the trip. According to Cross, Johnson insisted "Well, you better fix it up so it'll have a nice quiet bedroom, a place where I can sleep. Put some of your men on that airplane and fix all the windows so no outside light will leak in. Put a lot more sound-proofing in the walls and fix a projector in that thing and bring some good movies, and put one of my good beds in it because I need to rest. And don't forget to put on plenty of food and Diet Fresca."
So, there it is. At least probably. Johnson preferred Kennedy's plane on 11-22-63 because he found it more comfortable, and more befitting a President, than his plane. His decision to fly to Washington on Kennedy's plane had had nothing to do with National Security. In fact, when given the choice on 11-22-63, he'd chosen to take the plane with the bed, and to forgo the one with the more powerful engines.
And, should one think Johnson above such pettiness, one should consider an anecdote found in, of all places, Protecting the President by Dennis McCarthy. McCarthy noted that Johnson, while President, liked to go speed boating on a lake near his ranch. He noted that the Secret Service, in its proper role as Johnson's bodyguards, bought and maintained two boats fast enough to keep up with Johnson's boat (which in fact belonged to the Coast Guard) and one boat which could run rings around it. There was a problem, however. They were convinced Johnson would requisition this last boat for himself if he realized how fast it was, and leave them without a boat with which to adequately protect the Presidency. And so they decided to pretend this boat was slower than Johnson's, and let him win race after race, year after year...
Let's recall here what Mrs. Kennedy told Schlesinger, back in 1964: "I don't know if Lyndon had an Air Force One just like it or one of the older planes, but he always kept pushing for a bigger plane. And--or for more--all the kind of things like that he wanted, the panoply that goes with power, but none of the responsibility."
The Rorschach Blot As Seen By Vincent Bugliosi
Still, some would like us to think Johnson's behavior on the day of the shooting was just peachy. In Reclaiming History, his mammoth book on the assassination, published 2007, Vincent Bugliosi notes that O'Donnell denied telling Johnson to fly back on Air Force One, but nevertheless dismisses O'Donnell's position. He "wonders" if O'Donnell had found it "convenient to deny" telling Johnson to take the plane, and argues, furthermore, that we should take Johnson's side in his disputes with "Kennedy loyalists" over his behavior on day one of his presidency, because "the weight of the evidence is that LBJ was very sensitive to the feelings of the entire Kennedy camp following the assassination."
Well, first of all, that's nonsense... If Johnson was so concerned about Mrs. Kennedy's feelings in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, why the heck didn't he ask her what SHE wanted to do--whether SHE wanted to return to Washington with her husband's body on her own plane... whether SHE wanted to leave as soon as she arrived on Air Force One... or whether SHE was willing to delay her departure until after Johnson had been sworn-in?
It seems clear, moreover, that Bugliosi's failure to read (or remember) the full body of evidence on these matters had grossly misrepresented "the weight of the evidence." While accepting O'Donnell's position he thought Johnson would be flying back immediately upon arrival at the airport, and was surprised to find Johnson at the airport when he arrived, for example, he cites a 6-28-05 interview with Secret Service Agent Lem Johns. He fails to note that Johns, in his 11-29-63 report, had previously claimed: "To the best of my knowledge I believe that the Vice President learned from Mr. O'Donnell that Mrs. Kennedy was getting a casket, and would proceed as soon as she could to AF-I for return to Washington, D.C., with President Johnson on the same plane." If he'd really been on top of it, Bugliosi would have pointed out the contradiction, and concluded either that Johns' latter day recollection was in error, or that Johns' original report was strangely worded and unreliable. But, alas, he did neither.
This pattern of avoiding the uncomfortable extends through Bugliosi's narrative at other points as well. He asserts that in their second phone call Robert Kennedy told "Johnson that the oath should be administered immediately, before taking off for Washington." He cites for this assertion not only Johnson's statement to the Warren Commission, but William Manchester's The Death of a President, and Arthur Schlesinger's Robert Kennedy and His Times. He fails to note that two of his three sources are at odds with his conclusion--that Manchester's book relates that both Robert Kennedy and Ed Guthman, who claimed to have been a witness, disputed Johnson's claim, and that Schlesinger's book similarly quotes Kennedy. Bugliosi fails to note, moreover, that Johnson's 1966 phone call to Moyers (which was published three years prior to Bugliosi's book) proves that by December 1966 Johnson himself no longer believed Kennedy had told him he should be sworn-in.
He misleads his readers in the process. While he tells his readers Mrs. Kennedy found Johnson in her bedroom when she finally reached Air Force One, he notes as well that this is her version of the story, and that Johnson's version of events suggested otherwise. He even cites Lady Bird's statements as support for Johnson's story. Incredibly, he never mentions that Marie Fehmer had told both William Manchester and the Johnson Library that Mrs. Kennedy was telling the truth, and that this proved Johnson to have been deceptive, at the very least, on this matter.
So, let's do a quick replay. Bugliosi 1) led his readers to believe O'Donnell had been lying, and that Johnson had been telling the truth, when the evidence for this was unclear; 2) failed to even acknowledge that Johnson may have been lying about his conversation with Robert Kennedy; and 3) insinuated that Mrs. Kennedy and Johnson had had an honest difference of opinion, when the evidence was crystal clear that Johnson had been lying.
It's even worse than that. In his discussion of the Johnson/O'Donnell divide, Bugliosi cites the testimony of Rufus Youngblood as support for Johnson's claim O'Donnell told him to take the plane. He relates that Youngblood said O'Donnell had done this because it had "better communications equipment." He then cites as supporting evidence the 1966 U.S. News and World Report article in which an unnamed former White House employee claimed that Air Force One had better communications than Air Force Two for a brief period in 1963, including on the day of the assassination. He failed to note that three NAMED former White House employees--O'Donnell, O'Brien, and McHugh--had claimed the communications equipment on the two planes were identical. And not only that, he failed to note that by 1966 Johnson and his supporters had long since stopped claiming O'Donnell had said the communications were better on Air Force One, and had shifted to claiming the Secret Service had told Johnson as much...
Reclaiming History... I don't think so... More like muddying the waters...
The Rorschach Blot As Seen By Steve Gillon
Steve Gillon, the History Channel's resident historian, and the author of The Kennedy Assassination, 24 Hours After, published 2009, is nearly as hard on Johnson as I. He spots many of the contradictions in Johnson's statements, and sees Johnson's lack of honesty regarding what took place on the plane as a major factor in his subsequent rift with the Kennedy's, his loss of credibility with the public, and ultimate downfall.
He concludes: "LBJ's fear that the nation would not accept him as the legitimate heir to the presidency convinced him that he needed someone close to the slain president, either Kenneth O'Donnell or RFK, to endorse every decision he made on that fateful day. He proved himself willing to manipulate both men in order to obtain the political cover he desired--or he simply lied and manufactured their compliance. He claimed that O'Donnell specifically ordered him to board Air Force One, when that decision was most likely made by the Secret Service. He insisted that O'Donnell was the first person to tell him that JFK was dead, when the evidence shows that Emory Roberts delivered the news. Later, he manipulated a grieving RFK into agreeing that he should take the oath in Dallas. After getting RFK to endorse his decision to take the oath in Dallas, he told everyone on the plane that the swearing-in was the attorney general's idea. The pattern of deception so evident in the early hours of LBJ's administration would eventually erode the moral authority of his presidency. Johnson's penchant for bending the facts to suit his purposes raised doubts about his integrity and created a credibility gap that eventually undermined public trust in his administration...Johnson told so many small lies, and some big ones, that many people started to question everything he said."
And yet Gillon was far too charitable... As Gillon accepted John McCone's claim RFK had agreed to Johnson's being sworn-in on the plane, and failed to note that Ed Guthman had told William Manchester the opposite was true, it seems likely he had a built-in bias to trust Johnson's claims--as long as he had a witness. He fails to accept that some of these witnesses could have been lying. His willingness to provide Johnson--a man he concludes was an habitual liar--the benefit of the doubt, moreover, also seems apparent. I mean, why else provide Johnson an alibi for his systematic lies--that he was afraid he would not be accepted? Johnson himself never offered such an alibi. And we shouldn't believe him if he did.
Yes, as hard as he was on Johnson, Gillon was still far too defensive of the man. In an 11-20-10 blog on the Huffington Post, he claimed "Kennedy loyalists viewed Johnson's decision to fly Air Force One back to Washington as part of the larger narrative of the day -- an example of LBJ's insensitivity and his megalomania. They would later claim that LBJ was so desperate to surround himself with the trappings of presidential power that he hijacked the Kennedy plane. The charge is bogus. Johnson never requested to use the Kennedy plane. The secret service made that call for him. (LBJ and JFK flew to Dallas on separate but identical planes. The Kennedy plane was designated Air Force 26000. Any plane carrying the president is automatically designated Air Force One, so in that sense it did not matter which plane Johnson chose.) But it did matter to the secret service. Agent Emory Roberts never questioned that LBJ would be returning to Washington on Air Force 26000. In his mind, Air Force 26000 was the president's plane. Kennedy was dead and Lyndon Johnson was now president. It was now his plane. It may have been unsentimental, but it was appropriate. And Roberts never asked Johnson what plane he wanted to use."
When one reads through Gillon's book, moreover, one finds the source for his contention the decision to fly back on Air Force One had been made by Roberts. It was Roberts himself, in his 12-4-64 interview with William Manchester. Here is how the book discusses the matter: "Roberts, typically, was unsentimental about the issue of which airplane to take. When Manchester asked Roberts why the sense of 'urgency' to take Air Force One when the Johnson plane was available, Roberts said, 'Yes, we knew there were two planes there but I was thinking only of the presidential plane...I was thinking only of Air Force One.'"
Should you fail to be blown away by this, well, join the club. Gillon's position on this issue is almost as nonsensical as Bugliosi's position on, well, many issues. The plane on which the President flies is Air Force One. Period. If Johnson flew back to Washington on the plane formally called Air Force Two, it would have been Air Force One. Period. Roberts' Secret Service report reflects that Johnson sent him down the hall to get O'Donnell's permission to fly back on Air Force One. Even if O'Donnell told Roberts "Yes" and didn't just nod his head, as later claimed by Manchester, and even if he fully understood that by Air Force One Roberts meant Kennedy's plane, it follows from this that Johnson was not forced to fly back on Kennedy's plane by Roberts. It was Johnson's decision. He may have been influenced by Roberts when making this decision. He may have thought O'Donnell had agreed to this decision. But it was his decision. Not O'Donnell's. Not Roberts'. Period.
I mean, this couldn't be any clearer. Roberts suggested they fly back on Kennedy's plane, and Johnson made the decision that they do so. Johnson could have flown back on the plane that flew him out there--the plane that still held his luggage. No one told him he could not. In fact, it seems obvious from reading the statements of Roberts and Youngblood that they would much rather have had Johnson leave immediately on that plane--even if it was in some way inferior to Kennedy's plane--than sit around for an hour in Kennedy's plane.
This circles back to another point--one unexamined By Gillon. In 1964 Johnson and his defenders were putting the word out that Kenneth O'Donnell had told Johnson to fly back on Air Force One, due to its superior communications equipment. This was disputed by O'Donnell in his testimony before the Warren Commission. This dispute was discussed in William Manchester's book, The Death of a President. In late 1966 and early 1967, then, Johnson's defenders started claiming the Secret Service had told Johnson to fly back on Air Force One, due to its superior communications equipment. What they failed to realize, however, was that the agent in charge of Johnson's detail when it raced off for the airport, Emory Roberts, was interviewed in 1964, and asked why they'd raced back to Kennedy's plane...and had responded in a manner suggesting the decision had had NOTHING to do with the plane's communications equipment, and everything to do with Roberts', and apparently Johnson's, perception that the plane represented something more than just a means of transportation, and was, in fact, something akin to a throne. The dead king no longer sits upon the throne. It was the new king's to sit upon, so sit upon it he must.
The real weight of the evidence, then, is that Johnson and his defenders had told a series of lies designed to conceal that Johnson had made the decision to wait around in Dallas, and that he had done so against the wishes of the Secret Service, and that he had done so without any input from Mrs. Kennedy. It's clear, moreover, that he didn't really care what Mrs. Kennedy wanted on November 22, 1963--and that she was, in fact, a hostage to his political orchestrations. He had, after all, moved into the plane in which she was accustomed to traveling and made it clear that she was flying back with him...NO MATTER what she wanted...
This fact, however, has proved too hard for many to digest.
The Rorschach Blot As Seen By Robert Caro
Johnson's Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert Caro is clearly among the fact-shy. In his massive and supposedly immaculately-researched work The Passage of Power, published 2011, he makes a number of mistakes. Most are errors of omission. While he acknowledges Johnson's and Kennedy's accounts of their phone calls differ, for example, he writes "The only witnesses to the calls--Rufus Youngblood and Marie Fehmer--heard only one side of them." He fails to acknowledge that Manchester interviewed Guthman, and that Guthman was reported to have claimed he'd heard Kennedy's side of the call, and that Kennedy hadn't told Johnson he should be sworn-in in Dallas, as later claimed by Johnson. He fails to mention even that McCone had also claimed to hear Kennedy's side of the call, and to have told Manchester the opposite--that Kennedy had in fact told Johnson he should be sworn-in. More pointedly, however, Caro fails to cite Johnson's 1966 call to Bill Moyers, in which he as much as admitted Kennedy hadn't told him he should be sworn-in in Dallas. While Caro does cite Marie Fehmer's Oral History, in which she admitted Johnson was in the bedroom when Mrs. Kennedy came on the plane, for that matter, he fails to note the disturbing fact this ran counter to the narrative pushed in the notes written by Fehmer while still aboard the plane. These may have all been innocent over-sights, of course.
But some of Caro's mistakes are not so easily dismissed. Caro relates that, after O'Donnell told Johnson he should leave the hospital immediately, and that Mrs. Kennedy would not leave Dallas without her husband's body, "Johnson said in that case he would leave the hospital but not Dallas; he would go to the plane, but he would wait aboard it for the coffin, and the widow, to arrive. A contrary course continued to be urged. A new adjective entered the descriptions of Lyndon Johnson. He was, Youngblood says 'adamant.'" A look at Caro's end notes, furthermore, shows that he got this last quote from page 117 of Rufus Youngblood's 1973 book 20 Years in the Secret Service.
The problem is that Caro--as respected an historian as ever graced the best-seller lists--was blowing smoke. The sentence from which Caro cherry-picked his line about Johnson being "adamant" reads as follows: "He remained adamant about staying put until there was some definitive word on the President." That's right. Caro had taken Youngblood's description of Johnson's demeanor before the President's death had been announced, and had used it to shore up Johnson's position that he'd told O'Donnell he would wait for Mrs. Kennedy on the plane.
The evidence suggests, moreover, that Caro's mistake was not entirely innocent. In Caro's 5 volume biography, Johnson is very much an anti-hero, a flawed politician who rose to greatness when his predecessor was unexpectedly murdered. It is important to Caro's thesis, then, that Johnson's first actions as President be noble ones. It seems likely, then, that Caro's overwhelming belief in his thesis had led him to crawl around some mighty inconvenient facts.
Caro's anti-hero president was not heroic, at least not at the outset of his presidency. He'd manipulated people and events so he could fly back to Washington with his predecessor's widow at his side...
But perhaps even this was just an afterthought... Perhaps Johnson's primary interest lay elsewhere...
Valenti and "The Body"
In his 1975 defense of Johnson, A Very Human President, former Johnson aide Jack Valenti offered up a fascinating insight into Johnson's actions on 11-22-63. Valenti sat with Johnson on the plane while waiting for Mrs. Kennedy, and was intimately aware of Johnson's thoughts during this period. He wrote of Johnson's decision to be sworn-into office as soon as possible--which, while unnecessary, was nevertheless politically desirable. He then added "before Air Force One departed for Washington, Johnson had also made his first command decision, on his own, to wait for the body of the dead president to be brought aboard before he gave an order to be airborne. This was an intuitive decision and a good one." So... Johnson, a man famous for seeking advice, had decided not to leave without the body, and had come to this decision entirely on his own, after reaching Air Force One. Hmmm...
And this wasn't a one-time misstatement. In a 1978 WBBM interview with Bob Wallace (found on youtube), Valenti repeated and expanded upon this claim. He said that, after reaching Air Force One, "Johnson made two decisions: one, that he would not leave without the body of President Kennedy aboard. And second, as an act of symbolism--he didn't need to--he was gonna be sworn-in on that airplane. And so we waited for some minutes until the body of the slain president could be brought aboard. He was not about to return to Washington without the body...There was some confusion about the local coroner, the red tape. But Johnson was adamant that he was not leaving until the dead president's body was aboard."
In a demonstration of both Valenti's certainty on this point, and his confusion regarding others, moreover, he told the Kennedy Library, in an oral history performed 5-25-82, that while he observed little tension between Johnson and the Kennedy faction on the plane back from Dallas, he did see General Godfrey McHugh "running rather hysterically up and down the airplane. Trying to take charge." He then offered "The new president gave orders that he was going to wait for the body of the late president, of which McHugh was furious about." Valenti had forgotten, one can only assume, that McHugh had arrived with the body of the late President, and was trying to get the plane airborne, unaware that Johnson was on the plane, refusing to let it take off until he'd been sworn-in.
And that wasn't the last time Valenti made this mistake about McHugh. An article by Valenti published in the 11-22-88 Washington Post related that, upon his arrival at the plane: "Gen. Godfrey McHugh, President Kennedy's Air Force aide, now seemingly in command of the presidential plane, had ordered it into the air. He did not know that LBJ had already communicated to the pilot that Air Force One was not to depart until President Kennedy's body had been brought aboard." The body, not the widow.
By the time of his 7-15-91 interview with Deborah Hart Strober and Gerald S. Strober, thankfully, Valenti stopped claiming McHugh arrived before the body. He did, however, continue making his other claim: that Johnson was waiting for Kennedy's body, and not Mrs. Kennedy. He said that on the plane "Johnson made two command decisions that, in retrospect, were so right; one was that he wasn't going to leave without the coffin of the thirty-fifth president; number two, he wanted to be sworn-in so that the picture of that swearing-in would be flashed around the world..."
In an 11-21-93 article in the Washington Post, discussing the events of 11-22-63, moreover, Valenti further recalled that, once aboard Air Force One, "Johnson made two command decisions: First he would be sworn-in aboard Air Force One...Second, he would not leave Dallas until the coffin of the 35th president had been brought aboard. Though Bobby Kennedy had counseled otherwise, the new president was firm."
And that wasn't the last time Valenti claimed Johnson was waiting for Kennedy's body, with no mention of his purportedly all-encompassing concern for Mrs. Kennedy. No, far from it. An 11-22-98 New York Times article by Valenti confirmed that, after installing himself on Air Force One, Johnson's "first decision was that he would not leave Dallas without the body of President Kennedy on board" and that "his second decision was to be sworn-in on the plane, before departure." An 11-20-03 article by Valenti in USA Today similarly claimed: "On Air Force One, I observed how LBJ, when the dagger was at the nation's belly and his own, made historical decisions quickly and decisively. While the rest of the plane's occupants were in varying states of hysteria, LBJ was supernaturally calm, as if he had brought all his volcanic passions under stern harness. He made, on the spot, two key visionary decisions. First, although he was urged to get in the air immediately for his safety, he said, "No, I will not leave until the body of President Kennedy is brought aboard." Second, he was determined to be sworn-in as president on the plane, although Justice Department officials insisted he already was president. But Johnson wanted a photograph of his formal ascension to the presidency to be flashed around the globe, to soothe a frightened nation and an equally fearful world." An 11-22-03 AP article on Valenti by Sharon Theimer then echoed this claim, reporting: "Johnson made two decisions instantly, Valenti said: He refused to let Air Force One take him back to Washington without Kennedy's body on board, and insisted on taking the oath of office on the plane. A deputy attorney general assured Johnson he already was president, but Johnson took the oath there anyway..." And, no, that wasn't the last of it, either. In his 2007 memoir This Time, This Place, Valenti claimed yet again and for the permanent record that Johnson "understood intuitively that he could not leave the body of President Kennedy alone in Dallas."
Well, this is curious, and a bit suspicious to those inclined to suspicion. Why would Johnson refuse to leave Dallas without the President's body--to which he had no right? Valenti's explanation in the Times article that "LBJ foresaw that he would be maligned for being so eager to be President that he left behind his predecessor's body" makes little sense in that the alternative--that he would quite correctly be criticized for forcing Kennedy's widow to wait around on the tarmac in Dallas for an additional 30-40 minutes, and then stand by him in her blood-stained clothes during an unnecessary swearing-in ceremony--was something he should also have foreseen, and avoided.
Valenti's latter-day recollections just can't be ignored. There is reason, after all, to believe his latter-day recollections are in fact not so latter day... Valenti's 1975 book on Johnson, A Very Human President, in which he first mentioned Johnson's interest in Kennedy's body, also contains Valenti's notes on a July 25, 1964 background discussion between Johnson and two newsmen, Dan Rather of CBS News and Bob Thompson of the L.A. Times. These notes state: "Mr. Johnson, in reply to a direct question, said that he had thought an international conspiracy might be underway to 'flatten us out.' Because of this concern, the president said, he ordered that Air Force One be moved at the airport. Then, he said, he decided to go directly to the plane from Parkland Hospital. Even beyond that point, the president said, he had grave doubts about the advisability of 'sitting at the airport' for two hours, but he felt it imperative that President Kennedy's body be returned immediately to Washington."
No mention of Mrs. Kennedy, or of Johnson's simply acquiescing to her wishes when he flew home with the body of her recently murdered husband. No mention that there was a second jet standing by for Mrs. Kennedy and the body should Johnson have left immediately, as proposed by his advisers. No mention of his determination that she not fly home alone. No, here, according to Valenti's contemporaneous notes of a Johnson background discussion with two newsmen, was Johnson himself claiming that he was waiting for the body--the BODY--because he felt it imperative it be returned to Washington. Right away. With him.
There's also this. In his January 11, 1967 column on the events on the tarmac in Dallas, we should recall, Drew Pearson reported that "It took about an hour to overcome local red tape and drive Kennedy's body to the waiting airplane." He then explained: "Air Force One, the Presidential plane, had been waiting for Kennedy's body. This delay was on the personal order of the new President, and contrary to the wishes of the Secret Service." And, no, Pearson's reference to the body wasn't a typo, or shorthand for "Mrs Kennedy who was traveling with the body." A few paragraphs later, he repeated that "Johnson ordered the plane to wait for Kennedy's body." The BODY...
Pearson's column thereby adds weight to Valenti's subsequent statements suggesting Johnson's preoccupation on 11-22-63 was not with Mrs. Kennedy, but with her husband's body. Even if Valenti was by chance Pearson's sole source for these statements, moreover, it proves Valenti's recollections were fully formed by 1967, and not something that slipped out later.
And there's also this. One of the earliest scholarly books on Johnson was Sam Johnson's Boy, by Alfred Steinberg. It was released in July 1968, while Johnson was still President. Although, like Manchester and Bishop, Steinberg failed to cite his sources for particular passages, he did list the names of fifty or so Texas and Washington insiders with whom he consulted in the writing of his book. Jack Valenti was not among them. Even so, Steinberg includes the following description of Johnson's thinking upon arrival on Air Force One: "Johnson quickly made two decisions. Kennedy's remains would travel to Washington with him so that he would not appear to be in unseemly hustle to take charge...Johnson's second decision was that he would be sworn-in on the plane before taking off for Washington. Using Kennedy's bedroom phone on the plane, he telephoned Bobby Kennedy at his Virginia home. Although the President's brother was in a state of shock, he took the call. After telling Bobby that his brother's murder 'might be part of a world-wide plot,' Johnson asked whether he should take the oath in Dallas, and, if so, what was the form of the oath? Bobby ignored the first question and said he would call him back on the second."
Well, this is more than curious, and more than a bit suspicious, wouldn't you say? Why did Johnson think it imperative he gain control of Kennedy's body? Valenti's explanation, which mirrors the explanation offered by Steinberg--that Johnson was scared people would talk if he didn't return with Kennedy's body--seems inadequate. Did Johnson really feel that leaving the body in Dallas would make him look ambitious, or weak, and divide the nation's attention? Upon arrival in Washington, the body was taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital, where an autopsy was performed. The decision to go to Bethesda was made by Mrs. Kennedy, after speaking to Dr. Burkley, her husband's physician. Burkley had suggested she choose a military hospital. Had Burkley spoken to Johnson as well? Had Johnson told Burkley he wanted the body removed from civilian control as fast as possible?
Hmmm...one can only wonder...
If there's an innocent explanation for this body-snatching, for that matter, why would Johnson later lie about it, and make out that his sole interest was Mrs. Kennedy's welfare, and that the decision to return the body on Air Force One was entirely her own?
Yes, sad to say, something was indeed rotten in Denmark, er... Texas... Texas State law forbade the removal of a murder victim from the state before an autopsy could be conducted. And yet Johnson sat by and nodded his approval while the Presidential detail of the Secret Service--now under his command--violated this law. (While some might find this unfair, as O'Donnell claimed that he was responsible for the removal of the body, and as Dallas Mayor and Johnson crony Earl Cabell claimed he'd intervened at the last minute in order to give the removal of the body the appearance of being "legal," the statements of O'Donnell and the Secret Service agents involved in the removal of the body make clear that they were taking the body no matter what Cabell or others had to say on the matter, and that the Secret Service was ultimately answerable to Johnson, not O'Donnell.)
It is a matter of historical record, then, that among Lyndon Johnson's first acts as President, one of them was to have his subordinates illegally abscond with the corpse of his predecessor. Now, curiously, it is also a matter of historical record that, within moments of Johnson's flying off with the body, the Secret Service flew President Kennedy's blood-stained limousine out of Texas. This meant that both the best evidence (the body) and half of the crime scene (the limousine) were never shown to those with jurisdiction for the crime (the Dallas Coroner and the Dallas Police Department), but were instead illicitly removed from Texas and analyzed in secret by men under Lyndon Johnson's direct control.
Now this alone could have raised doubts about Johnson's involvement in the assassination. And this alone could have caused Johnson to create a commission to clear his name. But there was so much more. The sky upon which Air Force One was flying, metaphorically speaking, was the air of suspicion. Congress had been investigating Johnson for corruption. Within months, he could have been forced to resign. But now, with one quick pull of a trigger, in Johnson's home state, no less, President Kennedy had been killed, and Johnson's hold on power had not only been preserved, but amplified a thousand-fold.
The Johnson/Kennedy War
Let's put this in its proper perspective. Lyndon Johnson was a real person, and a real politician, with real ambitions. In 1960, he had run for the Democratic nomination for President against Kennedy, and had unleashed a series of vicious attacks on Kennedy when it looked as though Kennedy was gonna win. (Adlai Stevenson was later to say that these were the most vitriolic attacks on Kennedy he'd ever heard.) As part of his campaign strategy, Johnson had even tried to cast doubt on Kennedy's fitness for office. To do this, Johnson's campaign manager hired private investigators to uncover the truth about Kennedy's health problems. He then began a rumor campaign designed to make people wonder if Kennedy wasn't too sick to serve out his term. (One source, Kenneth O'Donnell, in his 7-23-69 interview for the Johnson Library, put it a little more bluntly. He claimed that LBJ's campaign manager had put out the word that Kennedy "had Addison's disease and couldn't serve out the term" and that "if he was elected he was going to die.") As the situation grew increasingly desperate in the Johnson camp, moreover, one of his mouthpieces, India Edwards, publicly proclaimed what Johnson had--according to writer Gore Vidal, who'd met with Johnson at the Democratic Convention --been saying in private, namely that "Kennedy was so sick from Addison's disease that he looked like a spavined hunchback." This, no surprise, prompted a response from the Kennedy camp. They issued a series of statements claiming that Kennedy's adrenal dysfunction-- which they'd correctly claimed was not what was classically known as Addison's disease--was in fact under control, with an occasional need for medication.
But there's no evidence Johnson believed this. Perhaps then, when Johnson ultimately accepted Kennedy's offer of the Vice-Presidency at the convention, he believed the words of his campaign manager and felt certain Kennedy was on borrowed time. If so, then perhaps, just perhaps, by November 1963 he'd grown tired of waiting for Kennedy to die. These thoughts were undoubtedly on the minds of more than a few...
Particularly as Johnson's campaign manager in 1960, the man who'd conducted an investigation into Kennedy's health problems, and who'd predicted Kennedy's imminent demise, was, in 1963, Kennedy's host on his fatal trip to Dallas, the Governor of Texas, John Connally...
Now, I know some will shy from such speculation. They will say, "But Connally was riding right in front of Kennedy and got shot. He's above suspicion." But let's put this in another time and another place. Let's say it's the year 2003, and John McCain is President. Let's say he got elected in 2000 after reluctantly bringing George Bush onto the ticket. And now he's been killed on a trip with Karl Rove, Bush's former campaign manager. And Karl Rove was wounded in the hail of gunfire. And Rove was heard to yell, as Connally, "My God, THEY'RE going to kill us all!" after getting shot. What would you think? Would you blame anyone who thought maybe, just maybe, Rove was in on the assassination? And that Bush was a party to it as well?
Of course not. The 2000's are not innocent times, and Bush and Rove were not innocent men. And neither were Johnson and Connally...
The suspicions of Johnson were REAL and realistic. They were the 800-pound gorilla in the room no one wanted to talk about in 1963, even in hushed tones. As we've seen, on the flight back from Dallas, Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy's secretary, jotted down a list of those she considered suspects for his murder. This list was not made public until 2010. At the head of a murderer's row of "KKK, Dixiecrats, Hoffa, John Birch Society, Nixon, Diem, Rightist, CIA in Cuban fiasco, Dictators" and "Communists" was someone Lincoln knew very well, someone sitting right there on the plane with her--"Lyndon."
Of course, in some circles, little has changed since '63. When, in 2003, forty years after the assassination, the History Channel ran a program on Johnson as part of its multi-part series The Men Who Killed Kennedy, it was pressured by prominent historians and political figures to denounce the program, and cancel all future airings of the program. This program was no more inaccurate than other programs in the series, but it forced people to think the unthinkable. And so was made to disappear...
This was unfortunate, as it fostered the perception these historians and politicians had carefully investigated Johnson's actions in the aftermath of Kennedy's assassination, and had found nothing the least bit suspicious.
And this clearly wasn't true. Let's recall that in our long and winding discussion of Johnson's behavior in the aftermath of 11-22-63, in Chapter 1, and in this chapter, we have uncovered that Johnson almost certainly 1) lied about his reasons for wanting to fly back on Kennedy's plane; 2) lied about Kenneth O'Donnell's telling him to fly back on Kennedy's plane; 3) lied about telling Kenneth O'Donnell he would wait for Mrs. Kennedy and the body on Kennedy's plane; 4) lied about the first time he saw Mrs. Kennedy on the plane; 5) lied about his being told by Robert Kennedy that he should be sworn-in on the plane; 6) lied when he indicated he only called Judge Hughes after being told he should be sworn-in by Robert Kennedy; 7) lied when he indicated he'd spoken to Judge Hughes personally and asked her to drive out to the plane; 8) lied when he made out that Mrs. Kennedy could have left her husband's body at Parkland Hospital, should she have wished to; and 9) lied when he subsequently claimed the assassination of President Kennedy was thoroughly investigated by Robert Kennedy.
The man was either hiding something, or so scared of how things looked that he lied about them, and made them look far worse...
Perhaps, then, this is why he said, in his opening words after descending from the plane, that he needed our help..."and God's..."