Judgment Days

Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., And The Laws That Changed America

by Nick Kotz

Hardcover, 522 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $26 | purchase

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Title
Judgment Days
Subtitle
Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., And The Laws That Changed America
Author
Nick Kotz

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Book Summary

The first comprehensive account of the relationship between President Johnson and Martin Luther King uses FBI wiretaps, Johnson's taped telephone conversations, and previously undisclosed communications between the two to paint a portrait of this important relationship.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Judgment Days

Chapter 1
The Cataclysm

The day began in triumph for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Riding through the sunny streets of downtown Dallas in
an open convertible, his young wife, Jacqueline, beside him, the president
of the United States beamed at the cheering crowds. Two cars back in the
motorcade, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who knew he had been Kennedy's
choice for vice president principally to keep the South in the Democratic
fold, felt vindicated by the warm reception in his home state. Both men
had been apprehensive about open hostility from angry southerners in
the wake of Kennedy's call for a new civil rights law.

Instead, thousands of ebullient Texans applauded and waved at their
handsome young president and at their own Lyndon Johnson. In the
front car, Nellie Connally, wife of Texas governor John Connally, turned
back toward John Kennedy. "You can't say Dallas doesn't love you," she
beamed.1

An instant later,Nellie Connally heard a loud noise, followed rapidly by
several more explosions. She saw President Kennedy grip his throat with
both hands and heard her husband moan, "Oh, no, no, no," and then, "My
God, they are going to kill us all!"Kennedy was slumped over, bleeding, as
was Governor Connally, whom she cradled in her arms as the convertible
sped away.2

Two cars behind them, Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood yelled,
"Get down!" and shoved Lyndon Johnson to the floorboard. The agent
threw his own two hundred–pound body across Johnson to protect the
vice president. Pinned down and unable to see, Johnson heard tires
screeching as he felt the car accelerate.He heard the radioed voice of agent
Roy Kellerman from Kennedy's car shouting, "Let's get the heck out of
here!" Then he heard still another agent's voice: "The President has been
shot.We don't know who else they are after."

Moments later, Secret Service men rushed Johnson and his wife, Lady
Bird, into Parkland Memorial Hospital, where they huddled silently together
in an examining room with the shades drawn. In an adjoining
room, Secret Service agent Henry Roberts spoke into his radio to
headquarters in Washington. "We don't know what the full scope of this thing
is," he said. "It could be a conspiracy to try to kill the president, vice president
— try to kill everybody."3

Less than an hour after the shots were fired, at 1:22 p.m. Central Standard
Time, November 22, 1963, White House aide Kenneth O'Donnell
came into the Johnsons' room. "He's gone," he told them. At that moment,
fifty-five-year-old Lyndon Baines Johnson became the thirty-sixth
president of the United States.4

In his two-story frame home on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, the Reverend
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. struggled awake late that November morning,
physically and mentally exhausted from too much travel and too little
sleep. During the previous seven days, King had been constantly on the
road, first for a rally at Danville, Virginia, where the sparse turnout of
supporters suggested that the civil rights leader would have trouble
launching a planned major campaign there. The young minister was
deeply worried that the civil rights movement was losing momentum and
perplexed about where he should now direct the energies of his Southern
Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to pressure Congress into approving
civil rights legislation. If not Danville, where should King go next? With
conflicting advice coming from his aides, King did not know
what to do.

After Danville, he had flown to New York to meet privately at Idlewild
Airport with two key advisers, attorneys Clarence Jones and Stanley David
Levison, who both urged him to launch a new campaign, lest the
mantle of civil rights leadership pass to younger, more radical men. He
then stopped off at a resort in New York's Catskill Mountains at the national
convention of United Synagogues of America to receive its annual
leadership award.Next, he flew to Chicago to speak to the annual convention
of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, representing Reform
Jews. Such speeches, more than 150 a year, left him constantly tired.
They were necessary to build support and raise the funds needed to keep
the SCLC afloat, yet aides constantly reminded King that those activities
were no substitute for the kinds of direct-action demonstrations that
had catapulted him to prominence. It had been just such an action in
Birmingham, Alabama, six months earlier that had prompted President
Kennedy to introduce a civil rights bill, after two years of urging from
movement leaders. His proposed bill would outlaw segregation in public
accommodations, forbid discrimination in employment, and withdraw
federal aid from state and local governments that discriminated against
anyone because of race, national origin, or religion. But now the legislation
faced poor prospects in Congress, and King feared that Kennedy's
enthusiasm for the bill had waned as his 1964 reelection campaign drew
nearer.

A television set flickered in the background as King tried to rest in his
upstairs bedroom. At the first news bulletin, he shouted downstairs to his
wife, "Corrie, I just heard that Kennedy has been shot, maybe killed!"
Coretta Scott King, who had been writing notes at her desk, rushed upstairs
to her husband's side. Horrified, the couple stared at scenes of the
Dallas motorcade and the vigil at Parkland Memorial Hospital.

"This is just terrible," cried King. Death threats had become a constant
in the King home. "I hope he will live. . . . I think if he lives — if he pulls
through this, it will help him to understand better what we go through."
Moments later, the television news anchor announced that the president
was dead.

"This is what's going to happen to me," an agonized King told his wife.
"This is such a sick society."5

Lyndon Johnson's first fear was that the Soviet Union might have unleashed
an attack against the United States. If the Soviets had shot the
president, he thought, who would they shoot next? And what was going
on in Washington? And when were the missiles coming? With these
thoughts racing through his mind, Johnson ordered the Secret Service to
delay public announcement of Kennedy's death until he and Lady Bird
had left Parkland Hospital.6

As they prepared to leave, Johnson urged his wife to go see "Jackie and
Nellie." In a narrow hallway outside the main operating room, Mrs. Johnson
found Jacqueline Kennedy standing alone, her face frozen in horror,
her pink suit spattered with her husband's blood. "God help us all!" Lady
Bird said, embracing John F. Kennedy's young widow. Lady Bird next
went to her old friend Nellie Connally, who was being reassured by doctors
that her husband would live.7

The Johnsons then were rushed out a side door of the hospital and into
separate unmarked police cars. Eight minutes later they arrived at Love
Field. Scrambling up the ramp into Air Force One, Lyndon Johnson faced
his first decisions as president. General GodfreyMcHugh and otherWhite
House aides had been urging that the president's official plane take off for
Washington the moment the Johnsons came on board, but Lyndon Johnson
countermanded the general's order.8

He would not leave Dallas without Jacqueline Kennedy and the body of
her husband — then en route to Love Field — nor without first taking the
oath of office as president. With that ceremony, he meant to show the
world that the government of the United States was still functioning in an
orderly manner. U.S. district judge Sarah Hughes, an old Johnson friend
and supporter, was summoned from her office in Dallas. Hughes boarded
the Boeing 707, and as Lyndon Baines Johnson placed his hand on a Bible,
she administered the oath of office. Lady Bird Johnson and Jacqueline
Kennedy stood at his side. After kissing each woman on the cheek, President
Johnson commanded Colonel James Swindall, the pilot of Air Force
One, "Let's be airborne!"9

As the plane sped toward Washington, Johnson telephoned Rose Kennedy,
mother of the murdered president. "I wish to God there was something
I could do," he said. "I wanted to tell you that we were grieving with
you." Choked with emotion, Johnson handed the telephone to Lady Bird
to try to console Mrs. Kennedy.10

Over the jet's sophisticated communications system, Johnson then arranged
for congressional leaders and national security advisers to meet at
the White House upon his arrival in Washington.11 And he instructed six
members of the Cabinet aboard an airplane bound for Japan to change
course and return to the capital. A few minutes earlier, Secretary of State
Dean Rusk had informed that planeload of Cabinet members, reporters,
and their party that President Kennedy had been shot, but they had not
been told his condition. The delegation sat in stunned silence. When the
airplane began to make a slow U-turn over the Pacific and head back toward
the United States, they knew that their president was dead.12

Two hours and ten minutes after leaving Dallas, Johnson stood in darkness
on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington. His
craggy face illuminated by klieg lights, the new president spoke to the nation:
"This is a sad time for all people.We have suffered a loss that cannot
be weighed. For me it is a deep personal tragedy. I know the world shares
the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bear. I will do my best. That
is all I can do. I ask for your help and God's."13

Touching down on the South Lawn of the White House after a tenminute
helicopter ride from Andrews, Johnson strode deliberately toward
the entrance of the Oval Office. Then, abruptly changing his mind, he
walked through the White House basement to his vice presidential suite
in the Executive Office Building. There he asked the assembled congressional
leaders for their support.14 He approached each member of Kennedy's
Cabinet and staff and asked them all to stay on. "I need you more
than the President needed you," Johnson told them.15 He called Keith
Funston, chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, to thank him for
shutting down the market as soon as news broke of the assassination.16 He
phoned Richard Maguire, treasurer of the Democratic National Committee
and chief fundraiser for the expected 1964 Kennedy presidential campaign,
and asked him to continue his work.17 He contacted former presidents
Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower to request their advice.* He
arranged to meet Eisenhower inWashington the following morning.18
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called the new president with disquieting
information about Lee Harvey Oswald, who had just been arrested and
charged with Kennedy's murder, a story that hinted at Cold War conspiracy.
A former U.S.Marine, Oswald had lived for several years in the Soviet
Union, where he had married a Russian woman and tried to become a Soviet
citizen. Oswald had worked for a group supporting Cuban Communist
leader Fidel Castro and recently had visited the Soviet consulate in
Mexico City.19

The news could hardly have been more ominous. The Cold War between
the United States and the Soviet Union was raging across the world
— from the divided city of Berlin to Vietnam. Only thirteen months had
passed since the United States and the Soviet Union had come within an
eyelash of nuclear war over the presence of Soviet missiles on the island of
Cuba, ninety-two miles from the American shore. After a nerve-wracking
thirteen-day standoff, the crisis had ended when the Soviets agreed to remove
the missiles.

Despite his own fears about Soviet involvement in the assassination,
Johnson knew that the nation needed his reassurance. Concerned that
Dallas district attorney Henry Wade might rush to a public judgment involving
Oswald in a Communist plot, the new president asked his longtime
adviser Horace Busby to assign Texas attorney general Waggoner
Carr to take command of the assassination investigation.20

For most of his life, Lyndon Johnson had dreamed of becoming president.
Now, under nightmarish circumstances, his wish had been fulfilled,
and he faced a nation stunned by sorrow, fear, and troubling questions:

* Johnson also tried to reach the oldest living ex-president, eighty-nine-year-
old Herbert Hoover, but was unable to do so and instead left a message with
Hoover's son.

Who had killed Jack Kennedy and why? And who was this hulking Texan
with the deep southwestern twang who had suddenly taken Kennedy's
place as president of the United States?

Congressman Hale Boggs of Louisiana, the deputy majority leader of the
House of Representatives, raced toward the Capitol from his office across
the street in the Cannon House Office Building as soon as he heard the
news, nearly crashing into Representative William Colmer, a Mississippi
Democrat and diehard segregationist. "Your people killed that man!"
Boggs shouted at a startled Colmer. "Your Ross Barnetts!"21

The grief-stricken Boggs was not the only person to leap to the conclusion
that Kennedy's murder was related in some way to racial strife in the
South. In late September 1962, Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi had
fueled a deadly riot by defying President Kennedy's order making James
Meredith the first African American admitted to the University of Mississippi.
22 Barnett's Mississippi had produced more civil rights–related violence
than any other state. Civil rights activists had been beaten and murdered,
black churches had been burned, and Ku Klux Klansmen had
waged a campaign of terror with virtual immunity from state and local
law enforcement.

Senator Richard Russell, a Georgia Democrat and leader of the southern
segregationist forces in the Senate, stood in his usual spot in the Senate
Marble Room reading the news wires as they came out of a ticker tape
machine. Russell's eyes welled with tears as he read of the "dastardly crime
. . . which had stricken a brilliant, dedicated statesman at the very height
of his powers." Russell took solace in knowing that his friend and protégé
Lyndon Johnson would be taking over the reins — a man he had long believed
had "all the talents and abilities to be a strong president."23

Senator Hubert Humphrey, a Minnesota Democrat and deputy majority
leader of the Senate, heard the news as he was attending a luncheon at
the Chilean embassy in Washington. Overcome by emotion, Humphrey
wept openly, then steadied himself to announce the sad news to the
assembled guests. As he left the embassy, Humphrey worried about the
health of his friend Lyndon Johnson — about his earlier heart attack and
how he might have been shaken emotionally by the trauma of the day. But
that evening Humphrey felt reassured by Johnson's measured calm when
he saw Johnson in his office. Putting his arm around Humphrey, Johnson
told him that he desperately needed the help of his friend fromMinnesota
— who had been the Democrats' point man on civil rights since 1948.
Most Americans, regardless of their political beliefs, reacted to the
assassination with a profound sense of shock and grief. The attractive
young president and his glamorous wife had charmed the nation, and indeed
people throughout the world, with their vitality, graciousness, and
style. But race had become a dominant, divisive issue in American public
life. In disturbing ways, feelings about race influenced immediate reactions
to Kennedy's murder. Some hard-core racists, bitter about the president's
proposals to outlaw segregation and forbid discrimination against
Negroes, actually cheered the news of his death. In a dormitory at Mississippi
State College, cowbells rang in celebration.24 A young man from Alabama
proclaimed on an Atlanta radio call-in show that night that "Kennedy
got exactly what he deserved — that any white man who did what he
did for niggers should be shot!"25

A large majority of America's 22 million African Americans admired
John F. Kennedy and considered him a sympathetic friend.Many assumed
at first that his assassin had been motivated by racial hatred. That
assumption proved unfounded, but it reflected the highly charged political
and social climate of the times. After four years of increasingly potent civil
rights protests, the White House and Congress finally had begun to respond
to black citizens' demands for legislation forbidding segregation
and discrimination in public accommodations, voting, employment, and
schools. As the civil rights forces led by Martin Luther King and other
black leaders increased pressure for change, southern vigilantes from the
Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Councils retaliated with increased violence.
Only two months earlier, four young black girls, wearing their
white Sunday dresses, had died in a fiery blast when Klan members
dynamited their Birmingham, Alabama, church as parishioners gathered for
morning worship.

In a Cleveland, Ohio, hotel ballroom, Leslie Dunbar, director of the
Southern Regional Council, a moderate voice for improved race relations,
was preparing to address a luncheon meeting of civil rights leaders.When
he heard about the president's assassination, he tore his prepared speech
into pieces and dropped it into a wastebasket just before his scheduled
presentation. Dunbar had intended to excoriate President Kennedy and
his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, for moving too slowly on
civil rights. Instead, the meeting abruptly broke up as the attendees raced
to the telephones and television set in the hotel lobby.

Dunbar's complaints about the Kennedy administration were widely
shared among the civil rights leaders present at that meeting of the National
Association of Inter-group Relations Officials (NAIRO). They were
critical of Kennedy for his hesitation in advocating new civil rights laws
and for the government's failure to protect peaceful black demonstrators
who were being brutalized in the South. Even though Kennedy was widely
admired by the black masses, many civil rights leaders had come to see
him as a white politician who had initially shown great promise but who
seemed to respond only to constant prodding and political pressure.26

The assessment was harsh but not far off the mark. Two days earlier, on
November 20, Robert Kennedy had celebrated his thirty-eighth birthday
at an office party in which he stood on his desk and satirically described
how his work on civil rights as attorney general had made President Kennedy
much more popular in the South. He joked that "the administration
would have floundered without him — he'd captured the South, labor
would be committed to Democrats forever," and that he had made
the Democrats the "law-and-order party." As Assistant Attorney General
Ramsey Clark left the celebration, he reflected that with the attorney general
about to resign to run his brother's reelection campaign, the civil
rights bill was dead until after the 1964 election.27

Leslie Dunbar's speech was not the only one discarded that Friday afternoon.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, a Montana Democrat,
had prepared a speech defending Congress from criticism that it was
moving too slowly on civil rights legislation. In an earlier civil rights fight,
he planned to tell his colleagues, haste had only helped the bill's
segregationist opponents. At news of the assassination, Mansfield hurried to
the Senate dais to comfort Senator Edward Kennedy, the slain president's
youngest brother, who was presiding. At a loss for words, Mansfield
adjourned the Senate.

The Reverend Walter Fauntroy, Washington director of King's Southern
Christian Leadership Conference, heard news of the assassination on his
car radio as he was leaving a restaurant in downtown Washington, D.C.
He too thought at first that the violence directed against black civil rights
demonstrators "has now reached the White House. They hate Kennedy
the way they hate us!" As for Lyndon Johnson, Fauntroy dismissed the
new president as "a 'wheeler-dealer' from the South."28

Twenty-three-year-old Julian Bond, an officer of the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the most militant national civil
rights organization, was having lunch with a columnist from the Atlanta
Journal when he heard the news. Bond wondered first "whether Kennedy's
assassin was a left-winger, and would people like us be blamed?"
Bond then called a friend in Texas to ask, "Who is this guy Lyndon John-
son?" His friend warned him that Johnson was "a tool of the oil interests
with a mixed civil rights record" and that "we should be wary and suspicious."
29

In Atlanta, eight-year-old Yolanda King arrived home from school in
tears. Rushing into her father's arms, she cried, "Oh, Daddy, now we will
never get our freedom."Martin Luther King responded softly, "Now don't
you worry, baby. It's going to be all right."30

King spent the afternoon at home on the telephone gathering information
and advice from his aides and preparing a statement about the assassination.
He found that the SCLC's leaders were spread out around the
South. In St. Helena Island, South Carolina, the Reverend Andrew Young,
Dorothy Cotton, and Septima Clark were conducting an SCLC workshop
training new local leaders for upcoming demonstrations. Upon hearing
the news, Young led the group in prayers for the country; then, for the rest
of the day, the activists sang movement spirituals.31

In Danville, Virginia, the Reverend C. T. Vivian, an official of King's
Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was briefing a group of new
civil rights workers who would fan out across the southwestern Virginia
town to informits citizens whyMartin Luther King Jr. had chosen it as the
next target in his campaign for racial equality. After a messenger whispered
news of the assassination, Vivian told the recruits to go home. They
would demonstrate another day. Vivian himself was stoic, dry-eyed about
the president's murder. The movement was used to murder. Kennedy's
death was one more event to be tallied in Vivian's deep belief that "everything
done to destroy us, develops us."32

By late afternoon,Martin Luther King had reached Clarence Jones and
Stanley Levison, his two closest advisers outside the SCLC staff. Together
they agreed on a statement which stressed that an atmosphere of violence
and hatred in the country had contributed to President Kennedy's
assassination.

"I am shocked and grief stricken at the tragic assassination of
President Kennedy," King's statement read. "He was a great and dedicated
President. His death is a great loss to America and the world. The finest
tribute that the American people can pay to the late President Kennedy is
to implement the progressive policies that he sought to initiate in foreign
and domestic relations."33

Tension is expected anytime power is transferred from one group to another,
but the normal tension accompanying a presidential transition was
compounded by the upheaval of November 22, 1963. Grief and resent-
ment led to emotional outbursts from people close to both Jack Kennedy
and Lyndon Johnson. It began in the rear of Air Force One on the sad
flight back to Washington as JFK's closest aides huddled with Jacqueline
Kennedy around the coffin of the late president. The Kennedy men
seethed, feeling that Johnson was grasping power too quickly. They
thought that he should have used Air Force Two, the vice presidential
plane, to return to Washington.34 Lawrence O'Brien, Kennedy's chief of
congressional relations, was disturbed that Johnson had begun imploring
him to stay on in his job at a time when O'Brien wanted only to mourn
beside his friend's coffin.35

As soon as Air Force One came to a stop at Andrews, Robert Kennedy
charged onto the plane, shouting, "Where is Jackie? I want to be with
Jackie."As he pushed through the plane, he brushed past Lyndon Johnson
without saying a word to the new president. Johnson ignored the snub,
but Congressman Jack Brooks of Texas, also on the plane, declared that
Johnson should fire Kennedy immediately "because he never will be
loyal."36

Standing on the tarmac watching Jack Kennedy's coffin being lowered
from the airplane, John F. Bailey, the burly chairman of the Democratic
National Committee, muttered, "Now that son-of-a-bitch Lyndon Johnson
is going to be President."37

As Johnson and Kennedy staff members worked side by side that night
in the Executive Office Building, grief occasionally exploded into anger.
When Johnson aide Cliff Carter asked a Kennedy secretary to bring him
some sheets of White House notepaper for President Johnson, she burst
into tears. "He can't even let the body get cold before he starts using his
stationery," she complained.38

Johnson used the stationery that night to write notes to President Kennedy's
children, Caroline and John Jr. "It will be many years before you
understand fully what a great man your father was," he wrote to the late
president's little son. "His loss is a deep personal tragedy for all of us, but I
wanted you particularly to know that I share your grief. You can always be
proud of him."39

That the assassination had occurred in Johnson's native state heightened
the tensions surrounding his sudden ascension to the presidency.
Even before Kennedy and Johnson had embarked on their fateful trip,
Dallas was notorious for its nasty political climate. Less than a month earlier,
a mob of right-wing zealots in Dallas had jeered and spat at Adlai E.
Stevenson, Kennedy's ambassador to the United Nations and himself a
former Democratic presidential candidate. In the 1960 presidential campaign,
even Johnson, then Senate majority leader, and Lady Bird had been
heckled and shoved as they campaigned in Dallas for the Kennedy–Johnson
ticket.

On the helicopter ride from Andrews Air Force Base to the White
House, animosity toward Texas poured out. Kennedy aide Theodore Sorensen
exploded at George Reedy, the Johnson aide seated beside him.
"George, I hate that goddamned state of Texas of yours," Sorensen
shouted above the roar of helicopter engines. "I wish it never had existed!"
40 Other Kennedy aides would acknowledge later that in their
first blinding emotions of shock, grief, and anger, the thought had even
crossed their minds that Lyndon Johnson was somehow involved in the
assassination.

The special burden of being a Texan on November 22 occurred to Lady
Bird Johnson almost immediately. Overwhelmed by her own feelings as
she tried to comfort Jacqueline Kennedy on board Air Force One, Lady
Bird almost pleaded for understanding. "Oh, Mrs. Kennedy," she said,
"you know we never even wanted to be vice president, and now, dear God,
it's come to this." She was horrified that the assassination had taken place
in Texas.41 "There is that sense of shame over the violence and hatred that
has gripped our land," she later wrote in her diary. "Shame for America!
Shame for Texas!"42

When the helicopter landed at theWhite House, Lady Bird stepped into
a limousine to drive to the Johnson home in northwest Washington,
where friends and advisers were gathering. Riding through the darkened
streets, she and her longtime friend Elizabeth Carpenter talked about the
difficult days ahead. After closing the window separating them from the
driver, Carpenter said, "It's a terrible thing to say, but the salvation of
Texas is that the governor of Texas was hit."

"Don't think I haven't thought of that," Lady Bird replied. "I only wish
it could have been me."

Searching for a positive thought, the new first lady said quietly,
"Lyndon is a good man to have in a crisis." Carpenter nodded. Both
women also knew that, without a crisis or major undertaking to challenge
his enormous talents, Lyndon Johnson could behave abysmally. He could
be arrogant, crude, overbearing, spoiled, petulant, and brooding, with
mood swings into deep depression and pessimism. They had seen that
Lyndon Johnson far too often during the nearly three years he had served
loyally but unhappily as vice president.43

As he had set out with President Kennedy on the trip to Dallas, Lyndon
Johnson felt burdened with the frustrations of his largely ceremonial of-
fice. Having been the most powerful majority leader in the history of the
U.S. Senate, Johnson had to endure the ignominy of powerlessness in the
vice presidency — his role reduced to cutting ribbons and making goodwill
tours around the world. He was ignored at important administration
meetings — or not even invited. He worried about recurrent rumors that
Kennedy would dump him from the ticket in the 1964 campaign.

The vice president's misery was compounded by the disrespect shown
him by some of the younger New Frontiersmen, especially the president's
brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who in meetings either ignored
Johnson or treated him with contempt. Carried away by the hubris
of their first taste of political power — and blinded by their inexperience
— the young Kennedy men saw none of Johnson's complexities and
effectiveness as a leader, but saw him as the caricature of a crude, irrelevant
frontier westerner, a throwback to a bygone era. At a White House reception
two young Kennedy appointees had rudely ignored Johnson's effort
to join their conversation. "Fuck Lyndon Johnson," one muttered — an
imprecation heard clearly by the vice president, a man of great pride and
surprisingly thin skin to such slights.44

The man who had just become president of the United States stood just
over six feet, four inches tall. Eyes fixed in a piercing squint, a long nose,
and even longer ears, his was a mien that made an easy target for political
cartoonists. With both an ego and insecurities as outsized as his
extraordinary talent, an intense desire to be loved by everyone, and a burning
need to be in control of the action, Johnson had brooded constantly
about his future in the Kennedy administration. In the months before the
assassination, his aides had been shocked to see the vice president grossly
overweight, depressed, and drinking too much whisky — dangerous
indulgences for a man who eight years earlier had barely survived a massive
heart attack. Bathing himself in maudlin self-pity, Johnson had poured
out his unhappiness to his closest associates. He talked of retiring from
politics — giving up his ambition to become president — and turning
again to teaching.45 At times he claimed he would quit — go into business
and make a lot of money. Now, after the gunfire in Dallas, his situation
had changed dramatically.

Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had gone to Texas to raise campaign
funds. Kennedy feared that feuding Democratic factions in the state,
locked in a mean-spirited internecine battle, could cost him Texas —
and the upcoming presidential election. After almost three years in of-
fice, Kennedy was gaining popularity and self-confidence. He had just
achieved a major agreement with the Soviet Union to halt nuclear testing
in the atmosphere. He was admired for his youthful energy, his pledge "to
get the country moving again," and his idealistic call for Americans to
volunteer for public service — to "ask what you can do for your country."46
Thousands had responded, joining the Peace Corps and other new
government initiatives. Elected president at age forty-three, Kennedy
represented a new generation of leaders, tested in battle in World War II and
optimistic that their day to govern the country had come.
But Kennedy faced legislative gridlock with a Congress that had failed
to succumb to his considerable charm, refusing to approve the major
proposals of his New Frontier: tax relief to stimulate a lethargic economy,
medical care for the elderly, and education aid for the young. Now, in
November 1963, even the routine appropriations bills were stalled, threatening
a shutdown of government services. Kennedy had been neither a
leader nor an insider in Congress. He had few deep relationships with his
former colleagues to rely on, and he lacked the temperament to push
them hard on behalf of his programs.

Beyond question, the most critical issue facing the country was civil
rights. Black civil rights activists, along with their white allies, were
marching in the South, confronting officials who denied them the right to
vote, to eat in restaurants, to attend integrated schools, and to win jobs
reserved for "whites only." Clashes between civil rights demonstrators and
southern law enforcement officers, and violence directed at blacks by
sheriffs and police chiefs as well as by the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens
Councils, had created a crisis atmosphere.

For most of his three years in office, Kennedy had disappointed black
leaders who had expected him to champion their cause. After he had
promised in the 1960 campaign to end housing discrimination "with the
stroke of a pen," it had taken Kennedy more than two years to sign a limited
executive order forbidding government-backed financial institutions
from discriminating against blacks in housing loans.* Kennedy had defeated
Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960 by the narrowest of margins.
Facing a coalition of southern Democrats and conservative Republicans
who could block his programs in Congress, he hesitated to introduce
strong civil rights legislation that might anger the powerful southerners
who chaired the major committees in the Senate and could block his
other legislative initiatives. To Kennedy's dismay, the southern congressional
barons had stalled his domestic programs even though he hadn't
pushed civil rights until circumstances had forced him to act.
In June 1963, Kennedy finally had proposed comprehensive legislation
* A number of civil rights supporters across the country, frustrated with
Kennedy's slow progress in delivering his pledged executive order, began
sending pens to the White House, hoping to help along the promised "stroke
of a pen." to help the nation's Negroes, who faced blatant discrimination in
every realm of American society from the workplace to the voting booth. His
hand had been forced by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.When television
news showed King's demonstrators in Birmingham, including children,
being attacked by police dogs and bowled over by high-pressure fire
hoses, the nation reacted with outrage. As demonstrations spread to dozens
of cities, the southern civil rights crisis threatened to become a national
crisis of law and order. Prodded by these events, Kennedy finally delivered
his first passionate speech calling for civil rights legislation. "We
are confronted primarily with a moral issue," Kennedy said in a televised
address from the Oval Office. "The heart of the question is whether all
Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities." One
hundred years after Abraham Lincoln had emancipated the slaves, Kennedy
said, "their grandsons are not fully free. They are not yet freed from
the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic
oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and boasts, will not be fully
free until all of its citizens are free."47

But as summer had passed into autumn, public opinion polls, which
Kennedy followed avidly, showed that half the nation thought he was
pushing too fast on civil rights.48 Observing that the president was mentioning
civil rights less often in speeches — including those given during
the first two days of his trip to Texas — King suspected that Kennedy
would not be unhappy if the issue were held over in Congress until after
the election.49 Now Kennedy was gone, and black leaders faced a new
question: How would Lyndon Johnson, a southerner with a mixed record
on civil rights, respond to their pressing needs?

Lyndon Baines Johnson reached The Elms, his three-story, twelve-room
brick-and-stucco Norman chateau in Spring Valley, an upper-class enclave
in northwest Washington, just after 9 p.m. on November 22. As her
father entered the foyer, daughter Luci, age seventeen, thought "he looked
like he had been run over by a truck, and yet very strong."50

Johnson settled in the den. Close friends, including former aide Horace
Busby and his wife, Mary Beth, had gathered at the house and now
surrounded
the new president as they watched the television news replay
scenes of the nightmare in Dallas. A film clip showed the young Kennedy
family in happier times, with the president and his wife watching their
daughter, Caroline, riding Macaroni, a pony given to her several months
earlier by Vice President Johnson.51 "It's all too fresh. I can't watch it,"
Johnson said.52

Above the television set hung a portrait of the late Sam Rayburn,
Speaker of the House of Representatives, a Texas Democrat and mentor to
Johnson from the time he had come to Congress in 1937. The president
raised a glass of soda to Rayburn's picture. "Oh, Mr. Sam, I wish you were
here now," he said. "How I need you."53

Shortly after 11 p.m. Johnson went upstairs, put on a pair of gray pajamas,
and climbed into bed.54 Dr.Willis Hurst, Johnson's cardiologist since
his heart attack in 1956, urged him to take a sleeping pill and rest. Instead,
Johnson summoned Bill Moyers, Jack Valenti, and Cliff Carter, three aides
who had ridden back from Dallas with him aboard Air Force One.* For
the next four hours, sitting in his bed, propped up on pillows, Johnson
talked virtually nonstop. As Moyers listened while Johnson switched from
one subject to another, he thought that the president "seemed to have several
chambers of his mind operating simultaneously."55

Eighteen hours earlier, Johnson had begun the day having breakfast
with Jack Kennedy in Fort Worth.Now, withMoyers sitting on one side of
his bed and Valenti and Carter in chairs on the other, the new president
began ticking off assignments to be carried out the next morning: calls to
members of the Kennedy family, arrangements for the funeral, and meetings
with members of Congress, with former president Eisenhower, with
national security advisers, and with the Cabinet.56

As Johnson weighed and made decisions about the coming days, Cliff
Carter, his chief political aide, was struck by how carefully he was walking
a "chalk line." On the one hand, Johnson wanted the country to have
"confidence that he could do the job." On the other, he wanted to avoid
giving the impression that he was rushing to take power. Johnson had to
demonstrate leadership while showing sensitivity to the bereaved Kennedys
and their devoted followers, whose help he would need immediately.
57

In a telephone conversation earlier that night with Arthur Goldberg, an
associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Johnson revealed just how
aware he was of having to balance many sensitivities and concerns as he
took his first steps as president. "I want you to be thinking about what I
ought to do," he told Goldberg, "to try to bring all these elements together
and unite the country to maintain and preserve our system in the world,
because — if it starts falling to pieces — why, we could deteriorate pretty
quickly."

Johnson asked Goldberg whether he should speak to a joint session of

* On hearing that President Kennedy had been shot,Moyers, a twenty-nine-
year-old former Johnson Senate aide from Texas and at the time deputy
director of the Peace Corps, chartered a plane from Austin to Dallas to be at
President Johnson's side when Air Force One took off forWashington. He
immediately joined Johnson's presidential staff, as did Valenti.

Congress soon after Kennedy's funeral. Goldberg thought that he should,
and Johnson asked him to help prepare the speech. Johnson wanted to
address the nation "with dignity and reserve and without being down onmy
knees but, at the same time, letting them know of my respect and con-
fidence."58

As Johnson talked through the early-morning hours, Jack Valenti observed
that he already seemed to know what he wanted to accomplish
with his presidency. Valenti listened with surprise as Johnson spelled out
ambitions that added up to a sweeping agenda for social change in the
United States.59

"Well, I'm going to tell you," Johnson said, "I'm going to pass the civil
rights bill and not change one word of it. I'm not going to cavil, and I'm
not going to compromise. I'm going to fix it so everyone can vote, so everyone
can get all the education they can get. I'm going to pass Harry Truman's
health care bill."60

Valenti, a Houston advertising man by profession, had helped Johnson
organize political events in Texas, but he had never heard him talk so
expansively about how he would run the country. It seemed to Valenti that
Lyndon Johnson, president of the United States for little more than twelve
hours, already had resolved "to radically change the social environment of
the nation" so that the "poor, the aged, the blacks, those denied an education
. . .would have a new opportunity . . . absolutely essential to an equitable
America."61

No president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s had attempted
such a broad assault on social and economic inequality. Now
Lyndon Johnson, in his first hours as president, apparently aspired to
match FDR, his hero and mentor when Johnson first came toWashington
thirty years earlier. In the past Johnson had demonstrated gargantuan
ambition, a populist philosophy about government helping those with
the least, and a shrewd ability to wield political power. Thrust into the
presidency, Johnson faced formidable immediate challenges: to reassure a
shocked nation and to move a paralyzed and deadlocked federal government
to action at a time of crisis.

Copyright © 2005 by Nick Kotz. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company