The New York Times
Kennedy Assassination Tapes: The White House Conversations of Lyndon B. Johnson Regarding the Assassination, the Warren Commision, and the Aftermathby Max Holland, Lyndon B. Johnson
The transition from John F. Kennedy to Johnson was arguably the most wrenching and, ultimately, one of the most bitter in
A major work of documentary history–the brilliantly edited and annotated transcripts, most of them never before published, of the presidential conversations of Lyndon B. Johnson regarding the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath.
The transition from John F. Kennedy to Johnson was arguably the most wrenching and, ultimately, one of the most bitter in the nation’s history. As Johnson himself said later, “I took the oath, I became president. But for millions of Americans I was still illegitimate, a naked man with no presidential covering, a pretender to the throne….The whole thing was almost unbearable.”
In this book, Max Holland, a leading authority on the assassination and longtime Washington journalist, presents the momentous telephone calls President Johnson made and received as he sought to stabilize the country and keep the government functioning in the wake of November 22, 1963. The transcripts begin on the day of the assassination, and reveal the often chaotic activity behind the scenes as a nation in shock struggled to come to terms with the momentous events. The transcripts illuminate Johnson’s relationship with Robert F. Kennedy, which flared instantly into animosity; the genuine warmth of his dealings with Jacqueline Kennedy; his contact with the FBI and CIA directors; and the advice he sought from friends and mentors as he wrestled with the painful transition.
We eavesdrop on all the conversations–including those with leading journalists–that persuaded Johnson to abandon his initial plan to let Texas authorities investigate the assassination. Instead, we observe how he abruptly established a federal commission headed by a very reluctant chief justice of the Supreme Court, Earl Warren. We also learn how Johnson cajoled and drafted other prominent men–among them Senator Richard Russell (who detested Warren), Allen Dulles, John McCloy, and Gerald Ford–into serving.
We see a sudden president under unimaginable pressure, contending with media frenzy and speculation on a worldwide scale. We witness the flow of inaccurate information–some of it from J. Edgar Hoover–amid rumors and theories about foreign involvement. And we glimpse Johnson addressing the mounting criticism of the Warren Commission after it released its still-controversial report in September 1964.
The conversations rendered here are nearly verbatim, and have never been explained so thoroughly. No passages have been deleted except when they veered from the subject. Brought together with Holland’s commentaries, they make riveting, hugely revelatory reading.
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1963 November 22
The day began on a note of keen anticipation. Friday, after all, would take the presidential entourage into Dallas, that unrivaled bank and bastion of anti-Kennedy sentiment. It wasn’t simply the distinction of having been the only large American city to favor Richard Nixon over John Kennedy in the 1960 election that indelibly tagged Dallas. No, it was the sheer emotion and staggering wealth of its opposition in the three years since then that made the city synonymous with Kennedy’s bitterest critics. Above and beyond its role as a wellspring for anti-Communism, and anti-Communist paranoia, Dallas was the fount of some of the ugliest anti-Kennedy vitriol in circulation.
Foremost in everyone’s mind on the morning of November 22 was Adlai Stevenson’s visit to Dallas on October 24. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, an experienced politician in his own right, had encountered hostility before on the campaign trail. But it was nothing compared with the mob that descended on him as he left the Dallas municipal auditorium after delivering a speech in favor of U.S. participation in the UN. One well-dressed woman hit him on the head with a placard, and a college student spat in his face. “Are these human beings or animals?” Stevenson muttered as he wiped the spittle off. Afterward he pretended to treat the incident with aplomb, but privately he was shaken to the core. He had never encountered the kind of mindless, raw hate he saw on display in Dallas.
The Stevenson incident might have remained an isolated black eye but for a coincidental development. In a telling reflection of their growinginfluence and reach, the national news shows sponsored by CBS and NBC had recently expanded their nightly broadcasts from fifteen to thirty minutes. Just a few weeks before, the shoving and spitting would in all likelihood have remained a local story, filmed as it was by a local TV station. But the networks’ suddenly larger appetite for graphic footage turned the story into a lead item, in the new way that many Americans were getting their news. Virtually overnight Dallas awoke to find itself stigmatized, its reputation for intolerance indelibly fixed in the national imagination. It was a revealing clue as to the stunning power of a new medium.
The White House’s script for the day called for a direct, ideological assault on the president’s right-wing critics; in a sense, it was to be Kennedy’s opening salvo against the clear front-runner for the Republican nomination in 1964, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, easily the most conservative GOP candidate since Robert Taft. The White House press corps seemed poised to play its role in propagating the day’s message, too. The advance text of the luncheon speech to be delivered at the Dallas Trade Mart pointedly criticized “voices preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality, wholly unsuited to the sixties,” and was generating the desired buzz among the reporters. There was every reason to believe they would take the bait and make the president’s challenge the lead of every story datelined Dallas. Only one possible development threatened to intrude on this Daniel-walking-into-the-lion’s-den theme, and that was a replay of the previous day’s public feud between Texas Democrats.
Since the end of Reconstruction, Texas had been a one-party state, like much of the South, and therein lay the true origins of the Democrats’ internecine sniping, even though it was often portrayed as a clash of personalities. The state Democratic Party’s hegemony was unnatural and increasingly untenable; the Texas GOP, once a political oxymoron, was growing larger by the hour. (After Lyndon Johnson was elected vice president, a Republican had won the special 1961 election to fill his Senate seat, the first GOP senator elected in Texas since the 1870s.) In the meantime, liberal and conservative Democrats were engaged in a tenacious, bitter brawl over the presumed soul of the state party, and this ferocious struggle had been bared for everyone to see during the first hours of President Kennedy’s visit.
Texas senator Ralph Yarborough, a devout liberal, had quickly become furious about his treatment at the hands of Governor Connally, the conservative Democrat hosting the president’s visit. They had already been feuding for weeks about such trivialities as who would stand where in receiving lines, and who would sit next to whom at banquet tables. With good reason, Yarborough believed that Connally was still scheming to diminish his visibility during the president’s visit, to a point where Yarborough was not even being accorded the courtesies that a state senator from Amarillo would receive. The lack of an invitation to a reception at the governor’s mansion in Austin was particularly grating, and Nellie Connally, always fiercely loyal to her husband, didn’t help matters with her own sharp comments. Unable to take revenge against the governor directly, Yarborough struck back at the nearest available target, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Connally’s political mentor and a witting conspirator in the humiliating treatment—or so Yarborough thought. In San Antonio and again in Houston, the first two stops on Kennedy’s three-day, five-city Texas tour, Yarborough pointedly refused to ride in the same automobile as Johnson, and the headlines in the Friday morning papers were all about Yarborough’s snub of the hapless vice president. The 1950s image of Johnson as the domineering majority leader who steered the U.S. Senate at will bore no resemblance to the shrunken politician who seemed to have no purpose other than to serve as Yarborough’s scapegoat.
President Kennedy was determined that nothing get in the way of the message he wanted to get across, not even a Texas-sized political headache. On Friday morning Yarborough was informed in no uncertain terms that he had only two choices: “You will either ride in the same car with Lyndon Johnson in Dallas or you will walk.” Yarborough, though none too pleased, bowed to the president’s request, and the way was cleared for the White House to dominate the news cycle on its terms.
Initially, Dallas seemed intent on playing into the White House’s hands. The Morning News of November 22 carried a full-page advertisement on page 14, rimmed in black, underwritten by a group calling itself the “American Fact-Finding Committee.” Under a sarcastic headline, “welcome mr. kennedy to dallas,” the committee listed twelve deliberately provocative questions, all couched to insinuate that the president (and his brother, the attorney general) were unbearably soft on Communism. The advertisement complemented a handbill that had appeared mysteriously overnight under doors and on the windshields of countless Dallas cars. Featuring the president’s image from the front and the left side, as if taken from a police mug shot, the broadside accused him of turning the United States over to the “communist controlled United Nations.” In case the imagery or text was lost on anyone, the headline read, “wanted for treason.”
After reading the paid advertisement, the president sought to prepare Jacqueline Kennedy for any unpleasantness that might occur in the afternoon. “Oh, you know,” John Kennedy remarked to his wife, “we’re heading into nut country today.” Intensely private, often diffident in public, the First Lady disliked retail politicking and the press. Campaigning combined the two and as such represented the ultimate invasion of her privacy and the control she cherished. Her disdain for the gestures expected of a politician’s wife meant her presence was sometimes a mixed blessing when the president was electioneering. The state of being “on,” the lot of political wives, exhausted her. The president would have to remind her not to wear large sunglasses, like some Hollywood movie star, and she almost never partook in the behind-the-scenes bantering with staff. The most frequent adjectives applied to the First Lady were “aloof” and “regal,” and the latter description was not necessarily intended as complimentary. Jacqueline Kennedy had a “formidable” temper in private, and to hardened pols she was “Jackie the Socialite.” She had nonetheless agreed to accompany her husband on his swing through Texas, her presence viewed as a drawing card because of her fluency in Spanish and because Dallas—home of the famed Neiman-Marcus department store—was such a fashion-conscious city that it would turn out just to see what “Jackie” would be wearing. And true to form, the November 7 news that Mrs. Kennedy would accompany the president had substantially increased demand for tickets to the Trade Mart luncheon as well as the other venues on the tour.
The Morning News advertisement was a perfect expression of Dallas’s venom for the president. Passions, apparently, had not cooled in the wake of the Stevenson incident, and the prospect of a scuffle or some other unsightly incident along the motorcade route or at the Trade Mart appeared likely. But probably there would be nothing more than that, because Dallas law enforcement authorities had taken every precaution recommended by the Secret Service, and then some. That morning the paid ad seemed destined only to make the laughs that much louder when Lyndon Johnson delivered his closing line at the gala fund-raising dinner scheduled for Friday evening in Austin. “And thank God, Mr. President,” Johnson reportedly intended to say, before pausing for effect, “that you came out of Dallas alive.”
At 11:23 a.m. the president and Mrs. Kennedy board the specially designed Boeing 707 popularly known as Air Force One for the short hop from Fort Worth to Dallas.
Among the hundreds of people in Dealey Plaza, one of the eye- and ear-witnesses who will be closest to the assassination is Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, wife of the vice president. She is riding, along with her husband and a tight-lipped Senator Yarborough, in a Lincoln Continental convertible just behind the “Queen Mary,” an armored 1955 Cadillac convertible brimming with eight Secret Service agents and hidden automatic weapons. Just ahead of the Queen Mary, as the motorcade wends its way through downtown Dallas, is the president’s limousine. Though Mrs. Johnson does not capture every detail, her account stands out because she tape-recorded it while her memory was still fresh and relatively untainted.
It all began so beautifully. After a drizzle in the morning, the sun came out bright and beautiful. We were going into Dallas. In the lead car [were] President and Mrs. Kennedy, John and Nellie [Connally], and then a Secret Service car full of men, and then our car, with Lyndon and me, and Senator Yarborough. The streets were lined with people—lots and lots of children, all smiling—placards, confetti, people waving from windows. One last, happy moment I had was looking up and seeing Mary Griffith leaning out of a window, waving at me.
Then almost at the edge of town, on our way to the Trade Mart, where we were going to have the luncheon, we were rounding a curve, going down a hill [when] suddenly, there was a sharp, loud report . . . a shot. It seemed to me to come from the right, above my shoulder, from a building. Then one moment [passed], and then two more shots in rapid succession.
There’d been such a gala air that I thought it must be firecrackers, or some sort of celebration. But then, in the lead car, the Secret Servicemen were suddenly down. I heard over the radio system, “Let’s get out of here!” And our Secret Service man who was with us—Rufe Youngblood, I believe it was—vaulted over the front seat on top of Lyndon, threw him to the floor, and said, “Get down!”
Senator Yarborough and I ducked our heads. The cars accelerated terrifically fast—faster and faster. Then suddenly, they put on the brakes so hard that I wondered if they were gonna make it as they wheeled left around a corner. We pulled up to a building. I looked up and saw it said, “Hospital.” Only then did I believe that this might be what it was. Yarborough kept on saying in an excited voice, “Have they
shot the president? Have they shot the president?” I said something like, “No . . . [it] can’t be.”
As we ground to a halt—we were still the third car—the Secret Servicemen began to pull, lead, guide . . . hustle us out. I cast one last look back over my shoulder and saw a bundle of pink, just like a drift of blossoms, lying in the back seat. I think it was Mrs. Kennedy . . . lying over the president’s body.
They led us to the right, to the left, onward into a quiet room in the hospital, a very small room. It was lined with white sheets, I believe. People came and went: Kenny O’Donnell, Congressman [Homer] Thornberry, Congressman Jack Brooks. Always there was Rufe right there, [along with Secret Servicemen] Emory Roberts, Jerry Kivett, Lem Johns, [and] Woody Taylor.
It is standard practice for the Air Force One crew to monitor the signals that keep the traveling White House in contact with the real one in Washington at all times, courtesy of the White House Communications Agency (WHCA, or “Whakka”) and the unrivaled virtuosity of Army Signal Corps operators. Secret Service headquarters, the State Department, and the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center are also kept in this communications loop. As Air Force One’s pilot, Colonel James Swindal, eavesdrops on the Secret Service agents’ chatter, he is pleased to hear that Dallas seems to be redeeming itself after the ugliness of the Stevenson visit. The crowds greeting the motorcade are unexpectedly large and friendly, with nary a hostile placard in sight.
Seconds after 12:30 p.m. Swindal hears a shout explode on Charlie frequency—and then another. His body tenses up, and he recognizes the voice of Roy Kellerman, head of the Secret Service detail, who is riding in the front passenger seat of the president’s limousine. Swindal can only make out one injunction from Kellerman—dagger cover volunteer!—before the radio becomes a cacophony of screeching voices. Then it falls silent.
Something has clearly gone wrong, but Swindal has no idea what. dagger is the code name for Rufus Youngblood, and volunteer is Lyndon Johnson. Has someone thrown an egg at the vice president? Perhaps a riot has broken out along the motorcade route. While Swindal is mulling over the possibilities, WHCA patches a telephone call from Parkland Memorial Hospital into Special Air Missions (SAM) 26000 (the radio designation for Air Force One when it is not airborne). It is Brigadier General Godfrey McHugh, the president’s air force aide, with new, cryptic orders. Refuel the airplane instantly and file a flight plan to return to Andrews Air Force Base (AFB) near Washington immediately. General McHugh does not bother to explain, but since Air Force One is involved, Swindal now knows that whatever happened concerns the president. Minutes later the news is heard over the television set aboard SAM 26000. The president has been shot!
The radio traffic is now anything but routine. While trained operators generally maintain a brisk demeanor betraying nothing, other voices quaver and speak haltingly, still reeling from the news. Tongues are tied, and there is an undertone of apprehension in nearly every conversation. The precaution of using code names instead of real names, and the protocol of distinguishing between Air Force One and SAM 26000, are cast aside more often than invoked.
Meet the Author
Max Holland has worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C., for more than twenty years. In 2001, he won the
J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award for a forthcoming narrative history of the Warren Commission. He is a contributing editor at The Nation and The Wilson Quarterly, and his articles have also appeared in The Atlantic, American Heritage, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe. From 1998 to 2003 he was a research fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. His work has also been supported by fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. This is is his third book. He lives with his wife and daughter in Silver Spring, Maryland.
From the Hardcover edition.
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