On the evening of Nov. 23, 1963, at the end of Lyndon Johnson’s first full day as president, my mother and father stood in his living room talking to his daughter Luci. They had been invited to dinner and were greeted by Johnson’s 16-year-old daughter who was barefoot in a green Chinese robe. Lady Bird was upstairs, after having attended a prayer service for the slain president and spending some time with Jackie Kennedy. Johnson was not yet home from the White House. To avoid the constant talk about Kennedy’s assassination, the conversation turned to the practicalities of being 16 in the White House. “How would you like it to have Secret Service men with you every minute of the day?” Luci asked. Even now she couldn’t talk to a boy late at night without the phone light going on in her parents’ bedroom. Her father, seeing it, would either monitor the call or interrupt to tell her that she ought to be asleep. She concluded that living in the White House would only be worthwhile if she could have her own private line.
My parents were there because my mother, Nancy Dickerson had known Johnson since the early 1950s and had covered him for CBS and NBC. The night of the shooting, Mom had been at Andrews Air Force Base with fellow journalist Bob Abernethy covering the return of the president’s body. Afterward, she had stood in the rain outside of Johnson’s home hoping to catch him when he returned late that night. Arriving accompanied by Secret Service agents with their guns drawn, Johnson waved but did not stop. The next day, she was on a TV panel discussing what his presidency might be like. After she was off the air, Mom was handed the phone. Johnson was on the line. He complimented her and issued the dinner invitation.
When Johnson arrived home that evening, Lady Bird came downstairs with a drink and popcorn. The president immediately launched into a review of the broadcast Mom had been on earlier that day. It was clear that he had spent much of the day monitoring television coverage. The night before he had an extra television delivered to the house so that he could watch all the networks simultaneously. On the NBC show, one of Mom’s colleagues, Martin Agronsky, had said that the powerful House Speaker Sam Rayburn had tried to persuade Johnson not to join John Kennedy on the presidential ticket. Mom very gently tried to correct Agronsky, suggesting that once all the history was out, it might turn out that Rayburn had actually been supportive, despite initial qualms. (History suggests she was right.)
“You corrected Agronsky without making a fool of him,” said the new president about her colleague. “Rayburn changed. He did want me to take the nomination, and you set the record straight without making him eat crow in public. Only way to do it.”
Johnson was appreciative because in the days after the shooting he didn’t want anyone suggesting that there had been any ambivalence about him becoming vice president or any distance between Johnson and the slain president. Johnson paced and turned back to the TVs. He started talking back to NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report. He was determined that the country should be calm, and whenever the broadcasting duo said something he thought was inflammatory, Johnson would bark: “Keep talking like that and you’ll bring on a revolution just as sure as I’m standing here.”
He wished Rayburn were alive to counsel him, Johnson said to no one in particular. Returning to Mom’s gentle correction of her colleague, Johnson then told a Rayburn story. In his early days in the House, he explained, he was trying to get funds for a public works project but an older, stronger congressman had opposed it. Johnson maneuvered the program into committee and then onto the House floor. He won the debate on the floor but in doing so publicly put down his older opponent. Afterward, Rayburn took him aside and said, “Lyndon, you feel pretty smart because you got what you wanted. But you also got yourself an enemy. A really clever fellow would have won without ridiculing a man on the way, and earning himself an enemy for life.” Everyone nodded.
The president’s speechwriter Horace Busby and Judge Homer Thornberry arrived. Johnson explained that he’d ordered the Secret Service to protect House Speaker John McCormack because he was worried about a government-wide coup. That afternoon the Soviets had made a show of good faith by turning over a complete dossier on Lee Harvey Oswald’s activities during his years in Moscow. Johnson was relieved but not settled. “Maybe they’re out to get us all,” he said. He was going to keep the armed services on alert. He wasn’t sure the assassination was the work of just one man. He worried about conspiracy theories, too. He talked about how Lincoln’s assassination still had unanswered questions: “… Damn sure that kind of mystery doesn’t happen here. I’m going to make sure there isn’t one damn question or one damn mystery that isn’t solved about this thing. You can be sure of that … not one damn unanswered question.”
He interrupted himself, walking over to the phone and pushing one of its buttons. He picked up the receiver. “Is this the White House?” Johnson said. “Oh, sorry.” Then he punched another: “The White House? Sorry.” He looked over at his wife. “Bird! Come over here and get me the White House. That’s going to have to be changed! The whole damn world could go up in smoke and I wouldn’t even be able to get Dean Rusk. Take me 10 damn minutes to reach the secretary of state.”
The White House secretaries who logged Johnson’s activities every day as president recorded the moment with almost comical blandness. “[President Johnson] said that one of the first things he would like to do is revise the White House operator system. It was too slow for him. … All other things would be left the same at the White House. Didn’t want to change anything.” (For every change the new president would make in those early days, no matter how small or worthwhile, Johnson was always careful to assure everyone that he would keep continuity with Kennedy).
Finally the president got through to his National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. He reminded him to “get those wires out fast” to every country recognized by the United States to assure them of the continuity of our government. Then, without irony after his inability to work the phones, he told Bundy: “I don’t want any of them thinking that we don’t know what to do.”
Next in the secretary’s log is: “Told Nancy about Rufus bravery.”
Johnson’s first letter as president had been to the Kennedy children. His second had been to the head of the Secret Service commending agent Rufus Youngblood. Immediately after the first shot was fired in Dallas, Johnson told the group that Youngblood threw Johnson and his wife onto the floor of the car. “There we were hunkered down in the car and he had his body on us,” said Johnson. “And Bird was hunkered down there with us, too. We were hunkered. Rufus moved so fast. It was one of the greatest things I have ever seen, Nancy. I didn’t know Rufus had that many reflexes.”
At one point during the evening, Judge Thornberry called his daughter to reassure her, just as millions of parents called their children that night. LBJ took the phone from Thornberry and started talking. “Is he your boyfriend?” he asked. “What’s his name? Buddy? Well, put Buddy on, I want to talk with him … Buddy? This is Lyndon Johnson, your new president … just fine thank you … you … Thank you … need all the help we can get … Well, Buddy, take good care of that little girl who is with you …”
It was as if Johnson was trying to comfort the country one person at a time, a job that would consume him for the first days of his presidency. If the president was ready, his wife was not. Before my mother left, Lady Bird said she was running out of black clothes to wear to all of the events. When Mom got home after dinner, she gathered her black coats and dresses to send over the next day. She would also call a local shop and have them send Lady Bird some black hats. She then sat down to the typewriter, set the caps lock, and typed out everything she could remember.