President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade was driving through Dallas on November 22, 1963, when Lee Harvey Oswald shot him from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. From two cars behind Kennedy’s, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson watched the events unfold. Johnson wasn’t targeted, but the Secret Service quickly went into high alert to keep him safe. As he and his team of bodyguards left the scene, Johnson couldn’t have possibly imagined the whirlwind of events that would follow.
To say Johnson’s Oath of Office was unorthodox would be a gross understatement; LBJ’s swearing-in occurred mere hours after his predecessor was slain. Johnson’s impromptu inauguration was fraught with suspense, intrigue, and a multitude of problems.
Johnson may not have been one of America’s very best presidents, nor was he the worst, but it cannot be denied he dramatically entered the role. As a president not elected into his first term, the horrific event preceding his inauguration only makes the story of it all the more compelling.
With the passing of John F. Kennedy, Johnson automatically became the president of the United States, but he started November 22, 1963, with an entirely different intention in mind. Those close to Johnson reported he had gone on the Texas Goodwill Tour in part to discuss his future as Kennedy’s vice president, and some say he planned on using the occasion of November 22 to tell Kennedy he wanted to be removed from the 1964 ticket.
It’s impossible to know how seriously Johnson took his potential exit from the White House and how much of his plan was merely political gamesmanship.
Johnson followed the critical John F. Kennedy and his wife to Parkland Hospital along with his spouse, Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson. There, the Johnsons awaited the official pronouncement of Kennedy's passing at 12:57 pm local time before departing for Air Force One.
As Johnson and his wife left for the Love Field airport, the flags at Parkland Hospital were already being lowered, marking the beginning of the presidential transition.
To travel from Parkland Hospital to Love Field, the Johnsons were put in the same unmarked police car that had led the Kennedy motorcade earlier in the day. Johnson crouched on the floor to avoid exposure to another potential onslaught, and the vehicle sped to meet the awaiting Air Force One.
Once aboard the plane, Johnson was set to return to Washington to assume the presidency, but a debate erupted over whether to administer his inauguration before takeoff.
On November 22, nobody knew whether President Kennedy’s slaying was the act of a lone operator or the result of a larger conspiracy. As a precautionary measure, the Secret Service had to act as though there still might be a threat to Johnson.
The window shades on Air Force One were all closed while Johnson figured out what to do next and guards were posted everywhere on high alert. This tense situation nearly resulted in further tragedy when a car full of Johnson’s advisers and the official White House photographer sped toward the runway and Secret Service agents strongly considered opening fire on them.