The Dramatic Story Behind What Happened On Air Force One After The JFK Assassination
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.
- Photo: Walt Cisco, Dallas Morning News / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Johnson Went On The Trip While Considering Dropping Himself From The 1964 Presidential Ticket
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 Traveled To The Hospital To Await Confirmation Of Kennedy's Passing
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.
Johnson Hid On The Floor Of His Car As He Was Driven To A Nearby Airport To Return To Washington
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.
A Car Filled With Johnson’s Advisers Was Almost Fired At Amid Fear Of A Greater Anti-Government Conspiracy
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.
Johnson And Jackie Kennedy Refused To Leave Without The Late President
After Johnson boarded Air Force One, he received two phone calls from Washington urging him to return to the capital immediately. Johnson, however, refused to take off without Jackie Kennedy, and Jackie wasn’t willing to leave without her late husband.
A casket was found for President Kennedy; he was loaded into a hearse with Jackie and driven to Love Field. When the emergency procession arrived, Secret Service agents had to break the handles off the casket so it could fit through the plane’s doors.
- Photo: Cecil W. Stoughton / JFK Library / Public Domain
Johnson Needed To Be Inaugurated Before Takeoff
With Johnson, Jackie Kennedy, and the late president all aboard Air Force One, the situation developed into a debate over priorities. Several Washington officials, including National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, insisted Johnson needed to get to the White House as quickly as possible, but others disagreed.
Ultimately, Texas congressperson Albert Thomas said to Johnson, “Take the oath now, Mr. President.” He argued, “Suppose there was weather trouble and it took three or four hours to get to Washington. The United States can’t wait that long.” Johnson agreed.