There are perhaps hundreds of recognizable still and moving images related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Out of all of them, this is the one that has impacted me the most:
The Inauguration of an American President is a celebration of many things. It is a celebration of electoral victory. It is a celebration of the crowning achievement in the life of a politician. It is a celebration of a “new era” of government, when a new Administration is afforded the opportunity to propose new ideas, install new officials in appointed positions, and take the country in a new direction. And it is a celebration of peaceful, constitutional democracy that allows the government leadership to change hands in an orderly fashion. Former Administration officials (and the citizens who supported the former Administration) have no fear of being murdered out of retaliation.
But Lyndon B. Johnson was denied all of that.
There was no joy. There was no celebration, no party, no gala Inaugural Ball. No beautiful ceremony on the steps of the US Capitol. There was only a brief administration of the Oath of Office inside a cramped room on Air Force One. The shock and grief on the participants’ faces is overwhelming.
LBJ was sworn in two hours and eight minutes after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Two hours and eight minutes. As Jacqueline Kennedy smiled and waved at crowds that lined the streets in Dallas, her husband’s head suddenly exploded in a cloud of blood, brain fragments, skin, hair, and bone. She screamed, “Oh, God, Jack! They’ve killed my husband.” She cradled his burst skull in her lap as the motorcade sped to Parkland Hospital. She watched is lifeless body wheeled into the emergency room, where doctors pronounced him dead. She wept as Father Oscar Huber administered the last rites. She still wore the same blood-spattered pink Chanel suit when she boarded Air Force One afterwards. An aide gently suggested that she wash her face and hair, and change her clothes before the cameras caught her. “No,” she replied, “Let them see what they have done.”
Two hours and eight minutes. I can’t even imagine. I just can’t.
A welcoming committee turned into a wake. Many prominent Texas Democrats were there. Jack Valenti, from Houston, served as media liaison. He would later go on to serve 38 years in Hollywood as president of the MPAA. Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry, the man responsible for the President’s safety, was there. A young journalist named Bill Moyers covered the event. You can see the edge of his glasses-framed face at the very top of the photograph, as he strains to watch the swearing-in.
Career House of Representatives member Albert Thomas (wearing a bow tie, standing behind Ladybird Johnson) was the man responsible for securing Houston as the future location of the NASA Johnson Space Center. Governor John Connally was riding in the motorcade with the President, and was in surgery at Parkland hospital as doctors repaired the wounds he received during the shooting.
Long-time Representative Jack Brooks from Beaumont, peering quietly over Jackie’s shoulder, was a long time friend and colleague of LBJ. There was Homer Thornberry, another contemporary of LBJ who took his seat in the House after LBJ was first elected to the US Senate. He is visible behind LBJ’s raised hand. And US District Court Judge Sarah T. Hughes, a former member of the Texas House of Representatives and Texas appellate court judge, appointed barely two years earlier to the Northern Texas District US Court by President Kennedy.
She was the first female district court judge to serve in the state of Texas, and she was the first woman to serve as a federal district judge in Texas. She was the only female judge appointed by Kennedy, and only the third woman ever to serve on the Federal bench. And she is the only female justice ever to swear in a President of the United States.
Of course Lyndon Baines Johnson was elected outright the following year, beating Republican challenger Barry Goldwater in a landslide. There was pomp and splendor in Washington, DC.
But on a sunny November afternoon in Dallas, Texas, there was only confusion, fear, and sorrow. Upon returning to Andrews Air Force Base, President Johnson had only this brief statement to make:
That is all anyone could have done.