Lyndon Baines Johnson has never escaped the long shadow of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, certainly not in the minds and imaginations of Americans. As the nation recounts the life and presidency of JFK on the 50th anniversary of his murder, when an assassins bullet made time stand still, there is need to recall, as well, the acts of the man who succeeded him in the presidency that very day.
In the hours that passed after the world was alerted that President Kennedy had been shot and killed, Vice President Johnson, described by friends and aides as stunned and shaken, gathered himself, exerted the leadership necessary to maintain continuity within the government as contemplated by the Constitution, and reassured a stricken nation.
Johnson moved swiftly to assume control. With Jackie Kennedy at his side, LBJ took the oath of office aboard Air Force One while it sat on the tarmac at Love Field in Dallas. Flying to Washington, Johnson arranged for a meeting with Cabinet members to ask them to remain at their posts. He made the same request of staff members in the executive office.
Having landed at Andrews Air Force Base, LBJ boarded a helicopter for the 15-minute flight to the White House. He was briefed during the flight by national security officials and instructed the Departments of State and Defense to assure American allies of continuity in the nations foreign policy. Later that evening, he met with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to check on the progress of the investigation into the assassination. The next morning, he conferred with congressional leaders and former Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman.
Johnson was as prepared for the duties and challenges of the presidency as any No. 2 man in the nations history. Indeed, he embraced the opportunities of the office that he had coveted his entire political life.
LBJs pursuit of the presidency in 1960 was lost in the shadow of JFKs successful campaign for the Democratic nomination, which inflicted on the Senate majority leader a stinging defeat. As president, however, LBJ knew how to use the shadow of Kennedys death to fulfill his legislative agenda. Do it for Jack, Johnson implored members of Congress. The Kennedy Shadow, which had overwhelmed his own political dreams, was now a tool with which to pursue his own ambitious goals.
The Vietnam War destroyed LBJs presidency and his dream of becoming Americas greatest president. He might have had a shot at that elusive title. After all, he had done more for African-Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln. With the possible exception of Franklin D. Roosevelt, he had done more for the poor than any other president. His proclamations of The Great Society and the War on Poverty represented causes he believed would transform America into a nation that matched the aspirations of the magisterial words of the Declaration of Independence. His vaulting ambitions gave voice to the possibilities and potential of the presidency.
Like most presidents, LBJ was a complicated and flawed man. But he was an unabashed opponent of poverty and racism and sought to use the presidency to bury those plagues upon human rights and dignity. In answer to friends who warned against the exercise of power to champion the cause of civil rights when the cause seemed unattainable, and harmful to his aborning presidency, a defiant LBJ, replied: What the hells the presidency for?
David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.