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Angel is Airborne

Aboard Air Force Oneduring one of Americas most searing, perilous momentsa
government was formed and a presidency begun.

And thank God, Mr. President, you came out of Dallas alive.
The joke was prepared, the words typed, ready to place on the Vice Presidents lectern in Austin,
Texas, later that evening. Lyndon Johnson was planning to close his speech on November 22,
1963, with a punch line about how John F. Kennedy had survived the city of hate.
Fears for Kennedy in Dallas had been widespread. The place was filled with extremists who
thought JFK was soft on Communism and the United Nations was a red front. Just a few weeks
earlier, Adlai Stevenson had been physically assaulted during a speech there; in 1961, one of
Bobby Kennedys speeches in Dallas had been interrupted by circling cars full of noisy
protesters; and in 1960, images of a crowd jostling and jeering Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson as
they crossed a Dallas street had horrified the nation.
In the days leading up to the Kennedy visit, homemade posters bearing the Presidents face
circulated with the headline Wanted for Treason. That morning at their hotel suite in Fort
Worth, after seeing a full-page ad in the Dallas Morning News accusing him of being a
Communist lover, JFK said to his wife, Jackie, Were heading into nut country today.
Kennedys arrival at Dallass Love Field, though, went better than expected. It was an almost
silly, Herculean effort to fly Air Force One the 30 miles from Fort Worth, where theyd spent the
night before, to Dallas, but the White House wanted the beautiful visual of the throngs embracing
the Kennedys.
The flight, from wheels up to wheels down, lasted just 13 minutes, barely long enough for the
President to change into his third fresh shirt of the day. Kennedy looked out the window at the
huge crowd, turned to George Thomas, his valet since 1947, and joked with the Berryville,
Virginia, native: You know, George, I think this is a bigger town than you come from.
Jackie walked off the plane first, a violation of protocol that went overlooked amid the roar of
thousands of admirers gathered on the tarmac. As he always did, about halfway down the stairs
President Kennedy unconsciously stuffed one hand into his jacket pocket, just as Lieutenant
Colonel Lewis Swede Hanson, the Air Force One copilot, knew he would. It was a small
thing, but we always watched for it, and we always got a kick out of it, Hanson later recalled.
On the ground under the crisp blue Texas sky, JFK worked the rope line and Jackie received a
bouquet of red roses. (At every other Texas stop, shed been given bouquets of the yellow rose of
Texas, but in Dallas for some reason she was given red.) Then Governor John Connally and his
wife, Nellie, and the President and First Lady climbed into the open-top presidential limousine,
flown specially to Dallas for the day. And off they went, basking in the suns warmth and the
crowds cheers.

The blue-and-white Boeing 707 sat waiting to whisk the presidential party to Austin for the final
stop on the multiday Kennedy-Johnson Texas tour. Colonel James Swindal, the presidential pilot,
had taken on only a small fuel loadcarefully tested for contaminants before being used
because it was just another 180 miles to the state capital.
But Air Force One would never depart for Austin, and the Vice Presidents joke would never be
The city of hate had, in fact, killed the President.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------At 1 pm Central Standard Time, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, age 46, was pronounced dead at
Dallass Parkland Hospital from a gunshot wound to the head.
At that moment, Lyndon Baines Johnson, 55, officially became President. The first four hours of
his presidency would unfold almost entirely aboard Air Force One, where, just feet away from
the body of his predecessor, he began the process of reassuring a nation and building a
government. The plane became the unexpected venue for a peaceful transfer of powerthat
most renowned hallmark of the most powerful democracy on earth.
The 1,190-mile journey from Dallas to Washington on November 22, 1963, stands as the most
famous Air Force One flight of all time. Johnson boarded the plane in secrecy, with few in the
world aware that Kennedy was dead, and then after taking the presidential oath had 132 minutes
to assemble his thoughts and a government before landing at Andrews Air Force Base and
presenting himself to the cameras as the new leader of the free world.
While there are many individual recollections of the flight, there exist few comprehensive
reconstructions of all that unfolded on the plane. But a review of dozens of memoirs and oral
histories plus more than 500 pages of documentsfrom the White House pool report filed by the
two journalists aboard to confidential Secret Service files documenting the activities of each of
its agentsas well as a recently discovered two-hour-and-22-minute audio recording of Air
Force Ones radio traffic with Andrews on the day of the assassination, reveals that even amid
one of the most dramatic presidential transitions in history there arose very human moments of
envy, anger, bewilderment, and courage, as those aboard endured what would be for all of them
the most difficult hours of their lives.

I. On the Ground

Chapter I
Colonel James Swindal, a handsome World War II veteran from Alabama who had flown in the
194849 Berlin Airlift, had been President Kennedys personal pilot since the 1960 election. He
had just been finishing lunch on Air Force Onea roast-beef sandwichwhen panicked voices
erupted from the radio.
Amid the garbled transmissions, he heard a shout at 12:30 pm CST: Dagger, cover Volunteer!
Then lots of crosstalk. Dagger meant Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood. Volunteer
meant LBJ. Then agent Roy Kellerman reported from the motorcade, Lancer is hurt. It looks
bad. Then nothing. Lancer was the President.
Many long minutes later, a phone call finally came from Brigadier General Godfrey McHugh,
the Presidents military aide, at Parkland Hospital: Fuel up and file a flight plan for Washington.
Swindal still didnt know what had transpired, but he obeyed the order, rushing for the stairs and
shouting to his flight engineer standing on the tarmac below: Get fuel onboard! Get ready to
Swindal only found out what had actually happened to Kennedy when he turned on the TV in the
presidential compartment and heard that hed been shot. As word spread, Love Field came alive.
Military personnel streamed out of the terminal, returning to Air Force One and Air Force Two,
the Vice Presidents plane, parked nearby. Swindals copilot, Colonel Lewis Hanson, who had
driven to his mother-in-laws house close by the airport for a visit, raced back, his car straining at
more than 80 miles an hour through the empty streets.
Sergeant John Trimble, one of the Air Force signalmen on the plane, was working his radio,
talking to Andrews Air Force Base, when word passed through the plane that President Kennedy
was dead. All the chatter ceased, Trimble recalled. We were all numb and did our jobs
automatically as we waited for the body to arrive.
Extra security began to surround the plane. Twenty Dallas police officers formed a perimeter
while Secret Service and police began to clear nearby parking lots and buildings. Then came the
first sign of what had gone so terribly wrong: Shortly after 1:15, the presidential limousine, now
empty, its back seat covered in blood, arrived back at the airfield and headed for the military C130 transport plane that had carried the motorcade to Dallas. From the limo, Secret Service agent
Samuel Kinneywho had helped carry Kennedy into Parkland Hospital before reinstalling the
cars bubble top for the drive back to the airportradioed ahead to the Air Force cargo plane:
Have the ramp downwere driving right aboard.
With Kennedy dead, Johnsons aides and Secret Service agents pushed the Vice President to
return to the plane and then to Washington. Their hastily arranged motorcade rushed back to

Love Field. Agent Jerry Kivett crammed into the back of a police car with Texas congressman
Jack Brooks and the new Presidents wife, Lady Bird Johnson.
Lyndon Johnson arrived at the airfield at 1:33, traveling in one of two unmarked white police
cars, with a motorcycle escort. Air Force Onebig, gleaming, and safewas one of the most
welcome sights that the head of LBJs Secret Service detail, Rufus Youngblood, had ever seen. I
want us to run up the ramp, he told Johnson as they pulled to the foot of the plane.
A hundred yards away, an agent who had spent the day standing guard at Love Field didnt know
what to make of the two vehicles that pulled up at the base of the Air Force One stairs. It wasnt
until he spotted a group darting up the ramp and Youngblood closing the door behind him that he
realized: The new President is back, safely, ready to govern.
At 1:40, once aboard, Youngblood and Kivettwho had been assigned to the new First Lady
whisked the Vice President into the presidential stateroom. The Secret Service set up checkpoints
at the two plane entrances. At Youngbloods order, an agent and the Air Force stewards passed
through the plane, closing each window shadethe plane darkening progressively as they
moved through the cabin.
As the Johnsons boarded, the TV in the cabin was on and CBSs Walter Cronkite was intoning,
Lyndon B. Johnson, now President of the United States. The phrase struck Lady Birdshe
hadnt yet begun to process how different their life had become with the crack of the assassins
rifle. Lyndon Johnson had a similar epiphany: As he entered the stateroom, the staffers who were
assembled around the TV all stood. Their nervous chatter ceased, and Albert Thomas, another
loyal Texas congressman Johnson had asked along for the trip, said, We are ready to carry out
any orders you have, Mr. President.
Nothing would ever be the same again, LBJ said later of that moment. A wallhigh,
forbidding, historicseparated us now, a wall that derived from the office of the Presidency of
the United States.

Chapter II
Taking the mantle of the nations highest office so instantaneously, so unexpectedly, left even
Johnson momentarily discomfited. The stateroom where the group had gathered to watch TV
featured couches and a desk as well as a private bathroom. It was the Presidents only personal
space on his own aircraft, and just hours earlier it had belonged to John F. Kennedy. The Texas
newspapers JFK had read during the short trip to Dallas still lay on the floor.
Johnson might have been President, but the Presidents room didnt yet feel like his space. This
is in bad taste, he thought. I want this kept strictly for the use of Mrs. Kennedy, he said,
leading the others outside to the public sitting room.

LBJ was already focused on matters of state: When should he take the oath? Under the
Constitutions rules of succession, he had in fact assumed the presidency at the moment of
Kennedys deathno oath was technically necessary. But he immediately grasped the enormous
symbolic importance to the nation of demonstrating an orderly transfer of power through a
traditional swearing-in. Should it be here in Dallas or in Washington? Two of the three Texas
congressmen present pushed for Dallas immediately. The continuity of the US government was
Youve got to take the oath now, Mr. President, Representative Thomas argued. Suppose there
was weather trouble and it took three or four hours to get to Washington. The United States cant
wait that long.
Then there was the matter of the oath itself. No one actually knew how to swear in a new
First Johnson called Kennedys national-security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, at the White House
to discuss the transition. The call served to inform the Air Force One communications crew
sitting up front that the new President had boarded the planeamid the confusion and the need
for the highest security, no one had bothered to tell them.
Indeed, the Secret Service agents took no chances: Agent Youngblood never left the new
Presidents side as the new chief executive began to order the secretaries and aides to various
tasks. It was little wonder: As Lady Bird stood on the plane, herself anxious and overcome, she
heard one Secret Service agent mutter in wonder and shame, We never lost a President in the
[It was] the most desolate voiceand I hurt for him, she later recalled.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Around 1:50, Johnson put a call through to the attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, the
Presidents brother and closest confidanta call that delicately juggled matters of state with
RFKs personal turmoil. Johnson reached him at Hickory Hill, his estate in McLean, where he
was meeting with CIA director John McCone. Kennedy took the call from the extension next to
the pool. It was a surreal setting for a surreal phone call.
Bobby Kennedy, who had just celebrated his 38th birthday, had never liked Johnsonwould
never like himand everyone knew it. He had even tried to torpedo the invitation to Johnson to
join his brothers presidential ticket. (When Bobby hates you, you stay hated, his father, Joseph
P. Kennedy, had said once. The feeling was mutual. Johnson had said of Bobby, Hes a snotnose, but hes bright. Johnson biographer Robert Caro called the mutual antipathy perhaps the
greatest blood feud of American politics in the twentieth century.)
Where should I take the oath? Johnson asked the attorney general. Here or there?

Bobby Kennedy, composed and serious, first told him what information he could: It didnt
appear there was any larger plot against the government; J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime FBI
director, was passing along every detail his agency collected. But RFK demurred momentarily on
the question of where to take the oath and said hed call back.
Johnsons secretary, Marie Fehmer, entered the stateroom just as Johnson hung up the phone
Write this down as what has happened, he told her. I talked to the attorney general. Asked him
what we should do . . . where I should take the oath . . . here or there. Said he would like to look
into it . . . and would notify me whether we should take it here or not.
Johnson wanted posterity to note that he was consulting with the Kennedys. He wasnt grabbing
power; he was being respectful in a time of great sorrow.
Moments later, McGeorge Bundy called, urging Johnson to get to Washington right away, but
Johnson said he wasnt leaving without Kennedys body and the widowed First Lady. He
couldnt leave them behind in Dallas; it would look like panic. As they talked, the Air Force One
switchboard operator interrupted to tell LBJ that Robert Kennedy was calling back with his
verdict: The new President should take the oath before leaving Dallas.
Or at least that was Lyndon Johnsons version of what Bobby Kennedy said.
The two men had nearly diametrically opposed memories of that second telephone call from the
attorney general. Robert Kennedy later insisted that he encouraged Johnson to wait until he
arrived in Washington and that he was appalled Johnson wanted to go ahead with the swearing-in
before his brothers body was brought home. The different memories were the germ of all the
grievances, complaints, and sniping that would arise from the events on that plane in the years
aheadwould be the basis for the claim by some that Johnson had rudely grabbed power,
stomping all over the widow and the late Presidents body.
There were three people privy to the Dallas end of the callMarie Fehmer, Rufus Youngblood,
and Johnsonand two to the Washington end, Bobby Kennedy and his deputy, Nicholas
Katzenbach. Parsing their accounts indicates that the call most likely went something like this:
LBJ asked Kennedy if there was any reason he shouldnt take the oath in Dallas, and Kennedy
confused, grief-stricken, and puzzled by Johnsons forcefulnesssimply didnt say anything.
A lot of people down here have advised me to be sworn in right away, Johnson said. Did
Bobby have any objection to that? Johnson took Kennedys silence as acquiescence. Bobby
Kennedy, though, later explained his reaction: I was too confused and upset to talk to him about
it. He was thinking, Wouldnt it be nice if my brother came back to Washington still as President
But Johnson, it appears, plowed ahead, asking the attorney general who could legally swear him
in, battering him with procedural questions that kept him off balance. And by the time he hung
up, severing the link to Washington and to the Kennedy brother, he felt ready to assume the

Chapter III
Johnson would be sworn in as President in Dallas. It was an oath that had been taken by just 34
men before him, only seven of them Vice Presidents assuming office on the death of an elected
President. (The last President to be sworn in outside Washington had been Calvin Coolidge, who,
after Warren Hardings passing, took the oath privately from his father, a Vermont justice of the
Johnson knew who he wanted to administer the oath: Get Sarah Hughes.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Hughes, a native of Maryland and a graduate of Goucher College, had been one of the only
female officers on the DC police force in the 1920s and attended George Washington University
Law School, where she met her future husband. They moved to Dallas to practice together, but
before long she was elected to the legislature and in 1935 became Texass first female state
district judge. Kennedy appointed her to the federal bench in 1961, and Johnson personally
introduced her to Kennedy when she came back to Washington for her confirmation.
Just an hour earlier, Hughes had been at the Dallas Trade Mart, eating steak and apple pie,
waiting for the arrival of the Kennedys and Johnsons. Then the luncheons chairman rose from
his seat and grimly announced the shooting, adding, We will be dismissed. She recalled later
how tense, subdued, and angry the 4,000 luncheon guests seemed as they moved for the exits. In
the parking lot, a man told her the President was dead. On the drive back to her house, Hughes
and two of her staff members had speculated about where and when LBJ would be sworn in.
We never dreamed I might become involved in it, she recalled. At home, she called her clerk to
tell him she wouldnt be back that day, and it was then that he passed along an urgent message
from the Vice President: Get to the airport.
Johnson had called her office personally, leaving instructions with the clerk to find her quickly.
At 2:02 pm, just as the hearse pulled up to the airplane, she called back to say she could be on
the plane in a matter of minutes.
Still, neither Hughes nor anyone onboard knew the oath of office. One of Johnsons secretaries
called the Justice Department and asked deputy attorney general Katzenbach to track it down.
(For his part, Katzenbach had been puzzled by Johnsons call to Robert Kennedy: Any number of
federal officials could have provided the procedural information Johnson sought. He felt he knew
LBJs real motive, Katzenbach said later: He may have wanted to be absolutely sure that there
wouldnt be an explosion on Bobbys end.)
Meanwhile, just outside the stateroom, the crewpilot Swindal, copilot Hanson, flight engineer
Joe Chappell, and steward Joe Ayreshad been busy tearing apart the rear of the plane. As word
arrived that Air Force One would be carrying the Presidents body home to Washington,

everyone on the crew had had nearly the same thought: President Kennedy could not go into the
baggage compartment.
They could get a casket through the rear door, but a partition would block the turn into the aisle,
so the crew had taken a saw to the partition and unbolted four seats to make room. They carried
the seats down the stairs and across the tarmac to the older Boeing plane that had been serving as
Air Force Two. We finished up just before the hearse arrived, Chappell recalled.
The plane was filling fast. Decisions began to tumble over one another as the passengers
personal priorities began to collide. Shortly after Kennedys death, his presidential photographer,
Cecil Stoughton, had been in a Parkland Hospital hallway holding open a telephone line for the
US Signal Corps when he saw Johnson and his party rush past.
Stoughton had been in the Army since 1957 as a cameraman and in 1959 had taken the only
pictures of Able and Baker, the first monkeys to make it into space, after their capsule was
recovered in the Atlantic. Kennedys personal photographer since the inauguration, Stoughton
realized in a flash that he was watching the new President of the United States pass by and
jumped into a car with future Johnson adviser Jack Valenti and Secret Service agent Lem Johns
for the ride to Love Field.
On the plane, Stoughton pushed his way through the crowd until he found Swindal and asked if
he could hitch a ride to Washington. Theyre going to have a ceremony someplace, Stoughton
told the pilot.
Sure, you can ride up here with us if you have to, the colonel promised.
Returning to the main cabin, Stoughtonwho at 43 was nearly the same age as the late President
saw a group of women, including White House aides Mary Gallagher and Evelyn Lincoln,
crying quietly in their seats with the shades drawn. The whole cabin was dark and foreboding
and sniffling, he said later. It was also hot and getting hotter: Swindal had had the ground air
conditioner disconnected in order to speed Air Force Ones departure, but now, with no takeoff
imminent, the plane was just sitting there, baking like an oven in the midday Texas sun.
Kennedys assistant press secretary, Mac Kilduff, hurried into the cabin, spotting Stoughton
with a look of relief. Thank God youre here, Kilduff said. The Presidents going to take his
oath. Youre going to have to make the pictures and release it to the press.
Kilduff was barely holding it together. JFK aide Kenneth ODonnell had told Kilduff earlier that
fall that he should start looking for a new jobthe White House didnt want him around
anymore. The swing through Texas had been meant as Kilduffs final presidential trip before
leavingand now he found himself the ranking press aide on the trip, ushering in a new
administration, while ODonnell, his antagonist, mourned the fallen idol.

Stoughtons first thought was that he needed to change the film in his Hasselblad camera. Hed
been shooting color film that day in Dallas, but in 1963 color film took nearly two hours to
process and the wire services couldnt even transmit a color photograph. If he was shooting for
history, he needed speed.
Everybody has always said over the years, in retrospect, why didnt you shoot that in color? he
recalled later. Well, thats why. Time was of the essence.
(It would be nearly a year, in fact, before most Americans realized that Jackie Kennedys suit was
pink; color images from that day werent widely circulated until a late-1964 Life magazine
special report included color photos of the Dallas arrival and still frames of Abraham Zapruders
amateur footage of the shooting.)
His black-and-white film loaded, Stoughton heard the vehicles with Kennedys body arrive just
after 2 pm, and he shot photos from the planes front entrance as the hearse pulled up at the back
steps. Disregarding the Dallas coroners order that the Presidents corpse remain in the city,
Kennedy aides had manhandled the casket through the crowded hallways of Parkland Hospital,
past priests, medical workers, and security, and out into a hearseracing as quickly for Love
Field as they could.
Those who had stayed behind at Parklandamong them, the widowed First Lady and aides
ODonnell, Larry OBrien, and Dave Powerswere true Kennedy loyalists. According to the
strict letter of the law, I should now be with Johnson . . . but I felt my real duty was to take care
of Jacqueline Kennedy, recalled ODonnell, who had been in charge of travel and security for
the trip.
Now Secret Service agents pulled open the hearse doors, as those aides gathered to carry their
boss home. General Ted Clifton, who had run Kennedys daily intelligence briefings, appraised
the stairs nervously: Do you suppose we can get it up there?

Chapter IV
But first things first: The casket wouldnt budge from the hearse. Unbeknownst to the novice
pallbearers, hearses have a mechanism that automatically lock a casket into place. So the men
kept pushing and pulling, fighting the hidden lock. Then one crack, and a second crack. With so
much muscle and emotion arrayed against it, the casket finally gave, with a piece of the trim and
one entire handle tearing away.
The steps Kennedy had walked down just two hours beforevibrant and triumphantnow bore
his lifeless body. It was too narrow to accomplish this without some difficulty, recalled
OBrien, who labored with other aides and Secret Service agents to carry the half-ton casket up.
Activity on the tarmac fell eerily silent. Nearby, Air Force personnel saluted.

As the first Catholic President began his journey home, his grieving Irish Catholic aides fell back
on their own traditions: Mary Gallagher fingered a rosary and David Powers, who had worked
with Kennedy since his first run for Congress, stood aside and made the sign of the cross. He had
been perhaps JFKs closest friend, a partner and political adviser from Kennedys first political
speech in Boston in 1946 until his last morning in Fort Worth. Kennedy, Powers would say later,
was the greatest man I ever met, and the best friend I ever had.
Many hands wrestled the casketa solid-bronze Elgin Britannia, the very best at Vernon Oneals
Dallas mortuaryinto the fuselage and around the partition cut open by the crew, then lowered it
to the floor. As his hand let go and he looked up for the first time, Kennedy aide Larry OBrien
saw LBJ and Lady Bird standing in the doorway watching them: Mr. and Mrs. Johnson on the
plane had an element of surprise [for us], in the sense we hadnt even thought about the
successor. Our concentration was totally on what was transpiring at the moment.
OBriens thoughts tripped over one another. This was Jacks plane. This was the Presidents
plane. LBJ had his own plane. Why was he on Kennedys plane? Then the realization: LBJ was
the President.
Jackie had followed the casket up the stairs, and for the first time since the assassination, around
2:10 pm, the two groupsthe Johnson team and the Kennedy teamcame together face to face
in the small, tight aft compartment. Theirs had been an uneasy alliance since the campaign.
Johnson, who had traded the power of Senate majority leader for the powerlessness of the vicepresidency, was too coarse and rough for the blue-blood Kennedys. Hed been shunted aside,
forced to wring his hands in silence in Cabinet meetings as his views went unexpressed. (I
detested every minute of it, he said later of his office.)
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Now the roles had been reversed, in an instant. Neither party was sure of what shouldor would
come next. Jackie sat in one of the two seats left behind in the aft compartment, across the
aisle from the awkwardly placed casket.
Lady Bird, who lacked Jackies poise and presence, summoned her courage and went to comfort
the widow in the rear. It was a very hard thing to do, but she made it as easy as possible, Lady
Bird recalled.
Jackie Kennedy, the most glamorous woman in America, looked shattered. Lady Birds eyes
swept over the former First Lady: Jackies leg was almost entirely covered in blood. Her right
glove was caked with it.
Thats her husbands blood, Lady Bird thought, saying later, Somehow that was one of the most
poignant sightsthat immaculate woman exquisitely dressed and caked in blood. But Lady
Bird felt a pang of envy even as she gazed upon Jackies terrible grief. Jackie had always worn
gloves so elegantly, so easily. It was a skill and a look that had always escaped the Texan wife.

I would have done anything to help her, Lady Bird recalled, but there was nothing I could
Their conversation was halting, a stream-of-consciousness expression of grief and emotion. Oh,
Lady Bird, its good that weve always liked you two so much, Jackie said. Then later, What if
I had not been there? Im so glad I was there.
Oh, Mrs. Kennedy, you know we never even wanted to be Vice President and now, dear God,
its come to this, Lady Bird said. Words failed her, and in an attempt to be comforting, she went
a step too far: What wounds me most of all is that this should happen in my beloved state of
Texas. The words fell flat between them. Lady Bird instantly regretted themher Texas pride
mattered little in the face of such all-consuming sorrow.
She asked if Jackie would like her to summon someone to help her change, but she declined:
Perhaps later Ill ask Mary Gallagher, but not right now. Then she paused and a fierceness
came into her otherwise empty voice: I want them to see what they have done to Jack.
When Lyndon Johnson spoke with her, she addressed him out of habit as Lyndon before she
caught herself: Oh, excuse me. Ill never call you that again. I mean Mr. President.
I hope youll call me that for the rest of your life, Johnson replied, trying to be comforting.
But he wasnt just Lyndon anymore.
Something in the magic of the word Mr. President caused everyone in the cabin, longtime
personal friends, to view him in a totally different way, aide Jack Valenti said later. It was the
kind of feeling that obscured old friendships.

Chapter V
Time sped up for some passengers and slowed down for others. Nearly everyone later incorrectly
recalled the time certain events happenedwith minutes counting for hours and vice versa. What
some felt was an hour between the caskets arrival at 2:02 and the swearing-in was actually
closer to 30 minutes. The tempo and atmosphere in the plane were one of near hysteria, blank,
opaque kind of grief, stunned silence, Valenti recalled.
Generals Clifton and McHugh, the two highest-ranking military men on the planetheir pristine
uniforms now soaked with sweat from carrying the casket in the heatknew their duty. Clifton,
a West Point graduate who had fought his way through Italy, France, and Germany, now stood
stiffly at attention beside the coffin, the lone honor guard observing a military custom since time
immemorial: A fallen commander-in-chief is never left alone.
McHugh turned to ODonnell: Should we get airborne?

Why dont we leave? Jackie echoed.

With ODonnells assent, McHugh ran for the cockpit, breezing past the closed door of the
presidential stateroom, where LBJ was once again on the phone to Washington.
In the minutes that followed, a scene ensued that would have been comic but for the planes
weight of sadness: McHugh traversed the length of the aircraft five times, never encountering
Lady Bird or President Johnsonconcerned only with getting his dead commander-in-chief out
of Dallasand thus never realized the new President was aboard.
ODonnell was concerned that official Dallas would want the deceased President back: Theyd
killed himnow they wanted to keep him. I kept looking out the windows, he recalled,
expecting to see the flashing red lights of a dozen Dallas police cars, coming with a court order
to stop our takeoff. (Unknown to anyone then, the Dallas district attorney had ordered the
coroner to let Air Force One depart unhindered.)
You leave right now, ODonnell commanded General McHugh when he returned to the rear
and Air Force One still wasnt moving.
Please, lets leave, Jackie pleaded to McHugh a second time.
Doubling back to the cockpit after a few minutes had passed without the engines starting up,
McHugh couldnt understand why Swindal wasnt acting immediately on his command to take
off. He ordered Swindal a second time, now angrily: Take off! The President is aboard!
Mr. Kilduff says we cant, Swindal flatly replied.
Johnson, with few of his own people around, had quickly seized on Mac Kilduff as a key liaison
and the only press aide available. He had charged Kilduff with setting up the swearing-in, and
the assistant press secretary was now busily moving through the cabin, arranging a ceremony. He
found Johnson aide Liz Carpenter in the planes aisle: Liz, theres a pool that wants to go on this
planea news pool. What shall we do?
What do you recommend? replied Carpenter, who had spent nearly 20 years as a reporter in
Washington before becoming the first female vice-presidential executive assistant.
Kilduff burst into tears: God, I dont know what to recommend.
Carpenter grabbed his arms: Mac, tell us what you recommend. That will be what we do.
I recommend you have a pool, he said.
After checking with Johnson, he ended up pulling aboard three reporters to witness the swearingin: Newsweeks Charles Roberts, UPIs Merriman Smith, and Sid Davis of Westinghouse
Broadcasting Co.

But meanwhile, at Swindals reply, McHughs anger boiled over, the emotion and horror of the
last hour overflowing. What was some civilian press twerp doing countermanding the order of an
Air Force general?
Not until Johnson has taken the oath, Kilduff tried to explain, when McHugh confronted him
outside the cockpit.
Johnson isnt here, McHugh argued. Hes on the backup plane.
Then you go back and tell that six-foot Texan he isnt Lyndon Johnson, Kilduff replied. Were
not going to Andrews until the President has been sworn.
McHughs unwitting reply captured the entire days confusion and sadness and, for all intents
and purposes, ended his military career: I have only one President and hes lying back in that
I was flabbergasted, ODonnell recalled. Johnson could have waited until he got to
Washington and spared all of us on Air Force One that day, especially Jackie, a lot of discomfort
and anxiety. But the planes schedule now revolved around Lyndon Johnsons wishes. There
were two Presidents onboard, yes, but only one of them counted for official purposes. JFK was
no longer Passenger Number One.
It was an uncomfortable realization that each member of the traveling party came to in turn,
some more abruptly than others.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------While waiting for Judge Hughes, Jackie Kennedy decided that while she wouldnt change her
clothes, she could clean herself up. She took a step from the aft compartment toward the
presidential bedroom and opened the dooronly to find LBJ sprawled on the bed, her bed,
dictating to Marie Fehmer. Johnson had realized in the interim that as uncomfortable as the room
made him, it was the one space on the plane where he could have privacy.
He and Jackie looked at each other for a moment, and Johnsonhurriedly, guiltilystood to
exit, squeezing by her in the tight passageway. We scurried out of that bedroom, Fehmer said.
It was really embarrassing.
Jackie was left in the room where shed last been alone with her husband that morning. She
moved to the bathroom, looking at herself in the mirror, and proceeded to wipe the blood and
hair from her face with a Kleenex. She immediately regretted it, thinking, History! Why did I
wash the blood off? I should have left it there, let them see what theyve done.
Among the Kennedy men, there came a dawning resentment that a murder in Texas had put a
Texan in charge, upsetting the established balance of power.

There is a tremendous commotion going on between two groups, McHugh recalled in a 1978
oral history, one having lost in a dreadful way a very, very loved President and being afraid of
the next President, who they knew as very nervous and choleric and very strong.
But Johnson intuitively knew the tightrope he had to walk in the hours ahead: The voters hadnt
chosen him as their leader; they had chosen the young, promising, glamorous Jack Kennedy. He
had to preserve his fallen bosss mantle, showing continuity, and turn it to his own use. He
needed Kennedys men.
Around 2:20, while waiting for the swearing-in, he summoned OBrien and ODonnell to the
stateroom. I simply couldnt let the country think I was all alone, Johnson said later of the
sudden transition. I was a man in trouble, in a world that is never more than minutes away from
He was seated in one of the conference-table chairs when the two men arrivedthey both
noticed he wasnt sitting in the Presidents desk chairand he asked them to stay on. I need
your help, he said. I need it badly. There is no one for me to turn to with as much experience as
you have. I need you now more than President Kennedy needed you. Johnsons thumb gestured
toward the rear. Toward the casket. Both OBrien and ODonnell were noncommittal, their grief
clouding and confusing thoughts of the future.
More aides and officials were piling into the plane. Secret Service agent Roy Kellerman, who
had been sitting in the front seat of the presidential limo and had failed to shield Kennedy after
the first shot, looked around the staff cabin of Air Force One and was struck by the many new,
unfamiliar faces. Do you know all these people here? he asked Rufus Youngblood.
Youngblood didnt, but another agent had begun tracking down names to go with all the
exhausted faces.
That agent found one face everyone on the plane was pleased to see reunited with the
presidential party. Chief Warrant Officer Ira Gearhart, the so-called bagman, had had a difficult
day keeping up with the unfolding events, especially because theoretically he was never
supposed to be more than a few steps from the President. His 30-pound locked black suitcase
was known in official circles as the football, and it contained all the launch protocols for the
countrys nuclear triadits intercontinental missiles, bombers, and submarines. He carried
booklet after booklet describing various target packages and how many casualties each would
cause, lists carefully refined since the Cuban missile crisis the year before, when Kennedy had
expressed his frustration at the lack of good retaliation choices. The plans were now grouped
under three headingsLimited Attack Options, Selected Attack Options, and Major Attack
Optionsbut the military aides who carried the football referred to the choices more
colloquially: Rare, Medium, and Well Done.
For nearly ten minutes at Parkland Hospitalas the President of the United States lay dying
from an assassins bullet and no one yet knew the scope of the attack on the government
Gearhart had been lost in the hallways because of a miscommunication between the Presidents
and the Vice Presidents Secret Service details. Then he and General Clifton had been left behind
entirely when LBJs entourage raced for Love Fieldleaving the United States, for nearly half

an hour, impotent in the face of, say, a Soviet surprise attack. Theyd only just made the
motorcade with Kennedys body.
Bill Moyers, the associate director of the Peace Corps and a Johnson confidant, had made it to
Air Force One with only the most extraordinary efforthed been in Austin at the next stop of
the presidential visit when news of the shooting arrived. He chartered a plane, receiving in the air
special permission to land at Love Field, where he made it onboard to volunteer his services to
Also pressed into service was the owner of an obscure Houston advertising and politicalconsulting firm. Jack Valenti had been along temporarily to help Johnson with the Texas trip and
was expecting to return home to Houston that evening. But as soon as Johnson got aboard Air
Force One, he pointed to Valenti: I want you on my staff. Youll fly back with me to
Valentis instant response embarrassed him as quickly as he said it: But Mr. President, I dont
have any clothes. After Johnson reassured him that aides could gather some things to wear,
Valentis second protest was almost as flustered: But I dont have a place to live. Johnson
volunteered that Valenti could stay with him in Washington, and thats exactly what happened for
the 11 days ahead. Valenti would become Johnsons most loyal aide in the years to comeand
call Washington home from that day forward. He never returned to Houston.
As they waited for the judge, LBJ downed a quick lunch of vegetable soup and crackers, a pause
for food during which the days events began to catch up with him. The adrenaline rush from 115
minutes earlier, when Rufus Youngblood had climbed on top of him in the back seat of the vicepresidential limo to shield his body, began to dissipate. Johnson looked at Dave Powers and said
heavily, Its been a week since I got up.
The soup became a popular item onboard among hungry staffers, but the three Kennedy
secretariesMary Gallagher, Pam Turnure, and Evelyn Lincolncontinued to decline Marie
Fehmers offers of sustenance. William Manchester claimed in his 1967 book, The Death of a
President, that the secretaries were too angry at the Johnsons to accept their food, but Gallagher
strongly denied that: We were just too numb to eat.
Up in the cockpit, Andrews Air Force Base radioed, eager to find out the planes plan: What is
your estimated time of departure?
In a few minutes, the crew responded.
Do you have any passengers aboard?
Full load40-plus.
Is Mrs. Kennedy aboard?

Chapter VI
As she raced to the airport in her red sports car around 2:10 pm, Judge Sarah Hughes tried to
recall the presidential oath of office. The essentials of every oath are the same, she recalled
later. I was not afraid. The Dallas police chief spotted her car as she approached Love Field
and cleared a path. As she drove onto the tarmac, her mind registered for some reason that the
wild rambler roses that covered the airport fence werent blooming. They were all briars and
Chief Jesse Curry escorted her to the plane. A flight steward who had been assigned to wait for
the judge saw a big Texan in his Stetson approach and stepped forward to greet the man he
assumed was the jurist: Judge, will you come with me?
Oh, just a minute, the chief said, awkwardly gesturing to the small, 67-year-old woman behind
Air Force One looked majestic to Hughes. It seemed to exemplify the strength and courage of
our country, she recalled thinking as she walked up the ramp around 2:30. Aboard, though, she
found a grim silence.
Lady Bird Johnson saw Judge Hughes, whom she had always liked, and thought briefly, Im glad
its her. They had spent time together at the Johnson ranch just two months earliera joyous day
filled with barbecue, riding, and training sheepdogs. Now Hughes looked at her stricken friends.
There was nothing to say, nothing that could be said, she recalled. I embraced them both,
silently, feeling it was the best way to express my grief for them and for all of us.
And yet if her presence pleased and steadied the Johnsons, the bespectacled judge was a
nonentity to the Kennedy team, who were frustrated by the delay and still worried that Dallas
officials might try to reclaim the Presidents body. I didnt know Judge Hughes from a hole in
the wall, Lawrence OBrien recalled. When she was introduced to Jackie, Lyndon Johnson
explained that Hughes had been appointed by the late President.
I loved him very much, the judge told her. Jackie was distant, not acknowledging Hughess
sentiment. You sensed that shock and grief had taken her almost out of reach, and yet there was
that deep composure, Hughes recalled. It stayed with me for days afterwards.
But Jackie may have been having a different thought entirely: She told journalist Theodore White
a week later that when she got to the plane, she quickly realized: No one really wants me here.
No one knew how to treat me, what to say, or what role I should be playing.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Kilduff and the Johnson aides began to herd the passengers toward the main staff area,
eventually gathering more than 26 people in a space barely larger than a hotel room. One agent
remained with the late Presidents body in the rear.

Where do you want us, Cecil? Johnson said, turning to the Army photographer onboard.
The new Presidents use of Stoughtons first name marked another change. Kennedy had always
referred to the photographer as Captain. LBJ was less formal.
Cecil it was.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Stoughton assessed the tight space and began to gesture, placing the officials as a theater director
would. Youll have to be here, he told LBJ. Im going to be over here with my back up
against the bulkhead. Im going to be standing on this leather couch so I can get up above and
have eye-to-eye contact.
Marie Fehmer had scribbled down the oath as Katzenbach had dictated it, then carefully typed it
onto a little Air Force One note card for Hughes to read. (Valenti, on the phone, had asked the
deputy attorney general where hed found the correct wording of the presidential oath.
Katzenbachs smile, Valenti recalled, could almost be heard over the phone: In the
Waiting for the ceremony to begin, Johnson spotted Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedys longtime
personal secretary, in the room and leaned over to kiss her hand. When Jackie Kennedy didnt
appear in a few minutes, Johnson turned to ODonnell: She said she wants to be here when I
take the oath. Why dont you see whats keeping her?
ODonnell found her combing her hair in the presidential bedroom and asked whether shed like
to step out for the ceremony. Jackie said, I think I ought to. In the light of history, it would be
better if I was there.
By Liz Carpenters estimate, the entire group waited quietly for five minutes before Jackie
appeared, but it might have been as short as a minute or two. Jackie took up her position in the
center of Stoughtons view. She seemed composed, ashen, and quiveringalmost as though she
were in a trance, Carpenter recalled.
The five-foot-tall jurist stood before Jackie, with the somber six-foot-four Johnson towering over
both of them.
The group paused for a moment as Kilduff realized they should record the oath, but no one had a
tape recorder. Theres a Dictaphone thing on the Presidents desk, Stoughton volunteered, and
after some scrambling Kilduff had his arm outstretched with the microphone, holding on tightly
to the five-inch reel recorder.
Just as Hughes, in her brown-and-white polka-dot dress, began, a military aide handed OBrien a
white box containing a Bible found in the presidential quarters. OBrien interrupted the judge,
handing her the book and saying, This is a Catholic Bible. It was a small book, just an inch
thick, with a black leather cover emblazoned with a cross. Handmade out of calfskin, it had the

initials JFK embossed on the inside cover. No one noticed in the moment that it wasnt actually a
Bibleit was a St. Joseph Sunday Missal, a prayer book the Catholic Church uses to lead the
faithful through the annual cycle of Masses.
LBJ rested one hand on the book, raising his other one. Normally a jovial, outgoing man, Mr.
Johnson seemed subdued and was speaking almost in a whisper, Newsweeks Charles Roberts
recalled later that day.
Hughes began to recite the famous words. During the presidential inaugurations every four years,
the phrase breaks are carefully negotiated between the chief justice and the President-elects staff
over the preceding weeks. But there was no discussion before Hughes plunged in, pausing for
Johnson to intone each phrase.
I do solemnly swear . . .
. . . that I will faithfully execute . . .
. . . the Office of President of the United States . . .
. . .and will to the best of my ability. . .
. . . preserve . . .
. . . protect . . .
. . . and defend . . .
. . . the Constitution of the United States.
The entire process took just 28 seconds, her words and his both barely audible to those even just
a few feet away over the whining jet engine.
Hughes had reached the end of Fehmers transcription, but she felt compelled to ad-lib one
further thought.
So help me God, she added.
Johnson repeated the phrase. It needed to be said, Hughes thought as relief passed over her. The
presidential chair was no longer empty. Great as the tasks ahead were, this tall, quiet man had
the ability and determination to perform them.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Newsweeks Charles Roberts wrote later of the ceremony, It was careful, correct, considerate,
and compassionate. Considering that it occurred at a time when no one knew the full
implications of Oswalds deed, and considering that there was no script to follow, it was a

masterpiece of cool-headed improvisation. Johnson, in my eyes, was the coolest man in Dallas or
aboard Air Force One.
As they spoke, Stoughton carefully angled the camera to cut Jackie Kennedy off at the waist,
obscuring her blood-soaked skirt and legs, and fired his camera 23 times during the oath. The
images he captured still haunt half a century later. The faces of those around Johnson are grim
and shell-shocked. Men stare off into the middle distance, lips pursed, arms crossed. Jackies
blank mask epitomizes grief in a way no sculptor could ever depict. Her eyes were open but
unseeing, Valenti recalled.
Although at the time much was made of the fact that none of the Kennedy aides were visible in
the photo that circulatedfueling rumors that they were pushed aside by the Johnson team
Stoughton clearly captured at least six Kennedy aides in other photos before and after: Admiral
Dr. George Burkley, General Clifton, Kilduff, OBrien, ODonnell, and Powers, plus three
women: Gallagher, Lincoln, and Turnure.
Yet there was certainly a sense of resentment and disbelief on the plane that the charismatic,
young, and beloved New Englander was gone. No simple oath of office, many on Kennedys
team felt, would now make the gruff Texan President.
Colonel Swindal, for one, remained in the cockpit through the hurried ceremony, busying himself
with flight tasks and refusing to go back to the staff area. I just didnt want to be in the picture,
he said later. I didnt belong to the Lyndon Johnson team. My President was in that box.
Muggsy OLeary, the baggage master, was looking around, thinking, so many Texans. OBrien,
the anointed son of the fallen President, looked at Valenti, the newly anointed son of the new
President and thought: Hes on his way now.

Chapter VII
Oath completed, responsibility fully assumed, LBJ dropped his hand, turned, and leaned over to
kiss his wifes forehead. The ceremonys simplicity masked its remarkableness: Even as the aides
and officials gathered on the plane, they knew nothing of the assassin who had felled their
commander in chief, knew nothing about the global responsewhether this was a lone wacko,
the start of a Soviet attack, or a subversive plot against the country.
Yet with just a few words, power transferred simply to a new man and, with it, the reins of a
nation and the control of all of its nuclear weapons. There had been no discussion of any other
coursethe Constitution dictated that Lyndon Johnson would become President, and so he did.
It was the only time in the 40 years of the Cold Warwhich just a year earlier, in 1962, had
nearly turned hot during the Cuban missile crisisthat the leader of one of the superpowers had
been murdered and control had passed seamlessly to the next in line.

After the presidential kiss, Lady Bird, her eyes still clouded by tears, stepped toward the
assassinated leaders wife, reaching forward to clasp her hand. The whole nation mourns your
husband, she said. Then it was LBJs turn to hold Mrs. Kennedys hand. Emotions swirled in his
head, but he recalled later how struck he had been in that moment by Jackies bravery and
God bless you, little lady, the Dallas police chief, Jesse Curry, said. You ought to go back and
lie down.
No thanks, Im fine, the 34-year-old widow replied, mustering what seemed to be every ounce
of her energy to smile weakly.
Currys final comment sounded almost as if he were asking her for forgiveness: We did
everything we could.
Jackie moved toward the planes rear, where the casket lay, and sequestered herself in the aft
compartment with her husbands body. She barely moved for the next two hours.
Then LBJ issued his first order: Now lets get airborne.
It was 2:41 pm CST when the other three engines began to wind up.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Judge Hughes, her moment in history finished, left the plane with the other Dallas officials. At
the bottom of the stairs, a man stopped her and asked for the note card with the oath, and she
unthinkingly handed it to him, a piece of history now lost. Stoughton quickly left the plane, too,
en route to the Dallas Morning News, where he could develop and distribute his photographs of
the oath-taking, carrying his camera in one hand and the Dictaphone tape in the other.
I had the only living, breathing record of what had just happened, Stoughton recalled. Turned
out to be the best picture I ever made. (During a 2007 Antiques Roadshow segment near
Stoughtons retirement home in Florida, a year before he died, appraisers valued his copy of the
famous photograph, signed by LBJ With high regard and appreciation, at $50,000.) Yet one
key picture from that day was never snapped: The plane was so crowded that Stoughton didnt
make it to the back, where Kennedys coffin lay. Thats one of the sorrowful things of my
career, that I didnt get a decent picture of the casket onboard, he said in a 2002 oral history.
The door closed behind Stoughton, Curry, and Hughesas well as the sole broadcast journalist
who had been aboard, Sid Davis of Westinghouseand the plane began to move almost
The Love Field tower radioed Swindal: Air Force One, you are cleared for takeoff, runway

The four Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines, each capable of producing 18,000 pounds of thrust,
began to scream as Swindal raised them to maximum throttle. The plane, which had carried
Kennedy on his happiest days as President and his darkest, would bear him on one final trip. It
began to move forward, slowly at first, then faster.
The Presidents casket rattled next to Jackie as she sat in the aft breakfast nook. The new
President in his cabin, already on the phone again, was pushed into his seat by the acceleration.
As the plane sped up, ODonnell relaxed a bit: At least now Dallas wouldnt steal back the body
of his President. John F. Kennedy was going home.
At 2:47, as the engines pushed the plane past 150 knots, takeoff speed, Swede Hanson called V1, Colonel Swindal eased his yoke back, the plane tilted upward, and Air Force Ones wheels
left the Texas soil.
Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had dreamed of the presidency since the earliest days of his career,
who had toiled in that same Texas soil as a dirt-poor boy from the hill country, had officially
been commander in chief for nine minutes. Jackie Kennedy would never return to Dallasher
first trip there would be her last.
Air Force One banked toward the northeast as news of its takeoff passed through the military
radio channels, using the planes longstanding Secret Service code name: Angel is airborne.

Part II: In the Air

Chapter VIII
The world had barely kept up with Lyndon Johnson in the turmoil following the shooting. For
nearly an hour after Walter Cronkite announced on CBS that Kennedy was dead, the public had
no idea where Johnson was. Reporters heard only that he would take the oath of office at Love
Field at 2:35 pm, just three minutes before Judge Hughes swore him in. By the time word spread
that Johnson had taken the oath officially as President, Air Force One was already flying back to
Washingtonthe countrys new chief executive out of reach and out of sight for two seemingly
interminable hours.
Nor did anyone on earth know who was and was not aboard Air Force One. No list had been left
behind in Dallas. Three times, the military radioed Air Force One to ask whether Mrs. Kennedy
was aboard. In the muddled news reports following the shooting, an erroneous announcement
had gone out over the Associated Press wire that a Secret Service agent had been killed. At home
in Washington, the wife of agent Bill Greer, who had been driving the presidential limousine,
spent the duration of the flight thinking her merely incommunicado husband was the dead agent.

At one point, well after Air Force Ones departure from Dallas, the Air Force in Washington
called the presidential plane as it sorted out whom to expect in Washington.
Air Force Onethis is the Air Force Command Post, the radio squawked. If possible, request
the names of the passengers onboard, please.
We have 40-plus, the plane responded.
Forty people! Is that affirmative?
Can you tell me in regard to number one and number twothe top people?
Roger, Air Force One explained. The President is onboard. The body is onboard, and Mrs.
Kennedy is onboard.
Never before or since has Air Force One carried two Presidents at onceone dead, one alive.
Never before or since has a Vice President witnessed the murder of his President. Never before
or since in the nuclear age has an assassination forced the government into a panicked transition
from one chief executive to another. And never before or since have the aides of the fallen
President and the incoming President been locked together for hours in an aluminum tube, with
one another and their own thoughts.
In fact, we may never know precisely how many people were aboard Air Force One as it took off
for Washingtona sore point for conspiracy theorists in the decades since. A stewards
handwritten flight manifest, which now lies in the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, was
obviously done hastily while the plane was still on the ground in Dallasit lists Capt
Stoughton as a passenger. The 41 people aboard are listed in an orderly manner, line by line,
grouped by rank and organizationand then handwritten in the left margin are the names of the
two journalists brought who made the flight: M. Smith and C. Roberts.
Scrawled at the bottom of the page by a hand obviously unsure where to place such a tragic piece
of information are words that make a reader pause: Also body of Pres. K.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Normally there would have been as many as a dozen Air Force staff on the plane, including the
three-person cockpit crewthe pilot, copilot, and flight engineerstewards, and a baggage
master as well as members of the White House Communications Agency, responsible for the
planes communications.
The Secret Services official manifest, recreated in February 1964 by Roy Kellerman, one of the
agents aboard, lists the 13 crew members the Secret Service believes were onboard for the
entire trip to Texas, but Kellerman also lists the photographer Cecil Stoughton as a passenger,
though he wasnt on the actual flight back to Washington. Meanwhile, agent Paul E. Landis, Jr.,

one of those assigned to Jackie Kennedy, was definitely onboardhe even helped carry the
Presidents casket on and off, and other Secret Service records confirm his presence. But hes not
listed on either the Air Force One manifest or even the official Secret Service manifest delivered
to the Warren Commission.
Two of JFKs press aides, Christine Camp and Sue Vogelsinger, were hurriedly removed from
the plane moments before takeoff and so figure into some accounts of the planes flight even
though they werent onboard at departure, and William Manchesters book The Death of a
President erroneously identifies as a passenger Marty Underwood, a Democratic advance man,
who actually returned to DC on Air Force Two.
While the country wrestled with the news of Kennedys assassination and the hunt for his killer
unfolded, that odd assortment of friends, rivals, and strangers who had assembled at Love Field
found themselves pressed together under the most intense circumstances, eight miles above their
devastated nation, dodging storm clouds at nearly 600 miles per hour as they raced home.

Chapter IX
Much has been made in political mythology of the slights, factions, and egos present on the
Boeing 707 that afternoon, how the Johnson people pushed aside the Kennedy men,
disrespecting the widow even as her husbands blood dried into her Chanel-inspired suit. But a
comprehensive examination of the days flight reads less like a Machiavellian case study than an
intensely human story of four dozen peoplemost of them shell-shocked, afraid, and confused
and their desperate push to figure out what had happened and how America would continue
They had two hours and 12 minutes together to mourn their fallen leader and create a new
government. Inside the 153-foot-long fuselage, with little privacy and limited communication
with the outside world, loyalties evolved and careers beganand ended. Before the plane had
even left the ground, that sorting-out began: Godfrey McHughs distinguished military career
would never recover from his grief-stricken I have only one President comment made to
Malcolm Kilduff. Within days, McHugh would be among the first staff cut from the Johnson
White House.
Now, as the clock passed 3pm CST (4pm in Washington) and the jet soared ever higherpilot
James Swindal finally leveled off at 41,000 feet, near the very edge of the 707s performance
the bright-blue Texas sky quickly gave way to the darker blues of twilight. The pilots plotted
their path home, making contact with air-traffic controllers below: Fort Worth Center, Little
Rock, Nashville, then over to Charleston, West Virginia, before the final handoff to Andrews Air
Force Base control. They flew this time without the standard line of prepositioned Secret Service
agents below in case of a forced emergency landing, though the Air Force had hurriedly put
fighter jets on alert at each base they passedthe pilots buckled in and waiting on the runway in
case radar showed any suspicious craft nearing Air Force One.

But in the sky, they were alone above the earth, flying without a net. Every 15 minutes, as it
burned fuel at a rate of a gallon a second and the planes weight lessened, Swindal or copilot
Lewis Hanson reduced the planes throttles to maintain its maximum speed of Mach .84. In its
nearly 30 years of presidential service, the aircrafttail number SAM 26000would never fly
higher or faster than it did that day.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------For the first few minutes after takeoff, nearly everyone sat silently. The cabin began to cool down
once it was airborne and the air conditioning was cranked up. The Johnsons sat in the forward
compartment with the three Texas congressmenHomer Thornberry, Jack Brooks, and Albert
Thomas. The mourning Kennedy group sat in the rear; Generals Ted Clifton and Godfrey
McHugh remained at attention next to the casket. To half of the plane, this was the end. To the
other, it was only the beginning. But for some, that line shifted minute by minute.
The military and Secret Service agents theoretically treated every President the same. Yet
McHugh, Swindal, and other military men found to their surprise that Kennedy had meant
something special to themand that loyalty wasnt painlessly transferred to this new Texan.
Meanwhile, Kilduffalready elbowed aside by the Kennedy men and now pressed into service
moved quickly to Johnsons side, where he would remain for the next two years.
The November sun set quickly as the plane moved east, but a different darkness settled in the
cockpit. Suddenly realizing that President Kennedy was dead, I felt that the world had ended
and it became a struggle to continue, Air Force One pilot Swindal wrote later. I know that I
personally will never again enjoy flying as I did before.

Chapter X
It wouldnt be easy to create a government nearly alone eight miles above the earth in a span of
time roughly equal to that of a Friday-night movie. Normally, Presidents have months between
being elected and assuming office to plan transitions, interview staff, and establish policy.
In the forward cabin after takeoff, Lyndon Johnson grabbed a piece of blue notepaper, printed
with the presidential seal and gold letters reading aboard air force one, and wrote a numbered
list, 1 through 4:
1) Staff
2) Cabinet
3) Leadership

That last line sat empty, pregnant with all that he had to do.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------And so the machinery of governance began to turn. He summoned Bill Moyers to help assign
tasks. Then Johnson started working the phones, seeking out anyone who could help.
Technology limited communications with Air Force One. Although nine phone extensions were
onboard, only three simultaneous conversations could take place with people one the ground.
The top-of-the-line radiophone in the new Boeing 707 was a huge upgrade to Air Force Ones
telecommunications system, but it still was hard to hold a conversation for long. As we became
airborne, I did not know what to expect, the signalman and radio operator, Sergeant John
Trimble, later recalled. However, since they had to go through me, I knew that I was in for one
hell of a ride.
Trimble was busy every minute of the flight. Andrews always had a waiting list of various
officials who wanted to communicate with the plane, he said. Many times I had to decide with
whom we would talk next.
Each phone call was a struggle, the communications channel full of static and with a significant
transmission lag. A typical conversation required lots of repeating and confirming that the other
party had actually understood the transmission.
You get that, operator?
Air Force One, Andrews. Say again, please.
. . . Helicopter . . . .
You getting that?
Lets try them again.
As Trimble summed up: People talking to and from Air Force One on November 22 showed a
great amount of patience.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------The new Presidents calls, though, always took precedence. In stark contrast to later claims that
Johnson had grabbed for power, one of his first orders of business was to reach out to the
Air Force One was somewhere over Nashville when Sergeant Trimble heard that LBJ wanted to
speak to Rose Kennedy, the fallen Presidents mother. Trimble cleared the best of the planes

three frequencies, called down to Andrews, and was patched through to the White House, which
in turn called Mrs. Kennedy on Cape Cod. After several handoffs and false starts, Lyndon and
Lady Bird finally connected with the matriarch.
Yes, Mr. President? she said, formallyaddressing the man with the title that until two hours
earlier had belonged to her son.
Mrs. Kennedy, I wish to God that there was something I could say to you, and I want to tell you
that were grieving with you, he said.
Thank you very much. Thats very nice. I know you loved Jack and he loved you, she replied
warmly but formally.
If there is anything we can do Lady Bird began. Then the two womens words tripped over
each other.
Thank you, Lady Bird. Thank you, Mr. President, Mrs. Kennedy said, ending the call.
The couples next call was back to Parkland Hospital, again routed through the White House
switchboard, to the hospital room of the wounded governor John Connally.
Can you hear me? Lady Bird asked Nellie Connally. The surgeon speaking about John was so
reassuring. How about it?
The surgeon that just finished operating said that John is going to be all right unless something
unforeseen happens, Mrs. Connally reported.
I know that everythings going to be all right, said LBJ, who in fact knew no such thing.
Yes, everythings going to be all right, Lady Bird added.
Good luck, Mrs. Connally wished the new First Couple.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------As the President worked his way through his calls, inbound messages stacked up. Four times,
Tazewell Shepard, Kennedys naval aide back at the White House, tried unsuccessfully to reach
Air Force One. And the White House communications team tried several times to put through a
condolence message from Queen Elizabeth. They finally passed it alongin addition to three or
four other calls from heads of stateto General Cliftons aide to give LBJ when he arrived at the
White House later that night.
Not all of the radio traffic, though, involved the President or covered matters of the highest
urgency. Congressman Thomas, for instance, realized that no one was expecting him in
Washingtonhe had been scheduled to stay in Texas a few days longerand needed a favor
from his staff.

I need Capital 4-3121 extension 493, Trimble radioed to the White House. Ill talk to anyone
Say again? the White House switchboard replied. It was Capital 4-3291 extension 493?
Thats 4-3121 extension 493.
Roger, roger. Understand. Anyone in particular there?
Roger. Anyone at that number.
Roger. Stand by. Long pause. Air Force One, Air Force One from Crown. Was that extension
That is affirmative. Congressman Thomass office.
Say again the congressmans name, as they say they have no such extension.
Congressman Thomas. TangoHotelOscarMikeAlphaSierra . . . .
Roger, roger, stand by, the White House finally reported back. Congressman Thomass office
on the line.
Roger. This is the airplane. The congressman is requesting that you place his door keys under
the doormat of his residence. Go ahead.
Oh, okay. Hello? a confused female congressional aide replied.
Hello, did you hear me?
There will be someone at his residence, the aide said.
I understand the house will be open. And someone will be in the residence. Is that correct? the
Air Force One signalman radioed. Hello? I understand that the house will be occupied. That
someone will be home. Is that right?
Finally the White House chimed back in: Air Force One, this is Crown, that is a Roger. She said
that there will be someone at the residence.
Okay. Fine, Crown. Thank you very much, Air Force One concluded the call.
Congressman Thomas wouldnt be without clean clothes.
Between phone calls, the Air Force weather station kept the flight crew informed about tornados
around Arkansas as they flew over around 3:30 pm. The glorious sunny day that the passengers
had left behind in Dallas had given way to violent thunderstorms across much of the middle of

the country. Andrews Air Force Base was concerned, but Air Force One was too high for it to
matter much. Swindal and Hanson could see the storms out their windows on both sides, the
plane weaving between the thunderheads, but the flight stayed smooth.

Chapter XI
Johnson plopped into one of the chairs in the stateroom and gathered Bill Moyers, Jack Valenti,
and Liz Carpenter around him. I want you to put something down for me to say when we land at
Andrews, he said as he sipped a glass of water. Nothing long. Make it brief. Well have plenty
of time later to say more. During the short conversation, Valentis eyes were drawn to the
Presidents large handsthey were absolutely steady. Valenti didnt understand how someone
under such immense and immediate pressure could ever be so collected. I want to make clear
that the presidency will go on, Johnson said.
The three set to their own drafts, which Johnson then began to edit himself. Normally a regular
drinker, he didnt touch any alcohol on the flight; instead he sipped Sanka nearly the entire time.
Meanwhile, Marie Fehmer busily took dictation from passengers as they recounted the days
events, each of them trying to piece together more than just snapshots of trauma. Congressman
Brooks remembered hearing the three shots. Johnson aide Cliff Carter recalled Ken ODonnell
entering the room at Parkland and telling Johnson simply, Hes gone. Then the ride in
unmarked cars back to Love Field, the motorcycle escort carefully guiding them through
intersections. Admiral Burkley, the Presidents physician, had been riding in the rear of the
motorcade and never really had a chance to help the man whose life had been entrusted to him.
Lady Bird commented to Carpenter, Its all been a dreadful nightmare.
The planes arrival at Andrews preoccupied LBJ. Even as aides cautioned that Air Force Ones
landing should be conducted secretly, Johnson wanted a standard press arrival. It mustnt, he
said, look like were in a panic. Everything must be normal.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Its the Kremlin that worries me, Johnson said later, sitting at the stateroom desk. It cant be
allowed to detect a waver. He had seen Kennedy humiliated at the Vienna Summit early in his
own presidency; he couldnt show the same weakness. Khrushchev is asking himself right now
what kind of man I am. Hes got to know hes dealing with a man of determination.
Johnson, after all, was a man of determination. Once the Senate majority leader and among the
most powerful people in Washington, hed been sidelined by the Kennedy men, then ridiculed by
them. Theyd referred to him behind his back as Uncle Cornpone, but theyd done it so often
that Johnson himself knew of it. He called the Kennedy men the Harvards, intending the label
to show just as much disrespect as they meant toward him.

He had been a good soldier, fiercely loyal to Kennedy, all anyone could ask of a Vice President.
Yet there had already been talk that Johnson might be dumped from the 64 ticket.
Just that fall, the TV show Candid Camera had used the Vice Presidents increasing obscurity to
comedic effect, asking random people: Who is Lyndon Johnson? Everyone demurred; one man
suggested the questioner look in a phone book. Others guessed a baseball player or an astronaut.
No one correctly identified the man who was now leader of the free world, the man who had
suddenly after three rifle shots assumed control of the largest weapons arsenal in the history of
the planet, the man now huddled in the sitting room of Air Force One with just two hours until he
had to introduce himself to the world and reassure a devastated nation.
Before Dallas, official Washington was so uninterested in Lyndon Johnson that his home
telephone number at his estate, The Elms, in DCs Spring Valley, was listed in the phone book.
No one would bother harassing LBJ.
Now he was king. For as John Adams had said, there was but one piece of magic in the otherwise
most worthless job in Washington: I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be
Johnson had wanted to be President more than anything. Texas governor John Connally, who
now lay wounded in the Dallas hospital, had once said about him: Hes never had another
thought, another waking thought, except to lust after the office. Even as a teenager, working
with mules on a back-breaking road gang building an unpaved highway outside Austin, Johnson
had told the older men that he had big plans: Im going to be President of the United States one
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------But he hadnt wanted it like this. Not with his leaders murder. Not even Lyndon Johnson was
that hungry for power.
Now he and his wife were entering a new world. Lady Bird had never even seen the inside of Air
Force One before boarding it to fly back to Washington. Vice President Johnson had begged to
ride with the decade-younger Kennedy on Air Force Oneand eventually given up after being
rejected too often. You dont mean to say that Mr. Johnson is again insisting on riding with
me? Kennedy had once asked Evelyn Lincoln. Now it was Johnson who had brought Kennedy
aboard to ride with him, holding the plane on the tarmac to wait for the widow and the casket.
It was an instant transition and transformation difficult for nearly anybody in the country to
grasp, especially the four dozen people on Air Force One who had lost a friend, a boss, and a
commander. Yet even far removed from their leader and the situation on that plane, the nation
ground to a stop as word of Kennedys assassination spread.
In New York, the stock market tanked before trading was suspended altogether, and Broadway
shut down for the night, the neon lights of Times Square blinking out one by one. People
clustered in the streets around car radios. By the time the plane and its two Presidents landed at

Andrews, nearly the entire country had heard news of Kennedys death and the tragedy had
united Americans around their televisions. (Over the three days following the assassination, the
average family watched 31.6 hours of news coverageten hours a day.)
JFKs murder stunned the world like few other events in modern times. Sir Laurence Olivier
stopped a performance at Londons Old Vic theater, announced the news, and asked the audience
to stand as the orchestra played The Star-Spangled Banner. Big Ben tolled for an hour. In
Berlin, the city that had so loved JFK, 60,000 gathered for a torchlight procession. Even Moscow
residents cried in the street.
As presidential historian Henry Graff put it later: Lyndon Johnsons ascent to the presidency
came at the most traumatic moment in American political history.

Chapter XII
Charles Roberts and Merriman Smith, the two reporters aboard the plane, worked frantically to
write their stories using scrounged supplies and borrowed typewriters. Aides and officials
stopped by their workspace to whisper details or offer memories of the day. Brigadier General
McHugh made one trip forward to remind them that hed otherwise stood guard by the casket
throughout the journey. Mac Kilduff passed along decisions as the staff made them, and
President Johnson himself stopped by the newsmens table at one point to explain that he
intended to ask the Kennedy Cabinet to stay on.
We had so darn much work, Newsweeks Roberts said later. This was the only time in my life
that I ever felt like saying to a President of the United States, Look, I know you want to talk, but
Ive got a lot of work to do.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------In the main staff cabin, Roberts tried to ask Roy Kellerman some details of the shooting but
couldnt bring himself to interrogate the Secret Service agent for long. His eyes were
brimming, Roberts later said, and Kellerman was far from alone: Many strong men [were]
crying on the plane that day, Roberts recalled.
Next to Roberts, Merriman Smiththe mustachioed 50-year-old UPI wire correspondent known
to everyone as Smittywas trying to hide his inner turmoil as the days events unfolded. He
had broken the news of JFKs shootingthe 15 bells that had rung in every newsroom in the
country alerting editors to his urgent FLASH from the motorcade press car: Dallas, Nov. 22

Within 11 minutes of the shooting, Smith had dictated a 500-word story. Hed been feeding
updates to UPI about the Presidents death when Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood stopped
him in the Parkland Hospital hallway and explained that hed better get back to Love Field
quickly: Smitty, the President wants to go back to Washington. It took the reporter a moment to
process the words. I thought the President was dead. But then it clicked: Youngblood was
Johnsons Secret Service agentJohnson was President now.
The reporters work that day would earn him a Pulitzer Prize. Sadly, this flight was now his
second trip back to Washington with a fallen leaderhe had been in Warm Springs, Georgia, in
1945 when FDR died. At the time, he hadnt considered it fair to have to trade the great FDR for
the nobody Harry Truman. Nowolder, grayer, but just as prone to emotionSmith found
himself sitting with another presidential interloper.
In JFKs death, he wrote in his diary a year later, my sense of loss had taken the form of
simply being unable to accept in my guts the coarse image and patois of LBJ.
At times, it was as if there were two entirely different plane trips in progress.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------The front of the aircraft was a hive of activityJohnson aides and military and press officials
scrambling for free radio time, workspace, and typewriters as they tried to report, assemble, and
organize a government from miles above the earth. The rear, though, often seemed like the tomb
it was, or an airborne Irish wake.
The trio of Kennedy aides whom the President had always jokingly called the clowns
ODonnell, Powers, and OBrienjoined Jackie there. There was little additional room in the aft
compartment, so the other Kennedy aides were left to visit one at a time: Jackies press aide,
Pamela Turnure; JFK secretary Evelyn Lincoln; and Secret Service agent Clint Hill. As they flew
north, ODonnell encouraged Jackie to have a Scotch. Im going to have a hell of a stiff drink,
he said. I think you should, too.
Ive never had Scotch in my life, she replied, then paused. Now is as good a time to start as
But she barely touched the whisky. (Jackie drank only Scotch in the months ahead. She never
once liked it, but it reminded her of the pain of that flighta pain she didnt want to forget.) The
aides, though, took to the bottle with abandon.
Seated around a small table, one of the only things in the space not removed to fit the casket,
they drank and drank. It was like drinking water, ODonnell recalled. It left us cold sober.
Their drinking, though, made an impression on the new President, and not a favorable one. I
thought they were just wineheads, Johnson said in a 1969 interview. They were just drinkers,
just one drink after another coming to them trying to drown out their sorrows. It was a peculiar
situation that they sat back in the back and never would come and join us.

LBJ asked ODonnell three times to come forward to speak with him, but the Kennedy aide
refused to budge. I sat with her the entire trip, he said of Jackie Kennedy. She just wanted to
talk. She talked the entire way. They reminisced about the President, about the family, about the
Kennedy family home in Hyannis. Dave Powers recounted the glorious days of the presidential
trip to Ireland and the Presidents favorite Celtic songs.
You were with him at the start, and youre with him at the end, Jackie said to Powers and the
She was also already doing her own thinking.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------The former First Lady was so far from her two children, so eager to be homewherever home
would now be after she moved out of the residence that she, her husband, and their children had
known for the last two years. In some ways, she and JFK had never been closer than at the
moment of his death.
Their marriage had strengthened and blossomed in the preceding months, the loss of newborn
baby Patrick in Augusttheir second child to die, after Arabella was stillborn in 1956having
brought the couple closer together. She had been gearing up for the campaign; Texas was the first
time shed been out on the campaign trail since becoming First Lady. But there would never be
another day of campaigning together. Never another shared smile. Never another embrace. Never
another laugh.
The couple hadnt even slept together the night before; the hard mattress the President brought
along on road trips was big enough for only one. She had slept in the other bedroom of their
three-room hotel suite. You were great today, he had said before they went their separate ways
at bedtime.
Yet she was holding it togetherbarely.
That frail girl was close to composure, bringing to the surface some strength within her while
we three slobs dissolved, OBrien said later.
Jackie began to plan. She remembered how her husband had loved Luigi Venas singing and
decided that the Italian tenor should sing Ave Maria at the funeral. Next she determined that
Cardinal Richard Cushing, the archbishop of Boston, who had married them, should say the
Dave Powers and Ken ODonnell recalled visiting the grave of the couples deceased son,
Patrick, the previous month in Hyannis with President Kennedy. Powers told Jackie what her
husband had said as he stood at the grave: He seems so alone here.
Ill bring them together now, Jackie said, the plans already forming in her mind. Her husband
would be buried at Arlington, she decided, and Patrick would join him.

Conversations were halting; starting, stopping, and then restarting, overlapping. Evelyn Lincoln,
at a loss for words, said, Everythings going to be all right.
Jackie just looked at her: Oh, Mrs. Lincoln.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Throughout the flight, no one touched what Jackie called that long, long coffin. Mary
Gallagher resisted leaning over to kiss it. The others around herOBrien, ODonnell, and
Powerssat vigil, many of them lost in their own thoughts, of both remembrance and guilt:
ODonnell, speaking to the Secret Service that morning, had given the order to leave the armored
bubble top off the presidential limo. (Politics and protection dont mix, he had told the White
House security chief, Jerry Behn, during one argument.)
At one point, Jackie Kennedy mused openly that her husband had been martyred like Abraham
Lincoln. It was a theme the Kennedy people returned to again and again as their conversations
half wake, half plansunfurled like the fields passing far below.
Jackie already worried about her husbands legacy. He had been such a student of history. What
would history now say about him? Not knowing that mere feet from her the UPI reporter was
grieving deeply for her husbandholding LBJs accidental presidency against him even in its
first hoursshe worried about how the emotion-prone journalist would record the day: What is
history going to see in this except what Merriman Smith wrote, that bitter man.

Chapter XIII
When the two camps collided, emotionsanger, fear, grief, often interconnectedran high.
Why dont you get back and serve your new boss? ODonnell barked at General Clifton at one
point when the intelligence aide came to the rear to ask a question.
Whats eating him? Im just doing my job, Clifton said to General McHugh, who wasnt in
much better shape than ODonnell. Standing stiffly at attention near the casket, McHugh
repeated from time to time under his breath a phrase that was part statement, part question, part
exclamation: Hes my President, my President. There was no confusion: He didnt mean
To be the confidant and trusted emissary of the President, and now, by a freakish, ghoulish act
of assassination to be isolated, alone, adrift, with the captain missing and a new helmsman in
charge, this abrupt transition could not be handled by mere mortals, Jack Valenti wrote later. I
didnt see hostility. All I saw was griefbitter, dry-teared grief.
ODonnell concurred: Whatever resentment some of us might have felt, neither Dave [Powers]
nor I remember any open display of antagonism against Johnson.

Up front, Kilduff drank gin-and-tonics. He later estimated that he downed two-thirds of a bottle
of gin while single-handedly juggling the duties of an entire press office.
I needed that White House staff, Johnson said later. Without them I would have lost my link
to John Kennedy, and without that I would have had no chance of gaining the support of the
media or the Eastern intellectuals. And without that support I would have had absolutely no
chance of governing the country.
But he also knew he needed to be patient. Toward the end of the flight, Johnson canceled the
staff meeting he had planned upon returning to Washington; he realized he couldnt press the
Kennedy men to transfer their loyalty immediately. He had with him Valenti and Moyers, though
the men who would replace ODonnell and OBrien in the inner circle of the new occupant of
the Oval Officeand they worked steadily on his behalf, their loyalty already deepening even as
the Kennedy men, the so-called Irish Mafia, stared into the abyss.
All of us tried to comfort them in a quiet way, but they were still dazed from the whole thing,
Johnson aide Liz Carpenter explained. When Moyers went back at one point to ask for
ODonnells help on a matter, ODonnell looked at him blankly: Bill, I dont have the stomach
for it.
And that was that. That night in Washington, only the congressional leadership would join
Johnson at the White House.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------General Ted Clifton called national-security adviser McGeorge Bundy to plan for the Presidents
arrival. Two meetings tonight[Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara and Bundy and the
leadership about 7:30, Clifton said.
Does he mean the Democratic leadership only? Bundy asked.
Bipartisan leadership, and Ill give you some names, Clifton said, reading off the list Johnson
had dictated: Speaker of the House [John McCormack], Carl Albert, Hale Boggs, Leslie Arends,
[Mike] Mansfield, [Hubert] Humphrey, [George] Smathers, [Everett] Dirksen, [Thomas] Kuchel,
and [Bourke] Hickenlooper.
Bundywho referred to Johnson as the Vice President throughout the conversation out of
habitsuggested that because the Cabinet Room was being rearranged and might not be ready in
time, they should plan to meet with the congressional leadership in the Oval Office. But Clifton
stopped him: Johnson didnt want to be seen taking control too quickly. The White House wasnt
his home yet.
He does not want to go into the mansion or in the Oval Room or the Presidents Office or the
Presidents Study. So if the Cabinet Room isnt ready, then put it in the Fish Room, Clifton
ordered over the scratchy connection.

All right, I will, Bundy said.

Given how carefully LBJ, even in the midst of a national crisis, orchestrated the power shift to
lessen the pain of the Kennedy camp, he was stung by the accusations voiced four years later in
William Manchesters book that Johnson had brazenly seized the crown, shoving aside the
grieving Kennedy team. I did everything I could to show respect and affection and grief to Mrs.
Kennedy, LBJ said later. I dont know of any niceties that were overlooked at all, and whats
more, I think everybody in the party will say that.

Chapter XIV
On the flight, the Secret Service pushed their new President to spend the night in the White
House. It was safe there, they knew, and Rufus Youngblood urged him to think of security first.
But Johnson cut off the conversation: We are going home to The Elms. Thats where we live. If
you can protect us at the White House, by God you can protect us at home, too. He did not want
to seem presumptuous.
Because the Vice President of the United States didnt have an official residence at that time
and wouldnt until a house on the grounds of the Naval Observatory was designated as such in
1974Johnson had commuted in to the White House each day from the Spring Valley
neighborhood. (His home at 4040 52nd Street, Northwest, is now the Algerian ambassadors
residence.) He would continue to do so now as Presidentat least until the Kennedys had time
to arrange their affairs.
His orders clear, Youngblood squeezed himself into the planes communications shack to call the
White House security chief. The connection, again, was patchy at bestbeset with static and
garbled transmissions and packed with code names.
What are commonly known as Secret Service code names are actually designations given by
the White House communications agency to officials and their families and are grouped around
the same letters: All the Kennedy family names began with L: Lancer for JFK, Lace for Jackie,
Lyric for Caroline, and Lark for John Jr. The Johnson family had received V names: Volunteer
for Lyndon, Victoria for Lady Bird, Velvet for Lynda, and Venus for Luci. White House staff had
names that began with W. Altogether, more than 200 were in use at a given time.
I committed about 50 to memory and instructed others to use their last name, radioman
Trimble recalled later. Then there were separate code names for major destinations: Crown was
the White House, Valley the Vice Presidents residence at The Elms. Originally, the code names
were a good idea and did facilitate communications, but like most everything else in government,
[theyve] gotten out of hand, Trimble recalled. It was a lot to keep straight in a conversation.

Volunteer will reside at Valley for an indefinite time, Youngblood transmitted. I repeat:
Volunteer will reside at Valley for an indefinite time. Victoria requests that Venus will go to
Valley with agent.
Will you say again? Jerry Behn asked from the White House. Will you say again?
Venus should go out to Valley with agent, a White House operator, also on the line, tried to
That is a roger, Youngblood said, sounding very far away from his colleagues at just the
moment they needed to be working closely together. That is a roger. Venus will go to Valley
with agent. Victoria will go to Valley after first to Crown. Do you understand? Over.
Victoria will go to Valley after first going to Crown, the White House operator repeated.
Okay, thats affirmative, Behn said, but Youngblood still wasnt sure the White House had
actually heard the main piece of information he was trying to convey: The Secret Service had
only a few hours to be ready for the President of the United States to live outside the White
House indefinitely for the first time since Harry Truman had moved to Blair House during a
postWorld War II renovation.
Do you also understand that for residential purposes Volunteer will reside at Valley? he asked.
That is affirmative, Behn said, understanding. There was another short pause before Behn
repeated for emphasis, That is affirmative.
Youngblood signed off: All rightthat is all the traffic I have at present.
A few minutes passed, and then a further thought from Air Force One. The plane called back to
the White House: Now that Johnson was President, the public telephone line at his housethe
one that was in the phone bookshould be disconnected and new, secure phones installed.
LBJ also talked to McGeorge Bundy directly throughout the flight, attending to what seemed to
be a growing list of matters of state. Johnson was hungry for details of the unfolding
assassination investigation. Half an hour after takeoff, word had come that a Dallas policeman,
J.D. Tippitt, was dead. Then word that the suspected assassin was in custody, some guy named
Lee Harvey Oswald. Who was he? The FBI implied he had ties to Russia. Was this a larger plot?
American military commanders around the world were moving their forces to a higher state of
readiness, but neither Bundy nor Johnson advocated a general alert or a move to a higher socalled DEFCON.
Kilduff and Valenti made several trips to the rear of the plane to ask if anyone needed anything.
The Kennedy men and Jackie barely acknowledged them. At one point, she looked at Clint Hill
the Secret Service agent whom she had helped clamber onto the trunk of the presidential

limousine as it began to speed from the shooting sceneand asked, What will happen to you
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Around 5 pm, Admiral George Burkley, Kennedys physician, spoke with the Secret Service and
the military aides, realizing that one of the hardest conversations of the trip fell to him. He
passed through the Presidents sitting room and entered the silent, hallowed rear compartment to
kneel next to the widow, her Scotch before her on the table. He explained that her husband would
have to be autopsied.
The doctors must remove the bulletthe authorities must know the type. It becomes evidence.
Well, it doesnt have to be done, she said.
Yes, it is mandatory that we have an autopsy, explained the admiral, who had served as
Kennedys doctor since the second month of his administration. I can do it at the Army hospital
at Walter Reed or at the Navy hospital at Bethesda or any civilian hospital that you would
Burkley hoped he could arrange it at a military hospitalthe commander in chief deserved that,
and it would be the most secure facility possible. But in that moment he was willing to indulge
almost anything Jackie wanted. She thought for a minute and then chose Bethesda; Jack, after all,
had been a Navy man.
General McHugh later knelt beside her and asked again if shed like to change clothes before
landing. She said what shed said in Dallas: No, let them see what theyve done. She already
regretted wiping the blood away earlier: If Id just had blood and caked hair on my face when
Cecil took that photograph, she thought.
Someone else suggested that Jackie could deplane on the right side of the aircraft, away from the
press and the television lights.
We will go out the regular way, she said.
Ted Clifton volunteered that an Army honor guard would be ready to carry the President off the
plane, but Jackie stopped him: I want his friends to carry him down.
She summoned Roy Kellerman, the head of JFKs detail, and Dave Powers explained that the
Secret Service agents who were with the President would bear him off the plane. Mrs. Kennedy
wanted Bill Greer, his driver, to drive the ambulance. Greer, who had spent the plane ride
replaying in his mind the turn onto Dealey Plaza, was touched. Greer had been remorseful all
day, feeling that he could have saved President Kennedys life by swerving the car, ODonnell
recalled. Jackie felt sorry for him.

General Chester Clifton was known to most of his friends as Ted, but for official purposes he was
code-named Watchman. After Kellerman had arranged for the autopsy, Clifton took over to plan
the reception at the Air Force base.
This is Watchman, he radioed Behn, the White House security chief. I understand that you
have arranged for an ambulance to take President Kennedy to Bethesda. Is this correct?
It has been arranged to helicopter the body to Bethesda.
Okay, if it isnt too dark. What about the First Lady?
Everyone else will be helicoptered into the South Grounds.
Are you sure that the helicopter operation will work? We have a very heavy casket.
According to Witness [naval aide Tazewell Shepard], yes.
Dont take a chance on that, Clifton ordered. Also have a mortuary-type ambulance stand by
in case the helicopter doesnt work.
Now some other instruction. Listen carefully: We need a ramp put at the front of the aircraft on
the right-hand side just behind the pilots cabin in the galley. We are going to take the First Lady
off by that route.
Also, at the left rearat the rear of the aircraft where we usually dismount, we may need a
forklift rather than a ramp. A platform to walk out on and a forklift to put it on. The casket is in
the rear compartments, and because it is so heavy we should have a forklift there to remove the
casket. If this is too awkward, we can go along with a normal ramp and several men.
Affirmative. We will try for the forklift.
Next item, Clifton continued. There is to be normal press arrangements at Andrews. They
should be in front of the aircraft because that is where hell come off. He is going to the White
House by chopper.
Should the Secretary of Defense and others be at Andrews on your arrival?
No, Clifton said. I am about to call the White House. President Johnson wants to have the
White House staff, the leadership of Congress, and as many of the Cabinet members available at
the White House at 1830 [hours].
Affirmative, Behn said from the ground, but Clifton wasnt sure hed been understood.

Repeat that to me.

All the leaders of Congress, as many Cabinet members as possible at the White House at 1830.
And key members of the White House staff[Ted] Sorensen, Bundy, et cetera, he trailed off,
then prepared to hand the call over to the head of Kennedys Secret Service detail. Hold for
Have helicopter to transport President Johnson and party to the White House lawn, Kellerman
commanded Behn, who technically was his boss.
Have White House cars 102 and 405 for transportation to hospital, Kellerman said. I will join
[agent Clint] Hill and party at the Navy hospital.

Chapter XV
Two hours after leaving behind the city that had killed Kennedy, Colonel Swindal began his
descent, swinging east over Middleburg toward the lights of DC in the distance.
Johnson excused himself from the group and stepped into the presidential bathroom. He gave
himself a quick shave and combed his hair, wanting to present a polished look to the world as it
gazed upon the new President for the first time. He put on a fresh shirt, straightened his tie, and
put his suit jacket back on. The man whom critics thought too unpolished, too crude, too brusque
to lead a nation stared at himself in the mirror: Was this presidential enough?
Air Force One glided home, over the Potomac River and a capital already in mourning, a distant
yellow light resolving into an airplane as it neared the runway and the thousands of eyes
searching the night sky for the first glimpse of the majestic hearse. Up and down the East Coast,
commercial planes circled in midflight, diverted to clear a path for the presidential aircraft.
Colonel Swindal eased it onto the runway, the back wheels touching down first with a puff of
white smoke, then the front, then the braking as Air Force One slowed to a stop. Reporter
Charles Roberts looked up from typing the final pool report that would be handed out to the
media. He checked his watch.
It was 5:59 pm in Washington.
The 35th and 36th Presidents of the United States were both homeKennedy for the last time,
Johnson for the first.

A military honor guard stood ready on the tarmac along with a Navy ambulance and a catering
truck to lower the casket from the plane.
The press were all arranged with their microphones set, the TV lights ablaze. Diplomats had
arrived en masse, as had the public, who gathered by the thousands outside the gates at Andrews.
US government and military officials stood uneasily in the darkness. Senators Everett Dirksen,
Hubert Humphrey, and Mike Mansfield waited near the press area. Nearby, helicopters were
poised to whisk the President, the new First Lady, and her widowed predecessor across to
Crownthe White House, the home that for the moment seemed to belong to neither the
Johnsons nor the Kennedys.
As he stood to disembark, Johnsons massive hand clenched a small piece of aboard air force one
notepaper printed with the presidential seal his seal nowwith seven typed sentences to read
to the press below, the sum total of his staffs wisdom during the preceding flight. He had
thoughtfully edited the statement, making changes to nearly every sentence, adding personal
touches to the cold words on the page, changing, for instance, the nation to we.
Instead of a joke at the podium in Austin about his charismatic leader having survived the trip to
Dallas, his final public words of the day would now be to claim control of a tragedy in his
leaders absence and to reassure a nation that he, Lyndon Baines Johnsonthe poor boy from the
Texas hill country who had graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers Collegestood
ready to inherit command.
The words were hard to read, and he would stumble over them, trying to decipher in the cool
Washington night air the pencil-scratched edits he had made:
This is a sad time for all people. We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. For me it is a
deep personal tragedy. I know the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family
I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask only for your helpand Gods.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------His plea was heartfelt. The raw power Johnson had inherited in an instantnot just the office but
ultimate control over the Polaris submarines hidden beneath the waves, the nuclear-armed alert
bombers making lazy circles over the Midwest, the Minuteman missile crews sitting quiet vigils
in their silos across the plainshad never before been given to a man under those circumstances.
Historys trajectory had been altered, and the world now waited to see what would come next.
Ahead lay the unknown pressures of the Cold War, Fidel Castro, and Nikita Khrushchev; the
drama of Martin Luther King Jr., a bridge in Selma, and the civil-rights movement; Vietnam, the
Tet Offensive, and the draft; the Great Society, the 68 Democratic convention in Chicago,
Richard Nixon, and the moon landing. The seeds of what followed had already been laidthere
were 16,300 advisers in Vietnam on November 22, 1963, and unknown to anyone aboard the
plane, that very day a British rock band named the Beatleshad released their second album.

The 1960s were poised to upend American life outside Air Force One. The accidental group of
passengers brought together for this flightall the friends, all the strangers, all the enemies, all
the allieswould in the minutes and hours ahead disperse, never to reconvene. A decade later,
the same airplane, SAM 26000, would fly Lyndon Johnson home to Texas for the final time after
his own death in January 1973.
But all of that lay in the future.
For one last minute, as the stairs were brought forward, the plane and its emotionally spent
occupants stayed silent. Lets get everybody together, Johnson said, and the passengers
clustered in the rearthe Kennedys closest to the door with the casket, then Johnson, then his
aides and the congressmen behind him. Johnson reached through the crowded aisle to kiss the
hand of Kennedy aide Pam Turnure.
Then, as those inside waited for the back door to open, a murmur passed through the length of
the aircraft: The attorney general had boarded unexpectedly through the front door. Robert F.
Kennedy, his face streaked with tears, ran through the communications shack staffed by the
exhausted radioman Sergeant Trimble, passed through the forward galley with its depleted liquor
cabinet, pushed his way through the crowded staff area where LBJ and Jackie had stood earlier
with Judge Sarah Hughes, past the secretaries and the typewriters that just hours before had
written out the oath of office, and through to the Presidents cabin.
Excuse me, excuse me, he said, pushing through the knots of people. Wheres Jackie? I want
to be with Jackie.
As Bobby Kennedy stepped into the Presidents cabin, the new President of the United States
just hours into the greatest role of his life, hours into achieving his lifes sole dream under the
worst imaginable circumstancesstuck out his hand, a gesture of warmth from a man not known
for that.
His voice weighed down with emotion, Lyndon Johnson greeted RFK simply: Bob.
But the attorney general never broke stride, pushing right past his new boss, past everyone until
he reached his brothers widow, standing next to the bronze casket with the broken handle.
Her brown eyes turned toward him.
Im here, he said.
Oh, Bobby, she said.
They hugged.
And the rear door of Air Force One opened.