This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue.
12:30 P.M., CENTRAL STANDARD TIME
Colonel James Swindal, a handsome forty-six-year-old carpenter's son from Alabama and the pilot of Air Force One, sits in the communications shack behind his cockpit, pushing back a roast-beef sandwich. Two million dollars' worth of the latest technology buzzes around him, teletype machines and radios and three separate phone patches. He'shalf-listening to the radio, Charlie frequency, to the chatter of Secret Service agents narrating the progress of President John F. Kennedy's motorcade through Dallas. Swindal's copilot, Lieutenant Colonel Lewis Hanson, has left the plane, taking advantage of the short stop at Love Field to pay a quick visit to his ailing mother-in-law. As Swindal waits, he brings on only a light load of fuel for this afternoon's scheduled flight to Austin, part of the president's continuing tour of Texas.
Behind Swindal, in the large passenger compartment, two secretaries type press releases; farther back, in the stateroom—with its two fixed tables, TV set, and six chairs upholstered in gold—all is quiet. Only in Air Force One's single bedroom is there activity: George Thomas, Kennedy's valet, lays out a fresh set of clothes for the president to change into when he returns. The day started out rainy and overcast, but now the sun is out, and it's warm for late November. Thomas picks out a lightweight blue suit for Austin, a carefully pressed shirt, and a freshly polished pair of shoes.
Back in the communications shack, Swindal hears the first in a series of puzzling radio calls. The Secret Service agents refer to one another by code names, all starting with D. "Dusty to Daylight," the radio crackles. "Have Dagger cover Volunteer." Dagger, Swindal knows, is a laconic agent named Rufus Youngblood, a thirty-nine-year-old native of Georgia. Volunteer is the code name for Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The radio suddenly drops out. Swindal worries that President Kennedy's notoriously tricky back has leveled him—he was wearing his cumbersome brace when he left the plane—and the motorcade, on its way to the Dallas Trade Mart for a luncheon, has needed to stop.
Outside on the tarmac, radio operator John Trimble is stretching his legs when a member of the White House Communications Agency, listening to the same Secret Service feed on his portable radio, waves him over. He tells Trimble that someone in the presidential motorcade has been hurt. The plane needs to be readied for takeoff immediately. "My first reaction was that one of the Secret Service agents had fallen from a car," Trimble says later.
He runs up the ramp and onto the plane. In his wake, the crews from two nearby passenger jets—Air Force Two, the vice-president's plane, and the Pan American charter for the accompanying press—stream past Air Force One's wheels, under its shining silver belly. They had been grabbing lunch inside the terminal when they wereinterrupted by a PA announcement: Time to move.
Swindal asks Trimble to radio the White House switchboard to find out what's happened, or is happening still. He needs a destination. In the meantime, he heads for the stateroom and turns on the TV.
A vague early bulletin hits the screen and then hangs in the air: President Kennedy has been shot. The pilot is soon joined by Thomas, the valet; Sergeant Joseph Ayres, the plane's steward; and the two secretaries, their hands lifted to their mouths. Thomas retreats to the bedroom and begins putting away the clothes he's just laid out. The women start to cry.
The White House confirms to Trimble the terrible news. Through his headset, he listens to the report in disbelief.
General Godfrey McHugh, President Kennedy's topmilitary aide, calls Air Force One from Parkland Hospital. They will be leaving for Andrews Air Force Base, and they will be leaving soon.
Trimble radios Andrews and asks that a voice frequency be kept clear of traffic. He does not want to say why; he doesn't know how far the news has traveled and does not want to be the bearer of it. But Andrews complies with this unusual request immediately—"Roger, sir. The frequency has been cleared"—because the operator likely knows, too.
Swindal orders the fuel tanks topped up. He also disconnects Love Field's mobile air-conditioning unit from the plane. The temperature inside Air Force One begins to rise. Swindal idles only one engine, conserving fuel, providing just enough power to keep on some lights and the TV. Hanson, the copilot, rushes into the cockpit, something like numb. His mother-in-law, who was watching her TV, had yelled the news to him the instant he'd walked through her door. "My mind rejected the idea," he says later, "as though it was some kind of bad dream." He fires up the other engines at least twice, as if wanting to make sure they still work.
Swindal plots a flight plan east to Andrews, over Texarkana, Texas, and Memphis and Nashville. Then the two men wait and cook, unaware of exactly what's unfoldingat the hospital only a few miles away. Now Swindal sees a pair of unmarked police cars screaming onto the runway over the morning's puddles and discarded welcome signs.
And he knows.
Lyndon Johnson, trapped somewhere between vice-president and president, is hunched down in the backseat of the first car. Jesse Curry, the chief of the Dallas police, is behind the wheel. Rufus Youngblood and Congressman Homer Thornberry pile out of the back with Johnson. Congressman Albert Thomas, who had waved down the car when it was peeling away from Parkland Hospital, is in the front seat. He jumps out with Curry.
Lady Bird Johnson is in the second car with Congressman Jack Brooks and three more members of the Secret Service. Together they run up the Eastern Airlines ramp at the rear of the gleaming Boeing 707.
Swindal sees a pair of unmarked police cars screaming onto the runway over the morning's puddles and discarded welcome signs. And he knows.
Youngblood and the other agents begin running through the cabin, rapidly closingthe plane's shades and curtains. There's an uneasy, unspoken feeling that Air Force One could be attacked at any moment,driven into by a gasoline truck, strafed by machine-gun fire from a rooftop. There are enemies out there. With the shades closed and the power mostly off, the plane goes dark.
"I'm sticking to you like glue," Youngblood tells Johnson.
Through one of the last open windows, SergeantAyres, the steward, sees a police car swerving across the runway, its tires screeching, its sirens ringing out. If there's a conspiracy, here's the rest of it, he thinks. The Secret Service agents come close to opening fire on the speeding car, filling it with bullets. They would have killed Jack Valenti, an unofficial aide of Johnson's; Lem Johns, a fellow Secret Service agent; Cliff Carter, one of Johnson's closest advisors; and Cecil Stoughton, the White House photographer.
Other cars, with still more passengers, have already pulled up to the bottom of the steps at the plane's rear entrance. There are more Johnson people—Marie Fehmer, his secretary, and Liz Carpenter, a former newspaper reporter turned confidante—and the first wave of Kennedy loyalists: Evelyn Lincoln, the president's secretary, and Pam Turnure and Mary Gallagher, Jackie Kennedy's ladies-in-waiting. The two camps have arrived at Air Force One as if by instinct, propelled by different versions of the same understanding: This plane is for the president.
Johnson and Lady Bird spend their first minute or two on board in the bedroom—two single beds, a nightstand, a painting of a French farmhouse on the wall. The room's ghosts are too new, and the Johnsons are uncomfortable in their company. On the careening drive to Love Field, Lady Bird had looked out a window and seen a flag already lowered to half-mast. "I think that was when the enormity of what had happened fresh struck me," she says later. The Johnsons ask to go to the adjacentstateroom instead.
Lyndon Johnson appears in the hallway. He is six foot three, filling the passage. Everybody in the room jumps to their feet, including the three congressmen, Texans all. Congressman Thomas is the first of them to speak: "We are ready to carry out any orders that you have, Mr. President."
Cliff Carter picks up a white phone in the rear of the plane. Trimble patches him through to his wife in Austin. He asks her to call Rufus Youngblood's wife. Carter heard radio reports of dead agents on his way to Love Field, and he knows these reports are untrue. All of the agents are alive. Only the now former president is not.
His conversation is interrupted by the sound of hammering. In the small aft cabin, behind the bedroom, Sergeant Ayres is removing two rows of seats to make room for a casket.
On the TV in the stateroom, Walter Cronkite puts on his dark-framed reading glasses. The plane goes pin-drop quiet. "From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1:00 P.M. Central Standard Time. Two o'clock Eastern Standard Time, some thirty-eight minutes ago." Cronkite's voice cracks when he continues: "Vice-President Lyndon Johnson has left the hospital in Dallas, but we do not know to where he has proceeded. Presumably he will be taking the oath of office shortly and become the thirty-sixth president of the United States."
Johnson goes into the relative privacy of the bedroom, Marie Feh-mer and Youngblood following him in. The oath of office. Johnson takes off his jacket in the rising heat and lies down on one of the beds. He picks up the phone and asks Trimble to connect him to Robert Kennedy, the attorney general. The two men are not close, the scars and resentmentsfrom thenasty 1960 race for theDemocratic presidential nomination never having faded.
"I knew how grief-stricken he was," Johnson later tells the Warren Commission, "and I wanted to say something to comfort him. Despite his shock, he discussed the practical problems at hand."
Johnson asks Kennedy whether he's heard any news of plots, of responsibility. The new president's mind has been racing. Was it the communists? Was it the Vietnamese? Behind his closed curtains, he is certain that something larger is afoot. But Robert Kennedy has the fewest answers of any man in the world.
Johnson then asks Kennedy where he should take the oath of office and what its exact words are. The questions are metwithsilence before Kennedy repliesthat he will find out and call back. He hangs up.
The new president receives two calls from Washington in quick succession: The first is from McGeorge Bundy, President Kennedy's national-security advisor; the second is from Walter Jenkins, one of Johnson's most trusted aides. Both men tell him he should return to the capital immediately. Johnson says he will not leave without Jackie Kennedy, and she has let it be known that she will not leave without her husband's body. These dominoes must fall in order. Johnson does not want to be remembered as an abandoner of beautiful widows.
Robert Kennedy calls back. The specifics of this conversation will be forever debated; several of that day's calls are recorded, but no recording of this one has ever surfaced. According to Johnson's account, Kennedy tells him he should take the oath in Dallas, and that it is imperative. Kennedy later denies he said anything of the sort.
After those few disputed minutes, Nicholas Katzenbach, the deputy attorney general, is patched into the call. He has the wording of the oath. It is in the Constitution and probablyin every lawyer's office across the country. Fehmer leaves the bedroom and heads into the front passenger compartment to pick up another phone. Katzenbach dictates the oath, and Fehmer types it out. She asks if she can read it back to him, and she does, both Johnson and Kennedy still listening in their respective quiets: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) 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."
Air Force One radios Andrews Air Force Base: "Stand by to take off." It does not take off.
Johnson calls Irving Goldberg, a lawyer and friend. They decide to ask U. S. district judge Sarah T. Hughes—a longtime friend of Johnson's—to administer the oath. Fehmer calls Hughes'soffice; a clerk tells her that the judgeis not in. He believes she's at the Trade Mart, where she wentto see President Kennedy make his speech. Fehmer hangs up and informs Johnson that Hughes can't be found. He tells her to call the office back. This time, he takes the phone.
"This is Lyndon Johnson," he says. "Find her."
Air Force One continues to fill.Although it normally carries about twenty-five passengers comfortably, it is now taking on most of Air Force Two's original passengers as well, nearly twice its usual load.The secretaries who cried before the TV have been told to leave and board the second plane. In their place, piles of bags, including Johnson's suitcases, are carried from Air Force Two across the runway. Bill Moyers, a twenty-nine-year-old advance man, has chartered a small plane from Austin to Love Field. Now he's given permission by Swindal to land and come aboard. Mac Kilduff, President Kennedy's assistant press secretary, is also on his way. Only a little more than twenty minutes ago, at 1:33 P.M., he had announced the president's death to the world in front of a chalkboard in a nurse's classroom. On it, a single word had been scrawled: PARKLAND.
Johnson does not want to be remembered as an abandoner of beautiful widows.
When Kilduff first opened his mouth, no sound had come out, and the gathered newsmen hollered at him to start again. "John F. Kennedy died at approximately one o'clock Central Standard Time today, here in Dallas," Kilduff said. "He died of a gunshot wound in the brain."
Judge Hughes has been found. She is on her way.
In the passenger cabin, Stoughton, the White Housephotographer, approaches Liz Carpenter and Marie Fehmer. He is sweating and ashen. "You must go in and tell the president," he says, still trying to catch his breath, "that this is a history-making moment, and while it seems tasteless, I am here to make a picture if he cares to have it. And I think we should have it."
A white hearse pulls up to the ramp at the rear of the plane, followed immediately by another car, and then another. Both are packed with Secret Service agents. Among them are Bill Greer, the driver of President Kennedy's open-topped limousine; Roy Kellerman, who had been in the front passenger seat; and Clint Hill, who had sprinted forward to climb onto the back of the car, only seconds too late.
Cecil Stoughton/JFK Library
Joining the crowd behind the hearse is President Kennedy's so-called Irish Mafia, his close network of Boston advisors: Ken O'Donnell, Larry O'Brien, and Dave Powers, a conspicuous bloodstain on his brown suit. Dr. George Burkley, Kennedy's personal physician, and General McHugh also gather around the back of the car. So does another of Kennedy's military aides, General Ted Clifton, one more member of this mobile army. Together they pull out the dead president's casket, shining bronze in the sun. Minutes before, it was the subject of a drawn-out fight at Parkland, pushed and pulled between Kennedy's men and county officials citing unbreakable Texas laws regarding the autopsies of murder victims. The casket's sudden presence on the ramp is proof of a hollow northern victory.The men smash off the casket's long handles in order to fit it through the plane's door and settle it into the empty space in the aft cabin, where the two rows of seats had been.
Jackie Kennedy, who had ridden in the back of the hearse with her husband's body, follows the casket up the steps and heads for the bedroom. She is shocked to find Johnson, Fehmer, and Youngblood inside it—with Johnson, depending on the account, either still on the bed or having just lifted himself off it.
"John F. Kennedy died at approximately one o'clock Central Standard Time today, here in Dallas. He died of a gunshot wound in the brain."
In a 1969 interview with Bob Hardesty, Johnson seemingly confesses to the less graceful of the possibilities: "He wasn't going to sleep in the bed, and I was trying to talk to [Robert] Kennedy and take pills and locate the judge and do all these things I had to do."
In less than a minute, all four mortified people in the bedroom leave—Jackie retreats to the aft cabin, next to the casket, while Johnson and his company scurry forward, to the stateroom. Johnson finds Lady Bird and together they return to Jackie, convincing her to go back into the bedroom. The Johnsons sit with her on one of the beds. Sergeant Ayres has laid out some blue Air Force One towels on it.
"Oh, Mrs. Kennedy," Lady Bird says, as she will later recall in her diary, "you know we never even wanted to be vice-president and now, dear God, it's come to this."
Cecil Stoughton/JFK Library
Jackie appears in shock. "Oh, what if I had not been there. I was so glad I was there," she says.
"I don't know what to say," Lady Bird says. "What wounds me most of all is that this should happen in my beloved state of Texas."
To this, Jackie says nothing. She sits in her very particular brand of silence, her pink outfit stained with gore, flecked with fragments of her husband's skull and brain. One of her stockings is almost completely lacquered in blood. Her right glove, white that morning, is caked and stiff with it. Her left glove is missing. Lady Bird asks her if she can get someone to help her change.
"No," Jackie says. "Perhaps later I'll ask Mary Gallagher, but not right now. I want them to see what they have done to Jack."
The Johnsons tell Jackie about their plans for the swearing in. Then they take their leave. Jackie stays in her spot on the bed. She looks around the empty room, begins to unbutton her single glove, and lights herself a cigarette, adding smoke to the shimmering air.
Ken O'Donnell, desperate to take off, heads toward the cockpit. He can be blunt. O'Donnell wasn't Kennedy's gatekeeper; he was the gate. Now he runs into McHugh and orders the general to get the plane in the air. After the casket fight at Parkland, O'Donnell fears that Air Force One will be refused air clearance or even intercepted by swarms of local cops. (In the confusion, he is not aware that their chief is on the plane.) "I'm concerned that the Dallas police are going to come and take the body off the plane and Jackie Kennedy's going to have a heart attack right in front of us there," he later recalls. "I'm petrified."
McHugh has already spoken to Colonel Swindal, who gave him the message that McHugh now passes along: President Johnson wants the plane grounded until he's sworn in.
O'Donnell takes his case for immediate departure to Johnson himself, who is still conferring with his Texas assembly in the stateroom. "There was some difference of opinion between him and me," O'Donnell later tells the Warren Commission. Johnson, citing Robert Kennedy's alleged advice, will not be moved.
She sits in her very particular brand of silence, her pink outfit stained with gore, flecked with fragments of her husband's skull and brain.
"There's no question in [my] mind," O'Donnell says later, "that Lyndon Johnson wanted to be sworn in by Judge Sarah T. Hughes, an old family friend, and he was afraid somebody was going to take the thing away from him if he didn't get it quick."
Judge Hughes arrives, wearing a brown dress with white polka dots. She is a tiny woman. In photographs, she almost disappears.
Kilduff escorts three pool reporters onto the plane behind her: Sid Davis of Westinghouse Broadcasting, Merriman Smith of UPI, and Charles Roberts of Newsweek. They see Johnson in the stateroom. The president has risen out of his gold-upholstered chair, ready to be sworn in. "If there's anybody else aboard who wants to see this, tell them to come in," he says. The room begins to fill. The temperature continues to climb. "Almost suffocating," are the words Roberts later uses to describe the scene.
Marie Fehmer palms the typewritten oath to Judge Hughes. But they still need a Bible. Larry O'Brien, excusing himself to Jackie, finds a Catholic missal in the bedroom's nightstand drawer. It is in a small box, still wrapped in cellophane. It is possibly a gift, something that somebody, somewhere, had thrust into Kennedy's hands, perhaps even on this last trip to Texas. Now O'Brien tears open the box and hands the book to Judge Hughes.
Ken O'Donnell follows O'Brien into the stateroom. Johnson sees him: "Would you ask Mrs. Kennedy to come stand here?" He wants her to stand beside him.
"You can't do that!" O'Donnell shouts. "The poor little kid has had enough for one day, to sit here and hear that oath that she heard a few years ago! You just can't do that, Mr. President!"
"Well," Johnson says, "she said she wanted to do it."
"I just don't believe that," O'Donnell says, even as he heads toward the bedroom. He paces in the hallway, his hands on his head—hysterical is the word he later uses to describe himself. Finally he walks into the bedroom. Jackie is combing her hair.
"Do you want to go out there?" O'Donnell asks.
"Yes," Jackie says. "I think I ought to. At least I owe that much to the country."
Jackie Kennedy comes out of the bedroom. The room falls silent. She has taken off her single bloody glove, but she has not changed her clothes or made use of the blue towels.
Twenty-seven observers crowd onto the eagle-adorned carpet in the stateroom of Air Force One. It has been ninety-eight minutes since President Kennedy died. Cecil Stoughton climbs up on a couch, pressing himself against a wall. He has a semi-wide lens, a new Hasselblad 50mm, but he still has trouble making the shot. "You're going to have to back off just a little bit if I'm going to get you all in," he says to Johnson, and the foursome at the center of the portrait pushes back into the watching crowd. Most of them can't hear Judge Hughes over the whine of the engines coming to life.
Johnson chooses to swear rather than affirm, adding, for good measure, four words that are not in the oath: "So help me God." He turns to kiss Lady Bird, near tears, on the forehead. She grabs Jackie's hands. "The whole nation mourns your husband," she says.
Cecil Stoughton/JFK Library
Chief Curry leans toward Jackie. "God bless you, little lady," he says, "but you ought to go back and lie down."
"No, thanks. I'm fine," she says before she slowly makes her way to the aft cabin. She drops into a seat beside her husband's casket. She will not move from it.
Johnson shakes hands with the congressmen, the pool reporters, and his staff. In Stoughton's pictures—in the less-seen frames before and after the photograph that will come to define the moment—some faces are smiling. Lyndon Johnson is the first southern president since Andrew Johnson of Tennessee took over from Abraham Lincoln.
In the crush of the moment, few people notice the man standing in the back, Stoughton's flash lighting up his spectacles, a steel briefcase in his hand.
Johnson issues his first official order as president: "Now, let's get airborne."
Chief Curry, Judge Hughes, Sid Davis, and Stoughton—with his precious film still in the camera around his neck—dash off the plane and down the ramp. Air Force One's doors are locked shut behind them.
There will soon be stories that have Judge Hughes taking the Catholic missal with her and in her shock handing it to a mysterious man, never to be seen again. In fact, the missal ends up in Lady Bird's purse. She will show it secretively to Liz Carpenter, and they will worry for a moment that it's a Catholic book, one more of the day's accidental crossings. Today, the missal is at the LBJ Library in Austin. It looks as new as it did the day it was made, its soft black leather cover embossed with a cross.
"When I walked down the steps," Stoughton later remembers, "I was the only living, breathing person who knew what happened." There was the world inside the plane and the world outside it, each knowing little of what was happening in the other; Stoughton was one of the few who had passed between them. "Not only that, I had the whole record of it in my hand."
Colonel Swindal lifts Air Force One into the sky. Davis, watching from the tarmac, is shocked by the steepness of the ascent—"almost vertical," he says. It's as though Swindal wants to leave not only Dallas but also the earth.
President Johnson has never been on Air Force One—which is code-named Angel by the Secret Service—at least not in flight. Whenever he and Kennedy were flying to the same city, he would ask for permission to come aboard, to be allowed to share a little of Kennedy's spotlight, to wave from the top of the same ramp. Those requests were always refused—Kennedy always citing security concerns, Johnson always believing his exile was for more personal reasons. The Kennedy people dismissively called him Rufus Cornpone, the sort of man capable of ruining a good suit just by wearing it. Evelyn Lincoln says later that Johnson's repeated demotion to Air Force Two "bothered the vice-president more than anything else." Now here he is, flying on the first plane, leaving the second in its wake—not due to the favor of a more powerful man but because he is the most powerful man. He looks around the stateroom. Jackie Kennedy had helped decorate it. Soon he will have much of it torn out.
The crowded plane is largely silent, muffled by a thick blanket of shock. The smoke-filled air slowly begins to cool.
Only Johnson is active. In the stateroom, he wolfs down a bowl of bouillon and begins mapping a route, like a pilot,through the coming hours and days. He calls Walter Jenkins and asks him to begin arranging meetings—with Cabinet members, with White House staff, with legislative leaders, his old friends and foes in the Senate. "Bipartisan," Johnson tells Jenkins.
It's impossible to know when Johnson first begins seeing in his mind's eye the things he will do, but the opportunity to do them he sees right away.
"Bipartisan," Johnson tells Jenkins.
To the rear of the stateroom, Jackie Kennedy sits next to the casket, which lies along the left-hand wall of the cabin, lashed into place with bracing straps. Red bronze and weighing several hundred pounds, it was the best one Clint Hill had found at Vernon Oneal's funeral home in Dallas. It had been delivered polished to Parkland, but now it's chipped and scratched, scarred by the fight at the hospital and the frantic push up the ramp. There are broken bolts where the handles had been.
Jackie, General McHugh, and the Irish Mafia huddle in the cramped space beside it. She cries for the first time. "Oh, Kenny, what's going to happen?" she asks O'Donnell.
"You want to know something, Jackie?" he says. "I don't give a damn."
"Oh, you're right, you know, you're right," Jackie says. "Just nothing matters but what you've lost."
Dr. Burkley makes his way back to join them. Passing the vacant bedroom, he notices the door is ajar. On one of the beds, lying on a newspaper, he sees Jackie's bloody glove, dried stiff as a cast, as though her hand were still in it. He finds Mary Gallagher and brings her back to the bedroom, pointing at the glove with his own bloodstained arm. "Put it away somewhere," he says. "Don't crush it."
Johnson retreats to the bedroom to change his sweat-soaked shirt. He summons O'Donnell. While he's dressing, Johnson asks O'Donnell to stay by his side—to help with the transition from Kennedy to Johnson, from Massachusetts to Texas, from 1963 to 1964. "I need you more than he ever needed you," Johnson says, O'Donnell later recalls. "You can't leave me… . You know that I don't know one soul north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and I don't know any of those big-city fellows. I need you."
"Just nothing matters but what you've lost."
O'Donnell is noncommittal. He leaves the bedroom and returns to the aft cabin, to Jackie and the casket. The day's losses are not only personal; they are also professional. The center of gravity has shifted. Lady Bird hears one of the Secret Service agents whisper, in what she later calls "the most desolate voice," "We've never lost a president in the Service." Those who were charged with protecting Kennedy now sit together in the forward passenger compartment, responsible only for a box. Roy Kellerman assigns most of his agents to Rufus Youngblood, the new man in charge. Clint Hill will stay assigned to Jackie. He sits mostly in silence, going over the day's events, the same few seconds that will play on a loop for the rest of his life.
"I jumped onto the left-rear step of the presidential automobile," Hill later remembers. "Mrs. Kennedy shouted, 'They've shot his head off,' then turned and raised out of her seat as if she were reaching to her right rear toward the back of the car for something that had blown out. I forced her back into her seat and placed my body above the president and Mrs. Kennedy… . As I lay over the top of the backseat, I noticed a portion of the president's head on the right-rear side was missing and he was bleeding profusely. Part of his brain was gone. I saw a part of his skull with hair on it lying in the seat."
At some point, Hill visits Jackie at the back of the plane. "Oh, Mr. Hill," she says, reaching out for his hands. "What's going to happen to you now?"
Johnson asks Moyers, Valenti, and Carpenter to work on the speech he will deliver when they arrive at Andrews. "Nothing long," he says. "Make it brief. We'll have plenty of time later to say more." Fehmer types up the draft on a white card and gives it to Johnson. He reads it to himself:
This is a sad time for every American. The nation suffers a loss that cannot be weighed. For me it is a deep personal tragedy. I know the nation, and the whole free world, shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy bears.
I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask God's help—and yours.
Johnson takes out a pen and changes a few words("We have suffered a loss… . The world shares the sorrow… .") and amends the end. Now it reads: "I ask for your help—and God's." Satisfied, he puts the card in his pocket.
Air Force One receives a weather report warning of storm clouds ahead. Be advised of a severe weather area from forty miles west of Greenwood, Mississippi, to twenty miles west of Blytheville, Arkansas, extending one twenty miles, one hundred and twenty miles to the east, for tornadoes, tops five zero thousand, fifty thousand feet.
Colonel Swindal begins a quick climb. He ascends higher than he had ever flown with President Kennedy, high enough to see clearly the curvature of the earth, and for the first time it hits him.
"I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask God's help—and yours."
In a letter to William Manchester, the author of The Death of a President, Swindal describes the moment: "As the sun set on the flight from Dallas, flying over the storm clouds at forty thousand feet and darkness coming on so fast because of our high speed toward the East, suddenly realizing that President Kennedy was dead I felt that the world had ended and it became a struggle to continue."
Rufus Youngblood wants Johnson to spend the night in the White House. Johnson is irritated by the suggestion. He doesn't want his arrival to look like a palace coup. "We're going home to the Elms," he says. "That's where we live. If you can protect us at the White House, by God you can protect us at home, too."
Youngblood radios Jerry Behn, the chief of the Secret Service, in Washington. "Volunteer will reside at Valley for an indefinite time," he says. Moments later, there is another call from the plane. Someone has remembered that the vice-president had been so powerless that he has only a commercial telephone line to his house. On the ground, linemen from the White House Communications Agency get to work on something more secure.
Sergeant Ayres makes telephone contact with Rose Kennedy, the mother of PresidentKennedy. The connection between the plane and Hyannis Port, routed through the White House, is weak. "Yes, Mrs. Kennedy," Ayres says. "I have"—and here Ayres takes the briefest of pauses, apparently unsure whether to introduce Johnson as President Johnson. "I have, uh, Mr. Johnson here for you."
Johnson cups the receiver with his hand and looks at his wife. Like Ayres, he too doesn't know what to say.
"—yes, yes, Mr. President. Yes—"
"I wish to God there was something that I could do, and I wanted to tell you that we are grieving with you."
"Yes," Mrs. Kennedy says. "Well, thanks a mill—thank you very much."
"Here's Lady Bird," Johnson says, hastily handing over the phone.
"Thank you very much," Mrs. Kennedy says. "I know. I know you loved Jack, and he loved you—"
Lady Bird begins to talk. "Mrs. Kennedy, we feel like we've just had—"
"Yes, all right."
"—we are glad that the nation had your son—"
"—as long as it did."
"Yes, well, thank you, Lady Bird. Thank you very much. Goodbye."
"Love and prayers to all of you," Lady Bird says.
"Yes. Thank you very much. Goodbye. Goodbye."
Some of the Kennedy people have asked Johnson to bar the press from Andrews, to make their touchdown as invisible as possible. They don't want to make a spectacle of the bronze casket or the blood-soaked Jackie.
"No," Johnson says. "It will look like we're in a panic."
Kilduff, whose code name is Warrior, talks over the radio to deputy press secretary Andrew Hatcher, code-named Winner, at the White House. "Winner, Winner, this is Warrior," Kilduff says. "Will you please advise the press that normal press coverage, including live TV, will be allowed at the base?"
When Kilduff walks back to tell Jackie of the decision, she seems to approve of it. "I want them to see what they've done," she says again.
Now Kilduff falters. He knows that Texas was Jackie's first political trip since the death nearly four months ago of her newborns on, Patrick—that President Kennedy thought the sound of cheering might help wash away some of her grief. Kilduff had also lost a son, four-year-old Kevin, who drowned while his father was away with the president. Now the damaged parents lean into each other, and together they talk about loss.
General Clifton calls McGeorge Bundy at the White House and tells him that Johnson wants to meet with secretary of defense Robert McNamara immediately after landing.
Johnson has not ruled out a military response to the assassination. "It's the Kremlin that worries me," he says to General Clifton, as later reported by Johnson's biographer, Robert Caro. "It can't be allowed to detect a waver … Khrushchev is asking himself right now what kind of man I am. He's got to know he's dealing with a man of determination." Johnson remains consumed by plots and conspiracies. If the Soviet Union is behind the killing, or Cuba, or Vietnam …
"Khrushchev is asking himself right now what kind of man I am."
A few minutes earlier, Johnson was told about the bespectacled man and the contents of his metal briefcase. His name is Ira Gearhart. His code name is Satchel. His briefcase holds a collection of bulky packets, each bearing wax seals and the signatures of allthe Joint Chiefs. By Manchester's account, one contains cryptic numbers that will permit Johnson to talk to the prime minister of Great Britainand the president of France in four minutes. Another holds the codes to launch a nuclear attack. The rest contain the infamous Doomsday Books, a range of retaliation scenarios—Retaliation Able, Retaliation Baker, Retaliation Charlie—and the estimated number of casualties that would result from each. (It is rare for Gearhart not to be near the president when he is out of the White House, though at least twice today, Satchel and his suitcase were separated from both of his presidents, at the Trade Mart and at the hospital.) Now Johnson has the means to order the country to war.
General Clifton wants to make sure his message to the ground has gone through: A helicopter will carry Johnson to the White House. McNamara should be on it, he says again.
Ken O'Donnell rises to his feet. "You know what I'm going to have, Jackie? I'm going to have a hell of a stiff drink. I think you should, too."
"What will I have?" Jackie asks.
"I'll make it for you. I'll make you a Scotch."
She has never had a Scotch in her life. "Now is as good a time as any to start," she says.
Colonel Swindal radios ahead to make arrangements for his landing. "We need steps on the right front of the aircraft," he says. "The press box will be on the left front of the aircraft. The … "—and like so many others, Swindal struggles with the following combination of syllables—"President Johnson will deplane at the front of the aircraft. And we need a forklift at the rear of the aircraft, and Lace will deplane from the right front. Over."
Lace—Jackie—will deplane from the right front,away from the forklift, away from the body, away from the cameras and the lights.
Swindal doesn't know that Dr. Burkley has joined the long line of men on their knees in front of her, next to the casket. He tells her they will be landing soon. Maybe she would like to change her clothes, wash away the blood.
"No, let them see …" she says. No one within earshot needs to hear more. They understand that the ramp at the right front of Air Force One will go unused.
The Irish wake continues in the aft compartment. Kilduff gulps back gin. Whole bottles of Scotch are emptied. The men remember the Celtic folk songs loved by the man in the box, and through their tearful smiles they talk about what should happen now, how the president, their president, should be sent off and how he should be remembered. They talk about Lincoln, about parades and horses pulling black carriages. And they talk about grave sites and eternal flames. The men believe it should be lit in Boston, next to the grave of baby Patrick, father and son and city forever united. O'Donnell tells Jackie not to let anyone change her mind about that. But her mind is already making its own journey, to a hillside in Arlington, Virginia, tracing the steps her husband will travel from here to there.
"No, let them see …" she says.
Jackie sends Dave Powers forward with a message. She wants Bill Greer, the agent who drove the limousine, to drive the ambulance already waiting at Andrews to carry the body to Bethesda Naval Medical Center. "I want his friends to carry him down," she says.
In that 1969 interview with Bob Hardesty, Johnson talks of the people clustered in the tail of his plane: "It was a peculiar situation that they sat back in the back and never would come and join us," he says. "I thought they were just wine heads."
Charles Roberts and Merriman Smith frantically type their all-important pool reports. Smith had lost his manual portable typewriter somewhere along the way and is stuttering away on one of the plane's electrics—"having a hell of a time writing," Roberts later recalls. Roberts bangs more ably, driving out sheet after sheet. The reporters receive frequent visitors, mostly men who want the record—this singular historic record—made straight. General McHugh pounds the table in front of Roberts: "Ken O'Donnell, Larry O'Brien, Dave Powers, and me spent this flight in the tail compartment with the president—President Kennedy." Dr. Burkley wants it known that he was with the president when he died. Even Johnson comes up to visit with them, two or three times, asking if they have all the facts they need. Now, during the last visit, Roberts looks up at Johnson and thinks, Mr. President, I know you want to talk, but I've got a lot of work to do. He manages to keep this thought to himself.
Occasionally, the reporters ask questions of the grief-heavy passengers slumped around them. Roberts talks briefly to Roy Kellerman, the Secret Service agent, his eyes brimming with tears. He also watches Evelyn Lincoln weeping and Pam Turnure, her mascara streaked across her cheeks. Other passengers have spent the flight with their foreheads cupped in their hands, disappearing into their own universes, invaded only by the occasional sob from elsewhere in the cabin and the chugging of typewriters.
"It was a sinking in," Roberts says later. "We were all doing second, third, fourth takes, realizing all of the implications of the thing as we rode back."
He notes that no one raises a shade or opens a curtain for the entire flight. Angel's passengers do not see the sun set. It's been night from beginning to end. "Like going back in a tunnel," Roberts remembers. "And much, much crying."
Air Force One touches down at Andrews Air Force Base. It is now 5:58 P.M., Eastern Standard Time.
6:05 P.M. EASTERN STANDARD TIME
Great banks of floodlights have been set up; they are snapped off so that Colonel Swindal can see his way. He taxis to a stop inside a socket bordered by White House–bound helicopters and Bethesda-bound ambulances and the quiet, somber crowd, thousands strong, that's filled the spaces in between. "I do not believe we will ever completely recover from the shock of this tragedy," Swindal writes later, "and I know that I personally will never again enjoy flying as I did before."
Kennedy's staff members walk from the passenger compartment through the stateroom, on their way to the back of the plane. Johnson kisses Evelyn Lincoln again. He sees Pam Turnure, grabs her hand, and kisses her, too. He expects that he will walk off the plane with Jackie—it is important to him to show that the nation's two White Houses, this morning's and tonight's, are one, another of his small illusions of seamlessness. But the hallway to the back of the plane begins to fill, packed with mourners standing shoulder to shoulder.
Robert Kennedy has been waiting alone for Air Force One, crouched in the back of an Army truck. Now he takes advantage of the darkness. He ducks and runs up the ramp to the plane's front entrance, seconds after the stairs have been wheeled into place. He pushes his way to the back. Liz Carpenter feels him before she sees him. "He didn't look to the left or the right, and his face looked streaked with tears," she says later. She reaches out and touches him on the back.
"Where's Jackie?" Kennedy says. "I want to be with Jackie."
He brushes past Johnson, refusing to make eye contact with his brother's successor. The dead president's Secret Service agents follow behind Robert Kennedy, and now Johnson is trapped in his stateroom. His face is impassive, but he later confesses his displeasure. "Well, I don't know that I had thought out all of the logistics of the leaving of the plane," he will tell Walter Cronkite. "But it didn't occur to me that the ramp would be removed and we would not be privileged to go down the same ramp with the body."
The floodlights burst back on. Despite them, or perhaps because of them, Johnson will soon find himself, at least for the moment, among history's most invisible presidents. "We don't even know Lyndon Johnson is within five thousand miles of there," O'Donnell says later. He and the rest of Kennedy's men surround the casket. "We carried it on the plane, we're going to carry it off the plane," O'Donnell says, and he chokes on the words.
"Hi, Jackie," Robert Kennedy says, reaching her side. "I'm here."
"Oh, Bobby," she says, falling into him.
In the stateroom, Lady Bird Johnson pulls on her coat and hat, looking up at her husband, the president. This is how it begins. Johnson finds the card in his pocket, for now unable to see anything beyond those first few public sentences of his tenure: I ask for your help—and God's. He begins moving toward the back of Air Force One, at the end of the long line, instructing his three Texas congressmen and his skeleton staff—Valenti and Moyers, Carpenter and Fehmer—to walk off the plane behind him. He doesn't want to appear as alone as he is, and never will be again.
At the weighed-down tail, a truck lift, painted yellow, has been raised into position. There is a young Navy lieutenant standing on top of it, his hand in a crisp salute. His will be the first outside eyes to see inside. O'Donnell, O'Brien, and Powers; Greer, Kellerman, and Hill; Dr. Burkley and Generals Clifton and McHugh gather at the rear. Eight men strain to lift the broken casket off the floor. Robert Kennedy takes Jackie's hand. The door swings open. Cool night air rushes in, and with it a terrible silence and a blinding light.
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