November 23, 1963
At the beginning, the worst part is the uncertainty. Later, after the mourning dignitaries have come and gone, after the black crape has been taken down from the chandeliers and the funeral geldings have been put out to pasture, people will remember this weekend as a time of great sadness. For years and then decades, they’ll look back and remember their sorrow. They’ll say they knew, instantly, that life would never be the same again. But that will be memory doing memory’s ruthless work, obliterating any discordant details, imposing order where once there was none. In these first hours, there is sadness, but mostly there is chaos and the dreadful unknown: What has happened to America? And what is going to happen next?
So everyone turns on their television sets, hoping to find out. On NBC’s Today show, the clocks on a wall are comfortingly definitive. On the East Coast, it is just after seven o’clock in the morning. The date is November 23, 1963. Millions of Americans are waking up after a night of troubled sleep. Watching the program, they see the host’s face contort in sudden pain as he speaks the words:
“The president of the United States is dead.”
Ah, yes, that is certain, too.
By now there are agreed-upon facts: At lunchtime the previous day, President John F. Kennedy, on a political trip to Texas, rode in an open limousine toward the center of Dallas. At 12:30 Central Time, shots struck his motorcade as it moved through the city’s Dealey Plaza. By 12:45 p.m., CBS, NBC, and ABC had interrupted their programming to bring word of the shooting. At 1:35 p.m., the network Teletypes carried a wire from UPI: “Flash: President Kennedy Dead.” Now, nearly eighteen hours after the shooting, it is impossible to find an American who does not already know the news the host has just delivered—that the president of the United States is dead.
Still, he says it. It is the first line in a script he must read, timed to a movie montage with carefully selected background music. It is the starting point of an elaborate story he is about to tell, the summary of what is known.
He goes on:
“The body of John Fitzgerald Kennedy is at this moment in the White House. And it is a much saddened nation and world that greets this day . . .”
The screen switches to scenes from the day. There is the dead president at Dallas’s Love Field, very much alive, gracefully descending from Air Force One. And there is his beautiful wife, Jacqueline, wearing a pink suit and a pillbox hat, brushing the hair out of her face. He smiles and nods at local dignitaries on the tarmac. She clutches a bouquet of red roses to her breast. They climb into an open-topped limousine.
“At about 12:30 the motorcade turned the corner and approached the triple underpass feeding the Stemons expressway . . .”
The smiling Kennedys turn a corner and disappear from view.
“. . . and then three shots rang out in quick succession and the pleasant day turned into a nightmare of confusion and horror.”
The camera jolts and drops to the ground. The narration goes silent and the music is gone.
“The president died at about one p.m. . . . Meanwhile Dallas police had captured twenty-four-year-old Lee Oswald, an acknowledged left-wing supporter of Fidel Castro . . .”
“He was later charged with the murder of the president . . . he has thus far admitted nothing.”
Then a quick cut. Now, onscreen, we see a blurry shot of two large airplane tails, parked on a runway, behind a high fence.
“Vice President Lyndon Johnson recited the oath of office and assumed the presidency . . .”
But we do not see the oath taking. We do not see any pictures of Johnson. All we see is more of the airplane tails and the fence.
“At 6:05 Eastern Time, the presidential plane landed at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington. The bronze coffin carrying the thirty-fifth president was taken from it and loaded into a Navy ambulance.”
Onscreen it is now nighttime on another tarmac. From the back of the airplane, Air Force One, we see men emerge, carrying a coffin.
“Then, a still blood-spattered Mrs. Kennedy was taken down. She seemed still in a state of shock as she was taken to the ambulance.”
A solid mass of men in uniforms and dark suits parts for Jacqueline Kennedy. She does look dazed, but also regal and poised. The shot lingers on her, beautiful and tragic, as she waits to get into the ambulance. The narration has stopped again, as if out of respect.
Then there is a quick, disorienting cut to a far less pretty picture. On a nondescript slab of concrete, Kennedy’s vice president stands with his wife. He looks tired and old.
“A few minutes later, the waiting crowd and the nation at large heard their new president, Lyndon Johnson.”
Johnson seems confused. Before speaking he looks to both sides and then down at his notes, exposing a balding head. He is speaking but we can’t hear him, there is too much background noise. We hear principally the roar of airplane engines. Only when they deign to pause can we catch Johnson, midsentence—
“. . . time for all people.”
The shot switches to a wider camera angle. At the greater distance, he is hard to make out—there is a glare off his glasses, and the camera picks up only dark circles where his eyes should be.
“For me it is a deep personal tragedy . . .”
An anonymous figure walks into the shot just behind Johnson, as though unaware he is even there.
“I will do my best. It is all I can do. I ask for your help. And God’s.”
Finally, the roaring airplanes have their way and the camera cuts away from this lonely old man.
Then the narration picks up again:
“It was about 4:30 this morning when President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was returned to the White House.”
Now words and image and music are once again aligned. In place of the unsettled tarmac scene, we have a splendid tableau—a hearse approaching the north entrance of the White House, led by an honor guard, the great house lit up with lanterns, the president coming home.
It is a short but compelling montage, and Americans will watch it again and again this day. Broadcasters have suspended regular programming and advertising. Every second of airtime across three networks belongs to the news divisions.
This is how it works in America this weekend—the normal rituals and routines have been thrown out. Outside the NBC studios, midtown Manhattan, America’s mass media capital, has been transformed by the events of the past twenty-four hours. The department stores have taken down their Christmas decorations and replaced them with black mourning scenes. From St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the sound of an organ playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” slips out onto the street. Most theaters, movie houses, and restaurants in the city have closed their doors. The Stork Club, a hub of café society, stays open but is mostly empty. “The people here . . . are like the people out on Christmas Eve,” the headwaiter explains. “They have no home.”
The balance between cause and effect seems off, reason itself suspended. Kennedy had led the West and harnessed the most terrible arsenal of weapons ever known to man. Now he has been shot down by an anonymous madman who stored his rifle in a suburban garage. Kennedy had invited the nation to join him on a thrilling journey toward the future. Now he has become the past.
No one seems to be in charge. The president is dead. His successor is out of sight. Only a single White House photographer, snapping pictures in a hurry, has captured his swearing in. For a while, the phones in Washington don’t even work.
Americans need to look for authority somewhere new. They know where to find it. Most turned on the television the moment they heard what happened in Dallas and they haven’t turned it off since. On average this weekend, American households will watch 8.5 hours of television each day. Everyone is looking to the people on their screen for answers. NBC’s David Brinkley calls the White House to see if staffers there have any news. “No,” comes the reply, “we were watching you to see if you had any.”
For the networks, this new authority is a daunting challenge. There are still few hard facts from Dallas, a meager diet for so many hours of airtime. TV programmers experiment with other ways to fill the time—broadcasts of memorial concerts or prayer vigils—but viewers at home aren’t interested. They prefer news, even the same, sad facts, even if they’ve heard them before. The repetition is comforting. TV anchors that weekend, one viewer will later write to NBC’s Chet Huntley, are like “old friends . . . telling us about the tragedy until we could absorb it.”
So that’s what the anchors do: tell the country what they know, over and over again. This morning, NBC will replay the same montage, with the same background music, the same pictures, and roughly the same script, at least once every half hour.
This Saturday morning, when everything is uncertain, this is one thing Americans have. They do not have their president, they do not have normal life, they do not have faith that everything will be okay. All they have for certain is a story:
The president went to Dallas on a bright autumn day.
There, a madman shot and killed him.
He returned to his capital in a coffin.
In her agony, his widow has shown unimaginable strength.
The vice president has recited the oath of office and assumed the presidency.
But that isn’t the point of the story. The point of the story is the first thing the news host told them, the one thing everyone knows for sure: the president of the United States is dead.
At 8:40 that Saturday morning, two iron gates opened outside an imposing gray mansion in the Spring Valley section of Washington. A black limousine slid down a driveway scattered with dead leaves. Under police escort, the car turned south and sped swiftly through the capital’s near-deserted streets. Lyndon Baines Johnson, the living president of the United States, was en route to the White House.
Most Americans did not witness this procession. The networks had sent crews to stand outside the Johnson family home, where Johnson had spent the night after returning from Dallas. Earlier in the hour, a host had promised Today’s viewers that the program would show the new president leaving his home for the White House. But when the gates opened, NBC was in the midst of its montage, and the program’s producers chose to stick with their scripted story. By the time it was over, Johnson’s car had disappeared.
A day earlier, the man inside the limousine had been the vice president, touring his home state of Texas with Kennedy. He and his wife, Lady Bird, had planned to host the Kennedys at their ranch in the Hill Country, west of Austin, that Saturday morning. To think of the things they’d been worried about just a day earlier—which champagne and cigarettes to procure for Mrs. Kennedy; how to accommodate the special plywood and horsehair mattress favored by the commander in chief.
How quickly it had all changed. The Johnsons had been riding several cars behind the Kennedys as the presidential motorcade made its way through Dallas. They were waving at the crowds when they heard a loud explosion. As the smell of gunpowder filled the air, Johnson looked up and saw a body hurtling toward him. It was Rufus Youngblood, the Secret Service agent charged with protecting the vice president’s life. Youngblood ordered Johnson to get down and the vice president obeyed, pressing his face to the floor. Another shot echoed through Dealey Plaza. Johnson wouldn’t know it for another hour, but in that moment, John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s life ended. As he stared at the floor of the limousine and felt the weight of Youngblood digging into his back, Lyndon Johnson became the thirty-sixth president of the United States.
For a moment, all was silent, and then a ghostly voice came over the Secret Service radio: “Let’s get out of here.” The limousines careened through the streets of Dallas until at last they reached Parkland Hospital. There, doctors worked over Kennedy’s body, still trying to save his life, but Jacqueline Kennedy, looking on, knew that these efforts were in vain. Her pink suit was covered in her husband’s blood and brain tissue, and she had held a piece of his skull in her hand. “They’ve killed him,” she had repeated over and over again.
At the instruction of his security detail, Johnson took shelter in a warren of inner offices away from the operating table, where he and Lady Bird huddled and waited for news. Johnson stood six feet three inches, weighed more than two hundred pounds, and was, by long reputation, one of the most willful and powerful men Washington had ever seen. But under Parkland’s harsh lights, he was strangely passive, almost childlike, complying with Secret Service orders, refusing to make any decisions, asking repeatedly for direction from Kennedy’s staff. Finally came Kennedy’s stricken assistant, Kenneth O’Donnell, with the news: “He’s gone.”
He was President Johnson now. All his adult life, Johnson had striven for the presidency—worked for it, obsessed over it, longed for it above all else. He had sought his party’s nomination twice—unofficially but aggressively in 1956, officially and even more aggressively in 1960—but never managed to win it. The failure was the great disappointment of his life. Now, at last, it had happened—he had secured the office, but in a manner such as this.
The Secret Service was anxious to get him out of Texas, unsure what danger remained. Johnson needed little convincing. He worried that Kennedy’s assassination might be the first step in a Communist plot that could also include his own murder and possibly even nuclear war. Hunkered down in the security of Air Force One, he waited at Love Field long enough to collect Kennedy’s widow and to see the dead president’s coffin loaded into the rear of the plane. And, at his insistence, he recited the oath of office before the five-hour flight back to Washington. But no sooner had he spoken the words “so help me God” than he ordered the plane into the sky.
Greeted at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, he’d asked for any news of further crisis in the world. There was none, no wider threat. Still, when, well after midnight, he finally climbed into his own bed, he asked several aides to stay with him. In the darkness, he made sure they understood: They were not to leave him alone.
Excerpted from Landslide by Jonathan Darman. Copyright © 2014 by Jonathan Darman. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.