Lady Bird - Portait of a First Lady
At the Epicenter: 1963 - 1965
Her Early YearsA Political WifeAt the EpicenterShattered DreamsWinding DownResources
Additional FeaturesAt the Epicenter November 1963 - January 1965
Lyndon Johnson Sworn-in as President
Flanked by Lady Bird and Jacqueline Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson takes the oath of office aboard Air Force One.  Credit: LBJ Library Photo by Cecil Stoughton

Part III: At the Epicenter

A closer look at the assassination of President Kennedy.

Learn more about Lady Bird's 1964 Whistlestop tour of the South.

Selections from Lady Bird's Diary on the assassination of President Kennedy.

LBJ addresses Congress following JFK's assassination.

President Johnson's speech on the Great Society.

After a series of rallies and speeches in Dallas, they were supposed to spend the night at the LBJ Ranch near Johnson City. But it was November 22, 1963 and nothing would be the same after that day. With the '64 re-election campaign looming, President Kennedy was seeking to smooth troubled relations with Democrats in Texas. Lyndon, the state's native son, and Lady Bird had traveled to Dallas with the president to rally supporters.

As the motorcade moved through the city with its teeming crowds of onlookers, Lady Bird worried about the details of the presidential visit. Would I remember to take them in the formal front entrance and not through the kitchen? Would the President and First Lady enjoy the barbecue and mini-Wild West show scheduled for the next day?

Then the shots rang out up ahead.

"Over the car radio system, I heard 'Let's get out of here!' and our Secret Service manů vaulted over the front seat on top of Lyndon, threw him to the floor, and said, 'Get down,'" Lady Bird wrote in her diary later that fateful day. "[Texas] Senator Yarborough and I ducked our heads. The car accelerated terrifically - faster and faster. Then, suddenly, the brakes were put on so hard that I wondered if we were going to make it as we wheeled left and went around the corner. We pulled up to a building. I looked up and saw a sign, 'HOSPITAL.' Only then did I believe that this might be what it was."

As Lady Bird left her car to find out what had happened to the President, she looked in the large convertible where she saw "a bundle of pink, just like a drift of blossoms, lying on the back seat." It was the First Lady lying on top of the body of her fallen husband.

The Secret Service agents rushed Lady Bird and Lyndon to a secure room deep in the hospital. Within minutes, a Kennedy staffer came in to the secured room and told them "The President is dead." Secret Service agents told Lyndon Johnson, who staffers were already calling "Mr. President," and Lady Bird to return to Air Force One and prepare for the flight back to Washington.

On the plane, the Johnsons were joined by Jackie Kennedy and the coffin bearing the body of President Kennedy. With the casket in the back corridor, Lady Bird and Jackie stood by as Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office, becoming the 36th President of the United States.

The stunning developments of that November day left Lady Bird struggling to understand what had happened and how her life had just changed. As she told the stricken widow on the flight back to D.C., "Oh, Mrs. Kennedy, you know we never even wanted to be Vice President and now, dear God, it has come to this."

But with the powers of the presidency thrust upon him, Lyndon Johnson, who had felt so stifled as vice president, unleashed his pent-up energies. He threw himself into a bold domestic agenda he dubbed the Great Society that included Medicare, a war on poverty, civil rights and the environment.

With overwhelming popular support from the public, President Johnson moved the Civil Rights Act of 1964, first introduced by President Kennedy, through a reluctant Congress. The law, the most sweeping civil rights bill since Reconstruction, outlawed discrimination based on "race, color, religion, or national origin" in public establishments.

While the act protected constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, prohibited discrimination in federally assisted programs, it also provoked the ire of most southern Democrats. As President Johnson prepared to run for election in his own right, his advisers debated how to deal with the anger of white southerners.

Mrs. Johnson congratulates 1963 Medal of Freedom recipient Justice Felix Frankfurter in the White House's State Dining Room.  Credit: LBJ Library Photo by Yoichi OkamotoLady Bird, a product of an East Texas town steeped in traditional southern values, stood as an invaluable spokesperson. At her urging, Lady Bird's staff began working up plans for a train tour of key southern states. Democratic governors urged the president and First Lady not to go through with the trip, saying they could not guarantee her safety. But the First Lady insisted on the whistle-stop tour winding 1,628 miles through eight states in four days. Organized by Lady Bird, her staff and the wives of southern members of Congress, the trip traveled through rural and poor areas where the First Lady faced large and unruly crowds of whites and a growing number of Republican supporters opposed to her husband's policies.

By now, Lady Bird could deliver a compelling speech and knew how to reach out to an audience. "You may not agree with what I have to say," she said in her soft southern drawl, "but at least you will understand the way I say it." As her tour moved farther south into South Carolina, protesters turned more hostile, confronting her with placards deriding her as a "Black Bird" and screaming, "Lyndon Johnson is a Communist, Johnson is a Nigger-lover." At each stop Lady Bird listened to the chants and then asked for people to listen to her. The First Lady's personal appeal and courteous manner calmed most crowds. The media -- there were 150 national press reporters onboard the train at all times -- portrayed Lady Bird as a fearless moral representative of her husband.

By the time the tour, the first time a First Lady had campaigned on her own, wrapped up in New Orleans on October 9, 1964, Lady Bird had delivered some 47 formal stump speeches to an estimated 500,000 southerners. One nationally syndicated columnist would say of the Lady Bird Special, "Perhaps this marks the emergence of women as central figures to a national contest instead of being on the edges of a campaign."

In the landslide election that fall, Lyndon Johnson won victories in the Northeast, west and southwest. In the eight southern states that many had expected to vote for Republican Barry Goldwater, six went for LBJ - in part, it was said, because of Lady Bird's efforts.

The President and First Lady enjoyed election night and saw it as affirmation of their work. But on the horizon, a small Southeast Asian nation had begun to grow in importance throughout 1964. As the campaign heated up during the summer, the U.S. accused the communist North Vietnamese government of attacking two Navy destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. Immediately after the attacks, the Congress approved sweeping new powers for the president to wage war against the communists in Vietnam.

At the time of President Kennedy's death, the U.S. troop level in Vietnam stood at about 17,000 so-called "military advisers." With the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, President Johnson now had the authority to wage all out war in the region, but as 1964 came to a close there had not been a massive build-up.

As 1965 began and the president was inaugurated to a full term, neither he nor Lady Bird could see the storm clouds blowing across the Pacific that would engulf both their lives over the next four years.


Production of Lady Bird had been funded in part by the generous support of The Brown Foundation, Inc., Houston; The Belo Foundation; The Marian and Speros Martel Foundation, Inc.; Mr. Ralph S. O'Connor; The Marjorie Kovler Fund; and The Ms. Foundation For Women.

Lady Bird is produced by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions and KLRU - Austin.

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