Lady Bird - Portait of a First Lady
At the Epicenter
Her Early YearsA Political WifeAt the EpicenterShattered DreamsWinding DownResources
Additional FeaturesAt the Epicenter November 1963 - January 1965
Lyndon and Lady Bird aboard
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


At the Epicenter

Part III: At the Epicenter

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.

LBJ's Courtship (section I.)

JFK's Assassination (section III.)
The Whistle-Stop Tour (section III.)
The Beautification Campaign (section IV.)
Her Wildflower Center (section V.)

"It all began so beautifully."

With those haunting words, Lady Bird Johnson began her White House diary. The first entry, November 22, 1963, was a historic day Mrs. Johnson knew needed to be documented. Americans remember where they were when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, but few would be closer to the tragic events than Mrs. Johnson.

She and her husband, then the Vice President, were two cars behind the car carrying the President, Mrs. Kennedy, and Governor and Mrs. Connally of Texas. A car filled with Secret Service officers drove between the two open convertibles.

As the motorcade moved through the cheering crowds in Dallas, Nellie Connally, the wife of Texas' governor and close friend of Lady Bird, leaned over to the president and exclaimed, "You can't say Dallas doesn't love you!" Then the shots rang out - three in all. The shots hit President Kennedy in the neck and head and the governor would be hit in the back and wrist. As the president lay dying and Connally struggled to breathe, the cars rushed to the nearest hospital.

"Imagine, if you can, that you have the president and the first lady in your state, that you're entertaining them, that he is assassinated, and that you become president and first lady," Mrs. Connally recently said thinking of the situation Mr. and Mrs. Johnson found themselves in that fateful day. "That's a pretty big load to carry."

One of Mrs. Johnson's most difficult moments of the day was her first visit with Jackie Kennedy in Parkland Hospital. The Secret Service led her through the hospital to the First Lady.

"Suddenly I found myself face to face with Jackie in a small hallway… You always think of someone like her as being insulated, protected. She was quite alone. I don't think I ever saw someone so much alone in my life," Lady Bird would write in her diary. "I went up to her, put my arms around her, and said something to her. I'm sure it was something like 'God, help us all,' because my feelings for her were too tumultuous to put into words."

Shortly after that visit, and one with Nellie Connally, President Kennedy was officially pronounced dead. The Johnsons were immediately rushed back to the airport for the trip back to Washington. Seeing flags that had already been lowered to half-staff, Lady Bird first realized the enormity of what had happened.

Once on the plane, all the shades were lowered, and they awaited the arrival of Mrs. Kennedy and her husband's body. The now-former first lady reached the plane as Dallas Federal Judge Sarah Hughes arrived to administer the oath of office.

Lady Bird's account, one of the few recorded that day by someone so close to the horror, offered insights into the tense hours after the attack. She heard one Secret Service agent murmur that "We never lost a President in the Service." She also felt for the Dallas chief of police, who assured Mrs. Kennedy that they had done all they could. Most of all, the sight of Jackie Kennedy haunted Mrs. Johnson.

"I looked at her. Mrs. Kennedy's dress was stained with blood. One leg was almost entirely covered with it and her right glove was caked, it was caked with blood - her husband's blood," Lady Bird wrote. "Somehow that was one of the most poignant sights - that immaculate woman exquisitely dressed, and caked in blood."

After a few moments spent trying to comfort Mrs. Kennedy, Lady Bird returned to the main cabin of the plane. The passengers were silent on the trip to Washington. Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson followed Mrs. Kennedy and the casket off the plane, and the President gave what Mrs. Johnson described in her diary as a "very simple, very brief, and I think, strong statement to the people" gathered.

The next morning, described by Lady Bird as a gray day "suited to the occasion," the Johnsons met with the Kennedy family, the Cabinet, Congressional leaders, the Supreme Court, and White House staff in the East Room of the White House, where the slain president was lying in state.

"An air of quiet prevailed," she wrote, "an utter, complete quiet that seemed to grip - well, the whole country, I suppose - and certainly the surroundings where I spent the entire three days." In her diary entry, she mentioned that she is not even sure what happened the rest of the day; her thoughts lie with her husband, now "wrestling with the very big business of making the country go on living."

On Sunday, November 24th, President Kennedy lay in state at the Capitol, and Lady Bird described it in her diary as a day she would never forget. She began the day at church, returned to the White House, and then got into a limousine with President Johnson, Mrs. Kennedy, her two children, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. She was immediately aware of the sea of silent faces lining the street once they exited the gates of the White House. She noted her emotions in her diary: "I wanted to cry for them and with them, but it was impossible to permit the catharsis of tears. I don't know quite why, except that perhaps continuity of strength demands restraint. Another reason was that the dignity of Mrs. Kennedy and the members of the family demanded it."

Later, as the procession followed the riderless horse, she again noticed flags flying at half-staff. "Most vivid of all was the feeling of a sea of faces all around us and that curious sense of silence, broken only by an occasional sob...The feeling persisted that I was moving, step by step, through a Greek tragedy."

In her diary, she vividly portrays the days events. She observed the "grave, white, sorrowful" face of Robert Kennedy. She described the service, the President and Mrs. Kennedy kneeling before the coffin, and the behavior of the Kennedy children. What she remembered most, however, was the behavior of Mrs. Kennedy. "Maybe it was a combination of great breeding, great discipline, great character. I only know it was great."

That appreciation made Lady Bird's new role even tougher, and she knew it right from the first moments. As Kati Marton wrote in Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages that Shaped our Recent History, Jackie Kennedy became an icon that Lady Bird could not match. She knew from her first day that she would always be compared with Jackie Kennedy, and that when people looked at President and Mrs. Johnson, what they wanted to see was Jack and Jackie.

Over the next few days, as the country started to heal and the new President got acclimated to the job, Lady Bird and Jackie Kennedy had to work out the details involved with the Johnsons moving into the White House and the Kennedys moving out. Four days after President Kennedy was killed, the two women met to discuss the housekeeping details. Again, Lady Bird marveled at the strength of Mrs. Kennedy's character, and the strength that allowed her to keep going on as she was. While giving the new First Lady tips on maintaining the house, Mrs. Kennedy was at the same time reassuring and comforting Lady Bird; she told Lady Bird that she would be happy in the White House - fateful words as the Johnsons moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.


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.

Copyright 2001 All Rights Reserved