The assassination of John F. Kennedy has been told thousands of times over the past 50 years. Every detail has been presented in books, movies and articles from an array of different viewpoints ranging from eyewitnesses to White House officials.
But the story had never been told from the perspective of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Author Robert Caro changed that last year with “The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” which chronicles the 47-day period from the assassination to the State of the Union address on Jan. 8, 1964.
Caro spoke about the Kennedy assassination from Johnson’s point of view at Tuesday’s Anita and Truman Arnold Lecture of the Tate Lecture Series.
“November 22nd, we should not forget, was a day in which not only was a president killed, but a president was created,” Caro said.
As one might suspect of a biographer, Caro recounted the events of Nov. 22, 1963 to the sold-out McFarlin Auditorium as if he were telling a story.
He told the audience about Johnson’s demeanor in the hours after the shots rang out in Dealey Plaza, from the motorcade to the emergency room to the plane to Washington, D.C.
Caro revealed little known details about the assassination from Secret Service reports on the incident and interviews with living members of the motorcade. This includes first-person accounts from Gov. John Connolly, who was riding in the motorcade next to Johnson.
“There was a sharp cracking sound. Some people thought it was a firecracker, some people said a motorcycle backfire, Connolly, because he was a hunter, knows what it is,” Caro said.
Caro uses accounts from Rufus Youngblood, the special agent in charge of protecting Johnson, to paint a portrait of the vice president as a composed, collected man in the wake of the shooting.
“Youngblood was to describe [his demeanor] in a single word: calm,” Caro said.
Caro also offered the audience a view into dynamics between the Kennedys and Johnsons.
“The Kennedys had a nickname for him, they humiliated him, they laughed at him,” said Caro of the Kennedys’ treatment of Johnson.
Robert Kennedy, John’s brother, and Johnson hated one another, according to Caro.
“As a historian you really hate to use loaded words like ‘hatred,’ or ‘hate,’” he said. “But hate is not too strong a word — it’s no exaggeration — to talk about the feeling between Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. They hated each other.”
These feelings were exacerbated when LBJ called the grieving brother on the plane from Dallas to Washington, D.C. to get the correct wording on the Oath of Office.
“He could have gotten the oath from any one of 100 federal officials,” Caro said.
“Was he trying to get revenge? Of course, we will never know.”
Though Caro has written four books on Johnson, he never gets bored with his subject.
“I don’t think of these books as being just about Lyndon Johnson,” Caro said. “I never had the slightest idea from the first time I thought of writing books of writing books just about the life of a famous man.”
The more Caro learns, the more he sees Lyndon’s time as president and his first days as commander in chief as a remarkable achievement.
“The more detail you learn about how Lyndon Johnson did it, about what he did with Congress and what he did to Congress, the more amazing the accomplishment seems,” Caro said.