JFK’s death elevated LBJ the legislative master

On Air Force One, 22 November 1963, just after...
On Air Force One, 22 November 1963, just after Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office as President of the United States following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy earlier in the day.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Robert Mann

“I am vice president,” John Adams once said. “In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.”

Such was the destiny of Lyndon Baines Johnson on Nov. 22, 1963. He awoke in Fort Worth as nothing — at least in the eyes of John F. Kennedy’s young staffers, many of whom maligned their vice president as “Uncle Cornpone.” By early afternoon, those grieving Kennedy aides would be calling Johnson, “Mr. President.”

As Americans mark the events of that afternoon in Dallas, it’s easy to forget that as Kennedy’s life ended at Parkland Hospital, Johnson’s momentous presidency commenced.

While not without significant accomplishment, Kennedy the president was still very much a work-in-progress. He had proposed civil rights legislation, but his bill was held hostage in the Southern-dominated House Rules Committee. His proposal to create the Medicare system was also stalled. Kennedy was still unsure about where to take U.S. policy in Vietnam.

Johnson would give impetus to each. The first two would cement his legacy as a master legislative strategist; the third would undermine his presidency and prevent him from seeking a second full term.

No person understood Congress better than Johnson, the former Senate majority leader. Strangely, Kennedy and his aides had never asked him to lobby for their bills and rarely consulted him on legislative strategy. Kennedy and his aides, in the words of Arkansas Congressman Wilber Mills, had “turned [Johnson] out to pasture.”

He was miserable. “Every time I came into John Kennedy’s presence,” Johnson later recalled, “I felt like a damn raven hovering over his shoulder. …  I detested every minute of it.”

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1 thought on “JFK’s death elevated LBJ the legislative master

  1. Having read your fine book “The Walls of Jericho” cover to cover multiple times (I still wonder, by the way, how Russell might’ve adjusted, if at all, to the changes to the country and his party, had he lived another ten or fifteen years), and a number of accounts on the subject, I have to marvel a bit at the hand of fate that elevated Johnson to the highest office, just when the most comprehensive civil rights legislation of the century was being debated.

    Kennedy’s death was unquestionably devastating for the nation, yet it’s hard to imagine a president besides Johnson who had both the will and the means to go for a bill so sweeping. Truman and Carter may have been sympathetic, but I can’t picture either of them getting something like this passed, given their relationship with congress, even without the obstruction of southerners like Russell. Kennedy’s version, had it passed, would’ve undoubtedly been weaker. As impressive as he was in other areas, civil rights legislation was certainly not a priority for Eisenhower, nor for Nixon, who wished to bring the south in the Republican fold. Certainly Reagan would’ve been the last president in recent decades to consider the need for legislation like this, (and the thought of public accommodations still being debated in the 80’s is depressing as hell).

    Whatever his tragic mistakes when it came to a war on the other side of the world, I don’t think it’s exaggeration to suggest Lyndon Johnson did more to advance the cause of civil rights than any president since Lincoln. The fact that he never would’ve been in a position to do so otherwise, were it not for a man in Dallas with a gun, may, ultimately, be the most significant consequence (yes, even more so than Vietnam) of that sudden change in the course of American history


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