The man who might have become President on Nov. 22, 1963

Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as U.S. president on Nov. 22, 1963. A shocked Jackie Kennedy, still wearing a blood-stained suit, is on the right; Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson looks on on the left.

Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as U.S. president on Nov. 22, 1963. A clearly stunned Jackie Kennedy, still wearing a blood-stained suit, is on the right; Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson looks on on the left.

Pop quiz! Who was former U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s vice-president?

Can’t recall? You’re probably not alone.

If it weren’t for his being the Democratic candidate for the presidency nearly 30 years ago — unfortunately for him at the height of President Ronald Reagan’s popularity in 1984 — 85-year-old Walter Mondale, now living in Minneapolis’s western suburbs, would now be nearly forgotten to everyone except for history and political buffs.

The same could be said of Spiro Agnew and Nelson Rockefeller, both now deceased, but who were both “a heartbeat away from the presidency” during the Nixon (1969-74) and Ford (1974-77) presidencies, respectively.

As irrelevant as the vice-presidency might look sometimes, there is always the possibility that the vice-president might be called upon unexpectedly to become the chief executive of our large, southern neighbour.

That happened 50 years ago, when a bullet from Lee Oswald’s rifle blasted a hole in President John F. Kennedy’s head at exactly 12:30 p.m. Central time, Nov. 22, 1963, as the presidential motorcade made its way through downtown Dallas, Tex. When Kennedy was officially pronounced dead half an hour later, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, a Texas senator who had run against Kennedy for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, officially became president.

Had it — perhaps — not been for Johnson’s talent for getting what he wanted through ruthless means if necessary, the U.S. would have been governed for most of the rest of the Sixties by President Stuart Symington, a now barely remembered Missouri senator who died in 1988.

Symington, who had also run against Kennedy for the Democratic nomination in 1960, was considered the favourite to be nominated for the vice-presidency at that July’s Democratic convention.

As a July 14, 1960 newspaper article shows, Lyndon Johnson wasn’t even considered to be on the vice-presidential shortlist at the time of the convention.

Kennedy’s decision to pass over Symington in favour of Johnson was considered a political upset — but was presented to the public as a choice made with noble intentions:

Early in the morning, Kennedy went to Johnson’s hotel suite and told him two things: that he considered him the best fitted to be his team mate, and that he was eager and ready to announce that the instant Johnson gave the word.

For a few moments, the tall Texas leader was silent. Then extending his hand, he said quietly:

“All right, Jack. For the good of our country and our party, I’ll go along with you. You can count me in on the ticket.”

Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s secretary during his 1961-63 presidency, would later relate a different, more sinister tale about how Johnson secured the vice-presidency:

During their day of decision over the vice presidency, the brothers [John and Robert Kennedy] did their worrying alone in a bedroom, away from their aides. As John paced up and down and Robert slumped on a bed, [Evelyn] Lincoln moved in and out of the room with messages. She heard enough, she says, to understand that [FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s] smear information on Kennedy was at the heart of their dilemma. “It was the information J. Edgar Hoover passed to Johnson — about womanizing, and things in [presidential father] Joe Kennedy’s background, and anything he could dig up. Johnson was using that as clout. Kennedy was angry, because they had boxed him into a corner. He was absolutely boxed in. He and Bobby tried everything they could think of, anything to get Johnson out of the way. But in that situation, they couldn’t do it.”

Once he had decided on Johnson, John Kennedy tried to make little of it. “I’m forty-three years old,” he told his aide Kenneth O’Donnell. “I’m not going to die in office. So the vice presidency doesn’t mean anything…”

Lyndon Johnson saw it differently. “I looked it up,” he would tell Clare Boothe Luce later. “One out of every four presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.”

More archival material from the web:

Plus, how a jumpy Secret Service agent nearly shot Lyndon Johnson in the early morning hours of Nov. 23, 1963.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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