Assassination and ascension
Kennedy’s murder was a great shock for the country, but LBJ filled his shoes well
It was a nice day for a lunch-hour walk around Lafayette Park across from the White House, where I ate my brown bag sandwich sitting on a park bench. I had just returned to my desk at the Philip Murray Building on 16th and L to do some final editing of stories written that week and hand out assignments for the following week in my new role as editor of the IUE News, to which I had recently been promoted. Suddenly, we were startled by the sound of loud bells.
Gloria Riordan, who had been working there the longest, said “I never heard that before.” Dick Fandel: “It must be a firetruck.” “No,” said Ruth Stack, “It’s here in our office.”
As the sound continued for perhaps a minute, which seemed like an eternity, we all headed to the closet that housed our teletype machines, wired for AP and UPI breaking news. A flood of colleagues from other departments of the AFL-CIO International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers came pouring into our office suite. The old-timers knew that those bells were reserved for the most urgent, critical news like a declaration of war.
“Flash: The president has been shot riding in a motorcade in Dallas.” We remained, crowded in and near the closet, reading every AP and UPI flash as paper kept rolling off. Then, bells again. We all looked at each other, instinctively. It was Nov. 22, 1963, and the president was dead.
My wife Estelle and I sat staring at the black-and-white TV for the entire weekend, helplessly crying and being consoled by our puzzled baby daughters as we saw those never-to-be-forgotten scenes: the first lady bending over her husband; the ambulance; the swearing in of LBJ on Air Force One, witnessed by Jackie Kennedy still in her blood-stained pink dress and Lady Bird Johnson; Lee Harvey Oswald jailed and charged with Kennedy’s assassination; nightclub owner Jack Ruby shooting Oswald dead in the basement of a Dallas police station.
It continued into Monday; nobody worked. America was closed except for the funeral. We continued to stare at the television: the procession along Pennsylvania Avenue; the riderless horse; the casket in the Capitol Rotunda; Bobby, Teddy and Jackie kneeling and praying at the casket; the Kennedy children; John Jr. saluting. All of it, unforgettable.
On my drive to Washington on Tuesday, I had to deal with reality and my job. What could I write in a biweekly union paper that hadn’t been written and spoken in a thousand ways the days before our little publication hit the homes of our members? We had to do something. We settled for a full page, caption-less photo of JFK.
It was the second time in my lifetime that we lost a president while in office. Could Lyndon Baines Johnson surprise the world and be another Truman? Would this glad-handing, arm-twisting, mountain-moving Texan from the conservative, segregated South apply his strengths and skills to move Kennedy’s progressive program for the poor, the elderly, the ill and the Negro, as African-Americans were called then?
Would he? Could he? Yes, he did, and he called it the Great Society.
The Civil Rights Act banned discrimination in employment based on race and gender, and ended segregation in public facilities. The Voting Rights Act banned literacy tests and other devices intended to deprive African-Americans of the right to vote. He implemented Medicare for the elderly, Head Start for preschool children and the Economic Opportunities Act for the jobless. The Immigration Act ended the discriminatory quota system and VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) established a domestic Peace Corps to answer JFK’s challenge to “ask what you can do for your country.” In addition, education, the arts, housing, consumer products safety, air and water quality, elementary education and protection of America’s wilderness were all addressed in the five years of the Johnson administration, and he declared a War on Poverty.
All were incredible achievements, but tragically overshadowed by the Vietnam War. But that’s another story
President John F. Kennedy is seen riding in his motorcade approximately one minute before he was shot in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.