"President Kennedy — shot today just as his motorcade left downtown Dallas …"
39 years ago Friday, the nation learned of President John F. Kennedy's assassination with those earth-shattering words from Walter Cronkite.
But 4,000 miles from Dallas — in a plane high above the Pacific Ocean enroute to Japan on a high-level diplomatic mission — six members of the fallen President's cabinet learned of the tragedy from a lone radio operator, who received the news as it came in via teletype from United Press International.
The radio operator relayed that fated wisp of "ticker" paper to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, the highest-ranking official on board.
"It was just as though the world dropped out from under you," recalled Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall, also on board that day.
"They passed the piece of paper around," from one stunned man to another, he remembers. "As a matter of fact, I kept it. I have it under glass."
Voices of History
Tapes newly uncovered at the National Archives by National Public Radio reveal the ensuing flurry of radio communication between the White House situation room and the plane, as directed in-flight by Presidential Press Secretary Pierre Salinger — whose codename was "Wayside."
Wayside: Give me all available information on the President. Over.
Washington: All available information on the president as follows. John … and Governor Connelly of Texas have been hit in the car in which they were riding. We do not know how serious the situation is. We have no information …. We are getting our information over the tickers. Over.
Wayside: That is affirmative, affirmative. Please keep us advised in this plane ….
A debate reportedly developed on board the plane: An emotional Salinger wanted to head home because he thought the President might still be alive, but the cautious diplomat Rusk preferred to wait for more official information that seemed painfully hard to come by.
Wayside: Please be kept advised so we can determine whether some member of this party should go directly to Dallas. Over.
Washington: Do you have anything else, Wayside?
Wayside: No. Any other information, get a hold of as fast as possible.
Washington: Alright. The Associated Press is coming out now with a bulletin to the effect that they believe the president was hit in the head. That just came in. Over.
Rusk's hesitation reflected a concern some had at the time that the attack on Kennedy was but one arm of a broader attack on the United States.
"The first thought of a lot of people was, this must have been a conspiracy," presidential historian Michael Beschloss told ABCNEWS' Nightline. "Perhaps it was the Soviet Union, because why else would this have happened at exactly this moment when the Secretary of State and others were out over the Pacific Ocean?"
People wondered, in the words of Jack Valenti, who later was an aide to President Lyndon Johnson and was in Kennedy's Dallas motorcade, "Was this reminiscent of the attempts, not only on the life of Abraham Lincoln, but on [Lincoln] Secretary [of War Edwin] Stanton and the rest of the Cabinet? Was this a military coup? Was this some invasion of some terrorists?"
‘The President Is Dead’
But when sure word came from Washington, it was clear to Rusk and all aboard what had to happen.
Washington: This is situation room. Relay following to Wayside. We have report quoting [press aide] Mr. Kilduff in Dallas that the President is dead. That he died about 35 minutes ago. Do you have that? Over.
Plane: The President is dead. Is that correct?
Washington: That is correct. That is correct.
Rusk called the cabinet to the front of the plane, and told them why it was turning around.
Hysteria and Spanish Moss
In Dallas, Valenti, a veteran public relations executive, had been riding in Kennedy's motorcade after being asked by the White House to handle the press on the president's trip to Dallas.
"We came under the underpass and then on to Dealey Plaza," he remembered. "Then the car in front of us went from 8 miles an hour to 80 miles an hour, and I thought something was wrong."
Valenti made his way to a nearby hospital: "There in the basement of Parkland Hospital, there were throngs of people — somber, teary-eyed. And hysteria hung like Spanish moss from the ceiling."
Oath of Office
While the public knew nothing of the six cabinet secretaries suspended over international waters, citizens wondered and worried: Where was Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson?
In town and, unbelievably, in the same parade as Kennedy and Connelly had been, Johnson was now silently whisked from Parkland Hospital to Aircraft 26000, where he was soon to become president. After he took the oath of office, the plane would become Air Force One.
It fell to Valenti to locate a Bible, a judge, and the oath of office itself so that Johnson could be sworn in as President.
Judge Sarah T. Hughes — appointed just two years before by Kennedy himself, becoming the first woman to serve on the Texas federal bench — was called to Love Airfield in Dallas, where she boarded Johnson's waiting plane.
Valenti, meanwhile, called the Justice Department in Washington, where he and then-Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach located the exact wording of the presidential oath in Article 2, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution.
"I had a secretary come in, and I was speaking the oath, and she was writing it down," Valenti told Nightline. "That was my first official duty, to get the oath of office put on paper so that Judge Hughes could read it and administer the oath to Johnson."
The Long Flight Home
Other tapes, archived in the Johnson Presidential Library, show that once airborne, Air Force One, now bearing Johnson, Kennedy, and Jackie back to Washington, continued the day's somber in-flight communications.
According to Beschloss, the first call Johnson made from the plane was to Rose Kennedy, the President's mother, in Hyannisport, Mass. Tapes show the White House operator catch himself before referring to Johnson as "President," choosing instead to call him "Mr." out of respect for Rose.
Operator: Hello, Mrs. Kennedy? We're talking from the airplane. Can you hear us alright? Over.
Rose Kennedy: Thank you. Hello.
Operator: Yes Mrs. Kennedy, I have Mr. Johnson for you here.
Rose Kennedy: Thank you. …
Johnson: Mrs. Kennedy, I wish to God that there was something I could say to you, and I want to tell you that we're grieving with you.
Rose Kennedy: Thank you very much. That's very nice. I know you loved Jack, and he loved you.
The Secret Service, the surgeon general, Kennedy's personal doctor, and his military aide also conferred via radio throughout the flight, negotiating landing arrangements, and what should be done with the president's casket.
General Clifton (Presidential Aide): Listen carefully. We need a ramp, a normal ramp, to be put at the front of the aircraft on the right-hand side just behind the pilots' cabin in the galley. We are going to take the first lady off by that route. Over. Do you understand?
Secret Service Agent Jerry Behn: I receive. Affirmative.
Clifton: Also on the right rear — no, the left rear of the aircraft where we usually dismount the Lark [JFK Jr.], we may need a forklift rather than a ramp. Too awkward. We may need a platform to walk out on, and a forklift to put it on. Is that possible? Over ….
Behn: Affirmative. We will try for the forklift.
And in living rooms across the country, Walter Cronkite described the outcome of their arrangements to a disbelieving, grieving nation: "And now, we can see what we believe to be a coffin containing the body of President Kennedy being moved from Air Force One onto a special enclosed ramp which was drawn up to the back door. Yes. We can make out the casket now."
Changing of the Guard
In these painful details died the father of "The New Frontier." That night, the new president — who'd flown that day over half the country and through the unfathomable — just went home.
Jack Valenti remembers that night: he and two other aides accompanied Johnson home, to a civilian residence not unlike many in Northwest Washington. There was, at that time, no official residence for the Vice President.
"We went upstairs, and there in his bedroom, he got into pajamas," Valenti recalls. "On this massive bed, we watched television — Bill Moyers, Cliff Carter and myself — until about 4:30 in the morning, the three of us with the president. And that night he sketched out to us …. over the space of five or six hours that night, what later became the Great Society."
Back at the White House, Kennedy Special Counsel Ted Sorenson felt differently. He recalls receiving a call from Johnson that night:
"He very fervently, very nicely, very generously told me how sorry he was, how deeply he felt for me. He knew I'd been with President Kennedy for eleven years. I had been very close to him, personally. And he then went to some length to urge me to stay on, to continue working with him, helping him, and that he would see me in his office the next day or so, and then he said goodbye, and I said, 'Thank you, Mr. President,' and hung up. And somehow saying the words 'Mr. President' to someone other than John F. Kennedy, at that instant, tore me apart, and I broke down sobbing."