Tapes Depict Kennedy Details Trickling In

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.

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
  • |
  • 3
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...