With theft of the body at Parkland an apparent impossibility, theft of the body while aboard AF1, as theorized by Lifton, seems the only reasonable alternative. I decided to check the book Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye, by Kennedy staff members Ken O’Donnell and Dave Powers, to see what it says about LBJ’s behavior at Love Field and whether there was indeed opportunity for the body to be stolen while aboard AF1.
I believe O’Donnell and Powers’s book (in which only O’Donnell is in the first person) indeed lends credence to the theory, based partly on LBJ’s lies, as described in the book, about what he was still doing at Love Field when the body got there.
The book says that after JFK was declared dead, O’Donnell went to Johnson at Parkland to urge him to go to Washington immediately for security reasons while O’Donnell stayed at the hospital with Jackie until the body was ready to be moved. Johnson suggested moving the plane (they didn’t discuss AF1 or AF2, as both planes had the same equipment and facilities) to Carswell AF Base and taking off from there. O’Donnell vetoed that idea, telling Johnson, “Get the police to seal off Love Field, and go there right now. And take off for Washington as soon as you get there” (pp. 31-32).
Johnson agreed that O’Donnell should stay behind until Jackie was able to leave with the body, and never suggested that he might wait for them at the airport. “If he had made such a suggestion, I would have vetoed it,” says O’Donnell. “Anything that would delay Johnson’s departure from Texas was a bad move. He never discussed with me whether he should use Air Force One instead of Air Force Two, a question which would have seemed highly unimportant at the time” (p. 32).
When the body was taken aboard AF1, O’Donnell and the others were stunned to learn that Johnson was on the plane. Johnson told O’Donnell that he couldn’t leave until he had taken the oath of office. “I just talked on the phone with Bobby. He told me to wait here until Sarah Hughes gives me the oath.” O’Donnell was “flabbergasted.” The oath was just a formality, and “Johnson could have waited until he got to Washington and spared all of us on Air Force One that day, especially Jackie, a lot of discomfort and anxiety” (p. 35).
That night Bobby told O’Donnell “an entirely different version” of the phone conversation with Johnson. Johnson claimed a lot of people had advised him to be sworn in right away, and asked if Bobby had any objections. Bobby was “too surprised to say anything about it,” thinking “what’s the rush?”. He turned the matter over to Nick Katzenbach, who was also “perplexed” (p. 36).
O’Donnell says “I think Johnson sensed that he might be criticized for taking over Air Force One instead of going back to Washington earlier on his own plane, as we assumed we would do. This must have been why he later made a big point of insisting in his testimony before the Warren Commission, and in interviews with reporters, that I had specifically told him to take Air Force One. . . . He was trying to shift the blame for his being on Air Force One to me, just as he insisted that he waited in Dallas to take the oath on the plane because Bobby Kennedy had him to do so, which was not true at all” (p. 37).
So what was the reason behind this LBJ lying and deceit, other than the fact that deceit was part of his nature? Why was he sitting around at Love Field, waiting for that body, instead of getting out of Dallas for security’s sake? I suspect that it was because he had been made aware by the time he got to Love Field that the body had to be altered. And there was no way to snatch the body at Parkland or on its way to Love Field, because Jackie and Kennedy staff were still with it. The conspirators would only have the control they needed once the body was aboard AF1. Even then they would have to move in a hurry. And Johnson had to be there (not aboard AF2) to give them the chance, by managing the people on board.
Of course O’Donnell and Powers in their book make no reference to possible body theft. Powers told Livingstone in 1987 that “the coffin was never unattended. Lifton’s story is the biggest pack of malarkey I ever heard in my life. I never had my hands or eyes off of it during the period he says it was unattended, and when Jackie got up to go to her stateroom where Lyndon Johnson was, Kenny O’Donnell went with her, but we stayed right there with the coffin and never let go of it.” (High Treason, p. 40)
It is Lifton’s theory that the body was stolen during the swearing-in ceremony, which everyone was supposedly attending (except possibly General McHugh, who may thus have been party to the theft). Did everyone in fact leave the body by itself (despite what Powers told Livingstone) while LBJ was being sworn in? According to O’Donnell and Powers’ book, the answer is yes:
“Finally Judge Hughes appeared, and Johnson asked all of us who were in the back of the plane with President Kennedy’s casket to come up to the front to attend his oath-taking ceremony. I found everybody standing around and waiting again, although the judge was ready with President Kennedy’s Bible in her hand. I asked Johnson why he was still delaying. He said he was waiting for Mrs. Kennedy, which bothered me because I felt that attending the swearing-in might be upsetting for her. ‘She said she wants to be here when I take the oath,’ Johnson said. ‘Why don’t you see what’s keeping her?’” (p. 36).
O’Donnell went and got Jackie, after which the book clearly leaves it understood that no one was left in the rear of the aircraft until after LBJ was sworn in. This was time and opportunity enough for the body to be snatched, to wherever it was snatched to. And this may therefore be the reason LBJ remained at Love Field, and got everyone out of the rear of the plane for a short period of time, using a completely unnecessary swearing-in as the excuse.
In closing, there is a matter unrelated to the body alteration theory that I can’t help noting. During the flight to Washington, there was always a small group with Jackie and the casket according to O’Donnell:
“Dave, Larry O’Brien and I stayed with her beside the casket until we landed in Washington. There was not much room in the rear compartment, with the casket taking up most of the space. Other members of the Kennedy staff—Pamela Turnure, Jackie’s press secretary, Dr. Burkley, General McHugh, Evelyn Lincoln, Clint Hill—came back and visited with us one at a time” (p. 37).
But that was not so according to a weird passage in Jack Valenti’s book A Very Human President (the title referring to Valenti’s idol LBJ). Valenti writes:
“(During the flight), the president asked me to find Bill Moyers who had slipped out of the cabin. I walked to the rear of the plane without knowing who was back there. Sitting, talking to General Godfrey McHugh was Mrs. Kennedy. She smiled hesitantly, her hand floated to her cheek, paused there, puzzled, surprised for a bare second. She dropped her eyes and turned to General McHugh. I murmured my apologies, stumbled backward. She smiled again, this time more positively as if she understood my awkwardness and I turned and quickly retraced my steps. As I withdrew I saw the dark coffin resting in the rear of the plane. Inside was the body of John Kennedy. I fought back strange, unsettling thoughts” (p. 49).
Am I reading too much into that? It sounds to me like Valenti wants us to believe that he caught Jackie and her old beau McHugh alone and in the act of, well, something. When I read it, it made me think of the macabre episode from some fictional work I heard about years ago (was it in the play MacBird, or where was it?), about someone making love on top of JFK’s coffin. “Strange and unsettling” indeed.
Edited by Ron Ecker, 16 April 2006 - 05:34 PM.