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Johnson and "the body"

Pat Speer

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From patspeer.com, chapter 1:

On 11-22-1963, shortly before 1:00 PM CST, President John F. Kennedy was pronounced dead in Parkland Hospital, Dallas, Texas. Within moments, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, who was also in the hospital, decided to return to Washington. Although his bodyguards told Johnson he should get in the air immediately, there was instead a significant delay. As a result, Johnson spent the first chaotic moments of his presidency on Air Force One, waiting around on the tarmac in Dallas.

The cause of this delay? Johnson himself. In his 7-10-64 statement to the Warren Commission, he related: "It was Ken O'Donnell who, at about 1:20 p.m., told us that the President had died. I think his precise words were, "He's gone." O'Donnell said that we should return to Washington and that we should take the President's plane for this purpose...When Mr. O'Donnell told us to get on the plane and go back to Washington, I asked about Mrs. Kennedy. O'Donnell told me that Mrs. Kennedy would not leave the hospital without the President's body, and urged again that we go ahead and and take Air Force 1 and return to Washington. I did not want to go and leave Mrs. Kennedy in this situation. I said so, but I agreed that we would board the airplane and wait until Mrs. Kennedy and the President's body were brought aboard the plane...Despite my awareness of the reasons for Mr. O'Donnell's insistence--in which I think he was joined by one or more of the Secret Service agents--that we board the airplane, leave Dallas, and go to Washington without delay, I was determined that we would not return until Mrs. Kennedy was ready, and that we would carry the President's body back with us if she wanted."

Kenneth O'Donnell, however, claimed this wasn't entirely accurate. In his 5-18-64 testimony before the Warren Commission, he insisted that, at Parkland Hospital "As soon as I was assured that he (Kennedy) was dead, and it was definite, I went back to the Vice President and informed him the President was dead, and that in my opinion he ought to get out of there as fast as he could. We had a general discussion. The President's first words to me were that we must look upon this in a sense that it might be a conspiracy of some nature, and that all security must be taken..." O'Donnell then claimed Johnson started discussing some security measures he might take at the airport, such as moving the plane to a nearby military base, but that he shot Johnson down on this matter, reiterating that Johnson should leave without delay, and that "it would be much better if he got to the field immediately, where he was under security, and got aboard one of the aircraft." O'Donnell then claimed he didn't specify which plane Johnson should board, Air Force One or Air Force Two, which were nearly identical. He then testified that when he arrived at Air Force One with Mrs. Kennedy and the president's body "I didn't know President Johnson was on the plane."

Their stories were thus at odds. Johnson said he'd told O'Donnell he would wait for Mrs. Kennedy on Air Force One, while O'Donnell claimed he'd known nothing of Johnson's plan before arriving on Air Force One.

This seemingly minor difference--perhaps a simple misunderstanding--however, allows us both a peek behind the scenes on the day of the assassination, and a demonstration of how the assassination has been so badly reported by the mainstream media.

When William Manchester's 1967 book The Death of a President was being prepared for release in late 1966, the Johnson/O'Donnell divide on this matter was first brought to the public's attention. While Manchester had concluded that "The discrepancy between the two versions is probably a consequence of confusion," he also offered that Johnson "may have had...thoughts about the value of identifying himself with what he called the 'aura of Kennedy," and to have decided that it was in his best interests, politically, that he return to Washington with the President's widow at his side.

When interviewed for a 12-6-66 AP article (found in the Spokane Daily Chronicle), moreover, O'Donnell sought to clarify Manchester's claim Johnson over-ruled O'Donnell when he ordered Air Force One to take off. He explained "I didn't know that he (Johnson) was on the plane. I was under the impression he had already left." If he'd been told Johnson would wait for Mrs. Kennedy on Air Force One, as Johnson insisted, of course, O'Donnell would never have made that impression.

O'Donnell had thereby signaled that he wasn't about to back down from his recollection. Johnson had not told him he would wait for Mrs. Kennedy. Period... This reflected badly on Johnson, and suggested that he'd manipulated Mrs. Kennedy's return to Washington to his own advantage.

Johnson was almost certainly worried people would come to this conclusion. An article on the Manchester book in the January 2, 1967 issue of Newsweek relates: "Mr. Johnson's own recollection of his succession to power differs sharply from the Kennedys' evident perception of it. The Secret Service, he recalled, wanted to put him aboard Air Force One with its superior communications gear and to place Mr. Kennedy's coffin on the Vice Presidential plane, Air Force Two, which had flown LBJ to Texas. But Mr. Johnson ordered the body put aboard Air Force One 'I wasn't going to let Mrs. Kennedy fly back alone with his body,' he explained to intimates."

Well, I'll be. This story was not only different from O'Donnell's recollections, it was different from Johnson's previous statements to the Warren Commission, in which he'd claimed O'Donnell had told him to go to Air Force One, and that he'd told O'Donnell he'd wait for Mrs. Kennedy and the body of the fallen president.If Newsweek's source wasn't mistaken, moreover, Johnson was now trying to blame the Secret Service for his decision to fly back on Air Force One--a decision he'd previously attributed to O'Donnell.

He may even have told the truth. When interviewed on 7-23-69 for the Johnson Library, Kenneth O'Donnell said that, after Kennedy was officially pronounced dead, he went to Johnson and "strongly urged him to go right to Love Field. Number one, if it was a conspiracy no one would know what hospital we were at and no one would have any route covered and he'd be safer than if they had had a route in the newspaper. It only took ten minutes, and speed was of a necessity. Get back to Washington. Which he agreed to do." Note that O'Donnell contradicts what Johnson told his "intimates" in only one regard: he claims he'd thought Johnson was leaving as soon as he reached the airport, while Johnson was under the impression O'Donnell knew he was waiting for Mrs. Kennedy. This suggests the possibility O'Donnell failed to hear Johnson come to this decision. Perhaps this decision was made after O'Donnell left the room and Johnson was simply mistaken. As O'Donnell admitted that the Kennedy entourage traveling with the body did not know whether the plane they boarded at Love Field was Air Force One or Air Force Two until they got a look at the pilot, moreover, it's reasonable to assume that someone--acting under Johnson's instructions--had in turn instructed the drivers of the Kennedy caravan to come to Johnson on Air Force One.

Yes, it may be as simple as that. O'Donnell told Johnson to take off, and Johnson agreed, but Johnson decided afterward to stick around and make those closest to Kennedy fly back with him.

This was consistent with the earliest recollections of Johnson's bodyguard, Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood. In his 11-29-64 report on the assassination, written long before Johnson made his statement, or O'Donnell testified, Youngblood related that after being told of Kennedy's death "The Vice President was concerned about wanting to leave quickly as he had been advised to do, and which he now felt that he should, but he was also very much concerned about leaving without Mrs. Kennedy. It was finally agreed, at the advice of Mr. O'Donnell and others of us, that we would leave the hospital and go to AF-I (President Kennedy's former airplane), with Mr. O'Donnell and others bringing Mrs. Kennedy as soon as they could remove the body." Youngblood then reported that, upon Johnson's arrival on the plane, and his arranging that the oath of office be administered on the plane, "He also asked me to check on the status and location of Mrs. Kennedy and the President's body, and inform him of their estimated time of arrival." Note that at this early date Youngblood claimed merely that "Mr. O'Donnell and others" would be "bringing Mrs. Kennedy as soon as they could remove the body." He did not specify that they would be bringing her to Air Force One, and that Johnson would be waiting for them on the plane.

On 3-8-64, however, Youngblood testified before the Warren Commission. He explained that at Parkland, after telling Johnson of Kennedy's death, "Ken O'Donnell said for us to return to Washington, and to go ahead and take the President's plane." He then expanded:"O'Donnell told the Vice President that Mrs. Kennedy would not leave the hospital without the President's body. And O'Donnell suggested we go to the plane and that they just come on the other plane. And I might add that, as a word of explanation, there were two jet planes, one Air Force 1, in which the President flew, and the other Air Force 2, in which the Vice President and his party flew on. And O'Donnell told us to go ahead and take Air Force 1. I believe this is mainly because Air Force 1 has better communications equipment and so forth than the other planes. President Johnson said that he didn't want to go off and leave Mrs. Kennedy in such a state. And so he agreed that we would go on to the airplane and board the plane and wait until Mrs. Kennedy and the body would come out."

Well, wait a second. Who is the "he" in this last sentence? If it's O'Donnell, then Youngblood's recollections are directly at odds with O"Donnell's, and support Johnson's. If Johnson, well, then Youngblood was essentially agreeing with O'Donnell--that Johnson, on his own, had decided to wait on the plane for Mrs. Kennedy and the body. Youngblood doesn't say, after all, that O'Donnell was still standing there when Johnson agreed to wait on the plane. While Youngblood had clearly disputed O'Donnell's claim he'd never mentioned Air Force One, then, he also had failed to support Johnson's claim he'd told O'Donnell, and by extension Mrs. Kennedy, he would wait for Mrs. Kennedy on Air Force One.

There was another witness to this exchange, whose input is also intriguing. This witness had committed her recollections to a diary on the day of the assassination. Her diary relates that after O'Donnell spoke to Johnson "It was decided that we would go immediately to the airport. Quick plans were made about how to get to the car, who to ride in what...When we got to the airplane, we entered airplane No. 1 for the first time...On the plane, all the shades were lowered. Lyndon said that were going to wait for Mrs. Kennedy and the coffin. There was discussion about when Lyndon should be sworn in as President. There was a telephone call to Washington--I believe to the Attorney General. It was decided that he should be sworn in in Dallas as quickly as possible..."

This witness was, of course, Johnson's wife, Lady Bird Johnson. Note that she says nothing of her husband's deciding to wait for Mrs. Kennedy before he'd departed Parkland. This suggests then that the first she heard of it was when he told her about it on the plane. Her recollections thereby support O'Donnell's version of events.

Congressman Jack Brooks' recollections are also intriguing. When interviewed for the Johnson Library on 2-1-71, Brooks, who'd waited with the Johnsons at Parkland, and traveled back to Washington with them on Air Force One, said nothing of Johnson's planning to wait for Jackie and the body while at Parkland. Instead, when asked if Johnson was committed to being sworn in on the airplane when first discussing it with Brooks, he claimed: "He hadn't been committed to anything, he had just got there! The question hadn't come up. He agreed that that was the thing he ought to do. They got hold of Sarah Hughes and Sarah came out. We were waiting, of course, until Mrs. Kennedy, who wanted to ride back with us apparently, and the coffin."

Hmmm...somehow Brooks had come to believe it was Mrs. Kennedy's desire she ride back with Johnson. This suggests, then, that Johnson had failed to share his purportedly all-encompassing concern for Mrs. Kennedy with Brooks, and had failed to tell him of his decision not to let Mrs. Kennedy fly back alone with her husband's body.

The historical record suggests, then, that if Johnson had told O'Donnell at the hospital he would wait for the First Lady and the fallen president on Air Force One, as he later claimed, that he did so in a hushed manner, and had failed to tell anyone else outside Youngblood of this plan until he was on the plane.

But that wasn't good enough for Johnson...

In his 1971 memoir The Vantage Point, Johnson kicked the hornet's nest and repeated the story he'd told the Warren Commission. He insisted: "O'Donnell thought that we should depart for Washington immediately. I asked what Mrs. Kennedy wanted to do. O'Donnell replied that Mrs. Kennedy would not leave the hospital without the President's body. He said that they were waiting for a casket. I could not desert Mrs. Kennedy in that situation and emphatically said so. I told O'Donnell that I would not return to Washington until Mrs. Kennedy was ready to go, and that we would carry the President's body back with us if that was what she wanted. I did agree to go immediately to Air Force One and to wait there until Mrs. Kennedy and the President's body were brought aboard the plane."

O'Donnell was, apparently, displeased with Johnson's sticking to his guns. In 1972, O'Donnell published a biography of Kennedy, Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye. Here, he addressed the different stories and tried to make sense of them. He pulled no punches. He called Johnson a xxxx.

On pages 31 and 32, he insisted that, after Kennedy was pronounced dead: "I figured that Johnson, who had flown to Texas separately from the Kennedys on Air Force Two, the second 797 jet plane in our party, which was identical to Air Force One, would be taking off for Washington immediately. We did not know then whether or not President Kennedy's assassination was part of a planned conspiracy that might also threaten Johnson, and, in any case, it seemed imperative to get the new President out of Dallas right away. I knew, however, that Jackie would not leave Dallas until she could bring her husband's body with her. This would take at least a little time, so I assumed that Johnson would be leaving for Washington ahead of us. This presented no problem; with the two planes waiting in nearby Love Field, he could take one and leave the other one for us. If Johnson wanted to use Air Force One, as more fitting to his new office as President, that would be all right with Jackie and with us. Both planes had the same equipment and facilities. The only difference between Air Force One and Air Force Two was the identification numbers on their tails. I went to Johnson to urge him to go to Washington immediately and to explain to him that I wanted to remain in the hospital with Jackie until President Kennedy's body was ready to be moved to the airport...'You'd better get the hell out of here,' I said, 'and get back to Washington right away...Get the police to seal off Love Field, and go there right now,' I said. 'And take off for Washington as soon as you get there.' Johnson agreed that I should stay behind at the hospital until Mrs. Kennedy was able to leave with the President's body. 'You take good care of that fine lady,' he said. He never suggested that he might wait at the airport for Jackie and the body of President Kennedy before he left for Washington. If he had made such a suggestion, I would have vetoed it...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."

On page 37, O'Donnell returned to this point. He dismissed accounts of the flight back from Dallas as one in which open hostility was displayed between the Kennedy and Johnson camps, but nevertheless acknowledged "Some of us did feel that he was using Mrs. Kennedy and the Kennedy aura when he moved into her husband's Presidential plane so he could stage his oath-taking ceremony there with her present, and so he could arrive in Washington with her and President Kennedy's casket. 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 he 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 when we talked before he left Parkland Hospital. 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 told him to do so, which was not true at all."

Hmmm... This is indeed curious. Who should we believe?

Johnson's Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert Caro pretends to know. In his massive and supposedly immaculately-researched work The Passage of Power, Caro relates that, after O'Donnell told Johnson he should leave the hospital immediately, and that Mrs. Kennedy would not leave Dallas without her husband's body, "Johnson said in that case he would leave the hospital but not Dallas; he would go to the plane, but he would wait aboard it for the coffin, and the widow, to arrive. A contrary course continued to be urged. A new adjective entered the descriptions of Lyndon Johnson. He was, Youngblood says 'adamant.'" A look at Caro's end notes, moreover, shows that he got this last quote from page 117 of Johnson's bodyguard Youngblood's 1973 book 20 Years in the Secret Service.

The problem is that Caro--as respected an historian as ever graced the best-seller lists--was blowing smoke. The sentence from which Caro cherry-picked his line about Johnson being "adamant" reads as follows: "He remained adamant about staying put until there was some definitive word on the President." That's right. Caro had taken Youngblood's description of Johnson's demeanor before the President's death had been announced, and had used it to shore up Johnson's position that he'd told O'Donnell he would wait for Mrs. Kennedy on the plane.

The evidence suggests, moreover, that Caro's deception was on purpose. Here is what Youngblood actually wrote regarding Johnson's decision to wait for Mrs. Kennedy on the plane: "'Sir, we must leave here immediately!' I said to Johnson. The President's life was no longer in the balance. The reason for staying at the hospital no longer existed. 'I can't leave without Mrs. Kennedy,' Johnson replied. O'Donnell said, 'She won't leave without the body. A casket has been ordered but it isn't here yet.' 'We can wait for her on the plane,' I said. O'Donnell agreed that Johnson should go to Air Force One at once. Months later, amid all the sniping and second-guessing, Johnson was criticized for 'usurping' the Presidential aircraft. What these critics chose to ignore was the simple fact that Air Force One--or to more correctly identify the plane in question, Number 26000--had superior communications capabilities that were absolutely essential in the uncertain conditions that prevailed at the time. Lyndon Johnson was President, even though the formality of the swearing-in had not yet taken place. As President, his duty to the country was to take every possible measure to insure the safety of the nation. In Dallas, Air Force One was an extension of the White House, and as Johnson said himself, he saw nothing strange about the President using the President's plane.'"

Well, this is very interesting. While Youngblood had previously claimed it was O'Donnell's idea Johnson take Air Force One, he now offered Johnson's rationale for taking the plane--that it was the President's plane--and said only that O'Donnell "agreed" Johnson should take Air Force One. He said nothing, moreover, of O'Donnell's agreeing that Johnson would wait for Mrs. Kennedy on the plane. He'd contradicted Johnson, for that matter, in that he'd claimed it was his suggestion Johnson wait on the plane, while Johnson had claimed it was his own idea he wait on the plane. By doing so, moreover, Youngblood had put his Warren Commission testimony into context. When he'd testified "he agreed that we would go on to the airplane and board the plane and wait until Mrs. Kennedy and the body would come out" he was talking about Johnson, and Johnson's agreeing with his (Youngblood's) suggestion they wait at the airport.

In opposition to Johnson's claims, then, it seems probable that O'Donnell had not agreed to such a thing, and did not know Johnson would be on Air Force One when he arrived with Mrs. Kennedy. It seems likely, moreover, that Johnson later lied about this.

Very few mainstream historians have accepted this, however.

Vincent Bugliosi, in Reclaiming History, his 2706 page book on the assassination, argues that we should take Johnson's side in his disputes with "Kennedy loyalists" over his behavior on day one of his presidency. He claims "the weight of the evidence is that LBJ was very sensitive to the feelings of the entire Kennedy camp following the assassination."

But that's just nonsense. If Johnson was so concerned about Mrs. Kennedy's feelings in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, why the heck didn't he ask her what SHE wanted to do--whether SHE wanted to return to Washington with her husband's body on her own plane...whether SHE wanted to leave as soon as she arrived on Air Force One...or whether SHE was willing to wait until after Johnson had been sworn in? He had, after all, made clear that she was flying back with him...NO MATTER what she wanted...

The real weight of the evidence, then, is that Johnson didn't really care what Mrs. Kennedy wanted on November 22, 1963--and that she was, in fact, a hostage to his political manipulations.

He wanted Mrs. Kennedy by his side when he returned to Washington and emerged before the cameras as the new president. And that's not all he wanted...

In his 1975 defense of Johnson, A Very Human President, former Johnson aide Jack Valenti described the immediate aftermath of the assassination in detail. He wrote of Johnson's decision to be sworn into office as soon as possible--which, while unnecessary, was nevertheless politically desirable. He then added "before Air Force One departed for Washington, Johnson had also made his first command decision, on his own, to wait for the body of the dead president to be brought aboard before he gave an order to be airborne. This was an intuitive decision and a good one." So...Johnson, a man famous for seeking advice, announced his decision to wait for the body on the plane, without stating a reason for his decision.

And this wasn't a one-time misstatement. An 11-22-98 New York Times article by Valenti confirmed that, after installing himself on Air Force One, Johnson's "first decision was that he would not leave Dallas without the body of President Kennedy on board" and that "his second decision was to be sworn in on the plane, before departure." Valenti repeated this assertion, moreover, in his 2007 memoir This Time, This Place, enigmatically insisting that Johnson "understood intuitively that he could not leave the body of President Kennedy alone in Dallas."

Well, this is curious, and more than a bit suspicious to those inclined to suspicion. Why would Johnson refuse to leave Dallas without the President's body--to which he had no right?

Perhaps, then, Valenti's latter-day recollections are a bit shaky.

Perhaps not. There's also this... Valenti's 1975 book on Johnson, A Very Human President, contains Valenti's notes on a July 25, 1964 background discussion between Johnson and two newsmen, Dan Rather of CBS News and Bob Thompson of the L.A. Times. These notes state: "Mr. Johnson, in reply to a direct question, said that he had thought an international conspiracy might be underway to 'flatten us out.' Because of this concern, the president said, he ordered that Air Force One be moved at the airport. Then, he said, he decided to go directly to the plane from Parkland Hospital. Even beyond that point, the president said, he had grave doubts about the advisability of 'sitting at the airport' for two hours, but he felt it imperative that President Kennedy's body be returned immediately to Washington."

No mention of Mrs. Kennedy, or of Johnson's simply acquiescing to her wishes when he flew home with the body of her recently murdered husband. No mention that there was a second jet standing by for Mrs. Kennedy and the body should Johnson have left immediately, as proposed by his advisers. No mention of his determination that she not fly home alone. No, here, according to Valenti's contemporaneous notes of a Johnson background discussion with two newsmen, was Johnson himself claiming that he was waiting for the body--the BODY--because he felt it imperative it be returned to Washington. Right away. With him.

Well, this is more than curious. Why did Johnson think it imperative he gain control of Kennedy's body? Did he fear the Dallas coroner might be part of a conspiracy? Did he feel that leaving the body in Dallas would make him look weak, and divide the nation's attention? Or did he, for some unknown reason, want the body removed from civilian control as fast as possible?

If there's an innocent explanation for this body-snatching, for that matter, why would he later lie about it, and make out that his sole interest was Mrs. Kennedy's welfare?

Yes, sad to say, something was indeed rotten in Denmark, er... Texas... Texas State law forbade the removal of a murder victim from the state before an autopsy could be conducted. And yet Johnson encouraged the Presidential detail of the Secret Service--now under his command--to deliberately break this law. (While some might find this unfair, as O'Donnell claimed that he was responsible for the removal of the body, and as Dallas Mayor and Johnson crony Earl Cabell claimed he'd intervened at the last minute in order to give the removal of the body the appearance of being "legal," the statements of O'Donnell and others involved in the removal of the body make clear that they were taking the body no matter what Cabell or others had to say on the matter.)

It is a matter of historical record, then, that among Lyndon Johnson's first acts as President, one of them was to have his subordinates break the law and abscond with the corpse of his predecessor. Now, curiously, it is also a matter of historical record that, within moments of Johnson's flying off with the body, the Secret Service flew President Kennedy's blood-stained limousine out of Texas. This meant that both the best evidence (the body) and half of the crime scene (the limousine) were never shown to those with jurisdiction for the crime (the Dallas Coroner and the Dallas Police Department), but were instead illicitly removed from Texas and analyzed in secret by men under Lyndon Johnson's direct control.

Edited by Pat Speer
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