Air Force One, the President’s plane, is divided, behind the crew’s cockpit, into three compartments. In the first of them, just behind the cockpit, women sat weeping and Secret Service agents were trying to hold back tears (“You’ve heard of strong men crying; well, we had it there that day,” recalls a reporter) as the pilot lifted the big jet off the Dallas runway in a climb so steep that to a man standing on the ground it seemed “almost vertical,” leveled off for a few minutes, and then, warned that there were tornadoes between him and Washington, put the plane into another climb to get above them. In the rear compartment the widow, her suit stained with blood, was sitting next to the coffin of the dead President. And in the center compartment was the new President.
Lyndon Johnson hadn’t been aboard Air Force One on the trip down to Texas. He had long since given up asking John F. Kennedy if he could accompany him on the presidential plane when they were flying to the same destination (“You don’t mean to say that Mr. Johnson is again insisting on riding with me?” Kennedy had once asked his secretary in an exasperated tone), as he had given up on all his attempts to obtain some measure of recognition, or at least dignity, as Vice President. Once, as Senate Majority Leader, he had been a mighty figure—“the second most powerful man in the country”—but that seemed a long time ago now. Although initially he had been favored to win the Democratic nomination for President, he had been outmaneuvered by the younger man, and, having accepted the vice presidency, had, in that post, become not just powerless but a figure of ridicule. The gibe (“Whatever became of Lyndon Johnson?”) that had started over Georgetown dinner tables was now in headlines over articles about his predicament. He himself was worried about whether or not he would be retained on the 1964 Democratic ticket, and was convinced that whether he was or not, his dreams of becoming President one day were over. He had advised more than one aide whom he would have wanted with him were he to run for or become President to leave his staff. “My future is behind me,” he told one member of his staff. “Go,” he said to another. “I’m finished.” But he was on Air Force One now.
In part, this book is the story of the five years— from late 1958, when Johnson began campaigning for the presidency, to November 22, 1963—before that flight from Dallas to Washington: a story of how a man who all his life had yearned for the presidency failed in his great chance to attain that goal, of how, to a large degree because of aspects of his character that crippled him in his efforts to attain it, he allowed the prize for which he had planned and schemed and worked (worked with a tirelessness that made an ally say “I never thought it was possible for anyone to work that hard”) to be snatched away from him. It is a story of not only failure but humiliation, of how, after he had lost the presidential nomination in 1960, he had taken a gamble— giving up the Senate leadership to accept the vice presidential nomination— because he felt that was his only remaining chance to achieve his goal, and of what followed after he became Vice President.
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