Sunday, December 17, 2017
Opinion

Column: Johnson's own profile in courage

On Friday, the nation will pause to observe the 50th anniversary of the assassination of a president in Dallas. Attention is appropriately focusing on the late John F. Kennedy. That same day, however, another president was created.

Robert Caro made that a thesis of his new book, The Passage of Power. Lyndon Johnson's emergence was an equally important, but often overlooked, part of the drama that took place in this city Nov. 22, 1963.

The Lyndon Johnsons were riding in a car behind that of the John Kennedys and John Connallys when shots rang out. Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood quickly threw the physically formidable vice president to the floorboard. Their car sped off with the caravan to Parkland Hospital. The march of history quickly thrust Johnson from the bottom of that floorboard to the leadership of the Free World.

Caro described the Texan's rapid, turbulent transition this way in an interview last month:

"There was something magnificent in how he took over. There are about 11 weeks between when a president is elected and when he takes office. Political scientists now say that is not long enough to prepare to be president.

"Well, Johnson had only two hours and six minutes. That was the length of time between the moment at Love Field that he took the oath of office and the time that Air Force One arrived in Washington. He had to step out of that plane and be ready to become president. It was awesome to watch him take the reins with such a sure, strong grasp."

What kind of person could rise to meet the demands of such a moment? It is almost impossible to imagine such a transformation. For most of us, the temptation would be to retreat within ourselves.

But Johnson stepped forward. Caro describes the president-in-the-making as possessing a sense of calm as the chaos unfolded around him. Johnson started working on what had to be done, including making sure he had the oath of office, ensuring that federal Judge Sarah T. Hughes could get on the plane to swear him in and making sure that Air Force One did not leave without Jacqueline Kennedy and her late husband's coffin aboard.

Others have described Johnson similarly, including Newsweek's Chuck Roberts, one of four reporters around LBJ at the time. In Mark Updegrove's Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency, Roberts recalled his transformation this way:

"Lyndon Johnson was thoughtful, cool and compassionate in the terrible four hours from the time President Kennedy died until his plane landed at Andrews (Air Force Base)."

Johnson's reaction went beyond an ability to handle emergencies; I think another factor was in play.

He was absolutely comfortable using his authority to achieve his goals. That trait separates political leaders from those who follow in their wake. Johnson's indomitable will certainly helped him prepare to lead from the moment he arrived at Andrews.

The late George Plimpton described some leaders as having an X factor that defines them and puts them in a special category. For some, that could be charisma, which Kennedy had in large doses.

But Johnson's ability to tower over others was his X factor. He used it often as Senate majority leader in the 1950s to move legislation. And, of course, he put it to use in carrying out JFK's domestic legacy.

He particularly put his weight behind Kennedy's civil rights bill. As Caro described Johnson's passage of that bill: "To watch Johnson do that — threatening, charming, cajoling and bullying — is to see a master of political tactics at work."

Of course, he couldn't tower over the Vietnam War like he could a lawmaker whose vote he needed on Medicare or civil rights. His powerful will eventually was broken when he watched that far-away conflict slip out of his grasp.

Fifty years ago this week, the nation was fortunate that Johnson possessed that will. He had no time to plan a transition. He had no time to absorb an election. He had no time to contemplate themes for an inaugural address. He had to summon the ability to lead, from the moment he got off that plane.

Kennedy is the focus of Nov. 22, but there is another character in this narrative, one whose leadership that day was his own profile in courage. Let us remember him, too, as we pause to recall the meaning of a national tragedy half a century ago.

William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News.

© 2013 Dallas Morning News

Comments

Editorial: Warren’s smart approach on guns, domestic violence

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren would make it safer for victims and police alike with his plan to remove firearms from defendants charged with domestic violence. These cases are toxic enough, and having guns at the ready only adds to a dang...
Published: 12/15/17
Editorial: St. Petersburg council right to reject Bayfront deal

Editorial: St. Petersburg council right to reject Bayfront deal

The St. Petersburg City Council made the difficult but correct decision this week to reject the proposed sale of a local nonprofit’s minority stake in Bayfront hospital. Despite months of negotiations, there were too many questions, a few suspicions ...
Published: 12/15/17
Editorial: Congress should fix flood insurance, children’s health insurance before Christmas

Editorial: Congress should fix flood insurance, children’s health insurance before Christmas

Here’s a snapshot of misplaced priorities in Washington. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission foolishly rushed to scrap net neutrality rules and allow internet service providers to treat different content differently despite overwhelming ...
Published: 12/14/17
Updated: 12/15/17
Editorial: Scott’s smart changes to sexual harassment policy

Editorial: Scott’s smart changes to sexual harassment policy

With misconduct allegations rippling through all levels of government, Gov. Rick Scott has taken the prudent step of ordering uniform sexual harassment policies throughout state agencies. The executive order strengthens protections for victims, which...
Published: 12/14/17
Updated: 12/15/17
Editorial: MOSI faces a clean slate and should give everyone a piece of chalk

Editorial: MOSI faces a clean slate and should give everyone a piece of chalk

For three years, the only news about finances at Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry was bad news: "Struggling MOSI asks Hillsborough County for $400,000 loan," one headline read, "Audit sees MOSI finances slipping," read another, and "MOSI donor ...
Published: 12/14/17
Updated: 12/15/17
Editorial: Rubio should make good his threat to oppose tax cuts without changes

Editorial: Rubio should make good his threat to oppose tax cuts without changes

For once, it would be nice to see Sen. Marco Rubio stand up as the independent leader he aspires to become. For once, the Florida Republican should hold his position rather than bow to pragmatic politics. Rubio can stick with his threat Thursday to v...
Published: 12/14/17

Another voice: A shameful anniversary

Josephine "Joey" Gay should have celebrated her 12th birthday this week. She should have been surrounded by friends and family in a place festooned with purple, her favorite color.Chase Kowalski should have been working toward a Boy Scout merit badge...
Published: 12/13/17
Updated: 12/14/17
Editorial: Congress should block efforts to expand offshore drilling

Editorial: Congress should block efforts to expand offshore drilling

Timing is everything, and Sen. Bill Nelson seized the right moment this week to call on his colleagues to pass legislation he filed earlier this year that would block the Trump administration from opening additional areas to offshore drilling. With t...
Published: 12/13/17

Another voice: Alabama picks an honorable man

THANK YOU, Alabama.In Tuesday’s special election, the state by a narrow margin chose to spare the nation the indignity of seating an accused child molester in the U.S. Senate. Though the stain of electing Republican Roy Moore would have sullied Alaba...
Published: 12/12/17
Updated: 12/13/17
Editorial: Tax cuts aren’t worth harm to Tampa Bay

Editorial: Tax cuts aren’t worth harm to Tampa Bay

As congressional negotiators hammer out the details on an enormous, unnecessary tax cut, the potential negative impact on Tampa Bay and Florida is becoming clearer. The harmful consequences stretch far beyond adding more than $1.4 trillion to the fed...
Published: 12/12/17