From JFK to LBJ
ONLY one other President in the century, Theodore Roosevelt, had come to power after an assassination. And the passive, unspectacular William McKinley, T. R.'s predecessor, was no John Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson faced the toughest transition since Harry Truman succeeded the legendary Franklin Roosevelt. "I always felt sorry for Harry Truman and the way he got the presidency," Johnson told an aide two days after Kennedy's death, "but at least his man wasn't murdered."
Johnson had to confront the grief and despair many people felt over the loss of a beloved leader and their antagonism toward someone who, however much he identified with JFK, seemed like a usurper, an unelected, untested replacement for the man the country now more than ever saw as more suitable for the job. In the first days of his presidency, only 5 percent of the public felt they knew very much about LBJ, while 67 percent said they knew next to nothing about him. Seventy percent of the county had doubts about how it would "carry on without" Kennedy. 1
Johnson, like T. R. and Truman, understood the essential need for continuity, for reassuring people at home and abroad that the new President would be faithful to the previous administration. The death of a President was trauma enough, but Kennedy's assassination made his passing a national crisis in self-confidence, a time of doubt about the durability of the country's democratic system and its tradition of nonviolent political change. "A nation stunned, shaken to its very heart, had to be reassured that the government was not in a state of paralysis," Johnson later recalled. "I had to convince everyone everywhere that the country would go forward. . . . Any hesitation or wavering, any false step, any sign of self-doubt, could have been disastrous. . . . The times cried out for leadership."2