Levittown to Laos

Thomas Sugrue

  • The Kennedy Assassination: 24 Hours After by Steven Gillon
    Basic Books, 294 pp, £15.99, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 465 01870 3

On 22 November 1963, just over two hours after an assassin’s bullet killed President Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, the vice president, took the oath of office in a hastily improvised ceremony aboard Air Force One. The jowly LBJ stood side by side with the grieving widow, her jacket and blouse stained with Kennedy’s blood and brain matter. An official photographer, armed with two cameras in case one failed, captured Johnson, his right hand raised, his left on a Catholic missal (the closest thing to a Bible they could find), pledging to ‘preserve, protect and defend the constitution’. As the plane, carrying the new president and his predecessor’s remains, flew back to Washington, the photographer hurried to a darkroom to prepare prints. Within hours, an image of the ceremony went out on the wires to be broadcast worldwide, a symbol that the United States remained stable, having successfully transferred power.

‘I remember during the swearing-in I thought this was a moment that was unreal and that we were just characters in a play,’ Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird, noted. More than any past presidential transition, Kennedy’s death and funeral, along with Johnson’s ascension to office, became a made-for-TV drama. Beginning with the first reports that Kennedy had been shot and up until the funeral three days later, the television networks cancelled commercial broadcasting and 90 per cent of American households watched the coverage, for an average 31.6 hours each. The images were indelible: photos of the smiling president, clips from his best-known speeches, the endless loops of his last presidential motorcade passing through the streets of Dallas, graphic descriptions of his wounds, and moving images of Kennedy’s three-year-old son saluting his casket, the riderless horse near the head of the funeral procession, and the sombre face of Jacqueline Kennedy at her husband’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery.

Kennedy was the first – and so far the only – president to be assassinated in the television age. Only three other presidents have been murdered, all by gunfire: in 1865, Abraham Lincoln died after being shot in the head while watching a play; in 1881, James Garfield was attacked by a frustrated patronage seeker who lay in wait for him at a Washington train station; and in 1901, William McKinley was mortally wounded by an anarchist at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. None but Kennedy died immediately (it is quite likely that with modern medical care both Garfield and McKinley would have survived). Kennedy’s death, Steven Gillon argues, ‘resulted in the most violent and sudden transition of presidential power in American history’. But it was not the abruptness or even the violence that mattered most. It was, instead, that by 1963 the modern presidency had become fully linked to the new medium of television, bringing an immediacy and urgency to the transition and creating what was, in many respects, a mass experience: an extraordinary expression of America’s civil religion, with the president assuming an iconic status that was greatly exaggerated by the power of the mass media.

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