"When the terrible thing happened, I felt like I was being thrown around in the ocean by giant waves," Jacqueline Kennedy later said

By Sam Gillette
March 17, 2021 11:13 AM
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Kennedys and Johnsons
From left: President John F. Kennedy and a bouquet-carrying Jacqueline Kennedy arrive at Love Field in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, on a campaign tour with Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson (rear)
| Credit: Art Rickerby/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty

Many remember the weekend of Nov. 22, 1963, because of the national horror that unfolded: President John F. Kennedy shot in the head in his limo while riding in a motorcade through downtown Dallas with wife Jacqueline Kennedy, seated next to him in a pink designer suit, splattered in his blood.

But the new book Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight, by Julia Sweig, brightens the spotlight on that episode in history — illuminating other details and reminding readers that there were political stakes had it all not gone horribly wrong.

Lady Bird Johnson, who became first lady when her husband was thrust into the presidency after the assassination, had in fact made elaborate plans for hosting John and Jackie at the Johnson ranch — including champagne on the rocks and horseback riding — according to her new biography.

The Kennedys were scheduled to sleep over after a fundraising dinner in Austin, Texas, during the five-city, two-day tour of the state, Sweig writes. During the week-long preparation, Lady Bird installed a special bed to help with the president's back pain.

Like the Kennedys had done for them three years before, the Johnsons changed their sleeping arrangements to make the younger couple more comfortable. And Lady Bird borrowed eight horses as well as brought in her own horse in case Jackie, who was still grieving the loss of baby Patrick three months prior, wanted to go riding, according to Sweig.

Kennedys and Johnsons
The Kennedys and Johnsons, including President John F. Kennedy (left) attend the dedication ceremony of the Aerospace Medical Center at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
| Credit: AP/Shutterstock
Kennedys and Johnsons
The Kennedys and Johnsons (center, from left) upon their arrival on Air Force One in Houston
| Credit: AP/Shutterstock

"There was something again forced, yet strangely informal and intimate, about these two very different couples playing musical bedrooms in their family homes. Bess [Abell, Lady Bird's aide] taught the staff to pour champagne on the rocks, Jackie's custom," Sweig writes, setting the scene.

She goes on: "[Lady Bird] attempted a degree of damage control as the Signal Corps ripped holes in the walls to install new phone lines," the author continues. "And she made final arrangements for the next day's barbecue along the banks of the Pedernales River: twenty pecan pies, eighteen loaves of bread, a horseman with a lasso, and a sheepdog act awaited the president and First Lady."

The biography is an inside look at the inner-workings of the Johnsons' surprisingly modern relationship. The future first lady, whose extensive diary entries are referenced throughout the book, was not only a wife but a crucial adviser and a political figure in her own right, according to Sweig.

Lady Bird was also incredibly fond of Jackie and often filled in for her during the Kennedy presidency.

Despite the women's affection, their husbands were trying to navigate division in the Texas Democratic Party, which the Kennedys' November 1963 visit was meant to alleviate. Lady Bird and the then-vice president also wanted to cement his position on the 1964 campaign ticket, according to Sweig.

"Instead, the unimaginable," she writes:

"November 22, 1963, the day in Dallas that, as Bird described it in her first diary entry, 'all began so beautifully,' had ended with a flight back to Washington with Lady Bird, the surrogate, now the new First Lady, Lyndon the president, Jack in a coffin, and Jackie a widow."

In her diary, Lady Bird recounts being incredibly moved by the grieving Jackie's grace and poise. Jackie would go on to shape her late husband's legacy even as she struggled with depression and, later, thoughts of suicide.

"When the terrible thing happened, I felt like I was being thrown around in the ocean by giant waves," Jackie once told friend and media executive Joe Armstrong, he later recalled.

Kennedys and Johnsons
President Lyndon B. Johnson delivers his first State of the Union in January 1964
| Credit: PhotoQuest/Getty

RELATED VIDEO: Remembering Jackie Kennedy's Intensely Private White House Trip with Her Kids After JFK's Assassination

Kennedys and Johnsons
Credit: Getty

The Johnsons, who had also been traveling in the presidential motorcade during the assassination, weren't hit by the shooter, former Marine Lee Harvey Oswald. But, after President Kennedy died at the hospital, his Chief of Staff Kenny O'Donnell feared for the Johnsons' lives.

"Kenny told Johnson point blank that they did not know what the hell was going on," O'Donnell's daughter, Helen O'Donnell, wrote in her 2018 biography, Launching LBJ.

Kennedy's aide suggested that the soon-to-be president and first lady head back to Washington, D.C. on Air Force One.

"We were in disbelief," O'Donnell explained years later. "We did not know at the time what was going on and my job was to get the fallen president and his widow home safe."

Even as Lady Bird and her husband fled to safety with Jackie, they were entering the entirely unexpected: They were now the most powerful couple in the country and they were also "left with a profound and pervasive feeling of loss," Sweig writes.

The assassination left Lady Bird with a deep "sense of shame over the violence and hatred that has gripped our land,' " she wrote in her White House diaries, per the biography.

Nonetheless, according to Sweig, "The gruesome events of November 22, 1963, had only hardened her desire to repair the breach. 'Shame for America! Shame for Texas!' "

The new first lady was also keenly aware that Americans wouldn't care that Dallas was "more extreme, less tolerant" than their home in Hill Country — they would blame Texas as a whole. She also knew that her husband's critics were angry because, in their mind, "a Texan long derided as culturally inferior and suspected as brazenly hungry for power would become commander in chief."

Kennedys and Johnsons
Credit: Random House

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The Johnsons feared that by entering the presidency by tragic default, they would undermine their "chance at a legitimate run for the White House," Sweig writes.

The first lady aired her fear of division and resentment in a private moment after they arrived back in D.C. After her husband's first remarks as president of the United States, she and her press secretary, Liz Carpenter, took a car from the White House to the Johnsons' home.

"It's a terrible thing to say," Carpenter remarked, according to the book, "but the salvation of Texas is that the governor was hit." (Texas Gov. John Connally was also shot while riding in the motorcade, although he survived.)

"Don't think I haven't thought of that," the first lady responded. "I only wish it could have been me."

Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight is out now.