Fifty-five years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a new book by Helen O’Donnell, Launching LBJ, reveals new details about the president’s death, the shock of his widow, Jackie Kennedy, and the dramatic behind-the-scenes events as Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as president aboard Air Force One.
Helen is the daughter of Kenny O’Donnell, one of JFK’s closest advisors. For this book, which focuses on O’Donnell’s relationship with LBJ, whom he advised from 1963 to 1965, his daughter used rare interviews and diaries written by her father in the years after the assassination.
On Nov. 22, 1963, after JFK died at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, O’Donnell told LBJ he also feared for Johnson’s life. “Kenny told Johnson point blank that they did not know what the hell was going on,” his daughter writes.
O’Donnell recommended that LBJ immediately return to Air Force One to fly back to the White House.
“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.”
But things were in chaos at Parkland Hospital. “Kenny knew that Jackie would not leave Dallas without her husband,” O’Donnell’s daughter writes in the new book.
Frst, O’Donnell had to deal with the Dallas medical examiner, Dr. Earl Rose. “According to state law, since this was a murder, the president’s body had to remain in Dallas for an autopsy,” Helen says. When Rose confronted her father and Jackie, he told them: “I am in charge. He [JFK] now belongs to me.” In response, O’Donnell said: “Like hell he does, and like hell you are.”
With JFK’s body in a casket, O’Donnell “ordered the Dallas police and the doctors to move,” his daughter writes. “Get the hell out of the way. We are leaving,” he told them.
They placed the casket in an ambulance, with Jackie seated in the back of the car, and drove to Love Field.
“For a while, Kenny thought that he, Jackie and Dave might end up in Dallas jail,” Helen writes. “After all, they had broken Texas law. [Kenny] had, in the law’s eyes, stolen Jack’s body.”
Meanwhile, Jackie “is falling apart at this stage,” O’Donnell recalled years later. “She is covered in blood and brains. She is in shock, rambling and not making sense. She is worried about her children. And… as I told [JFK’s brother] Bobby later, I honestly thought she was going to have a heart attack right in my arms.”
Worried about the Dallas police, O’Donnell later explained what was going through his mind. “My fear is that they will shoot out the tires, board the plane, guns drawn, take off with the president’s body in front of Jackie, who would have had a heart attack. I am the one in the wrong here. Not the Dallas police, remember.”
O’Donnell and Jackie boarded Air Force One with the casket, and before the wheels were off the ground, LBJ asked O’Donnell to get Jackie for the official swearing-in, which took place onboard.
O’Donnell was stunned. He didn’t think Jackie, who was still wearing her blood-splattered clothes, had the strength. He carefully entered the back presidential cabin where she was sitting. “The sight that greeted him was bizarre,” Helen writes. “She sat, staring at the mirror, with a blank expression, as she combed her hair.”
“My father asked Jackie if she wanted to go ‘out there,’ to the swearing in,” she adds. “She told him, ‘Yes. I think I ought to. Jack would want me to. I owe that much to the country.'”
According to Helen, as her father opened the door for Jackie, she stopped to ask him if she should change her clothes. “My father looked at her,” Helen recalls. “Here she is, he thought, covered in her husband’s blood and brains. But, he said simply, ‘No, Mrs. Kennedy, you look fine.’ “
O’Donnell, still filled with fear that the Dallas police would arrive and order the casket off the plane, then witnessed as LBJ took the presidential oath before the plane took off.
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After they returned to their seats, still stunned, Powers poured them drinks and the three shared stories about JFK, amidst their tears.
As O’Donnell later said, “There is no textbook for this. We were just doing the best we could for Jack and Jackie.”
O’Donnell, who was overwhelmed with grief by the death of JFK — and five years later, his brother, Bobby — died in 1977, at age 53.
“JFK and my father were best friends,” Helen says. “He believed in Jack and Bobby Kennedy and everything they stood for. He felt it was his job to save Jack Kennedy and he felt that he had failed. And he never recovered from that.”