“The President Is Dead, You Know”

In an excerpt from his posthumously published memoir, LBJ aide Jack Valenti relives the Kennedy assassination, from the chaos at Parkland to the calm aboard Air Force One.
Shock and awe: The author (second from left) watching Johnson take the oath of office.Courtesy of This Time, This Place, by Jack Valenti

The Longest Day had begun.

The street curved as we passed by an undistinguished building later described to me as the Texas School Book Depository. We were on Dealey Plaza. Suddenly, the car in front of us accelerated from 8 miles an hour to 80. I saw a policeman wildly waving us ahead, and buildings began to blur as we raced to keep up. Then we lost the car in front of us as we swerved to avoid people running across our path.

The whole spectacle turned bizarre as we drove madly toward or away from some unnamed terror. What had happened? As if unwilling to know the answers, I found myself saying to our driver, “I think the president is late to his speech at the Dallas Trade Mart. Let’s get over there as quickly as we can.”

We caromed through the streets and wound up at the Trade Mart. We drove to the back entrance to make inquiries. Surely someone could confirm what we eagerly wanted to hear, that the president had been a bit delayed by some security precautions but would soon make his speech.

At the entrance, a distraught-looking man raced past us, his coat and tie flying, to a pay phone down the hall. He was holding a transistor radio, and through the crackle of static we could hear the announcer’s voice: “The president and the governor have been shot … Parkland hospital!” I yelled at a man standing next to a dusty Chevrolet. He looked up, startled. I grabbed him by the arm and said, “I have President Kennedy’s secretary with me. Can you take us to Parkland hospital right now?”

He was a deputy sheriff, and he would take us. We raced to Parkland, siren screaming. When we arrived at the hospital, its entrance was cluttered with cars parked helter-skelter and blocked by a swarm of uniformed police and plainclothesmen. I ran down the hall and down the steps to the basement, where I had been told the vice president could be found. The basement was a mass of people, their stunned faces a collage of anxiety and grief.

Congressman Homer Thornberry was going to visit Nellie Connally [the wife of Texas governor John Connally], so I joined him. She sat in a small room, her eyes red, her hands in her lap, her face drawn and pale with anxiety. Lady Bird Johnson sat beside her.

“How is John?” I asked.

She looked up, tears filling her eyes. “We don’t know. We just don’t know.” Mrs. Johnson embraced her.

I wandered out into the hall again. As I entered the stairwell to walk upstairs, I bumped into Cliff Carter, one of LBJ’s aides.

“The vice president wants you, and he wants you now.” Cliff pulled at my arm, then he stopped and said softly, “The president is dead, you know.”

I didn’t know. Tears overcame me, and try as I might, I couldn’t regain my self-control. Cliff stood silently for a few seconds, and then very gently he said, “We must go now, Jack. The vice president is waiting for us. Compose yourself.” I murmured something, wiped my eyes, and together we set off to find Lyndon Johnson.

A few moments later, we were in a small room on the basement floor. It was empty except for a Secret Service agent standing by the door. He was Lem Johns, later to become a trusted member of the White House Secret Service detail. Johns had clearly been waiting for us. “I’m to take both of you to Love Field. Mr. Valenti, the vice president wants you aboard Air Force One right now.”

Johns piled us into a police car, and with siren keening, we sped toward Love Field. I was puzzled. Why was I going to Air Force One? I needed to get back home to Houston. My thoughts were tumbling inside me, and I could barely make sense of them.

When we got to the airport, Air Force One had been moved to a remote corner of the field and was being guarded by a cordon of menacing, heavily armed men, their Uzi-type machine pistols at the ready. I clambered aboard the presidential plane, acutely aware of my own apprehension. This was new, unexplored territory. I had no idea what was in store for me.

The plane was thickly packed with somber-faced officials and others, and I looked up as the huge figure of Lyndon Baines Johnson suddenly emerged. His face was grim, but beyond that he betrayed no emotion. Everyone seated rose respectfully.

He saw me and beckoned. I went quickly to his side. He murmured to me in a soft voice, “I want you on my staff. You’ll fly back with me to Washington.” That was it. Within seconds I became the first newly hired special assistant to the president.

Then I blurted out two questions that even now cause me to wince in embarrassment. “But, Mr. President,” I said chokingly, “I don’t have any clothes.”

LBJ looked at me as if wondering, “Who is this cretin I am bringing to my staff?”

“Well,” he said, “we have phones on this plane. Call your wife and have her send some to you. Or you can buy whatever you need in Washington.”

Then I hurled another one at him: “But I don’t have a place to live.”

His answer was swift and decisive: “You can live with me until your family gets to Washington.” And that was precisely what I did. I took up residence at the Johnsons’ Spring Valley home for eleven days, until they moved into the White House.

The president then turned his attention to more-pressing business. He was on the phone with Rose Kennedy, the mother of JFK. He spoke softly to her: “Mrs. Kennedy, I wish to God there was something I could do for you.” He listened for a moment and then said, “Please, Lady Bird wants to talk with you,” and he passed the phone

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