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photo: NARA

Only a couple of American presidents have taken office with the country in the kind of crisis caused by the assassination of John F. Kennedy. On the face of it, Lyndon Baines Johnson may not have appeared to be the right guy for the job. Compared to the immensely popular Kennedy, Johnson was a relatively unknown figure to the nation. Kennedy had been youthful and witty - he looked especially good on television. Johnson was an oversized man with Brylcreme in his hair and a ponderous way of speaking to the public. But LBJ was easy to underestimate.

The calls Johnson secretly taped in his first month in office show a man determined to carry on the Kennedy legacy and win the confidence of the nation. He used his immense political savvy and his many personas - cajoling or consoling, threatening or seductive - to get the job done.

On November 22, 1963, Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, rode in the Dallas motorcade two cars behind President Kennedy and his wife, Jackie. The day was brilliantly sunny and the streets were lined with cheering crowds. At 12:30 p.m., three shots were fired from the Texas School Book Depository Building, killing President Kennedy and wounding Texas Governor Connally. In a diary she recorded on tape, Lady Bird Johnson recalled in vivid detail what happened after she heard the gunshots.

Two hours later, at 2:38 p.m. eastern standard time, Lyndon Johnson was sworn into office on Air Force One. Jackie Kennedy and Ladybird stood beside him. Then the plane took off, carrying them to Washington with the casket of John F. Kennedy.

When Lyndon Johnson became president, he was 55 years old, and a thorough veteran of Washington politics. He had served in Congress for more than a quarter century. In 1955, he was the youngest person ever to serve as Senate Majority Leader. But President Johnson faced huge challenges: he had to calm the frenzied Cold War speculation over who plotted John F. Kennedy's assassination - perhaps the Soviet Union or Cuba. He had to console a grieving nation. And he had to consolidate power in an administration fiercely loyal to his predecessor.

At 9 p.m. on the night of the assassination, Johnson was back in his office in the Executive Office Building. The new president dialed an old friend, Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg.

Listen to excerpt

President Johnson: I just didn't want to leave my desk tonight without telling you that you're gonna have to do some heavy thinking; for me -

Arthur Goldberg: Dorothy and I came out to the airport to see you, but there were so many people around.

LBJ: There's no one in the world I would have rather seen than you-

AG: All we can say is we have complete confidence in you -

LBJ: Well, don't be so damn modest and shy. I want you to come in and out now... I don't know what's proper, but there at the airport, you let me know it because I need all the strength you can give me.

AG: We wanted to wish you well and also express our grave - look, if theres anything at all that I can do -

LBJ: I want you to be thinking about what I ought to do to try to bring all these elements together and unite this country. And the main thing to preserve our system in the world because if it starts falling to pieces and some of the extremes are going to - get proceeding on the wrong assumption, why we could deteriorate, pretty quick.

AG: It won't. I have no doubt about that

LBJ: I want you to think, just think capital, just think, think, think. And talk to me tomorrow or the next day.

AG: Anytime. Anytime

LBJ: I want to give some thought, by the way, whether we ought to have a joint session of Congress - after, and what would I say to them? Think about it.

AG: I think we ought to -

LBJ: Well. I want you to think about who I talk to on the delivery side and how I ought to do it without - I mean with dignity and reserve and without being down on my knees, but at the same time, men who'll have respect and confidence. There's nobody in town I believe in more than you and I have just got to have your help

AG: Well, it is there for the asking and we wish you every good fortune in the world. You'll do well, we have complete confidence. Dorothy would like to talk to you.

LBJ: Well, I'm totally inadequate, but I'll do my best.

AG: No not at all. I'm at you service. Here she is.

Johnson did speak to a joint session of Congress on November 27, 1963.


Next: part 2