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LBJ and Larry O'Brien signing Medicare into law.
photo: SSA Archives

In the first days of his presidency, Johnson called friends and rivals alike, asking for support, pledging loyalty to Kennedy's programs, and touching the bases of power in Washington. On November 25, after Kenney's funeral, Johnson phoned Larry O'Brien, one of the fallen president's closest aides. LBJ made no secret of the fact that he wanted O'Brien's loyalty. Visiting with O'Brien at the time was another of Kennedy's grief-stricken aides, Ken O'Donnell. A long-time friend of the Kennedys, O'Donnell was riding in the Dallas motorcade when JFK was shot.

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President Johnson: Needless to say, I'm most anxious for you to continue just like you have been, because I need you a lot more than he did.

Larry O'Brien: Mr. President, Ken is here with me. Do you have an immediate problem?

LBJ: No, no, I just wanted you to know how strongly I felt about you and Ken and all the rest of the staff, and I had talked to some of them individually, but I hadn't had a chance to run into you, and I think you know the confidence I have in you and admiration I have for you.

LO: I know that, Mr. President.

LBJ: I don't expect you to love me as much as you did him, but I expect you will after you've been around awhile.

LO: Right, Mr. President.

Of all the people Johnson reached out to in the first weeks of his presidency, few were more important to him than the widow of the slain president, Jacqueline Kennedy. The two had traded letters since JFK's funeral, and on December 2, LBJ called her from the Oval Office. Mrs. Kennedy and her children were still living in the Executive Mansion.

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Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy: Mr. President?

President Johnson: I just wanted you to know you were loved-and by so many and so much I'm one of them.

JBK: Oh, Mr. President, I tried, I didn't dare bother you again. But I got Kenny O'Donnell over here to give you a message, if he ever saw you. Did he give it to you yet?

LBJ: No.

JBK: About my letter? That was waiting for me last night?

LBJ: Listen, sweetie. Now the first thing you got to learn- you got some things to learn -and one of them is that you don't bother me, you give me strength.

JBK: But I wasn't going to send you in one more letter. I was just scared you'd answer it.

LBJ: Don't send me anything, don't send me anything. You just come over and put your arm around me. That's all you do. And when you haven't got anything else to do, let's take a walk. Let's walk around the back yard. And just let me tell you how much you mean to all of us, and how we can carry on, if you give us a little strength.

JBK: But you know what I wanted to say to you about that letter? I know how rare a letter is in a president's handwriting. Do you know that I've got more in your handwriting than I do in Jack's now? And for you to write it at this time and then to send me that thing today, and you know, your Cape announcement and everything.

LBJ: I want you to just know this - that I told my mama a long time ago, when everybody else gave up about my election in '48, my mother and my wife and my sisters - you females got a lot of courage that we men don't have. And so we have to rely on you and depend on you, and you got something to do. You got the President relying on you. And this is not the first one you had. So there are not many women, you know, running around with a good many Presidents. So you got the biggest job of your life.

JBK: She ran around with two Presidents, that's what they'll say about me. O.K. Anytime.

LBJ: Good bye, darling.

JBK: Thank you for calling, Mr. President. Good bye.

LBJ: Goodbye Sweetie. Do come by.

JBK: I will.

Johnson's calls with Jackie Kennedy demonstrate his skill at blending the personal and the political. As historian Robert Dallek explains, Johnson genuinely cared for Jackie Kennedy, but he also saw her as an important, symbolic figure.

"After all, she's the wife of the martyred president," Dallek says. "So he acts with great compassion and he wants to comfort her as much as he can on the one hand, and on the other hand he wants her to stay as close as she can to the White House so it continues to give him a kind of legitimacy as the successor to JFK."


Next: part 3