Monday, September 18, 2017

24: The LBJ Edition

Steven M. Gillon, The Kennedy Assassination--24 Hours Later: Lyndon B. Johnson's Pivotal First Day as President. New York: Basic Books, 2009. pp. xvii + 294.

Maybe you suspect that history is boring. Or, maybe you know that it's important and interesting, but it just seems like books take all the fun out of it. If any of that sounds familiar, then this book is for you.

The author, Steven M. Gillon is a fantastic researcher and a good writer, too. His topic is absolutely fascinating, and he's looked at tons of documents only recently declassified.

Most books about the Kennedy assassination deal with questions like: Who shot JFK? Was there more than one gunman? Was the assassination the result of a conspiracy? On and on it goes. Gillon's book is different. The author assumes that the Warren Commission got it right. There was one gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald. And even though Oswald would have loved more attention from the Soviet Union and from Cuban authorities, he did what he did on his own.

Instead of dealing with those questions for the ten thousandth time, Gillon investigates what the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, experienced and what he did during the 24 hours after the assassination. Gillon reveals an LBJ who tried to do several things all at once:
  • He tried to assure the American people that the devastating assassination of their president had not destroyed their government. For example, Johnson invited photographers to capture those moments that revealed continuity, as when he took the oath of office aboard Air Force One.
  • He did his best to show deference to the people who were closest to the slain president, especially to his widow, Jackie Kennedy. Johnson told Mrs. Kennedy that there was no need for her to quickly vacate the White House. He reportedly said to her, "You stay as long as you want."
  • He sought to connect his brand new presidency to the legacy of John Kennedy, and worked to consolidate his authority as the head of the executive branch of the U.S. government. During the first 24 following the assassination, Johnson repeatedly told White House staffers that he wanted them to stay on the job, and that he needed them more than they needed him.
Two of Gillon's main themes are Johnson's personal insecurities and the real disdain that many people who were closest to JFK felt for him. Above all, the dead president's brother and closest confidant, Robert F. Kennedy, hated Johnson.

The book comes packaged in seventeen short chapters, which makes it easy to take in one chapter at a time. It includes 14 black-and-white photos, 30 pages of endnotes, a brief "Note on Sources," and a good index.

Here's a C-SPAN video of Gillon talking about his book not long after it was published. Here is the New Books Network podcast interview with Gillon.