WASHINGTON — John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, in jubilant mood, smiled widely and shook my hand. We were standing in a makeshift cloth pavilion backstage at the cavernous Sam Houston Coliseum in Houston, Texas. The President, the vice president and their wives were ready to mount the rostrum. Some 3,000 restless Democrats eagerly awaited their appearance on Thursday, Nov. 21, 1963.
The evening was ostensibly to honor a powerful long-time Houston congressman, the late Albert Thomas. But the real reason for this unprecedented visit, encouraged by popular Gov. John Connally but silently opposed by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, was 1964 presidential politics.
Johnson knew that the relationship between Sen. Ralph Yarborough and the governor verged on malignancy, that the Democratic Party apparatus reeked of internecine quarreling. Nonetheless, JFK had determined to come; he needed to shore up his sagging popularity in Texas and he wanted to fatten an emaciated party treasury. The election was only one year away.
And now the President was thanking me for the wildly enthusiastic turnout of Houstonians cheering their leader. My advertising agency had been ordered, by LBJ, to ensure that this visit be marked solely by affection and applause. It was.
LBJ grabbed me by the shoulder after the speeches were finished: "It has gone much better than I had imagined," he said. I had planned to go straight to Austin and prepare for the next evening's climax event, a massive fund-raising dinner. "Tell you what," said the vice president. "Don't go directly to Austin. Let some of your people handle those chores. Go with me to Ft. Worth, spend the night and then go with me to Dallas on our way to Austin. I have a lot of political talking to do with you." I knew this was LBJ's way of saying that I had done a good job; yes sir, I would go.
Ft. Worth was rainy, bleak. The weather conspired against us, as did Sen. Yarborough. He didn't want to ride with the vice president; even after we cajoled him in the car with LBJ, he was sulky. I sat in the front seat on our way to the Texas Hotel, Mrs. Johnson in the center of the back seat, flanked by a scowling Yarborough and a mildly amused LBJ. The conversation can best be described as desultory.
The next morning, after speaking appearances by the Governor and the President, we flew off to Love Field under a dazzling canopy of bright sunlight. The motorcade from the airport would wind through Dallas, loop around Dealey Plaza and wind up at the Trade Center where the President would deliver a speech to the industrial proconsuls of the city. This sun-spangled day was Friday, Nov. 22, 1963.
Some six car lengths behind the President, I rode in nerve-stretched excitement with Liz Carpenter, then LBJ's executive assistant, Pamela Turnure, secretary to the First Lady and Evelyn Lincoln, secretary to the President. The slowly winding motorcade drove by faces full of unfeigned delight; people were offering a kind of squealing, jumping-up-and-down greeting for the President .
We began the turn around a grassy knoll, under the tracks, to Dealey Plaza. Suddenly, the slow-moving motorcade became the Indianapolis Speedway. The car in front drag-raced from 10 m.p.h. to over 60. None of us had any idea of what happened. Perhaps a rock was thrown at the President? The mind could not imagine much worse; no President had been assassinated in this land for more than 60 years.
Someone, possibly level-headed Liz Carpenter, suggested that we keep on the route and go directly to the Trade Mart. The President had a speech to make and no screwball rock-thrower would stop him.
The Trade Mart was packed with an expectant audience. But no presidential limo in sight. Suddenly a Secret Service man, shirttail flapping as he ran, holding a radio in his hand, told us the President had been shot; so had the governor. No, he didn't know any more, only that they had been taken to Parkland Hospital.
I ran up to a deputy sheriff, a huge .357 Magnum strapped to his ample hip. Would he take us to the hospital? He would.
We pushed aside debris in his back seat, everyone piled in. With siren keening, we barreled to Parkland. I escorted Mrs. Lincoln to the second floor to the administrator's office; she was inconsolable.
I leaped down the stairs to the basement, an area crowded with walking zombies, congressmen whose faces were contorted with disbelief, the crush of the nightmare not yet fully comprehended.
Lady Bird Johnson was in a room consoling Nellie Connally. Both had been weeping. "No," said Mrs. Johnson, "we know nothing about the President or John. We don't know if they are alive or dead. We are only praying and hoping."