He interrupted himself, walking over to the phone and pushing one of its buttons. He picked up the receiver. “Is this the White House?” Johnson said. “Oh, sorry.” Then he punched another: “The White House? Sorry.” He looked over at his wife. “Bird! Come over here and get me the White House. That’s going to have to be changed! The whole damn world could go up in smoke and I wouldn’t even be able to get Dean Rusk. Take me 10 damn minutes to reach the secretary of state.”
The White House secretaries who logged Johnson’s activities every day as president recorded the moment with almost comical blandness. “[President Johnson] said that one of the first things he would like to do is revise the White House operator system. It was too slow for him. … All other things would be left the same at the White House. Didn’t want to change anything.” (For every change the new president would make in those early days, no matter how small or worthwhile, Johnson was always careful to assure everyone that he would keep continuity with Kennedy).
Finally the president got through to his National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. He reminded him to “get those wires out fast” to every country recognized by the United States to assure them of the continuity of our government. Then, without irony after his inability to work the phones, he told Bundy: “I don’t want any of them thinking that we don’t know what to do.”
Next in the secretary’s log is: “Told Nancy about Rufus bravery.”
Johnson’s first letter as president had been to the Kennedy children. His second had been to the head of the Secret Service commending agent Rufus Youngblood. Immediately after the first shot was fired in Dallas, Johnson told the group that Youngblood threw Johnson and his wife onto the floor of the car. “There we were hunkered down in the car and he had his body on us,” said Johnson. “And Bird was hunkered down there with us, too. We were hunkered. Rufus moved so fast. It was one of the greatest things I have ever seen, Nancy. I didn’t know Rufus had that many reflexes.”
At one point during the evening, Judge Thornberry called his daughter to reassure her, just as millions of parents called their children that night. LBJ took the phone from Thornberry and started talking. “Is he your boyfriend?” he asked. “What’s his name? Buddy? Well, put Buddy on, I want to talk with him … Buddy? This is Lyndon Johnson, your new president … just fine thank you … you … Thank you … need all the help we can get … Well, Buddy, take good care of that little girl who is with you …”
It was as if Johnson was trying to comfort the country one person at a time, a job that would consume him for the first days of his presidency. If the president was ready, his wife was not. Before my mother left, Lady Bird said she was running out of black clothes to wear to all of the events. When Mom got home after dinner, she gathered her black coats and dresses to send over the next day. She would also call a local shop and have them send Lady Bird some black hats. She then sat down to the typewriter, set the caps lock, and typed out everything she could remember.
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