Late November, back in ’63*

The Kennedy Assassination—24 Hours After: Lyndon B. Johnson’s Pivotal First Day as President by Steven M. Gillon
Hasn’t everything already been said about November 22, 1963?
Except, um, that we still don’t exactly know who done what.
Oswald: lone assassin?
Shooter(s) on the grassy knoll?
I keep thinking there’s going to be a deathbed confession that will reveal something new. Then I sigh and figure we’re probably just Never Going to Know.
At any rate, the books about the Kennedy assassination keep rolling off the presses, and I think this one actually does something new. Thank goodness.
Steven M. Gillon’s book covers the same day as William Manchester’s marvelous The Death of a President, but from the incoming president’s view and with the perspective of 45 years.
Here’s the weird thing: This book is gripping, despite the fact that the reader knows what is going to happen. The change of perspective is much of the reason, I believe. It was almost a sleight-of-hand move—all the nation was fixated on the Kennedy family, while a new president was getting his bearings, nearly invisible in plain view. This book shows us what was going on behind the scenes for the brand-new Johnson administration.
It’s no secret that LBJ despised being vice president. (Can you blame him?) This book shows the dramatic transformation of a man who, by several accounts, was quite sullen during the hours before circumstances thrust the presidency upon him—and whose political instincts were then put to a great test, as he attempted to fill the role of president while remaining sensitive to a grieving family and nation.
It’s almost a micro-history, given that it focuses on one 24-hour period. Amazing how much took place within that one day.
This book is an ideal companion to Manchester’s The Death of a President.
In Manchester’s book, the Kennedy crew is presented glowingly, while LBJ appears to be an insensitive, power-hungry brute.
In the Gillon book, LBJ comes across as a man whose finely-tuned political instincts give him the ability to walk the fine line between strong leader and mourner-in-chief. He’s not presented as a saint; the warts are on full display. But there’s an appreciation for the grace with which he handled the transfer of power.
Many in the Kennedy group, on the other hand, here appear to have taken out their grief and rage on Johnson. A particularly scathing passage about Kennedy’s staffers: “Their profound grief was understandable. Their sense of entitlement was not” (p. 160). Ouch.
I’m guessing that if a person were to read both Manchester’s The Death of a President and Gillson’s The Kennedy Assassination: 24 Hours After, she would get a pretty decent sense of how things played out during that first day. The two books balance each other. And it’s fascinating, as a reader, to see the differences in the nuances.
Presidential history geeks, rejoice.
* OK, so yes, I fiddled with the lyrics there. I know it’s supposed to be “December.”