On the 40th anniversary of the Warren Commission Report, a documentary history uses LBJ’s phone calls to reveal how the assassination of JFK cast a shadow over his successor’s presidency.
Maryland-based journalist Holland (The CEO Goes to Washington, not reviewed, etc.) begins with transcriptions of calls on Nov. 22, 1963, as the Secret Service, JFK aides, and LBJ, amid confusion and stunned disbelief, coped with piecemeal reports of the shooting and arranged transportation of the body. In his first important decision as president, Johnson embraced an idea he had initially opposed: a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission to investigate the assassination, hoping to head off multiple congressional inquiries and defuse what he called “international complications” resulting from Lee Harvey Oswald’s possible links to the Castro government. Especially in this first week after assuming power, Johnson appears as master manipulator, probing, cajoling, exaggerating, even bullying (to Sen. Richard Russell, a reluctant panel member: “I know you don’t wanna do anything, but I want you to”). Given the controversy about the 9/11 commission, it’s useful to remember that disrepute clung to other presidential commissions. Chief Justice Earl Warren, for instance, at first declined to head the assassination panel because of damage to Supreme Court prestige when past justices served on the Hayes-Tilden and Pearl Harbor panels. Awareness of Kennedy secrets triggered what Holland terms LBJ’s “conspiratorial turn of mind,” expressed in private hints that Fidel Castro launched an assassination plot in retaliation for CIA covert action against him. Useful notes give a context for these matters, along with LBJ’s solicitude toward Jacqueline Kennedy and fury with Robert Kennedy, particularly after William Manchester’s Death of a President confirmed their long-rumored feud.
Vivid portrait of a consummate political animal in his natural habitat, by turns foxy, ferocious, and, as controversy over his panel and his presidency mounted, wounded.