JFK assassination anniversary: A private conversation between LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover
On this day 48 years ago, a gunman assassinated President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Hours after the shooting, Vice President Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office aboard Air Force One. It didn’t take long for the swirl of conspiracy theories to begin.
At the White House a few days later, President Johnson talked on the phone with J. Edgar Hoover, chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover briefed the new president on the investigation into the Kennedy assassination.
In the official White House telephone tape recordings Johnson kept, the sound is a bit scratchy and hissy.
It’s a week after the Kennedy assassination — Nov. 29, 1963. Things happened quickly after someone fired toward the presidential motorcade at 12:30 Central Time on Nov. 22. But Johnson still needed some basic information from Hoover.
"How many shots were fired?" Johnson asked.
"Three," Hoover replied.
"Any of them fired at me?"
"No. All three at the president. And we have them," Hoover said. "Two shots were splintered. But our ballistic expert was able to prove they were fired by this gun."
As vice president and a native Texan, Johnson had ridden two cars behind President Kennedy when those shots rang out. But he had little sense of what was happening just ahead of him.
When the first shot went off, his Secret Service bodyguard Rufus Youngblood leapt from the front to the back seat and threw himself on top of Johnson to protect the vice president. At about the same time, First Lady Jackie Kennedy in her pink suit tries to climb out of the president's car up ahead. An iconic photograph captures the moment.
On the phone a few days later, J. Edgar Hoover continues the story. He uses graphic language to describe President Kennedy’s injuries.
“The third shot is a complete bullet," Hoover said." It wasn’t shattered. That rolled out of the president’s head. It tore a large part of the president’s head off. In trying to massage his heart on the way to the hospital, it fell onto the stretcher. We recovered that. We have that. We have the gun here also."
"Were they aiming at the president?" Johnson asked.
"They were aiming directly at the president. There’s no question about that," Hoover said. "This telescopic lens brings close to you like they were sitting right beside you."
In this call one week after the president’s assassination, Hoover then shares information that’s fueled conspiracy theories still simmering decades later.
"And we also tested the fact that you can fire, those three shots were fired within three seconds," Hoover said. "Some stories going around the papers and so forth that there must have been more than one man because no one man could fire the shots in the time. We disproved that by the actual tests we’ve made."
Hoover also gives President Johnson some background on suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and recounts that man’s actions up to his arrest in the movie theater later that day. The two also talk about Jack Ruby, who killed Oswald two days after Oswald shot Kennedy.
Despite the intrigue and the factual narrative, this phone call also reflects the country’s so-called loss of innocence — the sense that the era just past had been simpler and was beginning to get more complicated. Johnson asks Hoover whether it might make sense to ride from then on in a bulletproof limo.
"Do you have a bulletproof car?" Johnson asked.
"Why yes I do," Hoover said.
"Do you think I ought to have one?"
"You most certainly should."
What’s striking about the phone call is how easy and efficient it sounds in the face of monumental events. President Johnson extends some Southern-style courtesies and asks Hoover to talk to him like a brother. He solicits the FBI chief’s recommendations on prospective members of the Warren Commission that will investigate President Kennedy's assassination.
In part of the call, Johnson sounds as if he’s chewing a sandwich at lunch. You can almost hear him lean back with his feet up on his desk — during an unguarded, indelibly preserved moment on the phone at the end of Nov. 1963.