President John F. Kennedy had been dead less than two hours when a federal judge in a brown polka dot dress was hustled aboard Air Force One to administer the oath of office to Lyndon Johnson. The slain president’s stricken wife, her pink suit still bloodstained, stood at Johnson’s side for the 28-second ceremony in Dallas.
Haste was in order, as the Secret Service wanted both presidents aloft and back to Washington for security reasons. Nine minutes after Johnson’s oath, Air Force One was speeding to 41,000 feet at its maximum climb rate, since it was unclear if someone might fire at the Boeing 707. Johnson became the first, and thus far only, U.S. president to take the oath of office west of the Mississippi River.
These events occurred on Nov. 22, 1963 at Dallas Love Field, six miles north of the downtown plaza where Kennedy was shot, but you won’t find any mention of it at the city-owned airport. No plaque, no photos, no narratives about the chaotic events that took place 53 years ago this month. The airport’s single acknowledgement of the transition from the Kennedy era to Johnson is a bronze plaque installed in the tarmac last year where Air Force One was parked, purchased by a local historian. That spot is an active taxiway and not visible to the public. (Last month, the airport also shut off a light in the tarmac designed to illuminate a window that overlooks the spot.)
“The point is that there’s now a whole group of young people who have no recollection of that” event, said Dallas attorney Dan Branch, a former state representative who helped plan an exhibit about the airport’s role in the tragedy. “This is clearly the most historic thing that’s ever happened at Love Field. That image of [Johnson] being sworn in on the plane is the only thing people around the world know about Love Field.”
But for some reason, the people who run the airport don’t want anything to do with it.
While a large number of Americans shudder at the turbulent transition currently underway, the change in administrations that took place a half-century ago in Dallas was equally historic – as well as sudden and violent. Historians from the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin and the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas had worked since 2009 to design an exhibit ahead of the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. They sought to portray the chaotic events of that day, as well as how the U.S. Constitution worked as designed. Branch helped to form the working group which included city aviation officials, given his frequent commutes to Austin via Love Field, and his interest in history.
“The precipitating issue was sparked by . . . seeing the construction coming and becoming concerned we were going to white-out some history unintentionally,” Branch said. The airport group started its work in 2010, less than a year after Dallas had commenced a $500 million renovation to modernize the 20-gate airport. Love Field and its major tenant, Southwest Airlines Co., were preparing for expanded service nationwide after decades of operating under federal flight limits imposed by the 1974 opening of the larger Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Their plan was to open the presidential exhibit by the fall of 2013.
Neither Kennedy nor Johnson, a former U.S. senator from Texas, had gone into the airport terminal after their brief flight from Fort Worth, where Kennedy delivered his final address as president. And while the President and Mrs. Kennedy’s arrival in Dallas had been well-documented as they greeted well-wishers, Air Force One pilots had moved the aircraft while the presidential motorcade was downtown, as the schedule called for a longer stay in Dallas before Kennedy flew to Austin for a fundraising dinner.
The lack of photographs required some detective work to determine precisely where the Boeing 707 had been when Johnson and Mrs. Kennedy were rushed back to the airport, the vice president huddling below window level of his limousine to avoid potential snipers. For years, the exact location was unclear.
“There were almost no photographs or recordings of where the plane was at departure because everyone was in panic and shock mode,” Branch said. The group caught a break when it found a photo shot by a former FAA employee from an outdoor balcony, a shot that captured a corner of the building and helped to pinpoint Air Force One’s location.
The proposed exhibit, “Transition from Tragedy, a President Is Sworn in at Love Field,” was planned around a window that looks out over the spot, on the airport’s east side. A hologram would have shown the 707 on the tarmac relative to the rest of the airport, surrounded by photographs of Kennedy’s Texas trip and the legal framework of presidential succession.
“This was a moment of national crisis but the constitution was at work,” said Nicola Longford, executive director of the Sixth Floor Museum. And then, suddenly, the project ended, for reasons that remain unclear.
City officials told the group that Love Field would not have the exhibit. The rapid turnabout after some 18 months of preparation left Branch, Longford, and Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library, angry and disappointed. “We were stunned, stunned-just stunned,” said Longford, calling the airport decision ” painful and incredibly disappointing.”
“We never received any apology or explanation except that the project was not moving forward. It just came to an abrupt end and that was it.”
The city’s director of aviation, Mark Duebner, declined an interview request.
“The LBJ Library and the Sixth Floor Museum put a great deal of time and resources into it,” Updegrove said in an e-mail. “Dallas Love Field changed direction without our knowledge or input. Neither the LBJ Library nor the Sixth Floor Museum have been involved since. We wish them all the best.”
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Kennedy was the fourth U.S. president to be assassinated. In 1865, President Andrew Johnson was sworn in at the Kirkwood House, a Washington hotel where he was living, after President Abraham Lincoln died. The Manhattan townhouse where President Chester Arthur took the oath in September 1881, on Lexington Avenue near 28th Street, has a plaque memorializing the event. Arthur was sworn in as president in the middle of the night when word arrived that President James Garfield had died more than two months after being shot at a Washington train station.
Twenty years later, President Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office in borrowed clothes at the Ansley Wilcox house in Buffalo, N.Y., eight days after President William McKinley had been shot at a World’s Fair in that city. The site of Roosevelt’s first inaugural, on Sept. 14, 1901, is now a National Historic Site and and is listed in the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places.
In 1963, Johnson and President Kennedy’s brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, wanted the oath of office to occur quickly, while Johnson was still in Dallas. Beyond the shock to Americans, Kennedy’s assassination carried international implications. Coming a year after the Cuban missile crisis, the killing of a U.S. president offered instant geopolitical uncertainty for a superpower with a nuclear arsenal. In the hours after his death, it was unclear if the assassination was part of a wider conspiracy, be it one of Southern state opponents to civil rights or a communist plot. Would the Soviet Union sense an advantage to exploit? And how would the White House function amid the turmoil, given that Kennedy and Johnson had a complicated history, with agendas and staff members known to clash.
“The bottom line is, this was a rarefied moment of world-changing history for our country, state and the city of Dallas, let alone Love Field,” Branch said.
Yet the assassination left a stain on the city for more than a decade, with a sense of civic trauma and a conflicted view of how to recognize the historical significance. The Secret Service certainly had qualms about the political atmosphere in Texas, where Kennedy was seen as too liberal on civil rights for blacks and soft on communism, angering many conservatives.
This conflict between JFK’s killing on the streets of Dallas and how to remember it in the place it happened may have shaped the cancellation of the planned exhibit at Love Field. The airport, which began offering service nationwide in 2014 with a modern space that handles more than 15 million annual passengers, looks very different from when the murdered president departed on Air Force One. Many Texans who lived through the 1963 assassination are reluctant to mark JFK’s killing publicly, Branch and Longford said. “I’ve lived here long enough to know that some topics are off limits,” Longford said.
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The Texas Schoolbook Depository building, from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fateful shots, would have been demolished save for the intervention of county officials in the 1980s. And it took 30 years before Dealey Plaza received federal designation as a historic place. The Sixth Floor Museum now hosts more than 400,000 annual visitors, making it the state’s second-most visited cultural attraction after the Alamo. Other sites that figured into the events of November 1963 – Parkland Memorial Hospital and the street corner where Oswald fatally shot a Dallas police officer – have markers. The Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, now operated as the Hilton Fort Worth, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
The Texas Historic Commission lists Love Field, which the Army formed as a pilot training site in 1917, as a state historic site but does not cite the events of 1963. The airport has also not been nominated to the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places. One complicating factor would be what to nominate exactly, and whether that would be Air Force One, the entire airport, a terminal, or the tarmac, said Paul Lusignan, a historian with the National Register, which is administered by the National Park Service.
“Each of these scenarios has its own problems and considerations as it would apply to the National Register Criteria, including assessing the physical integrity of the site to convey the events of the times,” Lusignan wrote in an e-mail. “The National Register does not generally list the empty site of significant events where there are no historic physical features.”
Dallas officials say Love Field will, at some point, commemorate the presidential transition. The airport’s 100th anniversary will come next year and the city may have a memorial, although it’s unclear what form it would take or whether either the LBJ Library or Sixth Floor Museum would participate.
Richard West, a spokesman for Southwest, said in an e-mail that the company is “looking into what we may be able to do in order to further support the project.” The airline declined further comment until it communicates with the city, he said.
Johnson’s 1963 oath of office “was an extremely important moment in our nation’s history that should be memorialized in a visible way at the airport,” Dallas Mayor Michael Rawlings said in an e-mailed statement. “Love Field has been dramatically redeveloped and improved in recent years. But now is a good time for us to figure out how best to permanently memorialize the historic spot, and I’m confident city staff will do so in the coming months.”