For many Americans today, President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, represents a dramatic break from what came before. Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullets hacked a chasm between an idyllic Camelot and the chaos and division of the modern era.
But at the time, Americans were eager to see not a break, but continuity. And no one recognized this need more viscerally than the two presidents who served on either side of President Kennedy—Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson—although their goals were very different.
One of the first people to whom Johnson turned upon his sudden elevation to the presidency was former president Eisenhower. After all, Eisenhower had stepped down from the leadership of the free world less than three years before, and Johnson understood that having Ike’s stamp of approval on his own unexpected presidency would give it stability and enable him to move his policies forward. Johnson hoped to get Eisenhower to tell the press that he would stand behind the new president.
For his part, Eisenhower disliked Johnson and distrusted his familiarity and was too smart to let Johnson box him in. A transcript of the telephone call Johnson placed to Eisenhower on the evening of November 22 reveals Johnson coaxing: “You know how much I have admired you through the years.”
Eisenhower replied: “The country is far more important than any of us.”
Although he publicly and repeatedly pledged his support to the government, the Republican ex-president declined to issue a joint statement declaring his political support for the Democrat Johnson.
But, like the new president, Eisenhower saw the need to emphasize to Americans that the country would survive the first murder of a president since Leon Czolgosz shot President William McKinley in 1901. Pulled out of a meeting at the United Nations to address the news of Kennedy’s assassination, Eisenhower spoke to reporters off the cuff to insist that Americans were too solid and faithful to let fanatics derail their government.
“I’m sure the entire citizenry of this nation will join as one man in expressing not only their grief but their indignation at this act, and will stand faithfully behind the government,” Eisenhower said. Relying on the lessons of history, he went on to detail how the nation had responded to every other presidential murder or assassination attempt in American history: attacks on Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Harry Truman. In each case, regardless of the partisan affiliation of either the president or the assassin, Eisenhower noted, Americans had rallied behind the government, and the nation had moved on.
For Eisenhower, the American government stood above the president and above party. “These things have happened,” he said, “and it seems inexplicable to me, because Americans are loyal, and it is just this occasional psychopathic sort of accident that occurs and I don’t know what we can do about it…. In civilized countries of the world this doesn’t happen….”
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