The Hours before Dallas: A Recollection by President Kennedy's Fort Worth Advance Man, Part 3
Summer 2000, Vol. 32, No. 2
By Jeb Byrne
© 2000 by Jeb Byrne
A misting rain was falling in the morning when I went out to the parking lot to check on arrangements for the President's public appearance. On the roofs of nearby buildings, policemen in slickers were outlined against the gray sky. Despite the rain, the crowd continued to swell. The waiting spectators, many of them men in work clothes, quietly watched the technicians adjusting the public address system on the flatbed truck that would serve as the President's platform.
|During his stop in Fort Worth, President Kennedy made time for a speech in a parking lot near the Hotel Texas. (NARA, Kennedy Library)|
At 8:45 a.m., President Kennedy, Congressman Wright at his side, strode out of the hotel, neither of them wearing raincoats. Flanking them were Vice President Johnson and Senator Yarborough, with Governor Connally a few steps behind, all three wearing raincoats against the drizzle. Mrs. Kennedy had remained behind in the Kennedys' suite.
"There are no faint hearts in Fort Worth," President Kennedy began when he mounted the platform, "and I appreciate your being here this morning. Mrs. Kennedy is organizing herself. It takes longer, but, of course, she looks better than we do when she does it. . . . We appreciate your welcome."
He went on to speak about the country's defense and the part that Fort Worth, home of such major defense contractors as General Dynamics and Bell Helicopter, played in protecting national security. He touched on the nation's space effort.
The President's delivery was warm and direct. Americans, he said, must be willing to bear the burdens of world leadership. "I know one place where they are," he told his wet audience. "Here in this rain, in Fort Worth, in the United States. We are going forward."
There was prolonged applause from the eight thousand or so people in the parking lot. The President reentered the hotel and, after stopping for some conversations along the way, proceeded to the grand ballroom. As prearranged, the breakfasters were on their coffee when the President walked through the kitchen and down the aisle to the head table to vigorous applause. I watched from the kitchen doorway.
At one point the President beckoned Agent Duncan to the head table and told him to ask Mrs. Kennedy to come down to the ballroom. He also told Duncan to ask the orchestra to play "The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You" when she arrived in the ballroom. Agents Mike Howard and Clint Hill escorted Mrs. Kennedy down from the Kennedys' suite. Lovely in a pink suit, which later would become one of the symbols of the day, she came into the kitchen as Raymond Buck was introducing those at the head table. She waited. Then, with a grand gesture, Buck swung the attention of the audience to the kitchen entrance. Mrs. Kennedy stepped into the room to a tumultuous welcome and joined her husband as the orchestra complied with the President's musical request.
Buck presented the Texas hat and boots to the President. Kennedy thanked him and, to no one's surprise, did not put on the hat—nor, of course, the boots. He began his address lightly, referring to the frequent rising for applause during the introductions.
"I know why everyone in Texas. Fort Worth, is so thin, having gotten up and down about nine times. This is what you do every morning . . ."
He paid tribute to his wife: "Two years ago, I introduced myself in Paris by saying that I was the man who had accompanied Mrs. Kennedy to Paris. I am getting somewhat the same sensation as I travel around Texas. Nobody wonders what Lyndon and I wear."
The President's prepared remarks were directed to the country's defense posture. The parking lot talk had been a foretaste of what was to come. He enlarged upon Fort Worth's contribution to air defense: World War II bombers, combat helicopters, the new TFX planes. It was a speech written for a Texas chamber of commerce, and it was enthusiastically received. The President came up the aisle with his wife. Their young and vibrant faces flashed smiles. Hands reached out to the President and he grasped them. The Kennedys went back into the security-cleared kitchen and through a rear door to the elevators.
As the crowd moved toward the exits, craggy Congressman Albert Thomas of Houston, whose big day had been Thursday in his home city, shook my hand.
"Wonderful," he said. "Congratulations on what you fellows did here."
I felt a glow of architectonic achievement. But Congressman Thomas had something in his other hand. He handed me a hatcheck and a quarter and asked if I would mind going through the crowd to get his hat on the other side of the ballroom and meet him in the front of the hotel where the motorcade cars were drawn up. He had missed his assigned transportation once earlier in the trip and was determined not to do so again. A trifle deflated, I went after his hat. He need not have worried. The motorcade would not leave for nearly an hour.
When the Kennedys had returned to their suite shortly after 10 a.m., a rare occurrence for usually tightly scheduled presidential trips ensued: Time off. It wouldn't do for the presidential party to arrive in Dallas too early. During this hiatus, according to later accounts, President Kennedy telephoned former Vice President John Nance Garner at his home in Ulvade, Texas, to wish him a happy ninety-fifth birthday. Garner had served with President Franklin D. Roosevelt during FDR's first two terms. The Kennedys also spent time looking at the art exhibit that had been mounted in their suite especially for their visit but which they had overlooked during their midnight arrival in the hotel. The exhibit included, among other original works, a Van Gogh, a Monet, and a Picasso. The presidential couple telephoned one of the exhibit's organizers, Mrs. Ruth Carter Johnson, whose name they found on a special exhibit catalog in the suite. They thanked her and her associates for their thoughtfulness.
During this waiting period, the President's attention apparently was directed by aides to a nasty advertisement in the day's Dallas Morning News. The ad, paid for by right-wing extremists, accused the President of disloyalty to the country through softness on communism. According to William Manchester's detailed chronicle of the Texas trip in his Death of a President (1967, p. 121), Kennedy mused out loud at this point about how easy it would be to assassinate a traveling President. This was followed by a quick visit to the suite by Vice President Johnson to introduce his sister and her husband to the President. Then, before the Kennedys departed for the motorcade, the President is said to have reiterated on the telephone to aide Lawrence F. O'Brien the importance of getting Senator Yarborough to ride in the same car with the Vice President.
The refusal of Senator Yarborough to ride with the Vice President earlier in the trip, except in the motorcade from Carswell Air Force Base to the Hotel Texas under the cover of darkness, had focused press attention on the rift in the Texas Democratic Party, with Yarborough on one side and Vice President Johnson and Governor Connally on the other. The liberal Yarborough and the conservative Connally had little use for each other. The friction between Yarborough and Johnson appears to have been more complicated, perhaps caused by a clash over the exercise of prerogatives of two leading politicians of the same party in the same state and by Yarborough's perception that Johnson was too closely allied with Connally. But I leave that analysis to the students of Texas politics of the 1960s.
My principal concern after the chamber of commerce breakfast on November 22 was the loading of the motorcade. I was hoping that the process would go smoothly but was apprehensive that it would not. I had not been privy, of course, to the activities in the presidential suite after the breakfast, including the President's final, peremptory telephone order to O'Brien to seat Yarborough and Johnson in the same car. But it was obvious that this maneuver had high priority to discourage negative stories on the political feuding, which was dominating news coverage of the trip. So, after the breakfast event, the recovery mission for Congressman Thomas's hat, and conversations with Secret Service agents and lingering breakfast guests, I went out to the front of the hotel, where the cars for the motorcade were placed.
"Welcome Mr. President" read the lettering on a side of the marquee of the hotel. Two open convertibles, one for the President and the other for the Vice President, were parked at the curb; other vehicles lined up behind them. I stood to one side, arms folded, smoking, waiting. Governor Connally and his wife emerged from the hotel. David and Marjorie Belew were on the sidewalk, and David introduced me to the governor.
"I've heard about your work here in Fort Worth," Connally said. "You did a good job, I understand." There was no mention of the two unfulfilled requests from Austin. I thanked him.
Soon O'Brien and Yarborough came out of the hotel. O'Brien stood nervously by the Vice President's car. Yarborough, with him for a time, wandered away, then returned and entered the car. However, he perched on the back of the rear seat on the driver's side, and his occupancy seemed tentative. At this point O'Brien beckoned to me and asked me to seat the Vice President in the car when he came out of the hotel, adding "You can do it easier than I can." He muttered something further about his need to interact frequently with the Vice President in Washington. My job in the nation's capital did not ordinarily include such high-level associations.
A Secret Service agent from the Washington detail came back from the President's car escorting Nellie Connally, the governor's wife. There was no room for her in the President's car, which was a five-passenger model, the same as the Vice President's car. The President and Mrs. Kennedy and Governor Connally would ride in the rear seat of the President's car. The driver and agent Roy Kellerman would be up front. So there was no place for Mrs. Connally. But the Vice President's car was now reserved for the Johnsons, Yarborough, and, of course, Johnson's Secret Service agent and driver. The senator showed signs of relinquishing his seat to the lady. O'Brien, his face working, quickly moved in. To accommodate larger occupancy of the car, he ushered Mrs. Connally into the middle of the front seat. The Vice President and Mrs. Johnson came out of the hotel and approached the motorcade. O'Brien stepped back as Mrs. Johnson entered the car, and I stepped forward.
"Here is your seat, Mr. Johnson," I said cheerfully. He stared down at me while he struggled into a coat held by Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood. The Vice President climbed into the car. The deed was done. Up ahead, the Kennedys and Governor Connally settled into their white convertible, which, Agent Howard recalls, had been borrowed by the Secret Service from professional golfer Ben Hogan. There were waves and cheers from the onlookers. The motorcade to Carswell began. Riding in a Secret Service car, Howard was pleased to see Tarrant County's "Mounted Posse" out in force to supplement police on foot. Rain had canceled the planned presence of these deputies on horseback along the incoming route the night before. There was, Howard recalls, an unscheduled stop by the presidential cavalcade along the way. In the northwest suburb of River Oaks, the line of cars paused while the President spoke to some nuns and a group of school children.
|This map shows the presidential motorcade route from Carswell Air Force Base to downtown Fort Worth and back. (Courtesy of J. E. Byrne)|
Ross Wilder, my helper from GSA's Dallas office, and I drove to Carswell by a different route to arrive at the air base before the motorcade did. The departure committee, formerly the welcoming committee, was already in place by prearrangement. It did its duty. Thousands of people behind the barricades raised their voices as the presidential jet took off for Dallas at 11:25 a.m., about thirteen minutes away. Members of the departure committee, faces smiling, sought me out and shook my hand. I experienced a surge of euphoria, which I would recognize later as the common feeling of advance men watching a President's plane take to the air after a successful "stop" with no untoward incidents.
We drove back to the Hotel Texas, and I made a reservation for a commercial flight home. Jerry Bruno, who had made the pre-advance of the Texas trip, telephoned from Washington, and Moyers called from Austin. Each wanted to know how the morning had gone. I told them it went well. After giving these assurances, I sat down at my portable typewriter and wrote a one-page final report on JFK's Fort Worth visit. Then I lay down for a nap.
I dozed off. Suddenly, there was a furious knocking on the door.
"Turn on your radio," Ross Wilder's voice shouted. "Your boss is shot. Turn on your radio."
I switched on the hotel radio and let him in. Bulletin followed bulletin. A voice said that two priests emerging from a Dallas hospital room had confirmed that President Kennedy was dead. We sat in stunned silence. After a while I packed up my belongings and advance-related papers. Secret Service agents Duncan, Hall and Howard were gone, racing down the thruway in a sheriff's car to join their fellow agents in Dallas. Rubley was already there. He had driven to Dallas and had been in the motorcade there. I had lost track of Harnett. There was nothing for me to do in Fort Worth. Ross Wilder drove me to Love Field in Dallas for the flight home. I had a middle seat in the plane. My sobs would not stop. Passengers on either side began to show alarm. Finally, I told them: "You will have to put up with this. I was in Texas for the President."