Journalist had rare glimpse of history
Bill Moyers, arguably America’s most celebrated living journalist, has been at the center of American news for more than 50 years. But on November 22, 1963, Mr. Moyers wasn’t reporting the story: He was inside it.
“It happened so quickly and we were thrust into it so tragically that there wasn’t time to think those thoughts,” he said, when asked if he was able to accurately assess what was happening that terrible afternoon in Dallas. “I was in Austin,” Mr. Moyers recalled. “LBJ was with Kennedy in Dallas. I was having lunch to celebrate the success of Kennedy’s trip and the maitre’ d came over and said ‘You have a phone call.’ And it was from the secret service agent Bill Payne.
Mr. Moyers was 29 at the time, and was in Austin by request of President Kennedy. “He’d asked me to go even though I was deputy director of the Peace Corps,” he explained. “I had a reputation for getting along with both the Irish mafia and the Austin pols. So when they ran into trouble, Kennedy called me and asked me to go down [to Austin]. And I did, and I held hands and got the parties to at least agree to not fight until he got out of town. So we were celebrating when the call came.”
Mr. Moyers was quickly whisked via small plane to Dallas’ Love Field, where just hours prior the youthful president had descended Air Force One’s stairs in bright sunshine, waving to reporters.
“I landed beside Air Force One and wrote a little note to LBJ that said ‘I’m here if you need me,’” Mr. Moyers recalled. “Pretty soon this big secret service agent came and pulled me up. So I got aboard just before he took the oath of office. I had no time to think grand thoughts, because he immediately turned to me and said ‘We’ve got to have something to say when I land.’”
Amid the shock, sorrow and confusion, Mr. Moyers and the new president had little choice but to begin the grim task of crafting the first speech of the Johnson presidency.
“He didn’t have a staff with him. The vice president had Mrs. Johnson and one other aide. So there were just four of us on the staff on the plane who knew Johnson,” Moyers explained. “And the Kennedy people were grieving. They were drinking. They were drowning their sorrow in liquor.
“And they were sitting by Mrs. Kennedy who was sitting in the back of the plane by the coffin of her husband.”
Mr. Moyers recalled the scene somberly. Even now, some 52 years later, the enormity of the day’s events were difficult to discuss.
“So we had no time to grieve,” he said. “I felt for the president, because he never had a chance to swallow this and work it through his system. He just had to start making decisions on the phone with (Attorney General) Robert Kennedy, on the phone with (Secretary of Defense Robert) McNamara, on the phone with the speaker of the house, trying to find out what was going on, and on the phone with the CIA.”
President Johnson was sitting in a small, private compartment in the middle of the plane, Mr. Moyers recalled. “He had raised the porthole. The secret service had gone through and closed all the portholes because somebody with a rifle, they feared, might shoot through there. So we had taken off and he had opened the porthole and I said ‘Mr. president,’ – I just automatically called him Mr. president. I’d been calling him Senator Johnson all those years. – ‘what are you thinking?’ And he said ‘Are the missiles flying?’ Meaning, is there more to this than an assassination? Is this a coup attempt? I think he knew that they weren’t, because the national security guy aboard and the secret service would have immediately told us if there had been. But that was his instant response to my question.”
Air Force One touched down at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland just before 6 p.m. EST. Mr. Moyers can be seen in the images from that day, exiting the aircraft just behind President Johnson.
“So he makes the statement and we fly to the White House,” Mr. Moyers remembered. “We do not go to the oval office because it’s still … Kennedy … it would have been unseemly. We go to the vice president’s office, which is across the alley from the White House, where he had an office. And there we stayed until three o’clock in the morning, the four of us sitting around his bed as he began to outline his agenda. He had no time for reflection. Fortunately he was deeply informed about the legislation that was going through, and so he said ‘I want to push the civil rights act, a tax bill, and four or five others.’ So when we left at four o’clock in the morning, we pretty well had an agenda. We were back at six o’clock or seven o’clock, and immediately began, just the four or five of us. Some of the Kennedy people had recovered somewhat to be able to perform some of their duties, but they were shattered. They were just absolutely shattered. It was like losing your longtime commander in the army in the trenches or something like that.”
The overwhelming task of establishing a new administration on an impossible timetable, amidst the nation’s grief and uncertainty, left little time for anything but work, Mr. Moyers said.
“So you don’t have time to say ‘Wow, this is amazing,’” he recalled. “I never marked the moment. So much was coming at us. It was frankly like a fire hose of information coming at us from the CIA, from the congress, from the national security agency, and I just fell into the job of trying to sort it, and make sure that it was handed to the president in a folder that was organized.”
In January of this year, Mr. Moyers opened his files from those days. They had laid in his New York attic undisturbed since leaving the White House in early 1967. “I was astonished at the things that happened. I organized all the first week’s cables and memos in one big box. And to go through them was to just be astonished at what was coming at us; There was a civil war going on in Cyprus, as if the United States could do anything about it; There was an overthrow of a government in Venezuela or somewhere like that … It just was coming, bang-bang-bang, like rain on the roof. And you just did the best you could with you intuition.”