The assassination of President John Kennedy on November 22, 1963 occurred so quickly and shockingly that questions of whether Vice President Lyndon Johnson should act as President were never really considered. At 12:30 p.m. Central time, Kennedy was shot. At 1:00, the President was declared dead. At 2:38, Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as the 36th President on board Air Force One. And in its aftermath, questions of presidential succession and disability would take center stage in a way, and with an urgency, which had previously never been the case.
This urgency was brought on at least in part by Johnson himself. Six years prior to being sworn in as Vice President, in 1955 the then-Senator from Texas suffered a near fatal heart attack. Though only in his mid-50's, Johnson was unusually self-aware about his own health and mortality, and as such, was unusually interested in having a clearly defined succession and disability law in place. The urgency was also brought on unintentionally thanks to television.
Five days after the assassination, now President Johnson would address a joint session of Congress in an event covered live on all television networks. Shocked by the assassination itself, the nation would be further alarmed during the address thanks to the appearance of the two men next in the line of succession should Johnson die:
- Next in line, Speaker of the House of Representatives John W. McCormack, who looked an unusually old 71 years of age; and
- Next after McCormack, President Pro Tempore of the Senate Carl Hayden, who looked every single day of his 85 years to date.
The thought of either of these two men being one Lyndon Johnson heartbeat away from running the country was all too disconcerting during the nuclear age, at a time when Johnson's predecessor had been taken from the nation in an instant.
But unlike prior attempts to address presidential succession and disability that withered as memories of an averted succession crisis passed over time, one young Senator from Indiana (with Johnson's help) would put the matter to rest once and for all.
Catalyst for the 25th Amendment
While immediate questions regarding presidential succession and disability would be laid to rest a year later as Johnson was elected to a presidential term in his own right together with Minnesota Senator and Vice Presidential nominee Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Jr. But unlike in the aftermath of the deaths of William Henry Harrison, Taylor, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding and Franklin Roosevelt before them? At the time of the assassination one Senator had already spearheaded an initial effort to permanently address the issue; and another was highly motivated to spearhead the effort that finally succeeded.
What if President Kennedy Had Survived?
The final bullet fired at President Kennedy struck him in the crown of his head, shattering his skull, and though it would be a half hour before he were declared dead at Parkland Hospital, for all practical purposes he was killed instantly. While his death would result in Lyndon Johnson's immediate assumption of the presidency, but what if the Presidential assassin's final shot wasn't quite so accurate?
While the death of the President obviously was a national tragedy and would serve as the ultimate catalyst for the 25th Amendment's ratification, what really provided impetus was an alternate scenario that was imagined after the fact: one in which John Kennedy weren't killed, but rather seriously wounded and in a permanent vegetative state?