Exactly when did doctors give up their efforts to save Kennedy's life? And when did Lyndon Johnson learn that JFK was dead? These are the central questions that need to be addressed in understanding the transfer of power on November 22, 1963. The questions may be obvious; the answers are not.
The Warren Commission concluded that Kennedy was shot at 12:30 pm. He was declared dead at 1:00 pm, and Johnson was informed at 1:20 pm. Most authors writing about the assassination, even those who question the conclusions of the Warren Commission, have accepted this timeline.
New documents recently opened to the public call into question key parts of this timeline. The first piece of evidence is a long memorandum prepared by Parkland hospital administrator Jack Price, who was standing outside Trauma Room #1 as President Kennedy was wheeled in on a stretcher. Price gave the memorandum, which outlined his actions over the next few hours, to author William Manchester. Last year, Manchester's children granted me access to their father's rich collection of materials housed at Wesleyan University for my new book, The Kennedy Assassination - 24 Hours After.
According to the document, Price wrote that Dr. Kemp Clark, one of a team of physicians working on Kennedy, came out of Trauma #1 "and told me that the president was dead and that he would sign the death certificate." Clark did not record the precise time of his conversation with Dr. Clark, but he did note that just after they finished speaking he walked down the hall and saw a priest come in the door. Price asked his assistant to escort the priest to the Trauma room.
The priest was the 70-year-old Reverend Oscar Huber. His arrival at the hospital is crucial to fixing an approximate time for when doctors had given up working on Kennedy. The most reliable source for establishing the time of Huber's arrival is Dave Powers. As a special assistant to the president, Powers played many roles - receptionist, gatekeeper, greeter, and repository of trivia. On trips like this one in Texas, he was responsible for keeping track of the schedule, making sure the presidential party did not fall too far behind.
As they were running into the hospital with the President's body, Powers had instructed secret service agent Jack Reedy to find a priest. For the next few minutes he kept checking his watch, asking the secret service: "What's the story on the priest?" Standing outside the emergency room with Mrs. Kennedy, he occupied himself by writing down everything he saw, including the names of the doctors as they responded to the call for help. "Now I was carrying the President's schedule and I was writing this thing down in pencil or ink," he told NBC newsman Sandor Vanocur in an oral history at the JFK Library.
In a handwritten note that he turned over to Manchester, Powers stated that he saw the priest coming down the hall at 12:50 pm. If true, it would mean that Dr. Clark had already determined that Kennedy was dead at least 10 minutes before the official time stated by the Warren Commission.
If the doctors were ready to declare Kennedy dead at 12:50 pm, why then was the official time listed as 1:00 pm?
The time of death was a fiction created to satisfy Mrs. Kennedy. According to Catholic doctrine, the last rites had to be delivered before the soul left the body. If her husband was already officially dead before Father Huber had a chance to administer the sacrament, it would not have been valid. "Father do you think the sacrament had effect," she asked Huber in the emergency room. He tried to ally her fears. "I am convinced that his soul had not left his body," he said. "This was a valid last sacrament."
Whether doctors had stopped working on JFK around 12:50 pm or at 1:00 pm, may seem like a minor point. The issue is vitally important, however, to understanding the timing of the transfer of power.
For the first few minutes after they arrived at Parkland Hospital, those around the President may have been able to maintain false hope that doctors could save Kennedy. But by roughly 12:50 pm, when Dr Clark told Jack Price that he was ready to sign the death certificate, it was clear that doctors had stopped trying to save his life. The President was dead, and everyone knew it. Within a few minutes, the secret service notified its office in Washington. Shortly after 1:00 pm, Robert Kennedy would get a phone call at his home in Virginia informing him that the wounds his brother suffered proved fatal.
Yet, Lyndon Johnson, standing in a cubicle a few yards away, was still in the dark. The chaos and confusion of the moment, and the profound sense of grief and loss among Kennedy's close aides, only partially explains the delay in telling LBJ that he was now President. Kennedy aides were in denial that their beloved JFK was dead, but also that LBJ, a man they despised, was now President.
When did they finally tell Johnson the news? LBJ told the Warren Commission that White House appointments secretary Kenneth O'Donnell notified him of Kennedy's death at 1:20 pm.
Johnson's statement, however, does not stand up to scrutiny. Just as Kennedy aides pushed back the official time of death to 1:00 pm, it appears that Johnson may have pushed back the clock as well.
LBJ Secret service agent Emory Roberts directly contradicted LBJ's timeline. In a lengthy interview with Manchester, Roberts claimed that he was the one who broke the news. "At 1:13 pm I told Lyndon Johnson that President Kennedy was dead," he told Manchester. "One of my agents had told me that the President was dead and I checked with the agent outside the door of trauma room 1. I went to Johnson. Cliff Carter, Rufus Youngblood, Mrs. Johnson, and the President were there. I said, 'the President is dead, sir.'" According to Roberts, Johnson turned to Cliff Carter and told him to make a note of the time. "Someone mentioned that the time was 1:13 pm," he noted.
Oddly enough, Cliff Carter, LBJ's chief aide on the trip, contradicted his boss and supported Roberts' account. On the ride back to Washington on Air Force One, Carter dictated notes about the events he witnessed at Parkland Hospital. He observed that Roberts was the first to deliver the news, and that two minutes later O'Donnell entered the room and made the announcement again.
Carter repeated the story to Manchester. "There have been many wrong accounts of this." Roberts "did the notifying," he recalled. "He just said, 'Mr. Johnson, the President is dead.'"
How could Johnson have been mistaken about such important details? It's possible given the extraordinary pressure he was under that he simply misremembered the sequences of events. More likely, Johnson was using O'Donnell as political cover to blunt any criticism that might emerge from Kennedy loyalists, especially RFK, that he had been overeager to assume the presidency. Despite receiving a steady stream of pessimistic reports about Kennedy's condition, and being informed explicitly by the secret service that JFK was dead, Johnson refused to take charge until he received the word from O'Donnell.
Technically, the powers of the presidency transferred to Johnson at 12:30 pm when the fatal third bullet shattered Kennedy's brain. For a variety of reasons -chaos and confusion at the hospital, the grief of Kennedy's close advisors and friends, their distrust and disdain for the new President, and LBJ's insecurity -- the United States was without a functioning head of state for nearly 40 minutes.