WASHINGTON, Nov. 23, 1963 (UPI) - Lyndon Baines Johnson today met the awesome responsibilities of President of the United States grimly determined - with the help of God and a united America - to carry on the tasks left him by John F. Kennedy.
Less than 24 hours after he formally took office in a hot, stuffy airplane in Dallas, Tex., the new chief executive called in Secretary of State Dean Rusk (at 9:30 a.m. EST) for the first of a full day of top-level meetings.
Among other officials, Johnson was to confer (at 11:30 a.m.) with former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom Kennedy also consulted at times of national crisis.
Amid the hectic urgency of assuming the full reins of the presidency, Johnson set aside a few silent moments before the body of his predecessor, who was felled by an assassin's bullet in Dallas yesterday.
Lying in repose in the ornate East Room of the White House, the late president was to be viewed during a three-hour period at mid-day by Johnson, Eisenhower, Chief Justice Earl Warren, Speaker John W. McCormack, Cabinet members, and executive appointees and close personal friends of Kennedy.
Former President Harry S. Truman is expected to arrive tomorrow, when Kennedy's body will lie in state in the Capitol rotunda. Former President Herbert Hoover, who has been ailing, sent regrets that he would not be able to leave New York.
Johnson set up office temporarily in his former vice presidential quarters in the Executive Office Building - "The Old State Department Building" - just west of the White House.
He continues to reside for the time being at his now heavily guarded Spring Valley mansion in Washington with his wife, Lady Bird, and a daughter, Lucy Baines, 16. The Johnsons' other daughter, Lynda Bird, 19, will remain at the University of Texas, where she is a student.
For the time being, Johnson appeared ready to retain the present Cabinet, although he is likely to make changes in the future.
Still stunned by the tragic events of the day, Johnson told the American people on his arrival from Dallas last night:
"I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help - and God's."
The response was swift and warm. Speaking for the Cabinet, Rusk said early today that "a great American is now president and Lyndon B. Johnson needs our support."
The 55-year-old, Texas-born president, a 29-year veteran of Capitol Hill, also carried into offices pledges of support from Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress.
Johnson conferred with House and Senate leaders shortly after his arrival in Washington and the White House said he had asked for their "united support in the face of the tragedy that has befallen our country."
"He said that it is more essential than ever before that this country be united," the statement said. "The legislative leaders of both parties assured President Johnson of their bipartisan cooperation."
One who attended, Sen. George Smathers, D-Fla., said that the Republicans offered Johnson their "total help and cooperation." Sen. J. William Fulbright, D-Ark., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described Johnson as "calm and contained."
Also meeting Johnson were McCormack, who now is next in line for the presidency; Senate Democratic Leader Mike Mansfield, Mont.; Senate GOP leader Everett M. Dirksen, Ill.; Senate Democratic Whip Hubert Humphrey, Minn., and Senate GOP Whip Thomas Kuchel, Calif.
Earlier, Johnson conferred with Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, Undersecretaries of State W. Averell Harriman and George W. Ball, and Presidential Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. He spoke to Eisenhower and Truman by telephone.
Rusk returned to Washington earlier today with five other Cabinet officials. Their flight to Japan from Honolulu for trade talks was reversed when they heard of Kennedy's assassination.
The others were Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon, Commerce Secretary Luther Hodges, Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman, Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz and Interior Secretary Stewart Udall.
Johnson left his office for his Washington home at 9:38 p.m. after a day of enormous tragedy he could never have predicted when it began.
Last night, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson were to have entertained the touring Kennedys at their vast LBJ ranch in Texas. But those plans, and the course of the nation's history, changed abruptly at 1:31 p.m. EST yesterday.
Johnson was riding two cars behind the Kennedy limousine in downtown Dallas when the sniper's bullet hit its mark. Immediately surrounded by Secret Service agents, Johnson sped to the hospital where Kennedy died about a half-hour later.
Johnson was then whisked under heavy guard to Dallas' municipal airport, Love Field, where the president's jet transport plane, Air Force One, waited on one side of the runway.
Inside, crammed in the uncomfortably warm forward compartment, 27 persons saw Johnson take the solemn oath as the 36th President of the United States, the eighth vice president to enter the office and the fourth to do so because of an assassination.
On Johnson's right was his wife; on his left, the grief-stricken Mrs. Kennedy. Administering the oath was an old Johnson family friend, Federal District Judge Sarah T. Hughes, 67, whom Kennedy had appointed the first woman judge of the Dallas district.
Judge Hughes held out a small, black-covered Bible someone had thrust in her hand as she boarded the plane. "Hold up your right hand and repeat after me," she told Johnson.
Johnson placed his left hand over the Bible, raised his right hand, and repeated:
"I do solemnly swear I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States to the best of my ability and to preserve, uphold and protect the Constitution of the United States, so help me God."
It was 3:38 pm. EST.
Johnson turned to his wife, the new first lady, squeezed her shoulder and kissed her on the cheek. Next he put an arm around Mrs. Kennedy, kissing her gently on the right cheek. He also embraced Mrs. Evelyn Lincoln, the Kennedys' long-time secretary.
Then the new president stepped back and snapped: "Now, let's get airborne."
The giant plane, carrying Kennedy's casket, took off 11 minutes after Johnson took his oath. It landed at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., outside Washington two hours and nine minutes later.
On his arrival, Johnson conferred hastily with a group of government officials and legislators, including McNamara and Dirksen. He then stepped to a row of microphones to make his first public statement as president.
Squinting into the glare of spotlights, Johnson read from a white card he held with both hands. The first lady stood at his side.
"This is a sad time for all people," he said. "We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. For me, it is a deep personal tragedy. I know that the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bear. I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help and God's."
The president, his wife and party boarded an Army helicopter for the White House grounds, arriving at 6:27 p.m.
During the flight from Dallas, Johnson telephoned Mrs. Rose Kennedy, the slain president's mother, in Hyannis Port, Mass.
"I wish to God that there was something I could do - I just wanted you to know that," he said. "Lady Bird wants to talk with you."
Mrs. Johnson took the phone and said, "We feel like the heart has been cut out of us." She broke down and sobbed for a moment. "Our love and our prayers are with you."
Shortly before landing at Andrews Air Force Base, the new chief executive phoned the wounded Texas Gov. John Connally's wife, Nellie. "We are praying with you, darling, and know that everything is going to be all right, isn't it?" he said. "Give him a hug and a kiss for me."
Later, Mrs. Johnson said the tragic events of the afternoon "seem like a dreadful nightmare." Somehow, she added, "We must find the strength to go on."
Her statement was read by an aide.