The numerous and lengthy retrospectives on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination last week omitted a detail that is of particular interest to speechwriters, and one that should make us proud. On that terrible November 22nd, it was a speechwriter who helped to calm a distraught nation and smooth the transition of power from JFK to our new president, Lyndon Johnson.
In the confusion that followed Kennedy’s death, and Johnson’s hasty swearing-in aboard Air Force One, there was no one to draft the statement that Johnson would deliver to the American people when the plane landed in Washington later that day with the body of our slain president. So the job fell to Liz Carpenter, an aide to LBJ who occasionally wrote speeches for her boss.
On that somber flight from Dallas, Ms. Carpenter pulled a blank post card from her purse–the only paper she had available–and penned the following message:
“This is a sad time for all people. 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.” [audio]
Anyone who watched President Johnson read those 58 simple but moving words on national television–as I did–will remember how homespun but strangely reassuring they seemed at the time, when nation was still reeling from the shock of the unspeakable tragedy. Grief-stricken as we were, we knew at least that the machinery of our government still worked, and that we had a new president ready to lead the nation.
Ms. Carpenter was confronted with a challenge that could be called unique in the annals of speechwriting, and she rose to it magnificently. Speechwriters everywhere: Take note and take pride.