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How President Johnson was nearly assassinated too

October 21, 2010 |  5:16 am

Democrats President Kennedy VP Lyndon Johnson and House Speaker john McCormack at the 1963 state of the union address 1-14-63

Here is an intriguing historical footnote about how John W. McCormack of Massachusetts nearly became the 37th president of the United States after the accidental assassination of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

It almost happened in the dark, nervous trauma of the early hours following the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Most Americans were still shocked, uncertain and little was known of the murder plot.

According to "The Kennedy Detail," a new book by former Secret Service agent Gerald Blaine, he was on the overnight shift in Johnson's home the next night when he heard footsteps in the dark.

Picking up his submachine gun, Blaine says he cocked it and put it to his shoulder as the steps came closer in the darkness. He put his finger on the trigger.Democrat representative John McCormack of Massachusetts

And around the corner came ... the new president. The gun of his own guard was aimed directly at the chief executive's chest.

Never mind the rich vein of conspiracy theories spawned by such a tragedy. The nation spent the next two years without a vice president. As set in 1792, the next in line to the presidency was the president pro tem of the Senate and then the House speaker.

In 1886, the succession after vice president was changed to the head of the oldest Cabinet department, secretary of State.

In 1947, at the suggestion of Harry Truman, the former VP who'd become president upon the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the order was again rearranged to its current priority: House speaker (currently Nancy Pelosi, D-CA), Senate president pro tem (Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-HI), secretary of State (Hillary Clinton) and on down through the secretaries of the next oldest Cabinet departments.

So the next in line of succession in November 1963 was -- and remains today -- the speaker of the House. He was, of course in those days, a Democrat, John W. McCormack, a career politician, like Kennedy from Massachusetts and the son of an Irish immigrant and laborer, then in his 72nd year. (See top photo, gray-haired man on the right atop the podium.)

No one can know how history and many lives would have been changed under President McCormack. President Johnson launched the War on Poverty, signed the Civil Rights Act and pursued the war in Vietnam with militant vigor. Johnson was easily elected to his own term in 1964 with Hubert Humphrey as his VP, but with antiwar protests mounting along with political challenges from within his own party, the Texan did not seek renomination in 1968.

Humphrey won the nomination at the Democrats' riotous Chicago convention but lost the general election to Richard Nixon. McCormack retired in 1971, after 43 years in the House. He died in 1980, 17 years to the day after the Kennedy assassination.

The crucial historical lesson in all this: Do not sneak up on your own Secret Service agents, especially in slippers.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: Cecil Stoughton / White House via John F. Kennedy Library (Kennedy gives the State of the Union address, Jan. 14, 1963, in front of Johnson, left on the podium, and Speaker McCormack, right); Associated Press (McCormack, 1965).

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