Thursday, December 5, 2013

UNDELIVERED: The LBJ Austin Speech, 11-22-63

Speech Header copy

Last month, as the fervor over the fiftieth anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination built and then peaked on November 22nd, there were fleeting references to a speech that Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson never got to deliver.[1] The tantalizing story goes that if the campaign stop in Dallas, Texas had simply been an uneventful visit instead of a national tragedy, LBJ would have introduced the President at a banquet hall in Austin that evening. The shocking punch line to this anecdote is that Johnson supposedly included a joke at the expense of Big D in his prepared remarks. Specifically, the published accounts of this undelivered speech state that LBJ was to have said, “And thank God, Mr. President, you came out of Dallas alive.”[2] We were intrigued by this line because it sounds entirely too good to be true. So we looked into the matter and the following is what we discovered.

Austin Hall_LBJ Library

There was, indeed, a fundraising event planned for the evening of November 22nd at Austin’s Municipal Auditorium.[3] And there was a speech that the Vice President was scheduled to deliver. When we telephoned and asked an archivist at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library if she had ever heard of the supposed Dallas joke, she answered no and then consulted with a colleague. The colleague stated that the remark in question is not in the prepared Austin speech for that day.[4] We promptly requested a copy of the text.

We have now confirmed, to our deep disappointment, that the speech contains no deliciously ironic jabs at Dallas. It does, however, feature shout-outs to the Horned Frogs of Texas Christian University, the Aggies of Texas A & M and, of course, a nod to the beloved University of Texas Longhorns. It is, in short, boilerplate Vice Presidential patter barely passable for what was, after all, a $100-a-plate function.

Horned Frog Mascot_1965

How did this apocryphal story become an entrenched footnote in JFK assassination lore? Apparently, it started with Stanley Marcus’s (of Neiman Marcus fame) 1974 memoir Minding the Store. On page 255 of this book, Marcus, who was a Dallas native and celebrity, offered a slightly different version of events. He stated that the dinner for the Kennedy campaign was to be held on November 23rd, not the fateful day of the 22nd. He then wrote that Johnson “reportedly ended his proposed but canceled speech with, ‘And thank God, Mr. President, that you came out of Dallas alive.”[5] It is this passage that is used as one of the sources for the recently published book Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis.[6]

Garrett M. Graff uses the “Dallas alive” quote as the dramatic opening to his November Washingtonian magazine article “Angel Is Airborne,” but adds the detail “The joke was prepared, the words typed, ready to place on the Vice President’s lectern in Austin, Texas, later that evening.”[7]


The macabre-in-retrospect Dallas gag is a lot more interesting than a hat tip to the Horned Frogs of TCU, but a fictional story presented as historical fact has to stop somewhere. Below is the complete speech for the benefit of future historians.[8]

Undelivered LBJ Austin Speech November 22 1963

[1] Two of the most recent accounts of the alleged Dallas joke contained in the LBJ Austin speech are from the following sources:

Garrett M. Graff, “Angel Is Airborne”
Washingtonian, Volume 49, Number 2
November 2013, p. 81

Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis
Dallas 1963
(Twelve, 2013), p. 262

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rebecca Onion, “In Austin, ‘The Welcome JFK!’ Banquet That Never Happened”, The Vault
November 20, 2013

[4] Telephone conversation with LBJ Library archivist Barbara Cline on November 22, 2013.

[5] Stanley Marcus
Minding the Store: A Memoir
(Little, Brown, 1974), p. 255

For Marcus’s status in Dallas see Eric Pace, “Stanley Marcus, the Retailer From Dallas, Is Dead at 96,”
New York Times, January 23, 2002

[6] Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis
Dallas 1963
(Twelve, 2013), p. 262, footnote 29

[7] Garrett M. Graff, “Angel Is Airborne”
Washingtonian, Volume 49, Number 2
November 2013, p. 81

[8] Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library
Collection: Statements of Lyndon B. Johnson
Box Number 89
11/22/63 Remarks by Vice President, Austin, Texas [Undelivered]


Steve Davis said...

Nice article-- but keep in mind that LBJ likely would not have committed to paper such a damning remark about Dallas. He likely intended it as a verbal "spontaneous" moment-- as politicians often do, especially when they use humor in their speeches.

The fact that this joke at Dallas's expense is not typed into the speech doesn't mean that it wasn't intended to be delivered.

There is of course no way to prove the line's existence without it being committed to paper, other than accepting at face value the recollections of someone like Stanley Marcus, who was very close to LBJ and presumably (and hopefully) basing his memoir on something akin to reality.

Richard Lenquist said...

The fact that a comment about two-headed Martians is not typed into the speech doesn't mean that one wasn't intended to be delivered, either.

Marcus didn't even recall (or apparently research) the date of the fundraiser correctly. Why would we then base an assumption of credibility on his *decade-later* claim that something not in existence, for which there is no evidence, should be assumed to be real? This anecdote, we're to believe, went underground for 12 years--despite the national obsession with the assassination--only to resurface in this guy's memoir as a report of what was "reportedly" said? He's not even saying he himself heard it. C'mon.

This story smacks of the famous "What I tell you three times is true," which is germane when hunting snark. Perhaps the most famous retrospective creation is the malarkey about "Ring Around the Rosie" and the plague. Proving non-existence is tough or impossible, but in fact the onus is on those who would claim something *does* exist to show as much.

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