I was watching CBS Sunday Morning yesterday, which featured a story on Robert Caro, the great historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize winning biographer. The occasion for the interview was the release today of the fourth volume of Caro’s magnum opus on Lyndon Johnson which covers the period from 1958-1964. The centerpiece of the volume is, of course the assassination of President Kennedy and Johnson’s elevation to the presidency. An excerpt from the new volume, entitled “The Path to Power” appeared in the April 2, 2012 edition of the New Yorker (which is behind their paywall). It is a gripping tale and worth reading.
The thing that caught my eye during the CBS broadcast yesterday was the image below from a joint session of Congress on November 27, 1963. Pictured are President Johnson, Speaker John McCormack and Senate President Pro Tempore Carl Hayden. (The gentleman on the right side is unknown.)
Look at how old those guys are! At the time, Speaker McCormack was 72 years old (born in 1891). Senator Hayden is 86 years old in this photo (he was born in 1877!). The average life expectancy of an American male in 1963 was 66.6 years. These guys were literally living on borrowed time. Senator Hayden was 120% of the average life expectancy. Based on 2011 tables, that would equate to a 98-year-old Senator today.
Hayden was so old and feeble that when he rose to be second in the line of succession for the presidency (during the period in which there was no Vice President from 11/22/63 through 1/20/65 when Hubert Humphrey became VP) that he had a plan if the situation arose in which he was required to become the President. He said that he would await the appointment of a new Speaker of the House (ahead of the Senate President Pro Tem in the line of succession) and then resign and let the new Speaker assume the presidency.
Every time you think that the current moment is unique or fraught with things that have never been seen before, you stumble across something that reminds you that every era had its strange elements and unique circumstances.