Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a wave of tributes and memorials commemorated him around the world. One such memorial was the naming of a mountain in Canada – Mount Kennedy. Here, Christopher Benedict explains the story of how JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy, attempted to make the first ever ascent of the mountain.

The Kennedy brothers in 1960. Robert is in the middle, with John on the left, and Ted on the right.

The Kennedy brothers in 1960. Robert is in the middle, with John on the left, and Ted on the right.

Difficult and Perplexing Times

There is no setting the clock on grief. Tragedy does not come with a catch-all instruction manual to help survivors cope in some uniform fashion with the incomprehensible. Retreating into a cocoon of counter-productive and self-destructive tendencies-denial, despondency, and inactivity-may suffice for most people. But, Robert F. Kennedy was not most people.

Which is not to suggest that he was impervious to such things. In the time spanning Jack’s murder and his own, he took to wearing his brother’s naval jacket, literally cloaking himself in sorrow. However, he also accepted this most wretched of calamities as a provocative personal challenge. To struggle against the stagnation of pre-conceived notions and overcome confidential fears and ideological obstacles to achieve forward progress in his own thought process and, therefore, of the society of which he was an active participant and public servant.

“He had always been a taker of risks from that day, so many years before, when he had thrown himself off the yawl into Nantucket Sound in his determination to learn to swim,” historian, Special Assistant to the President, and family friend Arthur Schlesinger wrote of Bobby, “and John Kennedy had said he had shown either a lot of guts or no sense at all, depending on how you looked at it.”

When the National Geographic Society proposed that the surviving Kennedy brothers Robert and Edward join the assemblage of experienced climbers seeking to be the first to ascend the Canadian mountain peak named for their fallen brother, a horrible plane crash less than seven months after Jack’s assassination, in which Ted suffered three broken vertebrae, two cracked ribs, and a collapsed lung, removed him from the equation.

It would have been more than understandable had Robert, terrified of heights and otherwise “rash but not reckless” in Schlesinger’s estimation, begged off the expedition, especially given the perilous nature of recent circumstances. For most people, this would have been perfectly acceptable. But, again, Bobby was not most people.

 

Lofty and Magnificent

Tributes to the martyred President John F. Kennedy emanated from all points on the globe common and obscure, his name and/or likeness affixed to coins, plaques, statues, stamps, streets, high schools and law schools, office buildings, an international airport in Queens, New York, the former Plum Pudding Island in the South Pacific from which Lt. Kennedy and his surviving PT-109 crew were rescued during World War Two after their craft had been demolished following an encounter with a Japanese destroyer.

The Canadian government had something in mind on a much grander scale. Though initially, in the opinion of Bradford Washburn, not grand enough. Washburn, founder and director of Boston’s Museum of Science, was a cartographer and mountaineer with an impressive list of first ascents to his credit, most notably the West Buttress of Mount McKinley, North America’s highest mountain.

He urged the Canadian Parliament to reconsider their original choice for Mount Kennedy, a 12,200-foot peak which he referred dismissively to as “a burble”. The uncharted 14,000-foot Yukon mountain near the Alaskan border that he had in mind was one Washburn had discovered himself from a Fairchild ski-plane during a 1935 mapping mission for National Geographic. Thirty years later, he was now gathering a survey and summit party on behalf of National Geographic and the Boston Museum of Science to set out for Mt. Kennedy and its two adjoining peaks. The expedition would include in its ranks Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mt. Everest in 1963, Barry Prather, who was a support member of the 1963 team but fell ill with pulmonary edema and was unable to continue, Mount Rainier park ranger Dee Molenaar and fellow Washington state native George Senner, British Columbia Mountaineering Club member James Craig, National Geographic photographer William Allard, and last  - but not least - New York Senator Robert Kennedy.

Asked by Whittaker about his training regimen for the upcoming journey, Bobby joked, “Running up and down the stairs and hollering, help!”

Lightheartedness was a fine defense mechanism to ward off the fear which must have been substantial to a novice climber. Even Whittaker worried over the potential for avalanches caused by melting spring snows, not to mention the concerns inherent to exploring uncharted territory where “one doesn’t know what those problems will be.” 

 

Mount Kennedy as shown from an airplane in 1984. Mount Kennedy is the high peak towards the left. Source: Gary Clark, available  here .

Mount Kennedy as shown from an airplane in 1984. Mount Kennedy is the high peak towards the left. Source: Gary Clark, available here.

Commitment of Body and Mind

His first actual sighting of the mountain came, “lonely, stark, forbidding” Kennedy recalled, on March 23, 1965 from a relatively safe sixty-mile distance in the confines of a Royal Canadian Air Force helicopter. The team members were deposited at 8,700 feet where Base Camp One had been established on the newly christened Hyannis Glacier for their first night’s stay. The following morning, the expedition gained an additional 4,000 feet of elevation over the unwelcoming terrain of Cathedral Glacier to reach the High Camp through a snowstorm that, by early evening, had developed into white-out blizzard conditions. This turn of events threatened the next day’s planned summit attempt.

Fortunately, wrote Robert Kennedy for his Life cover story, “during the night the snow stopped, the stars became bright, and the northern lights appeared over the ridge of the mountains.” As picturesque as it was propitious for the task at hand, their tents were nonetheless buffeted by 50 mph winds which “made sleep impossible” but also “either cleared or packed the fresh snow which had fallen and made our climb to the summit that much easier.” Not that it would be free of near disaster.

After waking at 6am to amenable temperatures of 5 above 0 for a breakfast of “soup, mush, and chocolate bars”, the climbers geared up and set off on their final assault at 8.30am. Bobby had learned well from his mountaineering mentors who were all duly impressed with the Senator’s efforts. He was, after all, a veteran of the legendary Kennedy football games on the front lawn at Hyannis Port which would not uncommonly end in bloody noses and bruised egos for brothers and sisters alike. He kept his attention on the progress of “how far we would be in 100 steps” but would also create a diversion in his mind by way of mentally reciting poems as well as passages from Churchill and Emerson. It was not for lack of focus, but simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, that Bobby, negotiating a 65-degree incline, suddenly plunged into an icy crevasse up to his shoulders. Quickly pulled free, he looked down from whence he emerged unable to see the bottom, pondering in retrospect the advice given by his mother Rose: “Don’t slip, dear.”

 

What Am I Doing Here?

“I had three choices: to go down, to fall off, or to go ahead”, reflected Bobby, who was told by a newspaper reporter prior to his departure that he had already written Kennedy’s obituary. With the grim determination for which he was famous (and feared), he reassessed that “I really had only one choice.” 100 feet from the summit, the ridge flattened and widened considerably and it was about here that he was untethered from his rope team of Jim Whittaker and Barry Prather.   

Whittaker, who had been awarded the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal by President Kennedy during a Rose Garden ceremony a mere four months before JFK was killed in Dallas, was the first to selflessly urge Bobby ahead of the pack of proud and accomplished climbers so that he could be the first man to set foot on the summit of Mount Kennedy.

Ironically, at approximately 1pm Robert Kennedy unfurled and planted at the pinnacle of the mountain a three-foot tall flag bearing his family’s crest - the official moment of death ascribed to his brother. He also set in the snow, “with mixed emotion”, two PT-109 tie clasps as well as a golden inaugural medallion which complemented the bound copy of the President’s historic “Ask Not” address encased in plastic. “It was with a feeling of pain that the events of 16 months and two days before had made it necessary,” Robert later wrote. “It was a feeling of relief and exhilaration that we had accomplished what we set out to do.”

Happy to be home, Kennedy would neither scale another mountain nor entertain the desire to do so. Removed from the immediacy of quick thinking and physical exertion necessary in the present moment, however, Bobby was finally able to treasure the views and elements which “I’m sure would have greatly pleased the man for whom the mountain was named.”

 

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Sources

  • Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (1978, Houghton Mifflin)
  • Our Climb Up Mt. Kennedy by Robert Kennedy (Life Magazine, April 9, 1965)
  • Mountain Tribute to JFK Evoked by Kennedy Trip to Yukon by Michael Jourdan (National Geographic, August 5, 2013) 
  • The Strange History of Mount Kennedy, http://www.theclymb.com/stories/out-there/the-strange-history-of-mount-kennedy/

 

The assassination of John F. Kennedy inevitably came as a huge shock, but this shock was compounded for those people who had to lead the US afterwards. In this article, Christopher Benedict explains what happened in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination, and the problems and politics between Bobby Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson as they sought to move forward.

The swearing in of Lyndon B. Johnson in November 1963.

The swearing in of Lyndon B. Johnson in November 1963.

A Heartbeat Away

You would be hard-pressed to find, among the men who peevishly held the office, a favorable opinion uttered of the vice presidency.

John Adams complained to his wife Abigail of the frustrating ineffectiveness affixed to “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”

The vice presidency “ought to be abolished” in the mind of Theodore Roosevelt, who offered his grumpy yet prescient perspective that “the man who occupies it may at any moment be everything, but meanwhile he is practically nothing.”

Franklin Roosevelt’s first VP John Nance Garner proclaimed the position “not worth a bucket of warm piss”, while Harry Truman, FDRs third and final second-in-command, joked that vice presidents “were about as useful as a cow’s fifth teat.”

Lyndon Johnson was certainly no stranger to the discontent of thwarted ambition and irksome exclusion. Consistently and deliberately closed out of the president’s inner circle, it was not exactly a well-kept secret that LBJ reserved the greatest measure of his odious disdain for Kennedy’s Attorney General, brother, and ruthless right-hand man Bobby, who Johnson thought “acted like he was the custodian of the Kennedy dream, some kind of rightful heir to the throne.” Jack, meanwhile, would send Johnson off on as many insignificant overseas diplomatic missions as he could concoct with the express purpose of sparing himself the despondent look pulling down Lyndon’s already droopy features as he moped in a perpetual state of self-pity around the White House.

 

Power Struggle

Lyndon Johnson was literally and figuratively kept in the dark at Parkland Hospital. Seated with Lady Bird in a small, dimly lit waiting room as physicians down the hall attempted frantically to achieve what everyone knew to be the impossible and save John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s life, he was simultaneously processing the pandemonium of Dealey Plaza while looking as far as he dared into the immediate future and the very real probability of his impending ascendance to the presidency. But, amidst the confusion of emergency responders who did not have the time to give him - and some of Kennedy’s other men – an update, Johnson yet again found himself odd man out.

“The disaster had exposed a hidden weakness, the allegiance of individual agents to a man,” William Manchester penned in his masterful The Death of a President. “As long as Kennedy had been in command the lines of authority were clear. Now the old order had been transformed into hopeless disorder.”

Streaked in gore, Jackie refused to be parted from her husband’s side, insisting “I want to be in there when he dies” and that a priest (Father Oscar Huber) be summoned to administer last rites to Jack before the official pronouncement of death could be made for the sake of his immortal soul.

Johnson, meanwhile, awaited word of the inevitable which he would obstinately accept only from the president’s personal friend and political aide Ken O’Donnell who, with Dave Powers, Larry O’Brien and others, comprised JFKs doggedly loyal ‘Irish Mafia’. Whatever the gruesome reality, Lyndon Johnson would never be their president. Johnson, not for the last time that day, would be left wanting. Secret Service agent Emory Roberts was the first to alert Johnson to the president’s mortal demise, but Assistant Press Secretary ‘Mac’ Kilduff would have to do in satisfying Lyndon’s desire for a spokesman from the Kennedy contingency, the first to address Johnson as “Mr. President”.

Only then was LBJ spirited away, the enormity of the situation pressing down upon Lady Bird in her later recollection of flags already flying at half-mast on buildings between Parkland Hospital and Love Field. Kennedy’s body would make the same journey only after a tense standoff between Parkland’s medical staff backed up by local law enforcement and the Secret Service, Irish Mafia, and Jackie Kennedy who collectively used the president’s coffin on a gurney as a battering ram to force their way out. Kilduff finally addressed the press to formally announce to the nation, “President John F. Kennedy died at approximately one o’clock central standard time today here in Dallas. He died of a gunshot wound in the brain.”

 

Bobby’s Wounds Ripped Wide

The trauma of Robert Kennedy having to learn of his brother’s assassination was compounded immeasurably by the callous insensitivity with which, and from whom, the news was delivered. Bobby would suffer two indignities dealt out in quick succession by the men he hated most. The feelings of loathing, it goes without saying, were reciprocal.

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover phoned Bobby’s Hickory Hill home in McLean, Virginia and, with no pretense at sympathy or human decency, informed Kennedy, “I have news for you. The president’s been shot. I think it’s serious. I am endeavoring to get details. I will call you back when I find out more.”

Bobby’s sudden and abominable grief would be rudely interrupted one hour later.

Lyndon Johnson “had been lobbying his bereaved cabin mates one by one,” writes Jeff Shesol in his book Mutual Contempt, “forcing a consensus that the plane should not leave the ground before the transition of power was properly-constitutionally-confirmed.” Whatever his aims were in assuring that presidential continuity be achieved swiftly and legitimately, Johnson’s decision to seek the guidance of the nation’s Attorney General, who at this moment in time was above all a freshly grieving brother, was consistent with behavior that Godfrey McHugh (Air Force Aide to President Kennedy, who had once dated Jackie Bouvier) found “obscene”.

“A lot of people think I should be sworn in right away,” Johnson urged when he got through to Bobby.

“Do you have any objection to that?” He then tactlessly barraged the slain president’s sibling with very specific legal, procedural questions pertaining to taking the oath of office, forcing Bobby to consult his Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach who was “absolutely stunned” by Johnson’s crass requests.

 

The Judge

Elected to the Texas legislature in 1931 and subsequently 14th District Judge in Dallas, Sarah T. Hughes became acquainted with Lyndon Johnson “in 1948 when he ran for the Senate and I campaigned for him at that time.” In 1961, she was appointed to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas by President Kennedy over the objections of brother Bobby who was of the opinion that Hughes was “too old” and “would be able to retire after ten years”.

She recounted her drive to Love Field following the entreaty for her specific presence to swear in Lyndon Johnson aboard Air Force One. “I was thinking...that I must get there in a hurry, because Vice President Johnson is always in a hurry and wants things done right now and I shouldn’t delay. And the other thing I was thinking about was what the oath of office was...I was brash enough to think that I could give the oath without having looked it up.” Upon her arrival, she walked into the aircraft’s crowded and stiflingly hot second compartment where she encountered and hugged Lyndon and Lady Bird. Rather than getting directly to the business at hand, Hughes was informed by Johnson that “Mrs. Kennedy wants to be here. We’ll wait for her.”

Ken O’Donnell was charged with the unthinkable task of retrieving Jackie from the rear of the plane for her placement in Johnson’s contrived photo-op and angrily refused. He ultimately relented and was stunned by the nobility of Jackie’s response once she had emerged from freshening up in the restroom.                          

“It’s the least I can do”, she said.

 

The Photographer

Jacqueline Kennedy was rightfully protective of her children and warned away press members from taking or publishing pictures of them, a wish that, back in those days, could be counted upon to be respected. Her husband, on the other hand, relished the opportunity to ring up his personal photographer Cecil Stoughton for impromptu photo sessions, one of which would produce - among the many iconic images he would capture during Kennedy’s 1,000 day administration - what would forever remain his own personal favorite. Caroline and John Jr. appear to be singing and dancing in front of the president’s desk in the oval office as their doting father sits in his chair and happily claps along. Stoughton is also responsible for the only known picture of Jack, Bobby, and Marilyn Monroe together (at a Democratic fundraiser), as well as Kennedy’s inauguration, state dinners and White House visits, personal vacation snapshots, and national magazine covers. He would also be assigned, as a photojournalist for Time magazine, to Bobby Kennedy’s railway funeral procession.

 

Kennedy with his children in the oval office.

Kennedy with his children in the oval office.

Accompanying the Kennedys to Dallas, he photographed their arrival on the tarmac at Love Field, rode several cars back in the motorcade, and was rushed along with all other participants to Parkland Hospital. Witnessing Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson being escorted from the premises, Stoughton asked where they were going and, after being told Washington, replied “So am I” and was conveyed to Love Field in the cruiser of a Texas state trooper which was very nearly shot at by police officers guarding Air Force One with good intentions but itchy trigger fingers. He switched out the color film he had been using that day for black and white that would be suitable for the wire services and was mortified when the shutter of his Hasselblad camera would not engage as the makeshift ceremony began. Fortunately, after a vigorous shake or two, he was able to fire off twenty shots while standing on a couch behind and to the right of Judge Hughes who grasped a Catholic missal on which an extraordinarily solemn Lyndon Johnson placed his left hand, the right raised at a ninety degree angle. ‘Mac’ Kilduff held President Kennedy’s Dictaphone between Hughes and Johnson to record audio documentation of the swearing-in. Lady Bird stands to the right of her husband, partially obscured, while Jackie is positioned prominently and strategically to his left, the bloodstains on her skirt and stockings undetectable because of the manner in which Stoughton prudently framed his shots.

 

Insubordination

Before landing at Andrews Air Force Base, Johnson made certain that the press was aware that their presence was not only permissible, but sanctioned. His hope was to be filmed stepping off of Air Force One, escorting Jackie as well as Kennedy’s coffin in a visible show of personal solidarity and presidential continuity. Kilduff tried to convince Mrs. Kennedy that it was best to offload the president’s body from a side or rear entrance out of view of the cameras, but she maintained, “We’ll go out the regular way. I want them to see what they have done.” Furthermore, Jackie resisted the suggestion that she change into a clean outfit, one that was not befouled by her husband’s blood and brain matter. “No”, she repeated disobediently. “Let them see what they’ve done.”

No sooner had Air Force One touched down in D.C. than Robert Kennedy burst onboard and headed directly for Jackie. In a breach of both protocol and etiquette, he pushed past Lyndon Johnson, the new president, without so much as acknowledging his existence. Along with O’Donnell, Powers, O’Brien, Kilduff, and McHugh, they hurriedly disembarked, carrying the coffin with them to a waiting ambulance. An abandoned and incensed Johnson was thwarted once more by the Kennedy assembly, promising those left to listen that “I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help, and god’s.”

It would not take Johnson long to begin throwing his considerable weight around the White House, ordering Kennedy’s personal secretary Evelyn Lincoln, on the morning of November 23 to gather her things and depart the Executive offices so that he could bring in “my own girls”. Having already met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff the night before, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk prodded the new president to move immediately into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, something even he knew to be imprudent, not to mention insensitive.

Regardless of Bobby Kennedy’s vitriolic evaluation of Johnson’s haste to occupy the oval office or else “the world would fall apart”, LBJ did in fact have sincerely fond feelings for Jackie and sought not to injure her, especially in an already fragile state. Lady Bird, who had quite a way with words, put it like this: “Lyndon would like to take all the stars in the sky and string them on a necklace for Mrs. Kennedy.” He was, however, an egocentric individual and would be deeply wounded by the fact that Jackie kept him at a physical and emotional distance from then on, in favor of Bobby to whom she was bound by grief.

With that in mind, it is a good thing for Johnson that Jackie’s 1964 conversations with Arthur Schlesinger would not be published until forty-seven years later. In them, she reveals these none too flattering sentiments. “I guess it’s very good for the country that he could go around and make this air of good feeling and lull so many people into this sense of security, which they wanted after all the tragedy of November. He can’t bear to ever be alone and face something awful. Maybe he wants to disassociate himself so if it goes wrong, he can say ‘I wasn’t there.’”  

 

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Sources

  • Kennedy Assassination: 24 Hours After (2009, Produced by Time Travel Unlimited for History Channel)
  • The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2014, Simon & Schuster)
  • Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (1978, Houghton and Mifflin)
  • The Death of a President: November 1963 by William Manchester (1967, Harper & Row)
  • Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud That Defined a Decade (1997, W.W. Norton & Co.)
  • Sarah T. Hughes Oral History Interview 10/7/68 by Joe B. Frantz (from the archives of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library
  • Cecil Stoughton Dies at 88; Documented White House by Margalit Fox (New York Times, November 6, 2008)
  • Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy: Interviews With Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. 1964 (2011, Hyperion)