When national tragedy struck on November 22, 1963 Vice President Lyndon Johnson was inadequately prepared to assume the presidency. The Kennedy people had done their best to sideline him throughout the first three years of JFK’s term. Thus, he was not in the know in regards to many of the important initiatives Kennedy had proposed, but that would now become his responsibility. Additionally, there was substantial personal ill will between LBJ and Kennedy’s people – especially JFK’s younger brother Bobby, the attorney general.
Despite this handicap, LBJ managed his transition to power in the most professional way possible. According to Johnson biographer Robert Caro, the six weeks following Kennedy’s assassination represented LBJ’s finest time as president (The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, 2012). He used all the different types of power at his disposal to assume the presidency, stabilize the nation’s nerves and pass some of the last century’s most controversial and important legislation.
There are many lessons we can learn from this episode about ensuring a proper transition of power—even if the need arises suddenly. First, whatever the personal and political issues involved in a relationship, the person selected to replace the leader must be informed of all major issues. That LBJ succeeded so well in this area, is a testament to his abilities.
A second lesson involves LBJ’s successful effort to encourage a good number of JFK’s people to remain in his administration. This not only enabled a continuity of government but allowed LBJ to tap into their talents and intelligence. Following his return to Washington D.C. from Dallas and his televised remarks to the nation, LBJ flew with National Security Advisor Bundy, Secretary of Defense McNamara and Deputy Secretary of State George Ball, back to the White House.
During the ride LBJ discussed with them the impact of the assassination on the country’s national security. Realizing that he could not afford to lose them, Caro describes how, “leaning toward the three Kennedy men, hunched forward in his intensity, he said, ‘President Kennedy did something I could never have done. He gathered around him the ablest people I’ve ever seen—not his friends, not even the best in public service but the best anywhere. I want you to stay. I need you. I want you to stand with me.’ The job had been done” (p.365). LBJ had found the words to appeal to these men’s sense of patriotism and ego. In the eleven-minute helicopter ride he succeeded in enlisting these three able people to remain in his administration and stay the course.
A third lesson on power succession can be learned from LBJ’s young military aide Lt. Richard Nelson. He realized the difficult situation the new President was in. He was now the president and needed to perceive himself and be perceived as such by others as quickly as possible. To this end he removed the seal of the vice president from LBJ’s office door in the Old Executive Office building. “Dragooning a White House guard to help, Nelson ran down to the basement, found an old presidential flag and some seals, and installed them in 274 (Johnson’s office)—‘just the symbols, that when he walked into the Executive Office Building office he was walking into the office of the President, not the Vice President’” (p.367).
These important aspects of leadership transition are highlighted in this week’s parsha. Following the events surrounding the daughters of Tzlafchad’s request for a land grant in Eretz Yisrael, Moshe turns to Hashem to appoint a new leader. Realizing that a new era was approaching rapidly Moshe wanted the new leader appointed while he still had the opportunity to train him, inspire him and inform him of all the national and religious issues he would soon be responsible for. Moshe understood that for the best transition possible, nothing could be left to chance. The new leader had to be brought up to speed. Proof of this is seen in the beginning of Sefer Yehoshua when Yehoshua reminds the leaders of Reuven and Gad about their obligation to serve as the lead troops in the conquest of Israel. Yehoshua’s command of all the details of this arrangement, demonstrate how Moshe kept him in the leadership loop.
Realizing that people need encouragement to accept leadership positions Rashi explains (27:18) that G-d instructed Moshe to approach Yehoshua with the job proposition. G-d told Moshe to highlight what a special privilege it is to lead Bnei Yisrael. Yehoshua, who had witnessed first- hand many of the challenges Moshe faced and the travails he had experienced, would be forgiven if he politely declined Moshe’s offer. However, Moshe explained that it was worth all the hardship to help G-d’s children come closer to Him.
Hashem also instructed Moshe to give Yehoshua active authority while Moshe was still alive. It was not enough to simply appoint Yehoshua and then have him sit in waiting. People would question why he wasn’t being given any responsibility during Moshe’s lifetime. (In fact, LBJ suffered terribly from this perception while serving as vice president.) Seforno comments (27:20) that G-d told Moshe to allow Yehoshua to be immediately involved in the national leadership so that the Sanhedrin and the elders would be accustomed to listening to him.
Although the Gemara in Temurah (16a) discusses some of the problems that occurred on Yehoshua’s first day in office, namely the forgetting of thousands of laws, overall Yehoshua’s ascension to manhig went flawlessly. As Sefer Yehoshua describes in vivid detail Yehoshua went on to become one of the most successful leaders Bnei Yisrael ever had.
Leaders must prepare their successors and do all that they can to ensure a smooth transition. Unfortunately, LBJ went on to make many mistakes in his presidency, especially with respect to the Vietnam War. But during those dark days following Kennedy’s assassination he served as a brilliant example of how to transition into power. It is one of the best modern examples of the lessons learned from this week’s parsha.
Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division. Comments can be emailed to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.Rabbi David Hertzberg
About the Author: Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division and is an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College.
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