The Highest Office

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But this sudden death of the youngest man ever elected to the Presidency has brought out another side of the great office. “ The King is dead, long live the King .” President Lyndon Johnson is the eighth American Vice President to succeed to the Presidency by the death of the incumbent. No Vice President is chosen because he is openly regarded as the next President. Lyndon Johnson had far more serious claim to be considered a presidential candidate than had most Vice Presidents in American history; but he has come to office through violent death. The point to notice is that he is as fully President as if he had been elected by the American people to that office, as much as the legitimate heir—the Prince of Wales or a Dauphin—succeeding to an ancient throne.

Mr. Truman has told us of the horror and astonishment and shock with which he received the news that he had suddenly become President of the United States, an office for which he had little preliminary training. We know with what courage and energy Mr. Truman rose to the height of his responsibilities. Lyndon Johnson had far more training for the presidential office than had Mr. Truman. It is not only that at once the new President is surrounded by the secret service and that all the vast machinery of federal government is under his hand, it is that the American people turn with sympathy and with trust to the new incumbent. Presidents succeeding in this way have sometimes disappointed the hopes of the American people; sometimes they have much more than fulfilled those hopes. There is a famous story which underlies this character of the Presidency, the legitimacy of the succession. Chester Arthur, who succeeded the assassinated Garfield in 1881, had been a noted playboy, and the friend of some of the most dashing men about town in New York and Newport. Shortly after his accidental accession, he was in that great center of the American rich, the Newport Yacht Club, when an old social companion walked up to him, clapped him on the back, and said, “How are you, Chet?” The new President turned around, said nothing, looked at his old companion, who blushed and shambled out of the room. Chet Arthur was now the President of the United States; his old companions were as welcome to the new President as Falstaff was to Henry V.

President Johnson has far better training for the job than President Arthur ever had, but he has a far more difficult job to fulfill. For now he is not only President of the United States, but the leader of one of the world’s two great coalitions. Like his predecessor, President Kennedy, he is and must be the leader of the West as well as the leader of the American people. But he is above all the leader of the American people, the embodiment of the power and majesty of the American state.