When John F Kennedy was declared dead on November 22 1963 his deputy, Lyndon Johnson, instantly became US president. He had no time to prepare, literally not even a minute. His finest biographer, Robert Caro, writes that Johnson was, until this moment, ill-suited for high office. He was a control freak and a micromanager; he was vengeful and apt to destroy those who crossed him. And yet, in the hours after he assumed office, a presidential instinct arose from his depths and he began to exude a new loftiness of character. On the night of November 22 the greatest issue facing the world was who killed Kennedy. Were the Russians or the Cubans involved? The answer might have triggered a global war. In tackling this question, Johnson did something he had never done before: he relinquished control. He appointed chief justice Earl Warren to head a commission of inquiry into Kennedy’s assassination; and he chose as co-commissioners eminent people he was powerless to influence. He wilfully le...

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