The Death of a President: November 1963 by William ManchesterI’ve never been particularly interested in the Kennedys in general, John F. Kennedy in particular, or in wild conspiracy theories at all. I love history, to be sure, but history is broad, and there are only so many hours in a day that one can devote to this endeavor. Those hours have been drastically cut by the needs of my nine-month old. Thus, when I have to pick and choose, I will enthusiastically read the nth retelling of the battle of Antietam or the latest theory on Custer’s Last Stand rather than wade into the nutcase-riddled world of the Kennedys.
Indeed, the only reason I desired to read William Manchester’s The Death of a President was a fascinating article in Vanity Fair by Sam Kashner (available at http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/fe...). Kashner’s article details the controversy behind Manchester’s book: how Manchester was originally asked by the Kennedys to write an intimate portrait of Kennedy’s death; how the Kennedys later tried to suppress the book; how Manchester nearly destroyed himself in his effort; and how the Kennedys took control of the book rights, ensuring that no new editions are published.
The story-behind-the-story is fascinating stuff. After reading the Vanity Fair article, I was instantly intrigued with this hard-to-find edition, and its hints of profound truths. It was just like being a kid in a video store (remember those?), told that I couldn’t go behind the curtain into the “adults only” section, and vowing then and there that I would discover what transgressive treasures lay behind that beaded veil. (Turns out it was mostly soft core pornography).
I wasn’t entirely surprised, upon finishing The Death of a President, to discover that the controversy is mostly smoke and mirrors, which would dissipate instantly as soon as the Kennedy estate dropped its obstinate refusal to publish new editions. Reading it now, in 2012, long after all the principal players have died, there is nothing in it that shocks or scandalizes or does anything to change our perception of November 22, 1963 and the following days.
Really, The Death of a President is nothing more than its blunt title implies: a minutely, sometimes fascinating, sometimes irrelevantly detailed retelling of the last days of John Kennedy’s life. It starts on the eve of his trip to Dallas and ends with his burial in Arlington. This takes up 647 pages of relatively-scrunched text in my 1967 hardcover edition. There is also 10 pages devoted to all Manchester’s interviews, and appendices that include maps of the motorcade route, Dealey Plaza, Parkland Memorial Hospital (where Kennedy died), Air Force One, the route Air Force One took from Texas to Washington, and the route of the State Funeral.
If all this seems a bit excessive, well, excessiveness is sort of William Manchester’s raison d’etre.
Certainly I enjoyed reading it.
Manchester’s research can only be described as obsessive. His level of detail, nearly unimaginable. I’ve heard criticisms of his work before, but I think that is a function of the way he collects his facts and writes his history. His primary source work is explained in a short essay, and as noted above, he carefully lays out every interview he conducted. This level of preparation allows him to write this story as a novelist, deep inside the heads of each person, giving us not only their perceptions but their thoughts. This is a godlike point-of-view to take, especially for a writer of non-fiction, and Manchester displays a certain level of Mailer-like arrogance in presenting the fruits of his research in such a manner. He also opens himself up to a lot of factual quibbles. By taking one person’s recollection over another, you end up with endless he-said/no-he-said situations that unfairly call into question the book’s ultimate veracity.
The Death of a President is consuming. There are so many details (and so many ridiculous details) that you are transported into this world, whether you like it or not. I happen to like minutiae, so every time Manchester relayed a vehicle identification number or the tail number of Air Force One, I could only shake my head in wonderment. Manchester had access that no other writer ever got, especially with regards to Jackie Kennedy. Indeed, it is the vulnerability that Jackie showed in her interviews – creating an indelible grief-soaked portrait in the book – that eventually caused the Kennedys to turn against Manchester.
To read Manchester’s opus now is to have a fascinating look at late-60s Democratic politics. Manchester was an unabashed admirer of John F. Kennedy (he’d written the fawning Portrait of a President, which got him this job) and the New Frontier. When you read between the lines, there is a distinct dislike and underestimation of Lyndon Johnson. This is communicated by Manchester’s unsupported (and in my opinion, entirely wrong) opinion that had he lived, Kennedy would’ve done every good thing that LBJ did (civil rights, the Great Society) and none of the bad things (Vietnam, defecating with the bathroom door open). In fact, to read Manchester closely is to see his belief that LBJ didn’t do anything except not crash the Kennedy ship.
At the same time, Manchester’s book came out in the midst of Bobby Kennedy’s run for president. Kennedy needed LBJ’s support, so Manchester – who obviously supported the younger Kennedy – had to give grudging credit to LBJ to avoid angering him.
Manchester’s near-embarrassing worship of the Kennedys and their cohorts is The Death of a President’s most glaring flaw. Obviously, he related strongly with the young president, as both men were Pacific War veterans with a literary bent. However, that doesn’t excuse the utter loss of objectivity. He spends a great deal of time flattering the so-called “Boston Mafia” and their sycophantic devotion to John Kennedy. Anyone who stands in the way of the Beantown crew has put their reputation in Manchester’s hands. (For instance, Manchester’s handling of Dallas coroner Earl Rose is manifestly unfair. It’s worth reading Rose’s New York Times obituary for a sensitive recounting of the life of an eminently decent man. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/03/us/...).
In reality, the Boston Mafia seemed like a bunch of jerks, and Manchester never takes them to task for their undignified treatment of Lyndon Johnson. Manchester and the Mafia never seemed to get it through their heads that the Office of the Presidency of the United States is (a) bigger than one man and (b) not a hereditary right.
More interestingly for a 21st century reader is the elisions. Every time Manchester mentioned Dave Powers and the White House swimming pool – which happened a lot – I thought of Mimi Alford. Alford, of course, famously wrote about her affair with Kennedy, as well as an incident in which JFK encouraged Alford to perform oral sex on Powers. Unsurprisingly, this didnt make it into the book. But Manchester knew, didnt he? He’d almost have to know, right? These are the questions I asked myself every time he mentioned that damn pool.
Since this is a book about John Kennedy’s assassination, it should be mentioned that Manchester’s story includes a lone gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald shooting the President from a window of the Texas School Book Depository. There is no grassy knoll. There is no “triangulation of fire.” There are no shadowy and sinister agents from the CIA or the FBI or the NSA or Cuba or the USSR or NASA or [insert any other agency you want]. There is no Kevin Costner with a badly strained New Orleans accent intoning “back and to the left.”
Even in 1967, though, there were already conspiracy enthusiasts. Manchester rightly brushes them aside. The evidence of Oswald’s guilt is overwhelming and any prosecutor in the country would be happy as a clam to take it into court.
But this isn’t a book about people in their parents’ basements cultivating ridiculous pet theories for reasons that can only be explained by highly-trained and patient psychologists. It isn’t even a book about the “[d]eath of a President.” It’s about the death of a husband, a father, a man. Manchester brings this into stark relief in the beautiful closing of his book:
Unknown to her, the clothes Mrs. Kennedy wore into the bright midday glare of Dallas lie in an attic…in one of two long brown paper cartons thrust between roof rafters. The first is marked “September 12, 1953,” the date of her marriage; it contains her wedding gown. The block-printed label on the other is “Worn by Jackie, November 22, 1963.” Inside, neatly arranged, are the pink wool suit, the black shift, the low-heeled shoes, and, wrapped in a white towel, the stockings. Were the box to be opened by an intruder from some land so remote that the name, the date, and photographs of that ensemble had not been published and republished until they had been graven upon his memory, he might conclude that these were merely the stylish garments which had passed out of fashion and which, because they were associated with some pleasant occasion, had not been discarded.
If the trespasser looked closer, however, he would be momentarily baffled…There are ugly splotches along the front and hem of the skirt. The handbag’s leather and the inside of each shoe are caked dark red. And the stockings are quite odd. Once the same substance streaked them in mad scribbly patterns, but time and the sheerness of the fabric have altered it. The rusty clots have flaked off; they lie in tiny brittle grains on the nap of the towel. Examining them closely, the intruder would see his error. This clothing, he would perceive, had not been kept out of sentiment. He would realize that it had been worn by a slender young woman who had met with some dreadful accident. He might ponder whether she had survived. He might even wonder who had been to blame.
By the end, through Manchester’s tremendous accrual of factoids, with his dogged insistence on taking you through the assassination minute-by-minute, in his steadfast refusal to engage in conspiratorial nonsense, and even despite his own deep admiration for his subject, he manages to distill a huge historical moment into a human event.
It’s quite possible that The Death of a President is more important now than ever. Thanks to the internet and self-publishing, there is more Kennedy assassination garbage than ever before. People are so committed to the conspiracy that they forget it started with a tragedy.
Jackie believed Lyndon B. Johnson had John F. Kennedy killed
Formerly the 37th vice president from to , he assumed the presidency following the assassination of President John F. Johnson is one of only four people who have served in all four federal elected positions. Born in a farmhouse in Stonewall, Texas , Johnson was a high school teacher and worked as a congressional aide before winning election to the House of Representatives in He won a contested election to the Senate in and was appointed to the position of Senate Majority Whip in He became known for his domineering personality and the "Johnson treatment", his aggressive coercion of powerful politicians to advance legislation. Johnson ran for the Democratic nomination in the presidential election.
The near miss is described in a new book co-written by the agent, Gerald Blaine, who was stationed outside the new president's house in Washington the evening after the assassination in November In the early hours of the next morning, Mr Blaine heard someone approaching and drew his Thompson submachine gun, the book, The Kennedy Detail, explains. Blaine's heart pounded, his finger firmly on the trigger. Let me see your face, you The new President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson, had just rounded the corner, and Blaine had the gun pointed directly at the man's chest.
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, at p. He was 46 years old. By p. Two days later, on Nov. After living off and on in orphanages as a boy, he moved with his mother to New York at age 12, where he was sent to a youth detention center for truancy. It was during this time that he became interested in Socialism.
By the fall of , President John F. Kennedy and his political advisers were preparing for the next presidential campaign. Although he had not formally announced his candidacy, it was clear that President Kennedy was going to run and he seemed confident about his chances for re-election. At the end of September, the president traveled west, speaking in nine different states in less than a week. The trip was meant to put a spotlight on natural resources and conservation efforts.
There were 98 minutes during which the very fate of the United States seemed, to some, to hang in the balance. On Nov. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald. But, as the nation grappled with the violent and world-changing event, the U. To ensure the world would see that America forged ahead in the midst of tragedy, the moment was captured on film, as seen above. Johnson is clearly the central figure in the image, for good reason. Hughes, in the lower-left corner with her back to the camera.