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Home » Culture and Criticism

11 Things I Learned From Manchester's The Death of a President

Submitted by on August 31, 2012 – 3:59 PM10 Comments
  • The President is supposed to stand still during "Hail to the Chief," and/or salute the flag. (27)
  • "At Brooks Kennedy had tried to rest briefly in the Lincoln while the First Lady made her farewells. Harassed by a band of housewives who kept hissing, "Psst! Your wife, Mr. President" — they were unaware that etiquette dictates that a President, alone among American husbands, may precede his wife — he had given up and gone to fetch her." (77)
  • "The founders never intended that any many should become Chief Executive unless he had been elected to that office. The wording they approved stated that in the event of the death of an incumbent the Vice President should serve as acting President 'until another President be chosen.'" (225)
  • "[I]t was in a wealthy Dallas suburb that the pupils of a fourth-grade class, told that the President of the United States had been murdered in their city, burst into spontaneous applause." (250)
  • The White House and the Treasury building were at that time, and still may be, "linked by an underground tunnel." (360)
  • "[Bethesda Naval Hospital] had two VIP suites, on the sixteenth and seventeeth floors. In 1949 James Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense, had leaped to his death from the first." (397)
  • It took six months for permanent phone lines to be installed for LBJ because he just wasn't off the phone long enough. (625)
  • Attempts following the assassination to make it harder for civilians to acquire guns met the same opposition they have ever since: "The powerful National Rifle Association urged its half-million members to write Washington, and its lobbyists went to work on Congressmen with the specious reasoning that 'It's the man that kills, not the rifle.'" (632)
  • G.B. Dealey was the longtime publisher of the Dallas Morning News and was born in Manchester, UK.
  • During Jack Ruby's trial, "Once a recess was required because of a jail break elsewhere in the building. Twice spectators at the trial itself had to be disarmed. (One of them had been a stripper for Jack.)" (634)
  • Marina Oswald received seventy grand in donations from sympathetic strangers. She moved to Fate, TX and remarried in 1965; it didn't go much better than her marriage to Oswald had ("In an affidavit she charged that 'He slapped me in the face and tried to get me to put the children outside so he could be alone with the gun he carried. …'" [635]).

The crime
As you may have heard, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas November 22, 1963.

The story
William Manchester, who had written Portrait of a President about Kennedy's first eighteen months in office, was commissioned by Jackie and RFK to write the definitive account of the four days that changed the nation, November 22-26, 1963. Manchester interviewed more than a thousand people, starting not long after the murder; worked so hard on the book that he sent himself into the hospital with "nervous exhaustion," and then…kept working on the book; and got into a legal tussle with the Kennedys, to whom he had (probably unwisely, but in exchange for this level of access you can't really blame him) given manuscript approval, on the eve of publication.

According to Manchester, the ms. is substantively undiminished by the subtraction of about seven pages of material about Kennedy's family life (the complete version is under lock and key at Wesleyan). Not having seen the original, of course, I would have to agree: it is a mighty document, not just of the event itself but of the changeover of eras in American life that it occasioned. Despite the prose's effective confining of the reader to the various exclusive spaces of the executive branch — and I do mean "effective"; when Manchester describes the sweaty swearing-in fracas aboard Air Force One, you really feel the stale air and disorientation of all involved — you can sense the sixties as we understand them from here, being born outside.

The writing does make frequent dragonfly swoops towards poesy, but forgivable ones; Kennedy's death, I think, is analogous to 9/11 in the profound, permanent, immediate way it affected people, even those who didn't know him. The swooping is good quality, as well (Manchester's pitying but ice-cold sketch of Oswald, who "had the physique of a ferret"; the wind outside the Oswald residence "making furry little sounds in unswept gutters and storm drains" — yes, just so). Manchester notes several times, pointedly, that his belief that Oswald acted alone is the only sensible conclusion, and it helps that the silt of decades' worth of conspiracy theories hadn't had time to settle on the subject. (You do get the sense that said theories took only days to gather form and strength. I don't know why, but I would have assumed that grassy-knollism really got rolling in the '70s, maybe because Watergate would seem to have made us more prone to suspicion; based on this text, various alternate explanations had their adherents in about 48 hours.) But he's not academically redundant about it, and aside from a shortage of synonyms for "dissolved in tears" that couldn't be helped in a 650-page book on this topic, Manchester's writing is strong. The pacing is good, the exhaustive catalog of everyone's movements and recollections not exhaust-ing, the footnotes unobtrusive. As I said before, he evokes the atmospheres perfectly, and brings clarity to confusing events and relationships. The shooting itself could have easily bogged down in details or lost me in a hail of cutting between points of view, but it's done flawlessly.

I can't call it canonical true-crime reading, but it's essential for JFK completists, and a straight-ahead good read if you like histories. I had owned the book for some time, but was encouraged to crack it after devouring the Caro excerpt in The New Yorker that focused on LBJ's movements during those few days. Did you like that article; the oral history of RFK's funeral train; or Manchester's other work? Pick it up. It's been allowed to go out of print, but you can usually find it in New England used bookshops for a few bucks, or on Half.com.

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10 Comments »

  • anna says:

    "etiquette dictates that a President, alone among American husbands, may precede his wife"

    Hur hur hur.

    Seriously, that was necessary for him to write? Oh yeah, men had it so hard in 1963. Whatever.

  • lsn says:

    [I]t was in a wealthy Dallas suburb that the pupils of a fourth-grade class, told that the President of the United States had been murdered in their city, burst into spontaneous applause."

    Wow. I don't think I'd ever heard that before. Who on earth was their teacher? Was this well known at the time?

    I wonder how many of them are now in positions of influence.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    I'm not sure how well known it was, but this was not the only example Manchester provides of Dallasites…how to put it. "Not respecting the office" following Kennedy's murder, I guess. JFK was loathed virulently in parts of Texas, including in Dallas; there was more than a little "that N-word-lover had it coming, pass the potatoes." Like, in those words.

    I doubt this was confined to Texan precincts, alas, but that's where Manchester was doing his reporting. (There's also some anti-Texas chauvinism logged — Pat Moynihan becoming almost compulsive about the idea that the Dallas PD was going to drop the ball, e.g. Plenty of finger-pointing to go around on this one.)

  • Krista says:

    My dad was a senior in high school that day, in a very small town in the Texas panhandle; he said the halls filled with celebratory whoops when the news broke. "Why?" I asked. He said, "Because Kennedy was a papist."

  • lsn says:

    I guess it's a shock to me as the narrative I've always grown up with was "Americans were shocked by the death of President Kennedy and the nation mourned as one". Not "some Americans cheered when that Papist/Mob/Democrat bastard was finally killed." That part's really never been mentioned. Add it to the conspiracy of silence I guess.

    'Not respecting the office' is a bit of an understatement – but surprisingly contemporary given the last four years.

  • Adrienne says:

    Part of the problem (at the time)in Dallas is that the Dallas Morning News was run by a man who was VEHEMENTLY against Kennedy in general (I can't recall the name now- not Dealey, of course, because I think he died in 1943.) My mother was 19 when Kennedy was shot and remembers that there was nary a positive spin on anything the president did. THe zeitgeist in North Texas was DEFINITELY resisting the new order of things.
    The suburb in question with the applause was probably my home neighborhood of Highland Park or it's neighbor, University Park, both donut hole suburbs of affluence near SMU. Both are known for good schools, ancient tree-lined streets, and more than a little rabid conservatism… My mother's boss at the time remembers hearing this story about the applause the day it happened and was furious.

  • Turbonium says:

    Indeed, it's important to remember, in the midst of all the argle-bargle about Romney's Mormonism, that within living memory it was considered laughable to suggest that a Catholic could be President of the United States.

    ******

    My favorite coverup/conspiracy theory was that Oswald was indeed working alone, and did indeed shoot Kennedy, but in the neck; however, a Secret Service agent with a nervous disposition and terrible muzzle discipline heard the shot and accidentally fired several bullets into the Presidential limo, which is where all the horizontal entry/exit wounds came from. That accidental shooting was covered up, and that's where the "magic bullet" came from.

    ******

    And let's not kid ourselves; there are many (and, probably, some reading this blog post) who'd have been happy to hear that George W. Bush had been shot and killed. Maybe not so gauche as to cheer out loud in public, but not rending-the-garments mourning either. As this book makes clear, Kennedy was not universally loved; it's the distance of thirty years (and the cult of the martyr) that makes us get that idea. (Imagine how Cuba might have turned out differently. Now imagine being there and not knowing how it would turn out.)

    And who knows, maybe thirty years from now we'll all remember Bush differently.

  • LizMR says:

    Happiness at Kennedy's assasination wasn't restricted to Texas. My parents were living in Cleveland at the time. My mother's recollection of that day includes standing in line at the bank in tears/shock and seeing people laughing about it. I just can't fathom that.

  • Momcat says:

    My mom was an elementary school teacher in San Antonio at the time. Her principal (a Roman Catholic but a staunch conservative) said of JFK, "We'll fly the flag at half mast when that S.O.B. comes to town." After the assassination, she said to him,"Well, you got to fly the flag at half mast."

  • Claire says:

    I read the new Caro book in three days over Labor Day weekend and it left me feeling iffy on LBJ but really wanting to read more about the Kennedys (I'm in my early 20s and short of the assisination, I don't really know that much about them). I'll have to look into this and that RFK oral history.

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