11 Things I Learned From Manchester's The Death of a President
- 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. …'" ).
As you may have heard, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas November 22, 1963.
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.
Tags: books G.B. Dealey Jack Ruby Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis John F. Kennedy Lee Harvey Oswald Lyndon Baines Johnson Marina Oswald Robert Caro Robert F. Kennedy The Blotter the JFK assassination true crime William Manchester