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The More They Stay the Same: William Manchester’s The Death of a President

By posted at 6:35 am on October 8, 2009 4

From time to time I read your glossy publications.  One of my favorite things to do is visit my mom, lie on her couch, and read Hello magazine or Vanity Fair (she has the TLS, too, but that’s not very glossy).  Sometimes I look at the pictures in Paris Match.  My mom and her friends have an ingenious cost-saving publication cooperative, wherein one shopping bag full of books and magazines gets passed around until everyone has read its contents.
 
coverLacking such a network, and not being in a position to spend six dollars on a photo spread of a celebrity dressed up to look like another, different celebrity, I occasionally try to recreate the experience online (it’s not even close).  This is where I found Sam Kashner’s telling of the sad story of William Manchester, the historian tapped by Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy to preempt the jackals and write the authorized account of JFK’s assassination.  According to the article, Manchester researched and wrote himself into illness.  Then Jacqueline, regretting her hours of private taped meetings with Manchester and the revelations made therein, launched an assault against the author and his work.  The fallout and the eventual publication history is all there in the article.  The experience crushed Manchester, although the book, The Death of a President, did eventually appear.  
 
The story caught my fancy.  I started thinking about it from the market perspective, and spent a fun half hour trawling the internet and gawking at choice specimens of Kennedyana.  Eventually, I bought a copy of Manchester’s book. (Since the book is out of print, some online selling algorithms have inflated its price substantially. Even so, inexpensive copies of first editions and early reprints proliferate online and are easily found on meta-search sites like Via Libri.)
 
Obviously, a billion trees’ worth of pages, glossy and unglossy, have been devoted to various Kennedys (sex, scandals, outfits, and deaths, mainly).  I’ve absorbed through osmosis that which floats around in the collective American consciousness, but I didn’t actually know much about Kennedy’s politics, the assassination, or the political climate at the time.
 
The Death of a President, unsurprisingly, is pure hagiography, but that’s actually the large part of its charm.  For one, Manchester had been given this herculean task directly from the boss, so to speak, and the pressure must have been enormous to do justice to his subject.  Additionally, his devotion to the slain president is evident on every page, and the prose has a dated, chivalrous quality that would seem comic in a contemporary work of non-fiction.  It goes without saying that Marilyn does not feature in this story, nor Jackie (maybe) looking sideways at Bobby.  Here’s JFK on the gurney: “By now, one would think, Kennedy would have bled white, but his great heart continued to pump…”  It’s not just Manchester, though, who is painting an idealized picture.  Everyone was in it together in the construction of Camelot–the family’s Secret Service names were Lancer, Lace, Lyric, and Lark, for God’s sake.
 
Poetic flights notwithstanding, Manchester accounts for every moment leading up to November 22, and the ones that followed.  While it would be easy to make this exhaustive approach a very tedious read, Manchester imbues the pages before the denouement with a palpable sense of dread, creating this inexorable pace.  The suspense he conjures is all quite distinct from the things which the reader necessarily brings to the book.  He also does an extraordinary job of describing the absolute chaos following the assassination, even and especially within the Kennedy/Johnson camp, which was, apparently, wholly unprepared for this contingency.  Manchester paints a picture of a country adrift.  People cramming the streets, wandering aimlessly, putting on one sock, calling the White House.  
 
Like many people, I’ve got Mad Men fever.  That may have been one of the reasons I felt compelled to read this book; it’s got that attractive reek of cigarettes and hair pomade.  The book, as far as research and writing style, is a perfect snapshot of a time, which is what everyone says about Mad Men.  Except this book is like, real, and Mad Men is a television show.  Where Mad Men has a man playing Conrad Hilton, Manchester’s book features the authentic young Bill Moyers, and Walter Cronkite saying “This is Walter Cronkite, and you’re a goddamned idiot.”  For someone who missed this period of history, it’s fascinating.  I’m sure it holds a different appeal for the people who didn’t.
 
Despite its throw-back feel, The Death of a President also seems (terrifyingly) timely.  On the one hand, I guess you can take comfort from Manchester’s descriptions of Texas generally, and Dallas particularly, before the assassination, in the sense that venomous, ugly invective of a political nature is nothing new.  The Warren commission, Manchester points out, declared that the political climate of Dallas had no bearing on the actions of Oswald, who was a lone, pseudo-communist, ex-military whack job.  On the other hand, Manchester spends a lot of time talking about and roundly condemning the Dallas climate, positing that an act like Oswald’s simply cannot take place in a vacuum.  I found these portions of the text chilling. On Dallas:

In that third year of the Kennedy Presidency a kind of fever lay over Dallas County.  Mad things happened.  Huge billboards screamed “Impeach Earl Warren.”  Jewish stores were smeared with crude swastikas.  Fanatical young matrons swayed in public to the chant, “Stevenson’s going to die–his heart will stop, stop, stop and he will burn, burn burn!” Radical Right polemics were distributed in public schools; Kennedy’s name was booed in classrooms; junior executives were required to attend radical seminars.  Dallas had become the mecca for medicine-show evangelists of the National Indignation Convention, the Christian Crusaders, the Minutemen, the John Birch and Patrick Henry societies . . . In Dallas a retired major general flew the American flag upside down in front of his house, and when, on Labor Day of 1963, the Stars and Stripes were hoisted right side up outside his own home by County Treasurer Warren G. Harding–named by Democratic parents for a Republican President in an era when all Texas children were taught to respect the Presidency, regardless of party–Harding was accosted by a physician’s son, who remarked bitterly, “That’s the Democrat flag.  Why not just run up the hammer and sickle while you’re at it?

On the day Kennedy arrived in Dallas, a local group took out a full-page ad in the paper which said, among other things “Why have you ordered or permitted your brother Bobby, the Attorney General, to go soft on Communists, fellow-travelers, and ultra-leftists in America, while permitting him to persecute loyal Americans who criticize you, your administration, and your leadership?”
 
This all sounds too familiar.  It goes on for pages.  Politicians like William Fulbright and Adlai Stevenson worried about the President’s safety in Dallas, although they expected harm to come from one of the vocal groups who loathed Kennedy, not some loner weirdo.  It’s like going into a pit with bears and tigers and hippos, and then being killed by a tiny venomous bug.  The irony about all this is that, as with our own President, the accusations leveled at JFK were largely centered on his purported Communist sympathies, even though, as my beloved puts it, “Nobody hated Commies more than JFK.”  Now, as then, bewildered Communists everywhere are looking at each other and thinking, if this President is a Communist (and a Nazi, against all odds) maybe I should change parties?
 
I want to focus on the positive.  The world has changed.  But sometimes it doesn’t seem that it has changed very much.  The Birchers became Birthers; the Minutemen kept the same name.  And in every town in America, there’s an unaffiliated loon with a military-grade weapon (or ten).  And it gives me the goddamned willies.





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4 Responses to “The More They Stay the Same: William Manchester’s The Death of a President”

  1. Tom B.
    at 3:34 pm on October 12, 2009

    I recommend NIXONLAND by Rick Perlstein, for a comprehensive look at American politics starting after the JFK assassination and running through Nixon’s presidency. It’s chilling. We’re still living with the consequences. It’s nowhere near being over.

  2. Karen Harris
    at 4:35 pm on August 9, 2010

    Like Lydia, I, too read the Vanity Fair article and then, after seeing the Mad Men episode (along with the one from American Dreams), was inspired to borrow The Death of the President and felt the same chill when reading of the political climate in Dallas in November of 1963. I appreciate Mr. Manchester’s skill as a reporter, researcher, and writer. I have found this book to be a tour de force of writing. I was especially touched by the kindness that the President and First Lady extended to the Fort Worth citizen who arranged for fine art to be displayed in their hotel room. I have Nixonland in my personal reading queue.

  3. Virginia C.
    at 12:14 am on September 17, 2013

    Just saw this piece and am commenting a bit late. Yes the climate in Dallas was terrible, Dallas became known as the City of Hate. But Dallas must have learned a lesson which the rest of the country did not because nowadays when you go to a Dallas website you find far more respectful comments about JFK than at other cites. They will usually never complain about too complementary biographies as being hagiography. And they almost never mention Marilyn Monroe (intended as a big dig at the author of the article). I might point out to the author that there is no real documented evidence that Jackie and Bobby ever had an affair. So you are repeating rumor which can certainly incite hatred from right wing religious fanatics and feminists alike. In addition, there is really no proof that JFK had an affair with Marilyn. I am talking about real proof from a primary source (the author should know what that is if she is a writer). What we have is hearsay evidence which once upon a time would never show up in a history book. Now I won’t tell the author whether or not I really think JFK had an affair with Marilyn – because that is no one’s business and will just incite hate from the religious fanatics, prudes, and feminists.

    Further, I hope the author will relay a message to her hubby. Maybe if the hubby gets a real idea of just how venomous things were back in 1963 (as if they still aren’t now towards all Kennedys), he will begin to understand why JFK engaged in so much anti-communist rhetoric especially since he was constantly accused from the moment he was inaugurated of being soft on communism, etc. And if hubby really wants to know what JFK really things about the commies, he should read JFK’s Peace Speech given in early June, 1963.

  4. Virginia C.
    at 12:22 am on September 17, 2013

    Additionally, I would like to add regarding your Camelot comment – that Camelot showed up before Jackie even mentioned that word. The secret service code names were given to them in late 1960 by the secret service. The White House’s code name was Castle. In addition, Manchester writes that when Senator Ralph Yarborough is asked outside Parkland Hospital if the President is dead, he cannot bring himself to say it but says instead: “Genlemen, this has been a deed of horror. Excalibur has sunk beneath the waves.” There is Camelot imagery again before Jackie spoke the words.

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