The first printing of William Manchester’s The Death of a President ran to a half million copies and reached stores in April 1967. I believe I bought mine with several weeks’ worth of my allowance, though perhaps it was a sixteenth birthday present. Whatever the case, so definitive was the book believed to be that I felt prompted to start composing my own epilogue on one of the volume’s blank endpapers: “November 7, 1967—Former Vice-President John Nance Garner, born November 22, 1868, died in Uvalde, Texas. He received Kennedy’s second to last phone call on his 95th birthday.”
Annotating a clothbound book constituted a big step up in literary luxury for me. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, published the previous year, and the last book to be a national event on the scale of Manchester’s, had sent me to my town’s little rental library (itself already something of an anachronism). My early perusal of Capote’s creation, for perhaps a nickel a day, provoked the jealousy of my English teacher. Even so, my possession of the first “nonfiction novel” was only temporary. The Manchester book was mine, and its 710 pages have been on my shelves for more than forty years.
Latter-day evidence that Capote’s book contained rather more fiction than its author let on has rendered it more controversial with the years: along with two movies of it, two more about it have been made. Manchester’s book is no longer much read, and the prepublication fracas over it is largely forgotten. And yet, at the time, the book gave rise to an emotional and widely publicized battle of editors, lawyers, and public images, one that put Manchester into the hospital for nervous exhaustion (Bayer Aspirin offered him an endorsement deal) and left many Americans ready to relinquish Jacqueline Kennedy, their so recently revered tragic heroine, to the hairy, moneyed grip of Aristotle Onassis.
In and of itself, The Death of a President remains, even at this long remove, a work of considerable fascination. It is startlingly evocative. It is also much more modern and much worse written than one remembers—or, in my youthful case, realized.
What manchester years later called “the longest presidential obituary in history” was authorized by Robert and, even more crucially, Jacqueline Kennedy. “I think Jackie picked me because she thought I would be manageable,” the author reflected during the mid-1970s, in an essay called “Controversy.” Manchester had, after all, produced an admiring book called Portrait of a President during John F. Kennedy’s time in the White House, and gone so far as to allow JFK a look at the galleys. In “Controversy,” he admits that “authorized history may be a poor idea,” while reminding the reader that his selection by Kennedy’s widow and younger brother assured him the cooperation of almost everyone, from cabinet members to the president’s valet.
Manchester would end up paying a very high price for all this access. Yet it helped make possible the book’s genuine intimacy and power, qualities that further depended on Manchester’s own instinct for both telling detail and the emotional core of each narrative line. The prologue, for example, contains a brilliant, extended reconstruction of Kennedy’s last evening in Washington—Wednesday, November 20—when a reception for members of the judiciary filled the East Room. About fifty-five hours and four hundred pages later, the reader will see candlesticks and crêpe being brought into the same room, as it awaits the arrival of the president’s coffin. Among other particulars: Sargent Shriver, the president’s brother-in-law, gets the Washington, D.C. Highway Department to provide some of the little flame pots that they used to use to mark off nighttime road-repair work. The pots arrive by 3:30 a.m. to line the walkway of the mansion, just ahead of a squad of marines in dress blues, all of them chagrined by the knowledge of “where Lee Harvey Oswald had learned to shoot.”