In between the book’s East Room scenes, one experiences not just the violence of the shooting, but two tremendous dramas that went unreported on November 22. First, there is the legal and physical struggle at Parkland Hospital between Kennedy’s men and the Dallas County coroner, who didn’t want to release the president’s body without an autopsy (presidential assassination was not yet a federal crime, and Texas had jurisdiction). Mirroring this turf war is the bitter forced proximity of what Arthur Schlesinger called “loyalists” (grief-stricken lieutenants of the dead president) and “realists” (those improvising assistance to the new one). What happened aboard Air Force One, on the tarmac at Love Field and then in the skies between Dallas and Washington, is the heart of Manchester’s book and his chief contribution to history. Johnson felt that the panicked conditions of the cold war required an immediate swearing-in; some of the Kennedy people found his haste unseemly. Godfrey McHugh, JFK’s preening Air Force aide, was lucky he wasn’t court-martialed for pointing to Kennedy’s coffin and saying, “I have only one president, and he’s lying back in that cabin.”
Nothing was too small for Manchester’s attention, and he put it all to chilling, if sometimes top-heavily ironic, use. He considered Kennedy’s driver’s license and the twenty-six dollars in the president’s wallet; consulted the notebooks of reporters who’d been present for Air Force One’s arrival an hour before the shooting; tracked other patients receiving treatment in the emergency room of Parkland Hospital when Kennedy arrived; talked to the Dallas-based Secret Service agent who had also guided Franklin Roosevelt’s car through the city twenty-seven years before; investigated the roost of pigeons on the roof of the Texas School Book Depository. The texture is so fine-grained that it’s difficult to discern what rule of thumb relegates certain details to the book’s footnotes while other minutiae remain in the regular text.
Manchester was working in the period when writers like Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin—Capote, too, for that matter—were giving New Journalism its gaudy birth. The Death of a President is, of course, a work of history, by an author reconstructing rather than participating in events. Still, the history is so recent and the techniques so similar to Wolfe and Co.’s that one wonders why Breslin’s piece about the digging of Kennedy’s grave has become a textbook example of the genre while Manchester goes unmentioned in Marc Weingarten’s study of New Journalism, The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight.
Manchester’s book is otherwise replete with instructive reminders about the relative modernity, and primitivism, of news reporting in 1963. The new Telstar satellite may have helped to spread word of the president’s murder with what seemed futuristic speed, but Manchester also shows us two wire-service reporters fighting over a single car telephone on the way to Parkland Hospital. As the assassination weekend wears on, the author seems to forecast our blogging and Twittering present when he notes: “The number and variety of Americans who were keeping written accounts of their impressions is striking.”
Manchester is especially good at stripping away later knowledge from the characters in his story, thus letting them behave with a suspenseful immediacy on the page. He picks his peripheral figures shrewdly, turning mere extras into developed, if minor, characters. Sergeant Bob Dugger, for example, looks like “a poster of police brutality” during the standoff at Parkland. In fact the “bull-necked” Dallas patrol officer is a fellow Navy veteran and believer in integration who voted for Kennedy in 1960. At the hospital he stands next to the First Lady, choked with grief and reticence, wishing that he instead of JFK were dead, until he at last bursts into tears and manages to offer Mrs. Kennedy his name. It’s a stupendous little scene.
Alas, Manchester’s overwriting—as inadvertent as Tom Wolfe’s was deliberate—can reach grotesque extremes. Trapped in their limousine amid the gunfire, Oswald’s victims “lay entangled in their abbatoir.” The assassin didn’t kill, he “slew,” while a cigarette that’s being smoked is seen “shrinking to its doom.” If another book has ever made multiple uses of the word “debouched,” I’ve yet to read it. The diction throws up one risible roadblock after another: “apopemptic,” “comminated,” “vermiculating,” “atrabilious.” Maybe all this helped me with my sats back in 1967, but in 2009 I find myself skipping to the next paragraph instead of reaching for a dictionary.