Dead Reckoning

Manchester's flawed, essential chronicle of the JFK assassination

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.”

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.

The language, so weirdly puffed up and perfumed, seems almost a form of grief, some strange, Pentecostal utterance that’s the opposite of what poor Sergeant Dugger was suffering. Metaphors are either baffling (“as obvious as a Parcheesi board”) or tormented through extension, and the tone can be crazily uncertain, as in one passage where Manchester twists himself into a combination of Cotton Mather and Mickey Spillane. He is attempting to explain why the tony New Frontiersmen could never have understood the sleazy world of Jack Ruby, Oswald’s killer:

The men and women who had surrounded President Kennedy . . . were unacquainted with the maggoty half-world of dockets and flesh-peddlers, of furtive men with mud-colored faces and bottle blondes whose high-arched overplucked eyebrows give their flat glittering eyes a perpetually startled expression. . . .

During his battle with Bobby and Jackie Kennedy, Manchester’s editors would betray him in the largest way possible, sticking up for the writer’s subjects instead of the writer. But they also let him down line by un-blue-penciled line.

When The Death of a President was released in 1967, public confidence in the Warren Report was only beginning its long slide down the Grassy Knoll. Manchester dismissed the possibility of conspiracy in the space of two footnotes. His contempt and anger toward Oswald are so keen that he can barely allow the assassin onto the page. To the author, Kennedy’s killer is a head case (“he was going mad”) whose Marxist politics are too puerile for consideration, and who can be dismissed as “barely literate.” In fact, though painfully dyslexic, Oswald was a serious reader whose library borrowings in the summer of 1963 included Manchester’s Portrait of a President.

Manchester remains, then, what students of the assassination call an LN (Lone Nutter), as opposed to a CT (Conspiracy Theorist). However, he belonged to a large liberal sect of Lone Nutterism that believed a citywide atmosphere of political malice had prodded Oswald toward his explosion. Dallas, with its fiercely right-wing ethos, is more or less made into the killer’s codefendant.

Over and over, the author suggests what he calls “a plural responsibility for the tragedy,” and quotes others who spoke in the same vein. Ralph Dungan, a special assistant to President Kennedy, remarked that “the hell of it is, they’ll blame it all on that twenty-four-year-old boy,” while David Brinkley declared on network television, as JFK’s coffin was lowered into the ground, that “the act which killed the president was spawned out of bigotry and extremism.” The city’s tendencies toward both were marked. That they led Lee Harvey Oswald to kill John F. Kennedy—seven months after he nearly succeeded in killing General Edwin Walker, the most celebrated right-wing extremist in Dallas—is no more clear today than it was in 1967. Nor is it any clearer now whether the myriad cheering spectators for Kennedy’s Dallas motorcade should assume or escape a share of the “plural responsibility.”

And yet, for all this collective guilt, much of the emotional drive in The Death of a President comes from a simple sense that a big man has been killed by a little one, a king cut down by a serf. Camelot imagery for the Kennedy years sprang not from Manchester but from Theodore H. White (with a conscious assist from Jackie Kennedy). Nonetheless, The Death of a President has enough of its own royalist trappings and machinery to have put off some who read it in manuscript. The main divisions of the text are organized under the characters’ Secret Service code names—JFK is “Lancer,” while Mrs. Kennedy is “Lace”—and the murder happens because the protagonists must make a kind of royal progress, waving from their carriage in all their sexual glamour, through the inhospitable province where some of their vassals have been feuding. The warring factions and egos within the Texas Democratic party thus hasten the end of a “dazzling three-year reign” whose closing moments take place against a backdrop decidedly unfit for a king and queen. The author winces in describing “the automotive nature of the landscape” (too many gas stations) and even “the tawdry Hertz clock” above the Texas School Book Depository. (Never mind that the Hertz rental-car business may have been made possible in part by the president’s father, who during the 1920s manipulated stock in the Yellow Cab Company with his friend John Hertz.)

Manchester tells us that John F. Kennedy, whose “great heart continued to pump” against all odds in the emergency room, was a reader not only of Thucydides but also, when aboard Air Force One, the Bible: “On flights alone the President had read it evenings before snapping off the night light.” Perhaps he did. But a plaster sainthood hardens very quickly around JFK once he ceases to propel Manchester’s narrative with his own words and deeds.

With Mrs. Kennedy, it’s a different story. Manchester may hymn the First Lady’s looks and elegance, but in her he has a living—indeed, suddenly metamorphosing—creature to deal with. After the killing, immune to Scotch and sedatives, she marshals her will for a series of history-minded decisions and truly graceful gestures (gently touching the ham hand of the weeping Sergeant Dugger, for one). Manchester makes plain that Bobby Kennedy, not his sister-in-law, took the initial steps toward planning the massive state funeral. But once Mrs. Kennedy rose to full function, the two of them became a formidable team.

In 1966 they united against Manchester, attempting to thwart serialization of The Death of a President in Look magazine, and then to block publication of the book itself by redeeming the author’s early, unwise promise of “manuscript approval.” In Mrs. Kennedy’s case, Manchester realized, the basic problem was that “she didn’t really want any book” at all on the assassination, especially one that had been enabled by her long, daiquiri-driven interviews with the author. When she met with Manchester to hash things out, she deployed “tears, grimaces, and whispery cries of ‘Jesus Christ!’,” as well as a threatening reminder that the only thing the American public wouldn’t put up with from her was running off with Eddie Fisher.

Bobby Kennedy’s objections followed a political calculus that now seems obscure. Not yet having decided to run for president, he was afraid that Manchester’s depictions of Lyndon Johnson—first as a humbled vice president and then, suddenly, an overeager chief executive—might create problems for himself inside the Democratic party. Evan Thomas, Manchester’s editor at Harper & Row (and father of RFK’s subsequent biographer), proposed a bundle of cuts and changes, not only to please the Kennedy family but to keep Harper & Row from losing a crack at LBC’s own memoirs when the time came for them to be auctioned.

Any reader of the battle scenes between the Kennedy “loyalists” and Johnson “realists” will understand that Manchester’s portrait of Johnson is in fact so fundamentally reasonable and sympathetic—it shows a man marshaling his huge skills during what, for all anyone knew, might be an international plot preceding a nuclear attack—that it has to have been largely that way from the beginning. On the other hand, those in the Kennedy camp (including, occasionally, RFK himself) behaved so disgracefully that one must wonder if Bobby’s real fear wasn’t what readers would think of them. In this sense, Robert Kennedy’s attempt to suppress Manchester’s book seems only an extension of the grief-entitled arrogance on display that weekend.

At the beginning of this decade, I made my own foray into the history of the assassination with a long profile for The New Yorker of Ruth Paine, the Quaker woman in Dallas who became a key Warren Commission witness because of her solicitous friendship with Lee and Marina Oswald. In the nine months before Kennedy’s murder, Ruth helped Oswald to get his job at the Book Depository and remained unaware that he was keeping a rifle in her garage.

A poignant figure whose life was convulsed by her connection to the killing, she left Manchester, as he put it in a footnote, “impressed by her exceptional forthrightness.” He sought her out primarily for help in understanding Oswald’s behavior. When I tracked Ruth down decades later, it was not in order to reinvestigate the crime (I am an implacable Lone Nutter), but with a view toward understanding her own character and ordeal. Among my many sources were Manchester’s book as well the notes from his interview with Ruth, now in the National Archives.

I have come to realize that Manchester’s approach—his quest for the smallest particulars, his emotional sense of history and its ironies—informed my work more than any specific facts I learned from him. When it came time to publish Mrs. Paine’s Garage (2002), an expansion of my magazine piece, I endured nothing to equal Manchester’s legal and personal ordeal, but I did experience a degree of psychological stress. Ruth’s own agitation about having revisited her awful experience spilled over into my life and, predictably, I had to deal with a bilious bubbling up of scorn from the still feverish swamps of conspiracy theory.

I was pleased to learn that Manchester had read what ran in The New Yorker. He told me so during our only meeting, in the spring of 2002, just after he had been awarded a National Humanities Medal for his career as an historian. Manchester was in a wheelchair, two strokes having left him unable to finish the third volume of his biography of Winston Churchill. He spoke with difficulty, but managed to tell me one story that suggested the years of strain he endured while producing his flawed, distinguished, and essential book. In the summer of 1964, he explained, he had conducted two interviews with Oswald’s bizarre, money-mad mother, Marguerite, at her little house in Fort Worth, Texas. Despite her derangement, she surely sensed the level of his regard for her son. And as he left her for the last time, she uttered her defiant envoi: “You can’t say my son wasn’t a good shot!”

Manchester told me this story at a White House reception for the Humanities medalists, just down the hall from the East Room. 

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Thomas Mallon is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and many other magazines, and the author of seven novels and six works of nonfiction.