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.