The Death of a President

The Death of a President



The Pequod Review:

William Manchester's The Death of a President is an exhaustively researched, hour-by-hour account of JFK's assassination, starting from November 20 (when the president and his team left Washington D.C. for Dallas) through November 25 (when his funeral took place back in Washington D.C.). The book was originally commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy, whose likely goal was to shape the popular narrative prior to the release of other potentially less flattering books. Manchester benefitted enormously from this access, as he would interview nearly 1,000 people, including almost everyone associated with the administration. And despite his mandate, Manchester does not seem to have held back on his judgments; his narrative is hardly hagiographic, and key individuals like LBJ, John Connally, and even Jackie Kennedy herself are shown to be calculating and flawed individuals. 

Some of Manchester's minute attention to detail is either irrelevant or overly suggestive of future events, but it nonetheless serves the important function of providing an intimacy to the narrative. And Manchester is still able to pull back and intelligently consider the broader picture, as for example when he details LBJ's struggles that necessitated the trip to Dallas in the first place:

How do you explain to a President, who has all the power, that his Vice President has become virtually impotent in his home state? You don't explain it. He wouldn't understand; he would suspect you of evasion. Johnson had been running a broken field since birth, but his current problems were authentic. They arose in part from his stance as a public figure. Like Kennedy in New England he had burst upon the national scene as a maverick, a vote-getter who made no secret of his lack of sympathy for the advocates of doctrinaire solutions to complex issues. That moderation was the secret of his strength at the polls. Yet he paid a price for it in the councils of his party. Because he clung to the middle of the road he had failed to inspire any deep loyalty from either the Democrats’ liberal or conservative wings—and was therefore regarded by both as an outsider.

In larger part, however, his dilemma that week before what would be the third Thanksgiving of the Kennedy administration was an ironic consequence of the party’s national victory over Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge. Kennedy, who had been the junior Senator from Massachusetts, had stepped up to the Presidency. Johnson, formerly the mighty Majority Leader of the Senate, had become Vice President—which was also a step, but not up. The office he had inherited was but poorly understood. In the 174 years since the first inaugural the American people had displayed a monumental lack of interest in the Chief Executive’s backup; perhaps one in a million, for example, knew that between 1845 and 1849 the Vice President of the United States had been named Dallas. Everyone agreed that the second greatest gift the electorate could bestow was an empty honor, yet only those who had held it knew how hollow it really was. “A pitcher of warm spit,” John Nance Garner had called it, and an earlier wit had written, “Being Vice President isn’t exactly a crime, but it’s kind of a disgrace, like writing anonymous letters.”

Anonymity was uncomfortably close to the truth. Johnson had found that he was a stand-by without a script. Politically he was nearly a cipher because he lacked a power base. Some Congressmen had more influence. Men with sole claim to constituencies have a few plums to distribute, but the only fruits a Vice President can grant are those the President grants him. The right to reward loyalty with jobs is an officeholder’s lifeblood. Johnson, formerly red-blooded, was now anemic. To pry loose a federal judgeship for one of his most faithful Texas supporters, Sarah T. Hughes, he had been obliged to wage a major battle against objections inside and outside the government—Sarah, having passed the age for judicial appointments, had been listed as unqualified by the American Bar Association. The Vice President had filed a claim for half of Ralph Yarborough’s Senatorial patronage, advancing the argument that his former constituents in Texas continued to regard Lyndon Johnson as their senior Senator. Kennedy had been understanding. Johnson had been told that he could pick up half the state’s patronage, naming Texas’ judges, customs offices, and border guards—subject to Yarborough’s veto. But Connally, his former protégé, was unimpressed. And Yarborough, of course, was furious.

Thus the Vice President’s problems were not of his making. They were institutional; as any of his thirty-six predecessors in the office could have told him, they came with the territory. 

In later sections, Manchester has equally thoughtful insights into the conflict between "loyalists" (those still wedded to Kennedy even when he death was confirmed) and "realists" (those who realized LBJ was now in charge). Overall, this is a gripping and dramatic work of American history.