The story has been told many times over the past 52 years and yet we are still able to find bits and pieces that we may have missed. When I was 8 years old, my grandmother had a collection of JFK material stored in a metal container. One day when the interest of JFK was beginning to spark, I found myself going through this container. Inside of this container was a vast amount of newspaper clippings, notes that she had written down about this time in history and one book. That book was “The Death of a President” written by William Manchester. It was my grandmother that told me that this should be the first book I read about this time in history and should be my last. I guess to her, this was the true story about what happened during those dark days in November. Although to some, the story of those days may be different then what Mr. Manchester wrote about, he does the job of a historian in bringing the reader to that exact time and giving you a sense that you were there. I have read this book several times over the years and recently as I have been trying myself trying to be a better researcher, have looked a little deeper into the writing of William Manchester’s signature work. In this post I will not go into the entire story that Manchester was trying to give the reader, instead I will showcase some points that stick out the most to me.
One of the main parts of the book that sticks out to me is the lack of cooperation that Lyndon Johnson had in the interview process. As William Manchester was gaining information from many of the key figures that were there that day, including that of First Lady Jackie Kennedy, it was Lyndon Johnson that showed the most resistance. During the course of the interview process, on two occasions President Johnson accepted the invite, then it would be canceled at the last minute. Eventually the two men would come to an agreement that President Johnson would only answer written questions and his responses would be done the same way. As Manchester states, “Some of the replies were detailed; to other inquiries he had no comment.” During the course of this reading, it appears that Manchester had become annoyed by the fact that Johnson was unwilling to recollect his memories of that day, and Manchester states that “It should be added that he has not seen the book in any form”. The frustration with Johnson was evident, but as the reader continues on in the book, it seems rather odd that the first 6 pages of Manchester’s recollection of the days leading up to the assassination and the days following it, involved talking about the Vice-President’s role in the administration and frustrations during his time as Vice-President.
Within the first paragraph in the definitive recollection of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the topic was not about the days leading up to the assassination, instead it was the role of the Vice-President and his frustration with the administration. It would almost seem to the reader that the agreement that Manchester and Johnson formed in order for him to be interviewed must have contained some form of understanding of how this book was going to begin. The political situation in Texas during the fall of 1963 was in ruins as the Democrats were coming apart at the seams. But as Manchester states in that first page, “Johnson would guardedly recall that there had been some discussion of the Texas political situation”. How is it that the main reason for the Kennedy trip to Texas was to restore faith in the party, and Johnson only recalls some discussion? The picture of resentment that Manchester was portraying of Johnson was coming clearer as the writing continued on. As Manchester states, “Johnson had found that he was a stand-by without a script”. Although he may not had the script he wanted, he did find himself thrust into a role that he want. On November 19th, 1963, Lyndon Johnson would take a trip to Dallas to speak with the American Bottlers of Carbonated Beverages. Only 3 days before the President was to arrive in Dallas, and at the same convention that former Vice-President Richard Nixon was at during his stay in Dallas during this time . An interesting side note to a story that has not been fully told.
The Vice-President did not have many of the luxuries that were enjoyed by the President, and simple things like having a number not in the public directory was one of them. If Johnson was to go on a flight using a military plane it would have to be assigned to him and he would have to ask permission for that plane. An indication that Johnson was feeling left out of the circle was evident, and as Manchester states “Lyndon Johnson was, in short, a prisoner of his office.” The book that would be able to tell the story of the assassination of John F. Kennedy was beginning with the frustration of his Vice-President. However we want to take this we can look at a quote that William Manchester says in the introduction of this book, “In time I myself shall merely become a source for future historians as yet unborn”. This book was the beginning of my understanding of those days in Dallas, and 48 years after its publication, this book is a reminder that we need to continue to research and look for those clues that might help us better understand what happened that Friday in November.
Manchester, William. The Death of a President, November 20-November 25, 1963, New York: Harper & Row, 1967.
Peppard, Alan. “Kennedy Rival Nixon Left Dallas as JFK Arrived in November 1963.” Dallas Morning News. November 2, 2013. http://www.dallasnews.com/news/jfk50/explore/20131102-kennedy-rival-richard-nixon-left-dallas-as-jfk-arrived-in-november-1963.ece.