Sort of book review - The Death of a President and the pre-history of childhood

20 March 2024
The Death of a President
, William Manchester's semi-official account of the Kennedy assasination, had a turbulent journey to publication. In the wake of JFK's death, the Kennedy family, realising a deluge of books about the assassination was surely on the way, commissioned Manchester, a journalist who knew and liked Kennedy and whose work the family approved of, to write the official account of the events. Manchester duly spent three years researching and writing the book, interviewing all the key players including Robert and Jacqueline Kennedy. But as publication approached, the Kennedys, deciding the book was unflattering to them, and furious Manchester had sold the serialisation rights, attempted to block publication. They were unsuccessful in this endeavour, allowing us 60 years on to read this sanitised and simpering account of the days leading up to and immediately after Kennedy's death, as seen in the mores of the time. I can't even remember what motivated me to pick this up; the Kennedy assassination isn't a topic that's ever interested me much before, despite the opportunity it offers for endless deep diving and speculation. But reading this now, it's more unflattering that the Kennedys ever realised, and disturbed me for reasons that have nothing to do with who shot why where when. 

The book is written in a purely chronological format, following every development through the experiences of the people who were there in the moment, which is better than a tedious series of chapters recounting what this or that person saw and did through the whole week. Especially evocative are the accounts of what each member of the Kennedy family was doing at the moment they heard the news.  But even just accounting for the Kennedy clan, there is a very large cast of characters - presidential staffers, medical people, secret service men, media, and that's just for starters. Unfortunately, Manchester seemed to believe including a character list in the style of Russian novels was too Soviet a touch in a book on the great Kennedy, and I quickly stopped trying to keep track of who was who, working it out by context. 

The expression "it was a different time" gets thrown out a lot, but my Lord. In the 1960s as seen through the eyes of William Manchester, women were mere accessories to the real world and work of men, no one ever had an affair (certainly the 40 something JFK didn't delight in taking the virginities of young interns, nor did he share a mistress with a mob boss), and doctors handed out barbituates like ibuprofen, wandering the aisles of planes carrying government officials back to DC, asking who wanted a sedative to be dispensed on the spot.

 But if women were given short shrift, children weren't shrifted at all. I imagined that after returning from Dallas with JFK's body, Jaqueline Kennedy's first instinct would have been to be with her children; to carry out the agonising task of informing them of their father's death, comforting them, assuring them, in light of the horrific violence of their father's death, that she and they were safe; remembering what she had to go on for. But no. In fact, Jaqueline Kennedy barely saw her children in the days between returning from Dallas with her late husband's body on Friday the 22nd of November and the funeral on November 25th. From the moment she decided not to change out of the bloodstained pink suit until after she'd returned to Washington, she had history to write, as the loving and devoted wife of a flawless hero. 

That evening, Caroline and John Jr raced excitedly to the window every time they heard a helicopter landing on the White House lawn, hoping it was their parents returning from Dallas as promised. Moments don't get much more poignant than that. But neither parent would return. Later that night, as she waited in Parkland hospital in DC for the autopsy to be completed, someone told Jackie that her kids had been moved from the White House to her mother's house, per a message she had sent from aboard Air Force One. Jackie responded "I sent no message" - the welfare of her kids apparently not crossing her mind during the flight. The kids were returned to the White House, where it fell to their governess to inform the children of their father's death. I guess all the many members of the Kennedy family were a bit busy for such trifles. 

Jackie didn't neglect her children because she was distraught, prostrate in her suite dosed up on those sedatives. She had a job to do, planning every last detail of the funeral and memorialisation. Unable to control her husband's philandering in life, she was sure as shit going to control his image in death. Even whilst waiting in Parkland hospital, she dispensed staff to the Library of Congress archives to research the details of Abraham Lincoln's lying in state, determined Jack should have the same catafalque, crepe, and flowers. Apart from a few brief snatches of rest, Jackie worked around the clock planning every detail of the funeral, from the colour of the horses in the procession, the design of the Mass cards and letters to visiting dignitaries which she would write herself, through to the selection of Arlington as JFK's resting place and her desire - against the strenuous objections of everyone, including JFK's surviving brothers Robert and Ted, who feared it ostentatious - that an eternal flame be placed at the grave site. Jackie was much praised for her strength and dignity, meeting some of the more illustrious titled heads who came to see her husband off, but apart from taking six year old Caroline to see her father's coffin, she spent little time with her children, and only a few minutes with little John Junior, who was repeatedly heard to state "a bad man shot my Daddy" as he struggled to comprehend what had happened. Everyone thought Jackie was just swell for this.

Society has pivoted - mostly rightly - to a view that children's welfare must be paramount at all times, so it's jarring to go back to a time when the needs of children were considered very much secondary. But really. I don't pretend to be a super mother. I've never thought my identity of "mother" subsumes everything else I've ever done, even though it's still the most important thing I've ever done. But I think I gagged a little. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders of the damn pink suit and give her a good shake. For fuck sake think of your kids. But the welfare of her children wasn't as important as debates over the tempo at which "Hail to the Chief" should be played during memorial services (this is not me exaggerating for comedic effect. It's what really happened).

And this was a book written to present the Kennedys in the best possible light! No one seemed to think that Jackie's behaviour was in any way abmormal or unaccepable. Everyone praised her poise, organisation and dignity. No one seemed to say hey, what about your children?

Everyone copes with grief differently. We don't know what the marriage between JFK and Jackie was really like (no one knows what any marriage is really like unless they're in it). Maybe despite the many affairs they loved each other deeply in their way. It was a time when it was simply expected that men in high status roles would have affairs and their wives would just go on smiling in their neat suits and set hairdos, presenting the public bella figura even if doing so required much private consumption of gin and barbituates. To Catholics like the Kennedys divorce would have been unthinkable. No one can predict how anyone will react after a death. Maybe burying herself in minutiae was the only way she found to process her grief. But for God's sake woman, you're not the only one grieving here. 

The most heartbreaking mental image of the whole thing is not the famous picture of John Jr saluting his father's coffin, but earlier that day, on the morning of the funeral, which was also the boy's third birthday. His Nanny had forgotten, until waking in the White House that morning, that it was John Jr's birthday. She quickly decided to sing Happy Birthday to the boy over breakfast, accompanied by Caroline. The boy then opened two of his presents, before the Nanny began dressing the children for their father's funeral. His mother did not make an appearance in the nursery, nor did any of the many aunts and uncles now at the White House ahead of commemorations that day. To quote William Manchester:

That was the thing about the children: every time people forgot the stark reality of the murder and began translating it into the niceties of protocol or national posture they were confronted by these terribly vulnerable little figures. 

"People", in this situation, not including their mother or other family members, for whom "the niceties of protocol or national posture" came first. 

Contrast this with LBJ, a man much maligned by history (and he could definitely be a bit of a shit). I'm not going to defend Johnson's character (but I am going to read the Robert Caro series on the man if they're ever released as ebooks). But LBJ's first act in the Oval Office as president was to write a letter each to Caroline and John Jr, assuring them how proud they should be of their father. He may have gone on to carpet bomb Cambodia and get his dick out at every opportunity, but he knew - in this situation, at least - what came first.


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