Landscape with the Fall of Icarus — Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Death of a President

Only an America which practices what it preaches about equal rights and social justice will be respected by those whose choice affects our future. Only an America which has fully educated its citizens is fully capable of tackling the complex problems and perceiving the hidden dangers of the world in which we live.

Extract from the speech JFK was to give on the 22 November 1963

When away in Palma last month, I took William Manchester’s ‘Death of a President’ to read. Published in 1968, it’s of the five days surrounding John F Kennedy’s assassination and the murder of his assassin.

Such a book is hardly holiday reading, you might say. I’m afraid I’m not a reader of much light fiction. I look for books that will move me, challenge me, and substantively engage me. Manchester’s book certainly does that.

The book is not sensationalist (the two shootings are a page or two of some six hundred pages). It is not of conspiracies. It’s more a lament to the loss of hope of a man who might have done so much more. It’s of the devastating impact his premature death had on his family. And those with whom he worked closely. As well as the reaction of those across the USA and the World. I was too young to form a view of just what a difference JFK might have made should he have lived. I now know he was a flawed man and suffered severe health problems. Yet, given the reaction to his death, people around the World saw a man of vigour, progression, and integrity. Someone intent on making a positive change in society.

Manchester extensively researched the book. It’s based upon interviews, with around two hundred people, over the two years following JFK’s death. Interviewees ranging from Jackie and Robert Kennedy to President Johnson, Oswald’s wife, and mother, along with Dallas taxi drivers, Secret Service agents and White House valets etc

It is a compelling narrative of those five days in November 1963. There is no attempt to over dramatise but to bring the events and the participants to life in a measured way. To put the reader amongst those participants. Whether it’s in JFK’s pre-Dallas meetings in the White House. His casual conversations with Jackie, friends, or colleagues. The infighting in between the Dallas democratic leadership. Lee Oswald’s strained relationship with his mother and wife. And after JFK’s death, the immediate tension between his White House team, the so-called ‘Irish mafia’, and those of Johnson’s team, the ‘Texans’.

There is a vast cast of characters in the book. Manchester not only captures in meticulous detail the role they played and the actions they took but also their thoughts and feelings. First, he conveys the early fears of some for JFK on the trip (Dallas was a right-wing city very hostile to his politics). Then encouraging initial stages of the visit saw large crowds. After that comes tragedy and its chaotic aftermath. The transfer of power almost appears brutal in its haste. Then, finally, the outpouring of grief and the poignant telling of JFK’s return to Washington, his funeral and burial. From the moment of his death to his internment being only some three days.

I don’t believe there was a conspiracy. To me, both the assassination by Oswald and his subsequent murder were opportunistic. He was a man with great ambition but little talent. Oswald wanted notoriety and killing someone of note would achieve that. He first tried and failed in that with General Walker. Oswald also wrote of his desire to kill Senator Connolly, who he did wound in the assassination. Oswald was a man whose only power and influence came from a gun barrel. And, as we saw again last weekend in Buffalo, with many such inadequate souls one way or another, they will wield that power.

The IRA once wrote, “We only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always”. On that day in late November, Oswald was both lucky and ruthless. Manchester brings out how a confluence of events offered Oswald his opportunity. His ruthlessness is demonstrated by his killing of officer J D Tippit. The death of whom is often overlooked. However, Manchester does not forget officer Tippit or his family. Neither did Jackie Kennedy.

As it turns out, Oswald gloried in that infamy for only three days. Then, gunned down in another opportunistic killing. Moments before he killed Oswald, Jack Ruby sent a MoneyGram to one of his employees. If that transaction had taken one minute longer, his target would have been on the way to another prison.

The fact Ruby was successful is another example of the bungling by the Dallas police of events after the assassination. Unbelievable as it might be to us, even if Oswald had gone to trial, it would have been difficult to convict him. Too many senior law enforcement officers had gone on TV and radio saying he was the killer. They denied Oswald legal advice. And mishandled forensics. One struggles to think of anywhere in the USA where the authorities might find an untainted jury. His would have been the sort of trial seen before the times of Henry II. A person is guilty unless they can prove their innocence.

Manchester’s Magnum Opus conveys the tragedy, and subsequent sadness, of JFKs death atmospherically and without descending into melodrama. He writes of people struggling with extraordinary circumstances. You feel carried along on the same emotional roller-coaster.

He well captures the machinations of the USA political system. Including the fact that the men who drew up the constitution never intended that a Vice-President would immediately assume the Presidency. They would simply be a stand-in until the voting in of a new President. However, the assassination of Lincoln set a precedent after Andrew Johnson simply assumed the role (and what, in hindsight, was a disastrous assumption of power that turned out to be) and had himself sworn in as President.

Virtually all the major participants on that day in late November are now dead. Although at the time of writing, there is one that is still alive. Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent, mounted the back of JFK’s limousine to shield Jackie and what he then realised was the deceased JFK. We can only ponder what might have been if Hill had been three seconds sooner in reaching the President’s car.

Looking back some sixty years, what comes to my mind more than anything from Manchester’s book is Auden’s poem, ‘Musee des Beaux-Arts’. No matter how shocking such tragic World-stopping events are, they move past some unnoticed. Those stunned by such events then quickly move on. It may feel like the end of the World to those directly involved. But to many others, life goes on with barely a glance in the direction of the tragedy. The ploughman, ploughs. The ship sails on. The children skate.

The World turns …

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Harry Watson

Harry Watson

In the Renaissance period of my post-career life …