As the world still reeled from the tragic and historic events of November 22, 1963, William Manchester set out, at the request of the Kennedy family, to create a detailed, authoritative record of President John F. Kennedy's death, including the days immediately preceding and following the assassination. Through hundreds of interviews, extensive travel, and firsthand observation, and with unique access to the proceedings of the Warren Commission, Manchester conducted an exhaustive historical investigation, accumulating forty-five volumes of documents, exhibits, and transcribed tapes. His ultimate objective-to set down as a whole the national and personal tragedy that was JFK's assassination-is brilliantly achieved in this galvanizing narrative, a book universally acclaimed as a landmark work of modern history.
This book is dense, and was at first, very difficult to read. But that is due to the meticulous research and the no-stone-unturned style of the writing. I'm very glad I stayed with it. The cast of characters, because it is non-fiction, is huge, and Mr. Manchester must have touched base with every one of them, or those that survived those five days, that is.
What struck me most as I was reading this is how the political climate in November of 1963 is so very similar to that of today. The text of the speech that President Kennedy was on his way to deliver when he was killed resonated with me heavily as I read it. I don't want to get all political, but I can say with all seriousness that realizing how very deeply divided the country was almost 50 years ago gives me hope that we are repeating cycles and not, in fact, about to collapse upon ourselves because of all the hate.
It's been said that Kennedy's presidency remains in the forefront of our culture because his was the first to be played out on television. This, of course and unfortunately, continued through his death. I was surprised to read here that a study conducted after the assassination revealed that by roughly 30 minutes after the shooting, 68% of all adults - at the time, 75 million people - knew of it. That's an impressive number, lower than today's standards, certainly, but still impressive for a time when people relied on three television networks and radio. I don't know of a specific number, but certainly Oswald's murder remains one of the few captured live by television cameras. And of course, those who chose to do so were able to follow the funeral procession on November 25th.
The confusion of the hours surrounding the assassination was well presented, and not a little disheartening, even as I realize that it was almost inevitable. Jackie's "Let them see what they've done" in her refusal to change her bloodstained clothing was heartbreaking, as was the reaction of the Kennedy children. I think what touched me the most profoundly though, was the men who stopped what they were doing or got out of their cars to salute the hearse transporting the president's body from Bethesda to the White House at four-ish in the morning following his autopsy.
I know that Mr. Manchester tangled with Robert Kennedy and was sued by Jackie Kennedy after being commissioned to write the book, but despite that, or perhaps because of it, the book was very fair to the family. In fact, he seemed fair to everyone involved, though scoffing at the conspiracy theories that were simply in their infancy at the time he wrote it.
Despite the great sadness I felt when I finished reading it, I remain glad I did.
This is a heartbreaking account, based on the facts available at the time, and on interviews with Jackie Kennedy and those closely involved with the events surrounding November 23, 1963, but to me, it is the death of a charismatic and inspiring man, not the President of the United States, or Johnson's predecessor. Particularly, I will ever after admire Jackie for her graceful composure and strength, and no amount of mudslinging will detract from Kennedy's intelligence, appeal or impact on history.
An engrossing book, concise and yet far from dry - the plainly reported observations of how a country reacted to the President's death, from his family to the thousands of people who paid their last respects in Washington, is devastating to read.
There are some disconcerting elements in the book that the writer could not have foreseen. The book was published in 1967, so no one knew yet that RFK would not survive the decade. No one knew that Jacqueline Kennedy would marry Aristotle Onasis (although he does make an appearance in the narrative) and later die young of cancer. No one knew that the little boy who finally gave a perfect salute to his father's coffin would die a very premature death three decades later. This knowledge only made it more poignant for me as I read the book.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is highly readable and very literate. And it certainly helped fill in holes in my knowledge.