A Rage Greater Than Grief

Though it is barely off the presses, William Manchester’s THE DEATH OF A PRESIDENT has already lived a full and storied lifeconceived as a book, delivered prematurely as a political event, christened amid protestations of sacrifice and talk of six-figure deals, turned out by its progenitors, and sentenced to fend for itself in a world made turbulent by claims and counterclaims, publicity, gossip, and high-level backbiting. Many who were involved in the events it re-creates will find it flawed by inaccuracies and misjudgments; others will find if inadequate (see Oscar Handlin’s review on page 131). But once the furor dies, how will it stand as a report of a moment that beat and shook the world with its angry wings? Murray Kempton, author and political columnist for the New York POST, tells in this essay why he believes it will stand very well.


THERE are rare instances when the sympathy of a nation approaches those tenderer feelings which are generally supposed to be peculiar to the individual . . . and this is one. ... In the character of the victim . . . there is something so . . . innocent that it takes the question, as it were, out of all the pomp of history and the ceremonial of diplomacy — it touches the heart of nations and appeals to the domestic sentiment of mankind.

The more than Anglo-Saxon sensibility of Disraeli’s response to President Lincoln’s assassination does not merely illumine the occasion of President Kennedy’s, but also defines why William Manchester’s The Death of a President is so noble and manly an achievement.

It will not, I am afraid, make its way at once, having first to be judged as the scandal it is not before it can be appreciated as the masterpiece it is. But the heart, the critical organ which, having made its decision, is slowest of all to change it, will not long be able to resist Mr. Manchester precisely because he has taken his narrative out of the pomp of history and made it the property of the domestic affections. His is the way novels are written.

His susceptibility never deserts him. Nothing interests him in the public place except the private face. The thing is never an affair of state, but always and only the calamity of a family to which each of us to a degree belonged.

It was a thing that could not be gentled by ceremonial then, and it cannot be made tidy now. For the family calamity is the single occasion when every man who is not a monster thinks of himself as having acted badly. How many of us must there be who can remember no feeling from that time except a rage greater than grief, a rage at oneself and at everyone about one who remained alive, a rage reaching upward even to God?

For the rage at God, Manchester’s Mrs. Kennedy turns out to be an unexpected and magnificent witness. Alone in Parkland Hospital, waiting to go home, there burst upon her the Dallas Superior of the Dominican Fathers:

“Mrs. Kennedy looked up and saw him hovering over her. . . .

“Father Cain loosened the bag string. ‘I have a relic of the True Cross.’

“He held it out and asked her to ‘venerate it.’ She kissed the crucifix, not quite understanding what this was all about. Then he said he wanted to take it in to the President. She thought, This must mean a lot to this man, and If he wants to give it to Jack, how touching . . . the priest went in. But he didn’t leave the relic. . . .

“Coming out, he said, ‘I have applied a relic of the True Cross to your husband.’

“She stared. It was still in his hands. She thought, You mean you didn’t even give it to him?”

Mrs. Kennedy in the White House on Sunday evening tries to design the next day’s Mass cards:

“Dr. English had sent up prayers of St. Ignatius and St. Francis, and Ethel brought in a third from her parents’ card. The widow said, ‘I don’t want any of these on the back. I’m not going to be pleading with God to take Jack’s soul to heaven.’ Sketching the card for Shriver, she said, ‘Well — I guess you could put a cross on the top if you want.’ Ethel protested that there had to be some mention of God, and then Jackie . . . wrote out the plea: ‘Dear God — please take care of your servant John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Please take him straight to heaven.’ ”

Outrage at God is a sin demanding high character, being one of strength and not of weakness. It was especially respected by Dante; the noblest figure outside his Paradise is Farinata, the old Ghibelline, sitting upright in his tomb in the Sixth Circle “as though he held all Hell in scorn.”

It is proper then that Mrs. Kennedy, the great figure on this stage, should be the only one for whom there is reserved in Manchester’s chronicle the suggestion of struggle with the rage at God.

For the less elevated rage against whoever remained alive on earth, there are a hundred witnesses. Thus Mr. Kennedy’s closest friends watch President Johnson take the oath:

“They were thinking, though, mostly about each other. [Congressman] Albert Thomas decided [Dallas Police Chief] Jesse Curry was a lens hog; the chief, beside him, was standing on tiptoes and obscuring those behind him. Mary Gallagher and Marty Underwood were watching Ken O’Donnell, who was pacing the corridor outside the bedroom like a caged tiger, his hands clapped over his ears as though to block the oath. Ken was thinking of Jackie, She’s being used, she’s being used. Larry O’Brien stared at Jack Valenti. This was the first time Larry had seen Jack since yesterday’s windup conference in Houston before the testimonial dinner for Albert Thomas. He was the same Valenti — alert, intent, straining for some unseen bait— but there was a new zeal about him. He was Sammy Glick in Sammy’s graduation photograph, and O’Brien, noticing the throbbing veins in his neck, thought, Well, he’s on his way now. Muggsy O’Leary saw Valenti, too. At the same time it occurred to Muggsy that there had never been so many Texans in the stateroom. He thought, It’s all over for us.”

That passage is typical of many that are likely to provide the main obstacle to Manchester’s going down easily at first. I happen to think that the risk inherent in this sort of thing is a responsibility of the historian whose material happens to be uniquely of the kind which cannot be usefully recorded in tranquillity. Accuracy under such circumstances demands not a record of fact but the faithful description of distortions produced by states of mind. Valenti seems, by Manchester’s own account, to have been rendered by shock so incapable of recognizing the rope of power when it was handed to him that he collapsed at Parkland upon learning that President Kennedy was dead; O’Brien was so indifferent to his own public future after this private disaster that he refused the new President’s invitation to sit with him on the flight home. Yet, as there was no precedent for the occasion, there was no language for its emotion; even O’Brien’s mind had no expression for infinite sorrow except the habitual, finite language of calculation. To be faithful to one’s source under such conditions means then to be unfair not only to Valenti but even to O’Brien, who was being unfair to himself. That is a hazard, inconvenient though it be. which a serious man has to take; one can only hope that his readers will recognize these witnesses as of very little use for most things except conveying the conditions ol their spirits, which is quite useful enough indeed.1

AS FOR the rage at self, the most eminent witness is President Johnson, the most lasting victim of the rage against all who remained alive.

The CIA advised him that it would be dangerous for him to walk in the Kennedy funeral procession :

“One of Johnson’s Texans quoted him as saying, ‘I’d rather give my life than be afraid to give it.’ This wasn’t quite accurate. What the President really said . . . was: ‘You damned bastards are trying to take over. If I listen to you. I’ll be led to stupid, indecent decisions. I’m going to walk.’ ”

As always happens, the original, domestic, words are nobler and more affecting than their adaptation to the grand style. They have about them the memory of shame and the knowledge that decency depends on the continual action of the will.

Three days before, from muddle more than fear, President Johnson had let himself be trundled from Parkland to the airfield almost as the prisoner of Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood:

“Youngblood led the new Chief Executive to Chief Curry. The threat of a plot still obsessed the agent. That was why he had insisted on two automobiles; if a sniper recognized Lady Bird, he would be shooting at the wrong car. Youngblood . . . got in back with Johnson and told the President to crouch below window level.”

So that afternoon we were a nation whose First Lady was conscripted as a decoy and whose President was ordered to hide in the back of his car. This was the sensible thing to do; yet even Mr. Johnson had to look back on scenes where the sensible thing was especially a memory of hateful embarrassment.

For these were circumstances in which even to be correct was often to be horrible. There is the case of Dr. Earl Rose, the Dallas County Medical Examiner, who barred the Kennedy party at the hospital door as it was preparing to move the President’s body back to Love Field and home.

“ ‘There has been a homicide here. They won’t be able to leave until there has been an autopsy.’ ”

The core of reason in this painful scene belongs to the medical examiner; Earl Rose was standing for the orderly processes of criminal justice in a city where there would appear to be no other official who cared about them all that weekend. Yet he is hateful; we have toward him that revulsion any member of the family has toward the outside world which goes its insensitive way doing things as it always has.

The outrage which makes every rule so offensive to the desolated put before Manchester a problem not normal to the historian: Is it his job simply to stand and record or must he share that outrage, which may, after all, be the most part of the history? Manchester opts for participation; if he had not done that, he would have avoided most of his present troubles, but it is hard to believe that he could have registered his fundamental achievement.

For there are situations where the more intense the engagement with the truth, the higher the risk to propriety and indisputability of fact. A case in point is the recollection of Kenneth O’Donnell. He was appointments secretary to the President of the United States, an office which passed at once to Mr. Johnson’s command. Yet O’Donnell himself remembers his vehement opposition to Mrs. Kennedy’s presence at President Johnson’s swearingin; and Manchester could have no other authority for the picture of his is thoughts during that ceremony: she’s being used, she’s being used. When Major General Chester Clifton, President Kennedy’s military aide, came back on an errand for President Johnson, Manchester says O’Donnell “flashed, ‘Why don’t you get back and serve your new boss?’”

We are presented then with a federal official who has forgotten formal duty for family feeling. What is national in the reader is disturbed; what is personal in him is touched by fellow feeling. There are things, the old Sinn Feiner said, that a man must not do even to save a nation.

It is understandable that the Kennedys might feel now that a work so vividly evocative of the disordered soul could be offensive to their dignity as a family and ours as a country. And yet the particular lesson which Manchester teaches us is how dependent everyone’s dignity sometimes has to be on emotions that seem ignoble to propriety.

Rage moved Mrs. Kennedy to her grandest gestures — the refusal to change her suit with her husband’s blood on it (“Let them see what they have done”), her insistence against all suggestions that she and the coffin make their exit at Andrews Field from the starboard side of the plane where the fuselage would screen them from the photographers (“I want them to see what they have done”).

Rage was even an element in the tenderest sights of that weekend — the little children full in the cameras as her ultimate reproach. And what broke through all ceremonial was a furious domesticity — Secret Service Agent Tom Wells pushing aside Charles de Gaulle to get the children as close to their mother in the funeral march as he could, White House assistant Jack McNally co-opting the cars to carry the President’s household staff to Arlington and leaving the princes and powers of the earth cast down to scramble for transportation.

All that was memorable in those moments was the personal and the intimate insisting on its rights against all notions of ceremonial. We remember not the mass of drums which belong to any head of state, but the scattering of bagpipes which Mrs. Kennedy thought of and which belonged to this special head of state alone.

The point, one commences to feel, was in the family debate as to whether President Kennedy’s coffin should be opened in the Capitol. The decision fell on Robert Kennedy; he had only to look and recognize at once that the gloss of the cosmetologists had left not his brother but a waxen dummy. They would leave the coffin closed.

As Mrs. Kennedy said later, “It wasn’t Jack. It was like something you would see at Madame Tussaud’s.”

Manchester has taken the desperate risk of doing those days without cosmetology. It is his reward and ours that, near the end, one does what, from pure hatred of all light, I had never thought I could ever do about this thing; one begins to weep almost with exaltation. One forgives everyone; you respect the wildly excessive, you only pity the indifferent, and you bow down to the fierce gaiety of this family.

Gaiety will seem a most improper word for those days; but gaiety was, after all, so much of the President Kennedy who remains so lively in the memory. Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.

“All things fall down and are built again/ And those that build them again are gay.”

For Manchester has accomplished that reconciliation which the high Roman ceremony of the President’s funeral could only suggest. What had gone before remained there irreconcilable; someone had to begin back there and carry us through the whole way; we could not accept it until we had endured the worst of it. Manchester has made that terrible journey, and he has brought us home whole again.

  1. The comparison of Valenti with Sammy Glick comes from Manchester himself, being an image of the sort aroused by looking at a photograph well after the fact. That is one of the penalties of the morbid susceptibility without which Manchester could not have made this trip; there are other examples; and I regret them; but they seem to me the price of an essential quality.