John Kennedy’s assassination is one of my earliest memories. I was four-years old in November of 1963.
I remember my mother washing the basement stairs on that afternoon as she was crying. I remember coming home from Sunday mass that weekend, my father switching on the Motorola TV set in the kitchen, and witnessing Lee Harvey Oswald being killed on live television. I remember my father crying during the state funeral and I remember JFK’s casket. It looked short on our television and I remember thinking he must have to be sitting up inside of it. (Caroline Kennedy, then six-years old, had the same reaction when she saw her father’s casket in the East Room of the White House.)
For anyone alive and at least somewhat aware of what was going on on that weekend, it’s unforgettable. It casts a spell. In recent years I’ve taken up a November ritual in which I read at least part of William Manchester’s epic account of it all, The Death of a President. (The book is over 700 pages long and the audio is 33 hours. I don’t usually get through all of it.)
While the book’s style is very much of its time (a lot of people would find it incredibly sexist — the women are always “hysterical” — and the author self-important, by today’s standards), every time I read or listen to it, I learn something I had missed previously. I thought you might be interested in some of the random facts in the book that aren’t widely known. For example:
It was all about petty politics. JFK went to Texas to unite the Texas Democrats ahead of his own reelection bid in 1964. Conservative Gov. John Connelly was warring with liberal Sen. Ralph Yarborough. (Yes, Texas actually had a liberal United States senator.) How petty was it? Connelly made a point of seating Yarborough on a lower dais and off to the side from the main players at a Democratic dinner. Yarborough refused to ride in motorcades (there were motorcades in San Antonio and Houston before Dallas) with Vice President Lyndon Johnson, a conservative and an ally of Connelly. It got so bad that at Love Field a Kennedy aide shoved Yarborough into LBJ’s limmo and shut the door behind him.
The last conversation between JFK and LBJ was probably heated. While Kennedy himself was drawing surprisingly enthusiastic crowds, things were going so poorly with regard to the main reason for the trip, that the night before they went on to Dallas, Kennedy called his vice president to his suite at a hotel in Fort Worth. Later Johnson wouldn’t say much about what they talked about, but witnesses outside of the room heard raised voices and the name “Yarborough.” Some 18 hours later Kennedy was dead.
Oswald helps McNeil. After shots were fired, reporter Robert McNeil (who went on to create the McNeil-Lehrer Report, now the PBS News Hour) rushed into the Texas School Book Depository in search of a phone. McNeil bumped into Lee Harvey Oswald as he was exiting the building and he pointed out where McNeil might find a pay phone.
Jackie Kennedy was accosted by a strange priest. As she waited for her husband’s body to be removed from Parkland Hospital, an eccentric priest gained entry into the trauma room. (Priests who delivered Last Rites had already left.) He waved a cross containing what he claimed was a “relic of the true cross” over the body and recited incantations. Then he approached Jackie and spoke to her in a way that Manchester only describes as “overly familiar.” Kennedy’s aides and the Secret Service hustled him out, but it’s amazing that even after the assassination security was so loose.
The standoff at the hospital. The officious Dallas Medical Examiner, Earl Rose, tried to block JFK’s aides and the Secret Service from removing the body from the hospital. Rose claimed (correctly, as it turned out) that since the President had been murdered in Dallas it was his job to conduct an autopsy for use at a potential trial. In 1963 it was only a Federal crime to threaten a president, not to actually carry out the threat. So, the perpetrator (they didn’t know who it was at that moment) was going to be tried under state law. Rose was asked to make an exception under the circumstances and to allow the autopsy to take place in Washington. Rose refused and even called an armed sheriff’s deputy to his side. A tense standoff ensued in the hospital hallway for about 10 minutes, with JFK’s casket in the middle, until the Kennedy entourage finally muscled their way past Rose.
LBJ didn’t need to take the oath. As a legal matter, Johnson became president as soon as JFK was incapacitated at 12:30 PM in Dealey Plaza, and some argued that he should wait to take the formal oath of office (which wasn’t actually necessary at all) back in Washington. But Johnson understood symbolism, and so he held up the flight back to DC in order to wait for his friend, Federal Judge Sarah Hughes, to fight her way through traffic to get to Love Field. The famous picture of Johnson taking the oath aboard Air Force One wasn’t just a snapshot. LBJ personally, carefully orchestrated the whole thing specifically for that picture. Some Kennedy aides were appalled when he insisted that the fallen President’s widow get in the frame, but he wanted to demonstrate continuity.
Kennedy’s aides tried to self-anesthetize on Air Force One. On the way back to Andrews Air Force Base, Kennedy’s aides tried to drink away their pain. Malcolm Kilduff, JFK’s press secretary on the trip (Pierre Sallinger was on a flight to Asia), said he drank most of a bottle of gin. Jackie Kennedy, seated next to the casket, drank two scotches (her first taste of that whiskey). Manchester reports that, despite their best efforts, nobody could get drunk.
Oswald never had a lawyer. In the roughly 48 hours that Lee Harvey Oswald was in custody he never got an attorney. In fact, ACLU lawyers tried to get to see him shortly after he was arrested, but Oswald was never told of their presence. Incredibly, Oswald was paraded back and forth in front of reporters and he responded directly to off the cuff questions.
The prominent burial site was chosen by McNamara. It was initially assumed, even by his closest aides, that Kennedy would be buried in Boston. It was Jackie Kennedy who decided on Arlington. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara went out in the driving rain on Saturday afternoon to scout a site and it was McNamara who settled on the now iconic location just below Robert E. Lee’s mansion.
Jackie Kennedy had to fight for St. Matthews Church. The Catholic hierarchy wanted the funeral mass at their big show case cathedral, but Jackie Kennedy insisted on the much smaller St. Matthews. That’s because she wanted to walk from the White House to the church and St. Matthews was only eight blocks away. The famous photo of John saluting his father’s coffin was taken outside the church after the mass.
Bobby Kennedy was furious at Manchester. After RFK read a draft of his book, which had been commissioned by the Kennedy family, he stormed over to William Manchester’s apartment in Manhattan and confronted him. There was something in the book about Jackie Kennedy that upset him. While Manchester never revealed what it was, there are several possibilities. Overall, Manchester treated the widow very well, but he did write that she had smoked while waiting for her husband’s body to be removed from Parkland, that she had had a couple of drinks on the flight back to Washington, that she had left it to their nanny to tell her children of their father’s death and that she had carefully choreographed the funeral to bolster JFK’s legacy. None of those seem like capital offenses today, but in 1967, when the book was published, they may have seemed more important.
Welcome to the 278th consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading.