That Manchester Book
New Times No. 5, 1 February 1967, pp. 23–24.
Seldom has a book aroused so much speculation and
controversy before publication as William Manchester’s “The Death of a
President.” The publishers, Harper and Row,” were planning to put it out in
April, but at the turn of the year rumours began to spread in Washington abut
its sensational revelations, and mysteriously obtained brief excerpts appeared
in the Western press.
It is not merely a matter of many Americans being still very sensitive to new attempts to cast light on the Dallas assassination. Nor is that Mr. Manchester’s purpose. He does not challenge the Warren Report; in fact, he agrees that President Kennedy was killed by a lone assassin.
The book has won so much sensational publicity because it focuses attention on the campaign against the late President, engineered and conducted by the Rightists in Dallas before and during the fatal visit to that city. Mr. Manchester also writes of the bitterness between Kennedy and Johnson at the 1960 Democratic nominating convention in Los Angeles. Johnson’s supporters, he says, tried to smear Kennedy.
Another contributing factor to the heightened interest in the book is the reaction of the Kennedy family. And here much of the evidence is confused and contradictory.
An influential group in the Democratic Party is opposed to President Johnson’s nomination in 1963. It was therefore in the interests of certain elements to “leak” to the public some of the details of Mr. Manchester’s account.
All this proved very embarrassing to the Kennedy family. Mrs. Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy had supplied Manchester with most of his material. In April 1964, Mrs. Kennedy gave him two days, more than ten hours, of tape-recorded interviews describing what she felt before and immediately after the assassination. In March 1964 Robert Kennedy and Manchester reached an agreement to the effect that the manuscript would be read and approved by the Kennedy family and that the book would not be published before November 22, 1968, that is, before the presidential election. True, there was a provision that it might be published earlier, but only with the consent of the Kennedys.
When the manuscript was completed Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy declined to read it because that would be “far too painful.” The text was read by five friends of the Kennedy family; their suggestions, the author and his editor, Evan Thomas, claimed, were taken into account. In July 1966, Mr. Manchester received a telegram from Robert Kennedy which he interpreted as permission to print before the stipulated date. Manchester turned the manuscript over to the publishers.
Later, however, the Kennedys denied that they had given the O.K. They objected to some of the details included in the book which, they said, had not been meant for publication. Mrs. Kennedy was greatly disturbed and demanded revision of some passages. In particular, she objected to the author making a public show of her emotions, which she had described to him when still under the impact of the Dallas tragedy. Besides, she claimed, the book was “in part both tasteless and distorted,” and was replete “with inaccurate and unfair references to other individuals.” The press interpreted this as a desire by the Kennedy family to dissociate itself from passages referring to Mr. Kennedy’s successor.
Both the author and his publisher refused to make any changes. Mrs. Kennedy thereupon took the matter to court, demanding that publication be suspended. A compromise agreement was reached on minimal changes. They were accepted by Look magazine, which is serializing the book, but another magazine, the West-German Stern, which paid $72,000 for publication rights, refused to make any changes whatever.
Most of the objectionable passages concern personal details. For instance, an account of how President Kennedy selected the pink wool suit his wife wore in Dallas; her conversation with her husband on their last night together; a passage describing how Jacqueline used petroleum jelly to slip her wedding ring on her dead husband’ finger.
The Kennedy family withdrew their objections to most other “inaccuracies” and “unwarranted remarks,” the press says.
The arguments and counter-arguments around the “Death of a President” have disclosed the power struggle of rival groups in the Democratic Party. The political implications and possible repercussions of Mr. Manchester’s book are discussed by U.S. News and World Report (Jan. 2). The magazine writes: “Far more than a few censored passages in a manuscript is involved in arguments over the Manchester book on the Kennedy assassination. Now breaking into the open are long-hidden details of a bitterness that could split asunder the democratic Party by 1968 and array the Kennedy faction against Lyndon B. Johnson.”
Members of the magazine’s news staff endeavoured to isolate the principal points of controversy and check them with “appropriate authorities.” The results of this investigation are set out in the article quoted above.
What prompted the President to visit Texas? There are many rumours on that score, and the most reprehensible rumour, U.S. News says, is that Johnson, then Vice-President, “lured” Mr. Kennedy into coming to Texas in the autumn of 1963 and was, therefore, in some manner responsible for what happened. That view is based on Manchester’s contention that Johnson asked Kennedy to help him resolve some of the political feuds in Texas. Connected with this is the author’s description of how Jacqueline refused to change her blood-spattered suit, saying: “They can see what they have done.”
This is what U.S. News says of the trip to Texas: “Vice-President Johnson was against making the trip,” but “President Kennedy wanted to raise money for his re-election campaign in 1964.” The President had another reason, too: “At the time his popularity was slipping, not only in Texas but nationally.”
Mr. Kennedy’s enemies had an article published in U.S. News (Jan. 16) purporting to show that in 1960 Johnson helped Kennedy become President.
I have cited only some of the many speculative ideas based on “official sources.” The fact that persons close to the White House have found it necessary to delve into all these details shows how explosive are the rumours now current in Washington.
However, it looks very much as if things will not stop at refutations, particularly of the type that have been appearing in U.S. News and World Report. There have been press reports that the “appropriate authorities” have recorded evidence, including tape records of many telephone conversations, and material is now being assembled for a more vigorous counter-attack on the Manchester book, should this prove necessary.
Governor Connally of Texas, who was in Kennedy’s car at the time of the assassination, came out with sharp criticism of the book in a statement made in Austin on January 10. It gives a “biased account,” he said, of the circumstances of President Kennedy’s assassination. The Governor warned that he would “assemble and present the facts and details as we know them relating to President Kennedy’s visit.”
The controversy continues. It reflects, on the one hand, public dissatisfaction with the official investigation, and, on the other, the tense political struggle in U.S. ruling circles.
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