I know I’ve mentioned this at least twice before around this time of year, but the realization that the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination is tomorrow boggles the mind. At age 57, I’m at the lower end of the spectrum of those who vividly recall the event — everything about it — even though other memories from that part of my childhood are fairly hazy.
I think the assassination was my first significant childhood “trauma.” Before then things were weirdly normal. (Normal is weird, isn’t it?) No freak accidents, deaths in the immediate family, unexpected tumult or anything potentially damaging to the psyche. Through my 7-year-old eyes, though, I’d say that the assassination parted the curtains a little and presented realities that left searing impressions and indelible memories.
I’d spent the afternoon on Folly Beach with a boyhood friend after being dismissed from second-grade classes at the old Watt School on Broad Street. Kennedy was shot about 1:30 EST, and I think we must have been headed out to the beach at that hour. It was an early Friday afternoon. Nothing had been announced at school and presumably the car radio was off because my buddy and I didn’t know a thing until later in the evening, when we were corralled while playing outdoors so I could be taken back home.
His parents were talking about what an awful day it was for America; the president had been shot and was dead. At home all four adults continued the same dialogue. Interestingly, it was apparent that everybody was not necessarily a Kennedy fan, yet all agreed this was a terrible thing, that — politics aside — he was so young and attractive and what could have possibly driven someone to do such a thing.
The first tragedy played out on television
Inside the TV was showing pictures of Jackie splattered with blood as she stood by LBJ while he took the Oath of Office, of a suspect named Lee Harvey Oswald, of a casket, along with an interlacing of frenetic news analysis. It was a somber and disturbing montage, and I well remember experiencing a type of sadness and uncertainty that I’d never really experienced before.
Since then, Kennedy has been mythologized by the assassination, leaving many critics and historians to wonder just who he was, along with the significance of his accomplishments. This was discussed recently in an analysis titled “The Elusive President” by Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times that appeared in the New York Times Book Review. In it she considers the many thousands of books devoted to JFK and how one is struck not by what’s there — but by what is missing.
Part of that problem stems from the dichotomy of Kennedy’s closely guarded public image while alive versus the numerous personal failings that have been exhaustively documented in the years since the assassination. To what extent did they overshadow or undermine his policy achievements?
‘The Death of a President’ reissued
According to the article, it’s no secret that the Kennedy family did much to try to control the interpretation of JFK’s legacy from early on, and the most disturbing case involved William Manchester, the well-known and respected historian, hand-picked by the Kennedys to write the authorized account of the assassination just weeks afterward. Finding a first edition copy of Manchester’s “The Death of a President” is challenging, perhaps for any number of reasons. It’s a significant collectable because it was the first to tread where others wouldn’t.
After submitting a pre-publication manuscript to the Kennedys, Abramson writes that Manchester was horrified by the many insertions and deletions made by various Kennedy minions, who applied so much pressure that Manchester became “a nervous wreck.” According to the article, Robert Kennedy hounded the author half to death and Jackie Kennedy, who hadn’t bothered to read the manuscript, accepted the view of her factotums that many of its details, like the fact that she carried cigarettes in her purse, were too personal. She eventually went to court to enjoin Manchester from publishing the book, but later settled and read “The Death of a President” after it finally appeared in 1967, deeming it “fascinating.”
Kennedy-philes might be pleased to know that Little, Brown has now reissued paperback and e-book editions of the book, which has been generally unavailable for years, around the 50th anniversary of the assassination. It’s an excellent book, and not without the perpetuation of myth itself, though it was probably the first to have a different and truer view of “Camelot” — which is something we continue to search for on the 50th anniversary of its demise.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.