The Death of a President
by William Manchester
Harper & Row, 710 pp., $10.00
What was the purpose of this book? A close reading of the text—and a considerable chore that undertaking is—suggests that the work, as it went along its entirely undistinguished way, grew aimlessly fatter and fatter, feeding on any sort of snack that turned up. No doubt it was commissioned as a heroic memorial and certainly that is what Manchester wanted to write. But the nature of his mind is such that pointlessness outruns any other intention. In his earlier Portrait of a President, his inability to understand character and his instant attraction to the same pointlessness made President Kennedy seem small, banal, and commonplace. The first book was the preview and the present one is the full-length feature. It would be untrue to say that his choice by the Kennedy family is a puzzle: it is not in the least. Few people with power and money realize that the eulogist blackens more reputations than the liar. The only hope for public figures, if they would be remembered as a genuine presence, is to be observed, perhaps almost surreptitiously, by another genuine person who may one day write down his thoughts. The dullest of figures can come alive in the mind of an attractive writer, freely remembering and interpreting.
How can anyone concern himself with the damage a book like this may have done to any person or political group? In what way can you damage persons who are so busily damaging themselves, either by disastrous policy or inexplicable publicity. On the occasion of one of Mrs. Kennedy’s recent interviews, I heard a reader on the bus fold the paper, and say, wistfully, “They must think we’re awful dumb.” President Johnson has gone from Bumbling-Comical on Air Force One to Bumbling-Tragical in the White House. A people who would withhold from Senator Kennedy, because of the legal tangles over this foolish book, a confidence they would otherwise have placed in him are truly lost.
History—how that word makes one wince nowadays. Written history: the work of a special discovering intelligence; or those sweet little packets of modest recollection, observations left to us without undue calculation, honored by the dust of time. But every nursemaid, every employee is solicitous for the glory of the “historical record,” as if it were some flag demanding an endless salute. The sacred record that tells us of men before our time is now just a business, and perhaps that is a fit monument to a business culture. It becomes clearer and clearer that few people have memories, and he who has “memoirs” is altogether rare.
“THE INTENSE INANE”—Poe’s phrase—is the atmosphere in which William Manchester’s book floats, like a big gasfilled balloon. His mind is entirely unsuited to the writing of history. To put it at its simplest: he has an astonishing aversion to the significant. But, one might protest, there is another kind of record, the exhaustively insignificant. Manchester is exhaustive, but he does not have …