Moments to live: JFK and Jackie cruising in their Dallas motorcade shortly before the shots were fired. Photo: Reuters
JFK’S LAST HUNDRED DAYS: THE TRANSFORMATION OF A MAN AND THE EMERGENCE OF A GREAT PRESIDENT
By Thurston Clarke
Allen Lane, $ 39.99
Two months before his motorcade reached the grassy knoll in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was steeped in the plot of his assassination. Inspired by Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love, which he had recently named as one of his 12 favourite books in promotion of National Library Week, Kennedy entertained himself by composing a political thriller. At its centre was a coup d’etat, the instigator Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson.
No notes for that book survive, but Kennedy provided periodic updates. To his friend Chuck Spalding, he said: ”Lyndon has just tied up [secretary] Mrs. Lincoln and [top aide] Kenny O’Donnell in the White House closet and he’s got a plane to take them away.”
In JFK’s Last Hundred Days, a book of rigorous research that reads like a novel – but what novelist could have conceived Kennedy’s life, death and provocative afterlife? – Thurston Clarke details the president’s enthusiasm for his Bond-style thriller. The Cuban Missile Crisis and Bay of Pigs fiasco behind him, Kennedy’s focus was now on civil rights, Vietnam, the Space Race and his re-election. Besides sporadic work on his thriller, he prepared to make a movie.
Holidaying in September 1963, JFK assigned roles to his friends while Jackie Kennedy persuaded Secret Service agents to participate. ”We’re making a film about the President’s murder,” she said. ”Look desperate, like you heard shots and are concerned that the President might be hurt and you need to respond fast.” The footage involved red liquid spewing from Kennedy’s mouth.
Rather than a prophecy, Clarke writes, ”the skit reflected [JFK's] high spirits after a successful week, his love of the Bond thrillers, and a rich but carefully concealed fantasy life, a Walter Mitty streak he revealed only to his closest friends”.
JFK’s Last Hundred Days offers a comprehensive reflection into the final period of the public and private lives of a man who was in life as enigmatic as the numerous conspiracies that surrounded him in death. As David Ferry (played by Joe Pesci) says in Oliver Stone’s hyper-paranoid JFK (1991), misquoting Winston Churchill: ”It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.”
Fifty years after JFK’s assassination, the inexhaustible and indecipherable intrigue continues to captivate us. Three US presidents were assassinated before Kennedy, but the men charged with their deaths were not murdered on live TV, as was Lee Harvey Oswald.
When Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot Oswald, a permanent, incomprehensible hum forever engulfed the event, thereby unlocking the gates for eternal conjecture and providing lush territory for novelists as diverse as Stephen King (11/22/63), James Ellroy (American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand), Charles McCarry (The Tears of Autumn), J. G. Ballard (The Atrocity Exhibition), Adam Braver (November 22, 1963) and Don DeLillo (Libra).
The reasons for JFK’s sustained appeal are almost as abundant as the theories that have fuelled conspiracists and fiction writers.
”Kennedy had a dozen faces,” writes Norman Mailer in his 1960 essay Superman Comes to the Supermarket. Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s long-time speechwriter, noted that ”different parts of his life, works, and thoughts were seen by many people – but no one saw it all”.
A risk-taker, a man with middle-brow tastes who believed the arts were the gauge of national excellence, Kennedy could cite, perhaps to justify his own philandering, the sexual proclivities of world leaders. Assassination became a recurrent concern during his final days. On November 18, four days before his death, Kennedy outlined for special assistant Dave Powers how he would be killed: with a high-powered rifle during a motorcade.
”Whatever you set your mind to, your personal total obsession, this is what kills you. People choose their death whether they know it or not,” DeLillo writes in Libra, the most ambitious of the assassination-inspired novels.
The latest, Jim Lehrer’s Top Down – published in time for the anniversary – follows the guilt of a Secret Service Agent involved with removing the bubble top on Kennedy’s car. The decision, which heads its own division of conspiracies, was Kennedy’s. As DeLillo has it: ”Maximum exposure as the admen say, and who wants a president with a pigeon’s heart?”
Kennedy had long known what it meant to face death. The boat he commanded in World War II, PT-109, was struck by a Japanese destroyer and cut in two. The closest island unoccupied by Japanese troops was more than five kilometres away.
”McMahon, the engineer whose legs were disabled by burns, was unable to swim,” Joe McCarthy writes in The Remarkable Kennedys. ”Despite his own painfully crippled back, Kennedy swam the three miles with a breaststroke, towing behind him by a life-belt strap that he held between his teeth the helpless McMahon … it took Kennedy and the suffering engineer five hours to reach the island.”
The PT-109 was gone, as Jimmy Dean sang in his 1962 song, ”but Kennedy lived to fight again”. Thus, one chapter of the Kennedy legend seared itself into the American psyche. Others soon followed.
Their diverse genres followed no pattern, fashioning a legend that is part thriller and epic, romance, generational family saga and tragedy. Set aside from the rest of his life and taken on their own, Kennedy’s final hundred days are worthy of several operas. Here are a few plot points for one of them.
On August 7, 1963, the Kennedys’ second son, Patrick, was born 5½ weeks premature. He died two days later from hyaline membrane disease. Patrick’s death brought JFK and Jackie closer than ever before. It also gave Kennedy a focus that led, as Clarke’s subtitle suggests, to The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President. In those days, Kennedy witnessed the ratification of his nuclear test ban treaty and made advances on his civil rights bill. He provided insight into what might have been, among other things, an American history devoid of the nightmare of Vietnam.
Shortly after Patrick’s death, Jackie went on a cruise with the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, whom she married in 1968. The event, like so many others, spawned intrigue that a covetous Onassis ordered Kennedy’s assassination. Fearing public backlash to Jackie’s bikini-clad adventures in the Greek and Turkish isles so soon after Patrick’s death, Kennedy pleaded with her to decline the invitation. While Newsweek ran an article titled ”Caesar’s Wife”, a right-wing newspaper proposed to shoot Kennedy before Christmas. He didn’t make it to Thanksgiving.
”A conspiracy is everything that ordinary life is not,” DeLillo writes. ”It’s the inside game, cold, sure, undistracted, forever closed off to us.” The seeds for such conspiracy are present in Oswald’s formation, seven months before the assassination, of a fictitious chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. They’re in Ruby’s mafia ties. But for a conspiracy to occur, there must be an absence, a silent realm of unknowability.
That realm, eternal and impenetrable, began long before Kennedy’s death, when America seemed to worship its first royal family and the magic of Camelot. The rifle shots in Dallas, an elapsed time of seven seconds, shattered that image and left enough shards of conspiracy to forever shift the balance between what we want to believe and what we can know definitively. They were, as DeLillo writes, ”the seven seconds that broke the back of the American century”.