Love the Kennedys and Nobody Gets Hurt
Prior to Little, Brown announcing the deal, I got a call from Craig Offman at Salon, who’d freelanced for George. He’d heard I was writing a book, and wanted to ask some questions. I told him I’d be happy to talk, but I had to call him back. (I was on jury duty.) A couple of hours later, when I did,
he didn’t answer.
The next day, his story appeared online: “Former George Editor Peddles JFK Jr. Memoir.”
That was bad enough, but Offman soon followed up with a more sarcastic look. It was headlined “John-John, I Kinda Knew Ye…and I’m going to make a bundle writing about you.” Someone had leaked him a copy of my proposal, and he quoted selectively from it to make me look pompous and duplicitous. Offman wrote that I described myself as “Kennedy’s closest colleague,” which was doubly wrong; I wasn’t, and had never claimed to be.
Maybe — probably — I shouldn’t have been surprised at such hostile press, but I was. Surprised, and worried. But that was nothing compared with what would come.
THERE IS A CERTAIN MACHIAVELLIAN side to the Kennedy family, an aspect completely at odds with the public image, and it has manifested itself again and again since JFK’s assassination on November 22, 1963. The Kennedys and their allies have been trying to shape and control how the president and the family will be remembered ever since.
Whether it’s behind-the-scenes threats, purging of embarrassing records from the archives, or decisions about who gets library access and who doesn’t — what’s become clear to me over the decades is that the family will lay siege to a project of which it disapproves, marshaling a campaign of public denigration and private pressure, none of which can be easily traced back to the source. For the Kennedys, the point of historiography is not to search for truths but to buttress the family’s political and cultural legacy — or, to put it more simply, to keep people from writing things about them that they don’t like.
It all started with Jacqueline Kennedy’s determination to sculpt the memory of her murdered husband, beginning within hours of his death. Consider the story of her near-destruction of historian William Manchester (pictured).
In early 1964 Jackie and Bobby Kennedy reached out to Manchester and asked the writer to pen a sanctioned account of the assassination. Manchester had written an admiring book about JFK, 1962’s Portrait of a President, and so, as has been reported, Jackie and Bobby arranged for Harper & Row to commission a book with the cooperation of both Kennedys. Manchester agreed to the project, and wound up interviewing both Jackie and Bobby Kennedy for hours.
But when the writer turned in his manuscript, Jackie decided it was too personal — Manchester disclosed the fact that she smoked, for example. In a 2009 Vanity Fair article, Sam Kashner writes that Jackie pressured Manchester to change the manuscript. Charming at first, she soon warned Manchester that “anyone who is against me will look like a rat — unless I run off with Eddie Fisher.” Months later, according to Kashner’s article, Manchester was still refusing to alter his work, so Jackie turned up the heat: “I’m going to ruin you,” she told his Harper & Row editor, Evan Thomas. Eventually, she filed an injunction to block the book’s publication on the grounds that, since she’d agreed to be interviewed by Manchester and had helped him set up other interviews, she had “the absolute right” to control the book.