- Historic Sites
JFK The Stained-Glass Image
As with Lincoln, assassination lifted John F. Kennedy to a beatified myth, in large part because of the guidelines set for books about him.
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
Kennedy’s inaugural message was written after Sorensen, at the President-elect’s direction, made a searching study of the Gettysburg Address, trying to discover its magic formula for immortality. To White House gratification, Sam Rayburn announced after hearing the result of this effort that Kennedy was “better than Lincoln” (“I think—I really think—he’s a man of destiny”). But in Portrait of a President, his first book on Kennedy, published before he became a true, genuflecting believer, William Manchester wrote: “Certainly John Kennedy is not as lovable as Abe. He has a weaker grasp on the nation’s heartstrings, and the reason isn’t that he hasn’t been shot.” It was, of course, after he was shot that the two names began to be linked in an incessant litany. (The other two assassinated Presidents, Garfield and McKinley, were way out of it.) Reams were written about their common vein of humor, their similar fatalism about the danger of assassination, their century-apart (and equally gingerly) enlistment of the authority of the Presidency to help the Negro cause. Jim Bishop, who had written The Day Lincoln Was Shot and was soon making plans to give the same treatment to November 22, 1963, played a macabre game in the Hearst papers, listing numerous other similarities—from the fact that both men were succeeded by Vice Presidents named Johnson to the discovery that the names John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald had fifteen letters each. And right after the murder, Bill Mauldin’s cartoon in the Chicago Sun-Times showed the statue in the Lincoln Memorial covering its face with its hands.
“Find out how Lincoln was buried,” were Jacqueline Kennedy’s words to Chief of Protocol Angier Biddle Duke a few moments after Air Force One landed at the Washington airport on the tragic flight from Dallas. It was not a precedent that was desirable to follow in all details. After the Washington rites, Lincoln’s body was borne on a dead march through a dozen cities before finally being laid to rest in Springfield on May 4, nearly three harrowing weeks after the murder. The Lincoln funeral arrangements were in the hands of Secretary of War Stanton, the widow being bedfast and only half-lucid. Fortunately for the nation, Mrs. Kennedy was of a different mettle. Indeed it seems probable that the memory of her strength and heartbreaking dignity and the part she played in getting the American people through that terrible weekend will make it impossible for most of them to find serious fault with anything she does for the rest of her days (unless, as she herself shrewdly put it three years later, “I do something silly like run away with Eddie Fisher”). At her direction, Kennedy’s coffin, like Lincoln’s, stood in the candlelit East Room of the White House beneath chandeliers draped in black, and then in the great rotunda of the Capitol on the same catafalque, covered in black velvet, that had held Lincoln’s coffin. Following the ninety-eight-year-old scenario, six gray horses drew it down Pennsylvania Avenue to the same muffled roll of drums. Behind the wooden caisson walked, as in 1865, a riderless gelding with boots reversed in the stirrups, the military symbol of the fallen warrior. Two weeks later when Mrs. Kennedy and her children left the White House, the new tenants found that, in case anyone had missed the point, the names of the two murdered Presidents were now permanently linked in stone. The words “In this room lived John Fitzgerald Kennedy with his wife Jacqueline during the two years, ten months, and two days he was President of the United States, January 20, 1961—November 22, 1963” had been carved in the white marble fireplace of what had been Kennedy’s bedroom, directly below those that had long read: “In this room Abraham Lincoln slept during his occupancy of the White House as President of the United States, March 4, 1861—April 13, 1865.” It is doubtful if A. Philip Randolph, who a few days earlier had said that Kennedy’s “place in history will be next to Abraham Lincoln,” expected his words to be followed so literally, or so soon. But what seems most remarkable of all is that Abraham Lincoln found his place—in history, graven in stone, enshrined in legend—although at the time of his death his widow was the kind of woman no one paid any attention to, and he hadn’t a father, mother, sister, or brother to his name.