“You’ve read the manuscript?”
“Finished it in New York yesterday.”
“What are your thoughts?”
I’d expected the question, and answered promptly. “I don’t think a polite answer will help either of us.”
I took a breath, exhaled, locked my eyes on his, and said, as gently as I could, “Your book stinks, Mr. President.”
Kennedy stared back at me in silence, his eyes unwavering. He tapped his right index finger rhythmically on his front teeth. “Go on,” he said in an arctic voice.
“You cover all the events, but you don’t tell us what we want to know. You’re missing—what you thought, what you felt, why Dallas changed you so radically. The book reads like a novel without a central character.”
“In your opinion.”
“In everyone’s opinion.”
“Doris Spivak’s. The editor-in-chief ’s. The publisher’s.”
“Why haven’t they said so in so many words?”
“Because they’re all scared to death.”
“Of you. Of the disaster they’re confronting far more.”
“Mr. President!” My hands went out in front of me, palms up, as though imploring Kennedy to see the self-evident. “This is the biggest book in the history of publishing. Nothing else comes close. The whole world’s waiting for it. If it’s published as is the critics will kill it, the public will ignore it and those who do buy the book will never finish reading it. The memoirs of John Kennedy will be remembered not for their account of the most extraordinary years in modern times but as the most expensive publishing flop ever.”
His stare was as cold as his voice. “You don’t fuck around, do you?” he said.
“I can’t afford to.”
“What’s that supposed to mean, that we’re not paying you enough?” Kennedy said, not bothering to disguise his irritation.
“Money has nothing to do with it. I could be making twice as much doing something else. Hey, I would have done this for nothing. To help deliver the story of the century—you can’t put a price on that.” I paused a second for emphasis. “The story of the century deserves the book of the century.”
“And you’re the one who’s going to deliver it,” Kennedy said, his tone just this side of scorn. No question that I’d gotten to him.
“Mr. President,” I said, choosing my words with care, “I don’t know how to run a country, but I know how to help you fix this book. If you give me what I need, I promise you—this will be the book of the century.”
“Supposing I’m not able to give you what you need?”
“I’m sure you’re able to, sir. The question is: Are you willing to?”
“You’re assuming I can’t improve the book myself. I’ve already sent a number of revisions to Doris Spivak.”
“It was after she’d read those revisions that she called me.” I waited for that to sink in, and then said, once again, as gently as I could, “The book stinks, Mr. President.”
Kennedy glared at me. “At this rate, Mr. Daniel, you’re going to be on the next plane back to San Francisco.”
“That’s a risk I have to take, sir. Nobody in New York had the guts to give you a wake-up call, so they sent me here to do it. I could never live with myself if I didn’t do everything in my power to convince you that this work has to be done. I owe you. We all do.” I took a moment, as though for emphasis, but in reality to catch my breath and still my heart. “Give it a chance, Mr. President. You’re in control. I can’t add a comma without your permission. If it doesn’t work, we’ll shake hands, say goodbye—and this meeting never took place.”
A protracted silence passed.
“Where would you start?” Kennedy said, his dubious tone broadcasting that he was far from convinced.
“With Dallas,” I said.
Another silence. It was as obvious as his scar that Kennedy hated what was about to happen. “Okay,” he said.
Somewhere in the house someone was running a vacuum. For a long while, that was the only sound. Finally, Kennedy said, “Look, the man’s got a bum heart. He was a loyal vice president. I just can’t say that.”
“You can’t say you dumped him because of Vietnam?”
“But that’s why you dumped him?”
“Yeah. That’s why. But there’s no way that’s going in the book.”
“Okay, Mr. President, there’s your gaping hole. At some point, you had to have considered what might have happened to the world if the bullet that grazed your face had blown off your head. You just said that Johnson would probably have stuck it out in Vietnam. What would that have done to the country? What else would he have done? You don’t know. Nobody knows. But what’s absolutely certain is that the fate of every one of us was riding on that bullet. So what you learned is a lesson for the country—that the vice president ought to be someone who will carry out the president’s mandate if the president dies. You owe the country that lesson.”
I put the notepad back in my bag, closed the bag and put on my coat.
“I can’t do it, Asher,” Kennedy said.
I looked at him. He seemed shaken, and weary. For the first time in my presence, he seemed to be pleading for understanding.
Now it was my turn to sigh. “You still don’t get it. You’re not the president any more. You’re an author writing a book. No one ordered you to write it. You volunteered. In doing that, you made a deal with the public: to tell the truth. The truth isn’t just this part and that part, it’s all the parts. Not just how you dumped Lyndon Johnson. How you dumped J. Edgar Hoover. How you cleared the field for your brother in ’68. And, yes, Mr. President, how you dealt with the rumors about you and Mrs. Kennedy.” I paused for a moment, dumbfounded at having to fight back tears. “Goodbye, Mr. President.”
I did not extend my hand. I just picked up my bag and left.
“Look,” I said, “you could clear this up in two seconds. According to Coulter, Marilyn says on one of those tapes, ‘Come on, Prez, let’s go to bed.’ According to Coulter, you reply in the affirmative. And those statements are followed a few minutes later by the sounds of two people making love. One of those two people, supposedly, was you. The two people could have been actors. The tapes could be phony. Are they?”
Kennedy looked at me without blinking, his eyes holding mine. Perhaps I read more into his gaze than was there, but what I saw was more intellectual than emotional, an understanding that what he had sensed about me at the outset had at last been proved correct: that I was the enemy after all, come to take from him what he didn’t want to give.
“I’m not going to tell you,” he said then. “Not because I’m afraid of the answer. Because it’s none of your goddamned business. It’s nobody’s goddamned business what any two people in any room do but the two people in that room.”
“Unless one of those people is the President of the United States.”
Kennedy glared at me. “Where in the description of the duties of the President of the United States is there a suggestion that he must conform to some public notion of personal conduct? Where does it say that he must stop being a human being? Why is it anyone’s business but mine what I did during private hours, after I had faithfully executed my duties? Am I not entitled to the same right of privacy as any other American?”
“You’re not any other American. You were the president. That made you public property—and it imposed burdens on you that went with the job. One of those burdens is to serve as an example to the American people as long as you were occupying the White House. The American people believe that the White House belongs to them, not to its temporary inhabitants. They believe that those temporary inhabitants are obliged to comport themselves in that house in a manner they can approve.”
The look that he gave me now would have made me cringe had I not been so pumped up. It was a mixture of bitterness, disgust, and profound disappointment. “You know what you’re really saying? You’re saying that the American people aren’t going to want to know how I ended the Cold War. What they’ll really want to know is whether I fucked Marilyn Monroe.”
“Yeah, they’d like to know that. But what they’ll also want to know is why a man of grace and intelligence, a man who gave us peace and prosperity—why this man would jeopardize his place in history by taking such outrageous risks.”
Kennedy sat back in his chair, cradled his chin in his hand and just sat there for a minute, shaking his head to left and right. Finally, he looked at me. “That’s it? That’s what you want to know?”
“Then let me start with a question. Have you ever stepped out on your wife?”