“If only my intended assassin had been as determined as your actual assassin was,” John F. Kennedy spoke to the portrait of Abraham Lincoln hanging on the wall of the Oval Office. Kennedy stood in front of the very desk where Lincoln conducted business during his term of office as President. On moving into the White House, Kennedy had ordered the desk brought up from the White House basement for his personal use. There was something awe-inspiring about Kennedy’s occupying the same spot as Lincoln, arguably America’s greatest President and Kennedy’s personal hero.
It was 1967. Beyond the White House lawn, thousands of demonstrators, flanked by an insufficient number of National Guardsmen, sat defiantly in all lanes of Pennsylvania Avenue, despite the protests of honking traffic backed up for blocks. Staring at Lincoln’s portrait, John Kennedy had no illusions about the state of the union. The country was on the brink of revolution. Kennedy was mired in Vietnam, despite his campaign promise to withdraw troops. Martin Luther King was campaigning to unseat Kennedy as President, the impetus being JFK’s abysmal approval ratings.
As if these circumstances weren’t depressing enough, every kiosk in the country stocked the latest tabloid featuring photos of the First Lady sunning nude while vacationing on a ship owned by the Greek tycoon, Aristotle Onassis. It was payback for the President’s many philanderings, but especially for his trysts with Marilyn Monroe whose overt flirtations with Kennedy and inability, or unwillingness, to keep her mouth shut, had forced the President to order her silenced. F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover was conducting an investigation into Marilyn’s murder.
“We had so much promise,” Kennedy spoke wistfully to Lincoln’s likeness. “During our first term, the press dubbed the Kennedy White House and entourage ‘Camelot.’” Then came the assassination attempt. It all seemed to go wrong from that point.”
For months Kennedy had shared his thoughts with the silent, brooding, enigmatic portrait of the sixteenth President, his features the same as those appearing on the U.S. five-dollar bill. Kennedy sometimes used a magnifying glass to enlarge the lines etched in Lincoln’s face – lines of worry, doubt, and uncertainty, states of being with which Kennedy had become increasingly familiar in his second, and soon to be last, term of office. Kennedy considered it fortunate that he hadn’t been impeached.
“You know, Mr. Lincoln,” said Kennedy, wagging a finger at Lincoln’s framed face, “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t resent your good fortune at times. What if you’d lived and had to govern an unruly South during your second four years? Would a grateful public have built statues in your honor or wreathed your hallowed head in folklore designed to perpetuate your fame for centuries? No, the best thing that happened to you was a bullet fired from the derringer of a lone gunman. At the instant your life ended, you belonged to the ages.” Kennedy pointed a finger and mimicked shooting Lincoln in the head at point blank range.
The President’s mind ricocheted back to the crisp autumn day several years earlier when he’d been campaigning in Dallas. He’d not wanted to make the trip, telling Jackie as much. “It would be a hell of a day to assassinate a President,” Kennedy recalled saying on the morning of November twenty-second, 1963. “I hate Texas,” he’d concluded.
But Kennedy, ever the realist, knew that he and the Vice-President needed to make an appearance together in the Lone Star state so they could court Texas billionaires who would help finance their re-election. Little did Kennedy know what awaited him in Dallas, or how Lyndon Johnson had spent years engineering a coup d’état where Kennedy’s death would guarantee LBJ’s ascendancy to the highest office in the land. Of course, co-conspirators – a laundry list including former C.I.A. director, Allen Dulles, and wealthy oilmen, Howard Hunt and Frank Sturgis – were cooling their heels in a federal military prison, awaiting execution after being found guilty of treason, terrorism, espionage, and attempted murder of a U.S. President – each and all capital offenses. Kennedy hoped there was enough current in the electric chairs to light up Washington. He planned to be on hand for the fireworks.
“It’s a pity, Mr. President,” Kennedy resumed his conversation with Lincoln, “That you were unable to witness the executions of those who conspired to murder you. But you didn’t have to put your Vice-President in prison, either.”
After the assassin’s bullet missed Kennedy by inches and the suspected gunmen were apprehended, the plot quickly unraveled, Kennedy ordering Chief Justice Earl Warren to chair a committee investigating the assassination attempt. Kennedy was shocked by the findings. He couldn’t have imagined how deeply the conspiracy reached into the recesses of government or how many people had a motive for killing him. Millions of ordinary Americans hated Kennedy and would have been gleeful at news of his death. Angry that the attempt had failed, tens of thousands of people all over America had taken to the streets to express their displeasure or to protest the incarceration of Johnson and his cronies.
“What kind of country are we living in,” Kennedy asked Lincoln, “When people plot to kill their elected officials? And I would have been killed, too, if not for the reflexes of that officious secret service agent, Clint Hill. At the sound of the first shot, the one fired from the grassy knoll splattering Connelly’s brains all over the car, witnesses said that I ducked. I don’t recall ducking. I recall flinching. That’s only natural – isn’t it? However, by the time I knew what was happening, Hill had leaped off the running board of the car behind and was sprinting toward the Presidential limousine. I don’t remember what happened next, but the Zapruder film suggests I was hunkered down in the seat. It was Jackie who reached back and pulled Clint aboard. He then lay spread-eagle atop us. At the instant he found himself in place, a shot was fired from a window of the Texas Book Depository, killing the young agent. So much for my status as a war hero. I should have taken that bullet for him – not the other way around. When we returned to Washington, Jackie moved out of the Lincoln bedroom. She knew and couldn’t conceal her disgust. Snatched from the jaws of death by meddlesome Agent Hill, I was denied the lamentations, adulation, and glory that should accompany the death of a fallen king.”
JFK sometimes imagined a little curl of a smile at the edge of Lincoln’s lips. Since the assassination attempt in Dallas, Kennedy counted Lincoln as his only friend. He confided his most secret thoughts in the former president even though Lincoln was as mute as a sphinx. Lincoln’s silence was somehow comforting. Outside, the din of protesters rose steadily.
“If I recall correctly,” Kennedy said, searching his memory, “On that fateful night in 1865 at Ford’s Theater, your sole bodyguard slipped out for drinks at a nearby saloon after intermission, leaving you unprotected. Booth had only to climb the stairs to the presidential box in a theater where he’d once played the role of Julius Caesar. Fate has a twisted sense of humor, doesn’t it? At least I have you to talk to. You were virtually friendless, surrounded by so-called advisors, firebrands actually, willing to give you just enough rope to hang yourself.”
More than once, John Kennedy had entertained the prospect of being the agent of his own demise. Like Hamlet he was world weary and wanted, at times, only to sleep, never waking.
“I’m sure you understand,” Kennedy said to Lincoln. “Historians tell us you experienced horrific bouts of depression for which the only reliefs were reciting Shakespeare and telling jokes. How could it be otherwise? No one in his right mind would assume the duties of the Presidency.” At times Kennedy was struck by his own compelling wish to die, and that desire only grew stronger each day. However, there were as many compelling reasons not to end his life.
“Do you know why I don’t?” Kennedy asked Lincoln. “It’s simple. I don’t want to give the bastards the satisfaction of thinking I’m a coward or not up to the job. There’s another reason, too. Since Lyndon’s conviction, John McCormack, former Speaker of the House, has been Vice President protem. John is seventy-two with a bad heart. A stand-off with the Russians might kill him. Of all the men I know, John is even less qualified than I am to run a country. He is not an acceptable option, and I am for better or worse, the only American President to govern the country on the brink of nuclear war. It was my decision, and mine alone, to raise the level of nuclear engagement to DEFCON 2.”
Kennedy was aware that his youth and inexperience had hampered his dealings with the Soviets over Cuba. Forced to focus on the assassination attempt, Kennedy had scarce little time to worry about the Russians. He had to depend on intelligence operatives, some who’d undoubtedly plotted to kill him. Least of all did Kennedy trust the Joint Chiefs. That’s why he’d given them their war in Vietnam. JFK’s reasoning was that they’d be too busy to interfere with the daily business of government.
“Americans like to think of themselves as fierce and unyielding individuals,” Kennedy announced, “But our real genius is compromise – always has been. The only time we didn’t resulted in the Civil War. What was the South thinking when it initiated a war without a single gun factory in its borders?”
Kennedy reasoned that Lincoln would have more than a thing or two to say about war and compromise, but Lincoln wasn’t talking. The only voice of a Lincoln in the Oval Office belonged to the President’s secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, alerting the President over the intercom to the presence of visitors just outside the door. “Mr. President, there are some men here to see you,” Evelyn Lincoln announced.
“They’re from the Department of Justice and the F.B.I.”
“Send them in.” In the short time it took for the men to enter the Oval Office, Kennedy stepped to the presidential desk, leaning against it for support. He crossed his arms, affecting a casual posture. His coat was slung over the chair at his desk. Six men entered. Two were agents in his own protection detail. Two were Justice Department operatives, two F.B.I. investigators. A final man entered behind the others. Kennedy recognized him as the Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate – the only person with authority to arrest a sitting President. He clutched a paper in one hand while edging toward the front of the assembly.
“Mr. President,” he announced, as if delivering a death sentence, “I have a warrant for your arrest.”
“Arrest!” Kennedy roared, his red hair and Irish temper ablaze; “With what am I being charged?”
“With the murder of Marilyn Monroe,” proclaimed the Sergeant at Arms, reading words off the page, then lifting the document up to the light as if testing the validity of its allegations.
“You don’t have a shred of evidence,” Kennedy said confidently, “How dare you accost the President of the United States!”
“Actually, we do have evidence,” the Sergeant at Arms assured him.
“What evidence?” Kennedy demanded.
“Sworn testimony by your brother, the Attorney General, and your wife, the First Lady, that you ordered a hit on Marilyn.”
“Why would I do that?” Kennedy stammered, “How would my brother and wife know if I had?”
“Apparently you confessed to both on separate occasions.”
Kennedy stood speechless. It was true that JFK had tasked Bobby with silencing Marilyn. What better person to conceal a murder than the Attorney General? To allay suspicion, Bobby had insisted on being in on the investigation – sifting through the evidence. The only caveat Jack gave Bobby was to make certain there was no possibility the President could be implicated in Marilyn’s death. Jack had offered Jackie the singular assurance that Marilyn would never again pose a problem for the President and the First Lady’s marriage. What had gone awry?
At that instant, the agents swarmed around Kennedy. Handcuffs flashed. The room spun at the instant a tide of nausea washed over the President, causing hi to break out in a sweat. He suddenly realized, sickeningly late, that his worst enemies were the two people once closest to him. The pieces of a puzzle locked into place as the synapses in Kennedy’s brain manifested in an epiphany that Jackie and Bobby had conspired to betray him, Jackie, because he was a coward and a philanderer, Bobby, because he was as ambitious as Lucifer. Bobby’s snaring JFK would be regarded as an act of integrity and evidence of loyalty to the country above all else, credentials that would boost his chances for the presidency in the future. In the process, the Attorney General would restore luster to the tarnished Kennedy name.
“You’re making a big mistake,” Kennedy announced to the arresting agents; “It’s their word against mine, and I’m President of the United States.”
“Actually, Mr. President,” the Sergeant at Arms declared, “The Justice Department is in possession of evidence far more damning than the testimonies of your wife and brother.”
Kennedy concluded they were bluffing and sought to call their hand, “What’s the nature of this evidence?” Kennedy asked.
“A confession,” the Sergeant at Arms explained.
“By whom?” Kennedy asked.
“By you,” the Sergeant at Arms disclosed.
“That’s absurd!” Kennedy sputtered.
“You see, Mr. President,” the Sergeant at Arms began, “The Attorney General is the only government official authorized to order a wiretap of the Oval Office as part of his official investigation of possible crimes. Your brother ordered such a wiretap. Consequently, we have almost a year’s worth of recordings in which you confess aloud to numerous offenses – including the murder of Marilyn Monroe. I suppose it’s only natural for people to talk to themselves when they think they’re alone.”
But Kennedy hadn’t been talking to himself! That fact was becoming more evident with each tick of the clock as the Sergeant at Arms strode over to the wall, lifted a portrait from its hook, and removed a tiny device from the rear of the frame before re-hanging the picture in its rightful spot.
So, Lincoln was in on the conspiracy, too! Kennedy was devastated by the realization he’d been betrayed by the man he most admired. How naïve JFK had been to trust another politician. They were all scoundrels, every last one.
“We’ll usher him out the rear of the White House,” the Sergeant at Arms instructed the agents, “So as not to cause undue alarm.” Suddenly agents were at his elbows, ready to shuttle Kennedy from the Oval Office. On his way out, Kennedy cocked his head over a shoulder to survey the most coveted room in America. Though the disgraced President’s view was partially blocked by his escorts, he managed to glimpse what a rational person might describe as an optical illusion but what Kennedy saw as a discernible twitch of Honest Abe’s face, alerting Kennedy to the look of weary satisfaction in Lincoln’s eyes and to the undeniable verdict of his lips, smiling, smirking.
Edward Francisco is a poet, novelist, essayist, playwright and scholar. His works appear in over seventy magazines, journals, and anthologies. He is author of two novels, Till Shadows Flee, and The Dealmaker. He is Professor of English and Writer-in-Residence at Pellissippi State College in
literature, published by Prentice-Hall publishers.