Kennedy's Last Days

The Assassination That Defined a Generation

Bill O'Reilly

Henry Holt and Co.

Chapter Six

February 1961

The White House 1:00 p.m.

THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES is on schedule. Almost every afternoon, at precisely 1:00 p.m., he slips into the heated indoor pool located between the White House and the West Wing. John Kennedy does this to soothe his aching back. The pain is constant and so bad that he often uses crutches or a cane to get around, though rarely in public. He wears a back brace, sleeps on an extra- firm mattress, and receives regular injections of an anesthetic to ease his suffering. Aides know to look for a tightening of his jaw as a sign that the presidentÕs back is acting up. The half hour of breaststroke and the heat of the pool are part of KennedyÕs physical therapy.

The White House staff is getting used to the new president and his family. Very little that was unexpected happened in the White House during the eight years the previous president, Dwight Eisenhower, lived there.

But now everything has changed. The Kennedys are much less formal than the Eisenhowers. Receiving lines are being abolished, giving formal functions a more casual feel. The first lady is readying the East Room for per for mances by some of AmericaÕs most notable musicians, such as cellist and composer Pablo Casals, opera singer Grace Bumbry, jazz artist Paul Winter, and even full symphony orchestras.

Still, the White House is a serious place. The presidentÕs daily schedule revolves around periods of intense work followed by breaks for swimming and family time. He rises each morning around seven and reads the newspapers in bed, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Kennedy is a speed- reader; he can read and understand 1,200 words per minute. He is done with the newspapers in just 15 minutes, and then moves on to a pile of briefing books, reports prepared by his staff that summarize information about events going on around the world.

The president then has his usual breakfast in bed: orange juice, bacon, toast slathered in marmalade, two softboiled eggs, and coffee with cream.

He is in the Oval Office at nine oÕclock sharp. He sits back in his chair and listens as his appointments secretary, Kenny OÕDonnell, maps out his schedule. Throughout the morning, as Kennedy takes calls and listens to advisers brief him on what is happening in the rest of the world, he is interrupted by his handpicked staff. In addition to Dave Powers, who is now special assistant to the president, and Kenny OÕDonnell, there are men such as the former Harvard history professor Arthur Schlesinger Jr.; Ted Sorensen, the Nebraska- born special counselor and adviser; and Pierre Salinger, the former child prodigy pianist who serves as press secretary.

After swimming, Kennedy eats a quick lunch upstairs in the first familyÕs private rooms, often referred to as Òthe residence.Ó He then naps for exactly 45 minutes. Other great figures in history such as WinstonChurchill napped during the day. For Kennedy, it is a means of rejuvenation.Then itÕs back to the Oval Office, most nights working as late as 8:00 p.m. After business hours, Kennedy often puts two feet up on his desk and casually tosses ideas back and forth with his staff. It is the presidentÕs favorite time of the day.When everyone has cleared out, he makes his way back upstairs to the residence for his evening meal with his family or with friends Jackie invites.