This week, we bathe in the golden anniversary of the fourth assassination of an American president. We claim we’re doing this in service of remembering history and of taking stock of milestones because, hey, in this society of kids who can’t pick Jerry Ford out of a lineup, how could there possibly be too many history lessons?
And yet all those magazine covers and books and documentaries are far less about historical accuracy than they are about Baby Boomer self-obsession. And none of the familiar tropes we keep hearing resonate. Here’s why:
1. The assassination is not “The Moment That Changed Everything”
Yes, it was a shocking moment and a tragedy for the Kennedys and the nation. But what exactly would have been so dramatically different had the 35th president lived? Would we have stayed out of the Vietnam War? That’s unclear, but given that the war’s architect, Robert McNamara, was a Kennedy guy, probably not. Would television have never found its footing as a critical medium of news and shared American experience? Of course it would have. Might the Civil Rights Act taken longer to get through, thus prolonging the civil rights struggles? Perhaps, but if that’s the best JFK aficionados can do, how exactly does that reflect well on the man?
Instead, we have a martyr without a cause. For all the excessive analyses of that week in Dallas, we really have no idea why Kennedy was killed. Lee Harvey Oswald was a Communist sympathizer, so there’s that. But was there even any retaliation against the Soviet Bloc as a result? No. No, the only absolutely clear legacy of JFK’s slaying is that it legitimated the conspiracy theorists. There’s a clear through line from asking “Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone?” to “Is Barack Obama a Muslim from Kenya?” But that, too, might have happened anyway. The Watergate scandal, after all, was a real, proven conspiracy that ended a presidency.
2. JFK’s death did not shattered America’s “innocence.”
What innocence? The adults of JFK’s generation fought in World War II. They spent the 1950s quaking in fear over the Soviet threat, a terror that yielded McCarthyism. And this was hardly Pax Americana; the Korean War only ceased — not ended, ceased — seven years before Kennedy took office. Also, America already had quite a lot of experience with dead presidents; JFK would be the fourth shot to death and the sixth to die in office in less than a century. This event didn’t shatter innocence. It shattered a fairy tale, the rotted core of which has been revealed in agonizing detail ever since. Jack and Jackie were hardly the happily married ideal they purported to be. Jack was not a strapping vision of physical strength but a man lying to the public about his crippling health problems while eating mood-altering medication like M&Ms. He wasn’t even a real liberal — his economic policies were the basis for Ronald Reagan’s — despite an iconic status among modern Democrats which was earned posthumously via his brothers.
Those who fell for the deliberately, audaciously drawn Kennedy mythology would have been disillusioned sooner or later without Nov. 22, 1963. His death actually preserved in amber JFK’s greatness in many of those people’s eyes. To those who wish to believe so, JFK remains forever young and beautiful, eternally beyond the reach of anyone who might force him to admit and atone for his failings.
And that’s not the same as being robbed of innocence, anyway. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were moments when Americans really felt the world as they thought they knew it was something else entirely. People really behaved differently after those events, often in cruel, xenophobic ways. How did Americans behave differently after Dallas? What specific lesson for their own lives did they learn? To beware of lurking snipers when riding in open-air convertibles?
3. JFK nostalgia is racism and misogyny by another name.
Remember when Trent Lott had to give up leadership of the Senate because he toasted Strom Thurmond by suggesting that America might be better off had the segregationist Thurmond won the 1948 election? Well, when people talk about the era before JFK’s death as a “simpler” time, do they realize that they’re only 15 years more advanced than what might have been President Thurmond’s America? Folks who recall pre-1963 with fondness probably weren’t black or female — to say nothing of homosexual — at the time. JFK’s death has become an entirely arbitrary dividing line between the old and the new days when the privileged set was confronted with all that in-your-face feminism and racial-equality mumbo jumbo. That year, 1963, was also when The Feminine Mystique came out and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech occurred. Does anyone ever talk about either of those as pre- or post-“innocence”?
No, they use JFK’s death even though it had far less— if anything —to do with the turning points that were happening.
4. JFK Never Went Away
It’s one thing when we engage in anniversary-mongering for things we might have forgotten about or events we now have new insight on. That really is done in the dual spirits of historical review and exploitation. But how can we miss or forget something that never left us? Like almost no other historical event save 9/11, the Kennedy presidency and its abrupt ending are so constantly referenced that it simply never left our peripheral vision.
And it’s not just because it was on TV, although that surely does explain the total lack of any centennial observances of the 1901 murder of President McKinley. Many things happened on camera since JFK was shot that don’t make much noise in the media or pop culture anymore: The Challenger disaster. The first O.J. Simpson trial. The Clinton impeachment. The disputed election of 2000. But Jackie Kennedy still graces the cover of Vogue, Vanity Fair and People on a regular basis.
5. This is the only the beginning of The Decade of Anniversary Mania.
We still live in the Baby Boomers’ world, and they are going to demand we remember every last thing that happened to them in the vaunted 1960s. Next year it’ll be the 50th anniversary of the Beatles arriving in New York, Muhammad Ali as champ, passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and more. Every few weeks, there’ll be another one, from Vietnam milestones all the way through to Woodstock.
By 2018, when the 50th anniversary of the slayings of RFK and MLK roll around— moments that really did turn the crank of history — the fatigue will be overwhelming.
You’ve been warned.
Friess is an Ann Arbor, Mich.–based freelance writer and former senior writer covering technology for Politico who teaches journalism at Michigan State University. The views expressed are solely his own. You can follow him on Twitter @stevefriess.