The 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy has brought forth an enormous amount of interest. Films about Jack and Jackie have flooded the television screens; interviews have replayed the terrible scenes of Dallas, the swearing in of LBJ, the salute of John John at the funeral, the riderless horse following the procession. Conspiracy theorists have been widely quoted; new evaluations of the famous 1000 days continue to be printed.
Why all this interest? During a recent interview, I was asked why so many people get emotional when analyzing the importance of JFK. And I admit I was as emotional as the others being interviewed. The tapes of the shooting, the arrest of Oswald and the second shooting, all came vividly back. Fifty years ago we were glued to our television sets for those horrible four days. We were not aware that history was being made; we just wanted to know what was happening, to have people help us understand what was going on.
Observers have noted how clearly people remember where they were and what happened at traumatic moments. For the general public, Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination and September 11 are the classic examples. During these moments, the senses are sharper; time seems to slow down as we take in all that is happening around us.
But I am still puzzled why people continue to be fascinated by the Kennedy assassination. For those who lived through those moments, the myth of Kennedy has been sullied by the Vietnam War and numerous revelations that prick the bubble of the iconic figure. What did he actually do? The Cuban Missile Crisis? The Peace Corps? Space exploration? A nuclear test ban treaty? Realistic desegregation? If one actually listens to the tape of the debates with Richard Nixon, the Republican won hands down. But the smiling, eloquent Kennedy won the election because he was the first pop culture president, ideally suited to the new media of television. All candidates since have learned the lesson.
What is the relationship between myth and reality? What is the relationship between what actually happened in the past and what we remember? For the generation that didn’t live through the Kennedy era, it is perhaps better to remember the smiling Jack and Jackie, the regal couple that seemed to represent the United States at its finest, the best and the brightest successfully functioning in the common interest. No bloodstained suit, no riots in the streets of Chicago and Miami just a few years later. No Robert McNamara saying “We were wrong, very wrong.”
Nostalgia has an important function. It allows us to go beyond the trials and tribulations of our daily lives. We remember what was best; we remember that which brings a smile to our lips in the face of innumerable obstacles. We never saw John Kennedy get old, just as we do not see ourselves getting old. We remember the dynamic youngest ever president just as we remember the vigor and energy of our youths. I am convinced I will win Wimbledon next year. Each year I prepare my victory speech.
For those of the Kennedy generation, our nostalgia is for a time full of hope. The “New Frontier” was a slogan directly tied to the optimism of Americans as wonderfully described by Frederick Jackson Turner’s landmark description of Americans always searching for new frontiers. The interest in the Kennedy past is nostalgia for the excitement of something that was so new and different. It is an irrational, emotional interest that has not gone away as the audacity of hope seems to be fading.
JFK was so young, so dashing, as perhaps we remember ourselves at that time. We never saw John Kennedy get old, we never see ourselves get old; so much the better.