Opinion

Jack Shafer

Grandpa, grandpa, tell me about the JFK assassination again!

By Jack Shafer
November 21, 2013

A common defense of the annual Kennedy assassination deluge — one that peaks in anniversary years ending in 5 or 0 for numerological reasons, I assume — is that the assassination happened so long ago that it’s more historical than it is news. If you’re 54 years old or younger, which accounts for about 80 percent of the population, you’re too young to have any contemporaneous memories of the killing from 50 years ago. The current coverage must seem fairly fresh to the youngest of the younger readers. For slightly older readers, the coverage isn’t designed to make you remember the murder and aftermath, it’s designed to remind you of the previous years the media reminded you of the episode.

Who are the designers? The editors and producers who control news media are mostly boomers older than 55, who like all the generations before them frequently confuse important things that happened when they were young for news. Blame them for swamping us this week with endless re-ups of Frame 313, the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson, Jacqueline Kennedy’s bloody pink dress, and John F. Kennedy Jr.’s salute. This week’s most ridiculous look-back has got to be Bob Costas’s No Day For Games: The Cowboys and JFK,  which ran on the NBC Sports Network and described how the assassination disturbed the Dallas Cowboys.

Children have a good excuse for wanting to be told old stories. They’re not very bright, they often don’t absorb the whole narrative the first time around, they learn by repetition and draw comfort from it — and if the story recounts how Bambi’s mother got whacked, they have every right to hope that in the retelling the dark story will be much brighter.

Adults have no such infantile excuse. Oh, I don’t mind readers sending their favorite books through their brains again the way cows propel partly-digested grass through successive stomachs. Reading a favorite book returns new rewards, reducing the reader’s shame factor from low to zero. But the urge to read a recycled account of a past event makes about as much sense as wanting to repeat 6th grade. Who wants to live the movie “Memento”?

I’m not such a stick in the mud that I protest people keying on an anniversary to remember historical milestones, to lay wreaths, to dress in costumes and reenact battles or historical events, hold hands, or give speeches. I don’t even mind news accounts of such gatherings as long as they’re buried somewhere in the newspaper where I can’t find them. But the basics and the minutiae of the Kennedy assassination have been so endlessly raked over, repurposed, and rerun that this week’s re-coverage of the slaying and burial in newspapersmagazines, on TV, and everywhere on the Web stinks of redundancy. You didn’t know Lee Harvey Oswald’s pallbearers were reporters, dragooned into service? The Associated Press retells the story for the umpteenth time. You were unaware of the “four shattering days” between the shooting and the burial? Here’s the “new” Washington Post piece. Never heard about the conspiracy theories? Time has it covered.

Obviously the Kennedy killing stressed the collective unconscious in a way that few modern events have. It’s easy — especially if you don’t know that much about Kennedy’s presidency — to regard him as a young king married to a beautiful queen who was cut down in his prime by dark, hateful forces who were never adequately identified or properly punished. But that’s the fairy tale version, suitable only for those still reading picture books. Assassins’ bullets have been chasing presidents (Reagan, Ford, Truman, Roosevelt, et al.) for a long time. It’s almost easier to name a president who wasn’t the target of an assassination plot than one who was. It’s that sort of country.

Embossing historical events like the Kennedy assassination with artificial newsworthiness has long been a part of the news game, as has been criticism of these anniversarial outbursts. On every news desk — from international to sports — editors love to assign them because nobody except for a few cranks are going to knock them for doing so. Reporters don’t mind writing them because most of what they need to look up exists in their publication’s morgue or on Nexis. TV loves the revisits because it has miles of archives to unspool and aging reporters eager to relive their glory days before the cameras just one more time before they die.

In time — probably as the younger newsroom boomers are put out to pasture — the Kennedy assassination will recede into deep memory. The new journalists-in-charge, a much younger breed who know the incident only from the retellings, will have to rub their temples (or use Google) to recall who got shot first, John or Robert Kennedy, and the average news consumer will be as interested in the anniversaries of their deaths as today’s readers are in the assassination of President William McKinley.

News consumers, like children, eventually grow out of the old stories, only to be captivated by new ones.

******

Yes, but what were you doing on Nov. 21, 1963? Send your recollection to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and I promise not to read it. My Twitter feed once visited the Grassy Knoll. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: A visitor looks at a display at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts November 21, 2013, one day before the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in 1963. REUTERS/Brian Snyder 

Comments
11 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Hey, I’m 54 and I remember when Kennedy was shot, I was riding in the car with my mom…….. Ok I don’t remember much, but I’m sure I remember it. What I really don’t like is that I’m now older than 80% of the population, way to ruin my day, man.

Posted by ReddRobber | Report as abusive
 

What saddens me most, is how the country may have changed if this man had lived. Sure he was not the greatest husband, and did run around, but the way the country had loved him and jJacky was rare ever since. I remember how my mother cried that day, and how the whole country was deeply saddened. Those were the days when people truly cared about their country and believed in government. A far cry from today’s attitude. It’s amazing how attitudes change from generation to generation and how quickly we forget the veterans of foreign wars and how this freedom we take for granted was not obtained for free. Patriotism has now taken a back seat to corporate profits. People of means have no loyalty to their country by investing and hiring over seas, when this should be done here at home. Times surely do change and we as a country need to start taking care of our people at home first with good stable jobs, and secure futures for our young people. Then maybe with the help of government doing the right thing for all of the people we can repeat the loyalty and pride that this great country once had.

Posted by cheeze | Report as abusive
 

Excellent piece, Jack. I’m so tired of the Kennedy fantasists.

JFK was a handsome, charismatic man with a lovely family, and a very poor president.

The man bumbled his way towards nuclear armageddon with the Cuban Missile Crisis, got the U.S. enmeshed in the Vietnam war, and dragged his feet on civil rights. Personally, he was also nothing to admire: a liar, a serial philanderer, and a phony who pumped up his lousy military record and used a ghostwriter to produce his most famous book. Evidence even suggests that he wouldn’t have won the 1960 election without stuffed ballot boxes courtesy the Chicago Democratic machine. (Whether the country would have been better off with Richard Nixon as president in 1960 is an open question!)

I’m so tired of the mythology surrounding JFK, RFK and the Kennedy family. There are many real heroes from that era – Martin Luther King among them, as well as many others from the peace movement, the civil rights movement, and the feminist and gay rights campaigns. The Kennedy family were jokers.

Posted by TrueCentrist | Report as abusive
 

“Children have a good excuse for wanting to be told old stories. They’re not very bright”

Ha!

Posted by DougAnderson | Report as abusive
 

On a more serious note, news of this kind is usually lazy journalism. It’s like when a sitcom has a ‘flashback; episode, because they are too lazy to come up with a new storyline.

Posted by DougAnderson | Report as abusive
 

I read the story but I couldn’t find the part about all of us being forced to watch and participate in the JFK nostalgia. It must be in there somewhere. How else to explain all the fretting and teeth-gnashing by the internet’s bloggers and pseudo-journalists? Not that Boomer-haters ever miss an opportunity to get their Boomer-hate on, but the incessant whining about the 50th anniversary of this rather important historical event is more tiresome than the “Where were you when…” reminiscing. Just let it go, Boomer-haters. Just let it go.

Posted by KizoneKaprow | Report as abusive
 

@KizoneKaprow

As of now, the JFK memorial is the top headline in my BBC RSS feed and on the Reuters homepage. Is it the most important news of today? No. Has it forced other, more important stories of my radar yes. Am I being forced to endure the JFK shooting, despite my little to no interest? Yes.

Posted by DougAnderson | Report as abusive
 

“If you’re 54 years old or younger, which accounts for about 80 percent of the population, you’re too young to have any contemporaneous memories of the killing from 50 years ago” REALLY? I’m 54 and I remember that Fri-day and the weekend like it happened yesterday.

It started with my mother, who was crying, waking me from a nap. She said, “They’ve killed Jack” and I replied, “Does that mean they’re not going to come over for dinner?” You see, my family was ALL about Jack Kennedy, the Kennedy’s and the direction he was taking our country. We talked about them all the time – usually when we gathered around the table for dinner. As an officer in the Army, my father’s army buddies and their families would always go to each others houses for dinner….I thought the Kennedy’s we in that group because we talked about them all the time, just like the gang in the army.

I remember watching the rest of the weekend unfold on TV…we took all our meals sitting in front of our black-and-white console TV…..the same TV I watched the Beatles on early the next year. Yes I remember that show on Ed Sullivan too.

Sure….maybe some 54 year olds don’t have “any contemporaneous memories of the killing” but this guy does. Sorry to bust that conclusion of yours Jack.

Posted by Chazz | Report as abusive
 

Your post simply displays ignorance of the 50th Anniversary (yes of a grotesque murder), with media specials such as the high quality network broadcasts of that afternoon, with a network anchor forced to repeat the news from Dallas on a telephone – and finally the brutal news that Kennedy was DEAD.

ALL FOUR DAYS of CBS’s commercial free coverage is being streamed Nov 22 – 25 online.

How many have even viewed Kennedy’s best speeches in which he addresses issues such as NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT? That was mentioned in a nationally televised speech days before the 1960 election from a raucus Chicago, IL stadium.

Sad that ‘people’use this occasion to slam his politics. I HATED Reagan yet his shooting is nothing to dismiss.

Posted by cirrus7 | Report as abusive
 

“Give em hell, Jack” someone shouted on live national television during that November 4th 1960 speech – really a Presidential candidate as ‘Rock Star’ on primetime television.

Embedded at http://www.richsamuels.com/nbcmm/kennedy  /rjdjfk.html

Posted by cirrus7 | Report as abusive
 

Jack,
Amidst the commemorating and nostalgizing, there was some reporting worthy of note:

“Bronx Tale of a BB Gun and Infamy in the Making: Recounting Brush With Lee Harvey Oswald in 1950s New York,” by Dan Barry, here,
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/21/nyregi on/a-bronx-landlords-tale-and-the-kenned y-assassination.html

And, “Lee Harvey Oswald Was My Friend,” by Paul Gregory, here, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/10/magazi ne/lee-harvey-oswald-was-my-friend.html

The first article tells of Oswald at age 13 shooting people. In a word, chilling. The second I think aptly depicts Oswald as the sullen, meglomaniacal, antisocial loner he was. Also chilling. Dan

Posted by dbuck | Report as abusive
 

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