JFK anniversary provides a reflection of our culture
"Take A Moment To Remember Where You Are"
— the editorial staff of The Onion
Because, in the end, all cultural touchstones from what the satirical news organization calls "Our Dumb Century" eventually revolve around ourselves.
When JFK was assassinated, when astronauts supposably walked on the moon, when John Lennon was killed, Ronald Reagan was shot, the final episode of "M*A*S*H" aired, Al Gore invented the Internet, New Coke came and went, 9/11, the Red Sox finally won the World Series, a president who for the first time wasn't a white male was elected, through earthquakes, tsunamis, 8-tracks, typhoons, Billy Zane surviving the sinking of the Titanic instead of Leonardo DiCaprio "¦ we put all these milestones in terms of where we were, what we were doing, to create a shared history.
It was ever thus, of course, since we narcissistically were certain that the Sun revolved around the Earth and Columbus discovered that there were already people living on his "New World," and dangitall, we'll call it the Indies if we say it's the Indies and name our football teams whatever we want.
Besides, it just wouldn't be right to call them the Washington Palefaces.
We are those kids at Jacksonville Elementary, being told to circle the track, walking or running, for their daily exercise instead of exercising their creativity on the playground. Walking in circles, always winding up where you started "¦ stuck in the same place.
"The thing is," she said in that hushed, conspiratorial tone usually reserved to sharing great secrets, "he wasn't really the greatest president."
She was born during the Harding administration, so a knowledge of less-than-stellar POTUSes is a birthright. Along the way, she's been a student and teacher of history, a Marine, a Woman in Black, and a spinner of remarkable stories.
She's also bluer than most any other blue Democrat that you're likely to bump into on the street in Ashland "¦ so when she says that she isn't planning to wallow in this 50th anniversary of the Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy"¢, you can take her at her word.
It's all a bit much, she says.
It is, after all, OUR anniversary, not his. Or his wife's, any of his three late brothers or two late sons, or the current ambassador to Japan.
So why, when a woman in her 10th decade knows better, do we do it?
After all, it's 132 years since President Garfield was assassinated and 112 since Preside McKinley was killed. Yet their deaths are lost in the great morass between the Lincoln and Kennedy murders.
With Lincoln, it's the historical context. With Kennedy, it's the cultural.
We live in a world where tens of thousands can be wiped out in an instant by an act of nature, and shared bandwidth on our computer screens this past week with a Peruvian man who got married in Argentina.
To a tree.
Things happen way too fast and there's far too many of them to keep track of. So much of our own history falls through the cracks that we'll spend $30,000 restoring a bus station doorway to nowhere. Our creativity has been minimized by technology to the extent that the bulk of our entertainment products are sequels and remakes.
Maybe that's why Hollywood can't resist telling the JFK story over and over again. It's frozen in time, and we have access to Zapruder and newsreels and still photographs. Our cultural discontent demands that it not be a simple story, well told. Thus our dependence on time-travel stories where heroes attempt to stop "Lee Harvey Oswald" and the viral epidemic of conspiracy theories.
Again, The Onion:
"KENNEDY SLAIN BY CIA, MAFIA, CASTRO, LBJ, TEAMSTERS, FREEMASONS: President shot 129 times from 43 different angles"
Theories abound, and everyone from Oliver Stone to Bill O'Reilly is willing to share theirs with you "¦ for the price of a movie ticket or a hardcover. Rob Lowe became the 13th actor to portray JFK in the recent TV adaptation of O'Reilly's book "Killing Kennedy" — a list that includes Ossie Davis, in the maniacally conspiracy-fueled "Bubba Ho-Tep," alongside Bruce Campbell's Elvis Presley.
JFK and Elvis, cultural icons whose deaths were followed by legions who either don't believe they died in the manner described in the official report, or didn't die at all. Is it any wonder that this past week included yet another "clue" that comic performance artist Andy Kaufman may have faked his own death 29 years ago?
We don't want these stories to end until we come up with a version upon which we can all agree. And, have you looked at Washington, D.C., lately?
JFK remains singular because, well, he's JFK. LBJ sticks in the memory with the adhesiveness of Karo syrup, but RMN? GRF? Or JEC, RWR, GHWB, WJC, GWB or even BHO? They can copy JFK's mannerisms, or show pictures of a chance meeting, or get the family seal of approval "¦ but in terms of staying power, they're pretenders to the throne.
"There won't be a Beatles reunion as long as John Lennon remains dead," George Harrison once said. And that's the lasting appeal of JFK as well. A political rock star, kept alive by an eternal flame and memories that do not change.
When you are born and raised, as I was, on what Walter (no relation to Bill) O'Reilly once preciously called "the Cape of Cod," you learn early that most tourists ask the same two questions: "How do I get to the bridge to Nantucket?" and "Did you ever meet any of the Kennedys?"
Both are the product of urban legends. There is no bridge to Nantucket, we explain; you must take the bridge to Martha's Vineyard, and from there take the subsequent bridge to Nantucket.
As for the Kennedys, the polite answer is to smile and say that you can't go five miles without bumping into them, and then suggest taking the Kennedy boat tour — where they point out the majestic white house on the bluff as the center of the fabled "Kennedy compound," when in fact, the actual compound is a few streets away, looking far less than the birthplace of Camelot.
But people want to see what they expect to see, a product of great intentions and mangled messages, and so you give it to them. We look at JFK — his life, his death, his legacy — and we see America. We see America, and we see ourselves.
Meanwhile, 50 years goes around in continuous circles like those schoolchildren in Jacksonville.
In any language, we're all just jelly donuts.
Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org