Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK and the persistence of memory

WE INTERRUPT this regularly scheduled march through another ordinary day in 21st-century American life to bring you the indelible recall of when and how this day, this date, was and remains anything but ordinary.

The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy 50 years ago was the first collective, grand-mal tragedy the United States experienced through the power and impact of television and modern communication. The instantness we take for granted today in a Twittered, Facebooked, informationally-democratized world didn't exist on that day in Dallas.

And this year, of course, our remembrance of the assassination is catalyzed by our media-assisted reflex for even-numbered anniversaries. But what happened is no more or less a national tragedy this year than it was in 2001 or 1985; it’ll be just as big a scar on the national psyche in 2015 or any other odd-numbered year in the future.

What we lost in Dallas persists beyond the media’s numerical predilections. What we lost abides in the national soul and the national memory, our darkness visible. Nov. 22, 1963, is a date that will live in our infamy, whether we actually remember it or not.

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We recognize the images: a president almost preternaturally handsome; his wife, stunning in beauty and elegance; this dynamic duo taking its place in the dark grey limousine; the crush of Texas citizens around the couple; the movement of the vehicle down Stemmons Freeway, en route to the Trade Mart; the nation’s vibrant leader, minutes then moments from death.

The cloudless sky. The fateful turn into Dealey Plaza. The underpass.

Then, in a literal instant, the impact that’s never left us.

As much as any event in our modern American time, the assassination of President Kennedy ushered in what could be called an era of credible incredulity: events whose sudden impact and monstrous daring both exploded the seeming contours of reality and established a new baseline of reality at the same time.

The murder of JFK was at once something impossible to believe and, once we knew and accepted it had occurred, something that made it impossible to believe that the order and music of the life that preceded it could ever come to pass again. Drop a stone in standing water and it makes ripples on the surface of that water; the Kennedy assassination provoked a psychic tsunami on this nation, and we haven’t recovered from it yet.

And if you were alive then — whether you were a man on the street in Dallas, an office worker in Los Angeles, a CBS news anchor in New York or a skinny, 8-year-old black boy living in Chicago, confused as to why his mother was in tears when he got home from school early on that rainy day — you’ll never let it go now. Because you can’t.

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JOHN FITZGERALD Kennedy templatized the idea of rock star as politician; he captured the heady frisson, the rousing potential of life in the early 1960’s. When he was murdered, something died in America and it hasn’t been fully replaced. Some say politics is the art of the possible; if so, Kennedy was its ablest practitioner in the early 1960’s. The meme of his administration was unofficially distilled in the musical “Camelot,” but it might as well have been a song from “Man of La Mancha”: “The Impossible Dream.”

I wrote this in February 2008:

“Consider the U.S. moonshot program. President Kennedy’s daring throwdown in 1961, and its successful resolution some eight years later, would come to be couched and justified in scientific terms. It would aid scientists immeasurably in understanding the genesis and composition of the solar system; it would further the field of planetary research, etc., etc. And not to be dismissive: those reasons and more form a scientifically defensible justification for the undertaking.

“But for many people, maybe even most people, that doesn’t feel like the real reason. President Kennedy’s cosmic gambit seemed to have something else at its core, something deeper than science, a schoolyard dare on steroids, a nod to the human drama of competition, an unprecedented variation on your own backyard bravado when you challenged the neighbor kid to see who had the better arm, to find out who could throw that stone the farthest unimaginable distance.

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“That dare didn’t originate in Palm Springs with Kennedy sipping martinis with Frank Sinatra, playing his version of 'Fly Me to the Moon’ on the stereo. It started in the heart, not as a policy but as a possibility. What it said to this country about this country is no less substantial than facts of its infrastructure or the number of hospital beds available to the poor.”

Paging Jules Verne. Put a man on the moon in less than 10 years? Talk about an impossible dream. And we did it anyway.

This anniversary has reawakened speculation of why it’s necessary. Inquiries into the Kennedy assassination have implicated a number of usual and unusual suspects. The conventional wisdom has long pointed to Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone nut, the human cypher whose three trigger pulls on a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle from a window in the Texas School Book Depository altered history.

But the Miami Herald reported this month about a prediction made by Joseph A. Milteer, a right-wing zealot who was recorded by an FBI informant almost two weeks before the assassination in Dallas, recorded making an eerily accurate assessment of how Kennedy could be murdered by someone with a high-powered rifle from an office building.

Other conspiracy theories have focused on the Mafia; on operatives of Fidel Castro and the Cuban government; on E. Howard Hunt, a one-time CIA operative and a figure in the Watergate scandal; on the driver of the Kennedy limousine; on Texas Gov. John Connolly; on one of the police officers in the motorcade — even on Jacqueline Kennedy herself.

Last week, Budha, a commenter on the CNN Web site distilled the conspiracists’ more outrageous notions with one of his own, couched in a grim humor: “It was Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick.”

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ONE REASON why many people continue to believe it was a conspiracy stems from a governmental inquiry that undercuts the contention of the Warren Commission Report, long accepted as holy writ. In March 1979, a report was issued by the House Select Committee on Assassinations.

From the summary: “Scientific acoustical evidence establishes a high probability that two gunmen fired at President John F. Kennedy. ... The committee believes, on the basis of the evidence available to it, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. ... The Warren Commission presented the conclusions in its report in a fashion that was too definitive.”

Those who dismiss the conspiracy theorists have to reckon with that; with the lack of a united front from the government; and with the benefit of 15 years of hindsight reflected in the House Committee report, 15 years of additional research and information that Warren Commission researchers didn’t have access to.

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And (less important to them but no less real) they have to contend with the fragility of human nature, and the ways in which human nature cherishes the value of the individual. There are reasons why JFK conspiracy theories exist with such power into the present day.

First, of course, they satisfy our deepest cynicisms about the shadowy efficacies of government — suspicions borne out by Watergate (which absolutely was a conspiracy), the events of 9/11 (another conspiracy, this one foreign in its origin) and how this nation reacted to those events (with the conspiracy of opportunistic overreaction that pulled this country into a war in Iraq we never needed to fight).

But also, conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy are powered by the belief that no one person would do such a thing. The monstrous events of November 1963 have a magnitude that, we want to believe, couldn’t have been done by one person.

There’s a scope to the crime in Dallas that seems to indicate collaboration, a plurality, an Us-ness. It’s frightening to contemplate that such an event could be powered by an I, a single person (despite ample historical evidence that individuals are capable of such actions). There must have been a wider, more malign agenda. We want to believe that each of us, any of us, is sufficiently humane to resist such base temptations — that only in concert with other such temptations ready to be actualized for a darker purpose could this kind of a crime against our nation ever take place.

We harbor conspiracy theories because it scares us like hell to think that the trajectory of the national destiny, or our own, could be so altered by the man or woman next to us on the street — that any single soul has that kind of brutal power over our world or our lives at any given time.

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THE DATE OF November 22 has, for decades, been subject to a respectful isolation, a psychic carve-out in the national culture. That date has enjoyed a shadow presence in the calendar; it wore a kind of shroud, reverential and painful,  that kept it from being just another day.

That carve-out and its historical power have gotten fainter and more diluted the further we get from 1963. That year there were 189 million Americans; this year the population is 317 million people. Give or take, there are 128 million Americans who weren’t alive when John F. Kennedy died.

For them there’s no memory of him or his administration, and absolutely no memory of what the date November 22 signifies to the rest of us. That’s the only way that this date could suffer the indignities of everyday commerce.

The new Hunger Games movie, “Catching Fire,” opens today. The new Vince Vaughn comedy, “Delivery Man” opens today; so does the new Judi Dench film, “Philomena,” taking its bow “in select theaters.” Today, Microsoft’s new Xbox One goes on sale, the company’s first video game console in eight years. Get in line; Best Buy’s got ‘em in limited quantities right now!

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Kennedy’s passing had a profound impact on the popular culture he barely had time to tap into. We learned that when four young mop-haired Brits — the Beatles — rode to the emotional rescue of a traumatized nation in February 1964, two and a half months after the assassination, landing in New York at the just-renamed Kennedy International Airport (formerly Idlewild) to help America smile again, in what was either a coincidence of cosmic proportions or the most astute PR tactic in the history of popular culture.

We’d learned it before then, in January 1964, when a folksinger named Bob Dylan released his third album, “The Times They Are a-Changin,” completed three weeks before the assassination, and containing the title song, an accidental anthem whose dovetailing with the collective unconscious couldn’t have been more powerfully timed.

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BUT KENNEDY’S impact superseded the spasms of the culture. Like President Lincoln before him, like Martin Luther King within his lifetime, like President Obama after him, John F. Kennedy gave substance to our symbolism. The substance, the fact of his passing has engendered its own symbolism embodied in his words, his joy for life, even in the incompleteness of what he hoped to achieve.

Even in his frailties and weaknesses and blind spots — and make no mistake, he definitely had them — there was the proof of a man striving for improvement, of himself and the country he led for 1,000 days. That’s what persists. That’s what endures. That’s what lasts.

For all of us, and especially for the 128 million Americans whose grasp of JFK is bound more in pages than in memory, that’s all we can do. That’s what we have to do:

Improve. Get better. Be better. Ask not ...

Image credits: Kennedy top: Official photograph. JFK news flash: UPI via the University of Virginia via The Huffington Post. JFK at Rice University: NASA. “Catching Fire” poster: © 2013 Lionsgate. “The Times They Are a-Changin” cover: © Columbia Records.

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