If you've turned on a TV this week you've been likely to see some mention of a special about the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. There have news specials, documentary films, and entire News Magazine shows devoted to the tragic events that unfolded 50 years ago, this Friday. Sure, it’s a ratings grab. Every network wants a piece of the pie. But the question is, why is there even a pie to be shared? Why are Americans so drawn to the barrage of coverage that there are enough eyeballs to watch everything and make them profitable?
What is it about the untimely death of our 35th president that is still so intriguing to Americans that it warrants so much time and attention by our popular media?
John F. Kennedy is an enduring character in our popular and political culture, yet his story is so uncharacteristic of who Americans tend to hold up to our highest regards. He did not struggle to the top from humble beginnings. He was not an underdog who overcame great odds to become our president. He was born to a wealthy family with great political, social and economic resources. He had the best education America had to offer and great social status. He is the antithesis to the American dream. He didn't have to work for his social and economic status. He probably didn't have to work at all if he didn't want to. Not that everything was handed to him on a silver platter (despite chronic medical woes he was a decorated Navy lieutenant who fought in WWII and suffered injuries during his service, and he worked his way up in politics to our country's highest office), he does not embody the values that the American character tends to celebrate.
So, what then is it about him that endures? I've been watching a lot –and I mean a lot of the specials on Kennedy and there are 2 themes are at the heart of almost all of the retrospectives and explorations into Kennedy’s life and death.
The first is how he is frozen in time as this handsome, charismatic young man who had so much potential to make this world a better place and all of that potential was cut short in one instant. His beautiful wife and children are the things fairy tales are made of. He had it all and he could have been our great savior – after all, he founded so many important social, environmental and scientific initiatives that are, till today, cornerstones of our society such as the Peace Corps, desegregation initiatives, Space exploration, foreign policy, and the list goes on. Who knows what he could have gone on to do? He was a doer and a joiner. In today’s era where things are so contentious and divisive and seemingly nothing actually can get done in Washington, he was someone who had ideas about what would make our country – and this world – a better place, and he actually got a lot done. So yes, he was born into greatness, and he reached a place of potential, but just how much farther could he have gone?
The second theme is the conspiracy theories that endure till today. The Warren commission swore up and down that there was no conspiracy. Additionally, new forensic evidence and 21st century technology and experiments also have shown that there was no second shooter, no magic bullet and no government involvement in the death of our president. Yet there are still some strongholds out there that there is more going on than what that evidence seems to point to. Oliver Stone, the director of the 1991 movie, JFK said it then and reaffirms now that he believes that there had to be a conspiracy surrounding the shooting. Part of it is that Americans love a good murder mystery. But I think the other part of it is that there’s a disbelief – or a want to disbelieve that the most powerful person in the free world could be taken down by just one guy with a grudge. One guy hiding out in a book depository who no one noticed taking aim at our President. Could security be that lacking? The conspiracy theory also feeds our seeming need to distrust government and big brother who watches and controls the day to day of our society. The events surrounding his assassination is rife with questions and so rich with opportunity for conspiracy theories and doubts of the actual events, its no wonder people are still trying to piece together all of the elements to form a sequence of events that give closure.
These are two fundamental pieces of our American character. So while John F. Kennedy was not the typical character one might write up to be a model of the American dream but in his death so many questions are left unanswered. That rich text for exploration and questions will endure because there’s no way to answer “what if” and each generation can place their hopes and dreams onto what could have been and hope for something better for them.