Not to dismiss an important historical event, but the looming 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination is an overblown spectacle that I’ve come to loathe after being indoctrinated into the JFK lore for far too many years.
It’s the ultimate baby boomer fetish. It’s the story of a supposedly innocent time and a politician portrayed as noble and glorious, when the truth about the man and the time is far less idealistic. This is especially true for those of us who can’t say “where we were” on that fateful day to be commemorated Friday.
I was a year old, in a crib in an apartment on Julian Street in San Jose – or so I’m told. I was napping when my mother turned on our black-and-white TV and heard the unthinkable from Walter Cronkite. I missed the whole thing, and I’m sitting out the endless JFK retrospectives on TV this week because they promise to beat the same drum I’ve heard throughout my life about JFK’s murder.
It’s not about being callous to the suffering of the Kennedy family or to the millions who loved the 35th president of the United States.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
My own kin shed tears for JFK and erected small shrines in his honor. My late mother, born in the U.S. and raised in Mexico, voted in a U.S. election for the first time in 1960 because she was inspired by the attractive man who was Catholic like us. Somewhere in my house is mom’s “Viva Kennedy” pin, which she preserved in mint condition. My relatives in south Texas used to have a framed collage of JFK photos next to images of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King – all under the banner of “Freedom Fighters.”
On the same wall was a large wooden crucifix – Jesus nailed to the cross. This imagery left an impression on me for a very long time.
But I just don’t buy the hype anymore. I turned 51 last week and I’m too old to suspend disbelief or entertain a romanticized version of history that never was.
This isn’t a rejection of JFK’s historical significance.
It’s a rejection of the idea that America saw its best days in the “Camelot” of the Kennedy presidency.
I don’t believe that.
This isn’t a rejection of JFK’s cultural significance. It’s a rejection of the idea that our culture has been on a downhill slide since shots rang out from the Texas School Book Depository on Dealey Plaza a half century ago.
I didn’t realize it until later, but I stopped reading Rolling Stone magazine because it kept telling me that the music, film and art of my generation were lesser than the masterpieces spawned in the ’60s.
Nothing was ever going to be that good again, or so we were told.
Now, such suggestions seem increasingly like propaganda promoted by some voices of a graying generation.
Baby boomers are nothing if not tireless promoters of their own legacy. This week seems as much about them and their wistful recollections of themselves as it does about JFK.
Since JFK was murdered, no one in our political culture has measured up to the dynamic young man cut down in his prime. But you wonder if even JFK would measure up to JFK if he were starting out today.
Can you imagine how JFK would have been ripped on Twitter after the Bay of Pigs debacle, as President Obama was ripped after the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya? Bill Clinton was impeached for having an affair with a White House intern while Kennedy's affair with an intern was kept secret. Can you imagine how Rush Limbaugh would have mocked JFK for seeming weak before Fidel Castro as Obama was mocked for seeming weak before Russia’s Vladimir Putin?
In truth, JFK had an uneven legislative record. He dithered as civil rights heroes were lynched in the American South. His greatest attributes were his “promise” and his “aura.”
Ask Obama about the shelf life of promise and aura these days.
While it may seem that way, I don’t resent how baby boomers have hogged the narrative of our popular culture for so long. But I do hope this week’s commemoration of JFK’s assassination is the last hurrah for looking backward with tears in our eyes.
JFK, Jackie, JFK Jr. are all gone now. Caroline doesn’t want to talk about it, and she’s right. It’s self-defeating to idealize the past over the present.
Camelot was fictional. Hope lives in the future.