Tuesday, November 22, 2011

JFK and the Mythic Imagination

November 22 is the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy and while it’s been nearly fifty years since that dreadful day, the historic moment still has a hold on the American imagination. It is so deeply embedded in our culture that it has taken on the note of mythology. In fact it is our modern-day myth---the bold, handsome president shot down in the prime of his virility, while his wife and throngs of Dallas well-wishers who lined up along Dealey Plaza to watch his motorcade go pass look on in horror. In an age before 24/7 cable news networks, the assassination would be recorded not by a newsman but a dressmaker named Abraham Zapruder, whose film footage wouldn’t be released to the general public until a decade later. Under those circumstances, it makes sense that the event would balloon into mythic proportions in the American public. That day was like a blank canvas onto which people painted their own memories or contributed their answers to questions that still remain unresolved. The Warren Commission's handling of the investigation only sparked more questions, creating a cottage industry of conspiracy theorists who insist that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the lone assassin in Kennedy’s murder.

This mythic quality has likewise sparked artistic and literary fascination. Only recently Stephen King published a novel, 11/22/63, a tale of time travel which centers around the assassination. There’ve been other works in the past, including Don DeLillo’s Libra, and Oliver Stone’s 1991 release JFK, which looks at New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison's prosecution of the president's assassination. Television has also played its part, including a 1983 miniseries starring Martin Sheen and a recent cable version starring Greg Kinnear. The assassination is also heavily referenced in pop culture, such as The Simpsons, Seinfeld, The X-Files, and music videos. The cable TV series Mad Men dramatized the assassination in its second season to heavy anticipation.

No where in recent American history has an event scarred a nation so deeply. In JFK, America had found a model onto which it could project all of its best attributes: youth, vigor, imagination, intelligence. Not since President Obama’s 2008 presidential run, did Americans find similar excitement and transcendence. Yet over three years after that historic election, Obama is facing some of the most stringent opposition to his policies and criticisms from the left and the right. Kennedy likewise faced similar criticisms and experienced a major foreign policy blunder with the Bay of Pigs. Yet his untimely and tragic death has cemented not the criticisms nor the mistakes, but the Camelot image his widow and former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy set forth after his death. We see only Camelot, not the real and very complicated man underneath. The myth lives on in our culture, in our literature, films, and TV, but we'd do well to separate the facts from the myth.

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