Tuesday, November 22, 2005

November 22, 1963
A reader of Talking Points Memo was wondering why there's so little mention of the Kennedy assassination today. It's the 42nd anniversary of that fabled day, which changed American history quite a bit--and it's arguable that it changed American culture even more. Like the TPM reader, I've seen very little myself--actually nothing, at least on the news sites and blogs I frequent. (Even the today-in-history page of this very blog neglects to mention the assassination.) On TV, the History Channel, which has traditionally been all-JFK, all the time on the anniversary, isn't running any Kennedy stuff until the weekend. A&E and Discovery are similarly JFK-free tonight.

Perhaps, at 42 years on, the assassination has reached the outer limits of pop-culture relevance. Perhaps all the good stories have been told, and all those worth retelling have been retold to death. Perhaps what we've witnessed in our country the last two years--the spectacle of our country being repeatedly shamed before the world by our leaders' war, deceit, cruelty, and arrogance--is so psychologically overwhelming that it makes black-and-white filmed memories of something even so monstrous as a presidential assassination seem quaint.

Perhaps that last sentence is an exaggeration.

If the assassination is fading into history, certainly that's how the Kennedy family would want it. Several years ago, they stopped participating in any public observance of November 22, preferring instead to honor JFK on his birthday in January. We might do well to make the same change--but we can't. To us, the people who experienced the assassination as news and/or very recent history, we can't separate Kennedy the man from Kennedy the victim. Later generations might find it easier--the same way we can think of Abraham Lincoln today without automatically imagining him shot in his box at the theater. But we can never see JFK saying "ich bin ein Berliner," or challenging us to reach the moon, or playing touch football on the Hyannisport lawn, without thinking of November 22, 1963, at the same time.

So JFK is a bittersweet figure to us for that reason. And for this reason, too, as I wrote on the 40th anniversary of the assassination, two years ago today:
It seems as though the world began to accelerate in the weeks after November 22, 1963--accelerate and come apart at the same time, as many truths we thought were firmly settled before then began to seem less so afterward. In the middle of history, we can never fully assess it for what it is--that's left to generations of historians whose grandparents are toddlers now--but it surely seems as if we have never stopped the spiral that began 40 years ago, that things move faster and continue to fragment. So when we mourn JFK and remember that afternoon, we mourn a world that was younger, whose dangers were more knowable, whose challenges seemed achievable.
I noticed tonight on the Weather Channel that the record high for this date in my town was set in 1963. And the thought instantly occurred to me, "So, it was a warm afternoon when Walter Cronkite broke in with his first bulletin. . . ."

(A similar version of this post appears at Gather.com)

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