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Essay: For boomers, JFK death ripples still

First Published      Last Updated Nov 17 2013 11:38 am
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This is the thing about seminal events, particularly ones that retain an aura of mystery and conspiracy: They become empty vessels to fill. And the Kennedy assassination, perhaps more than any event in our lifetimes except for 9/11, is the ultimate empty vessel for the media age that Kennedy himself helped create. The assassination's mythology acts as its own echo chamber: Each time it appears to recede into the distance (and there have been many), a fresh echo always manages to reverberate.

That this emerged from the Kennedy years is no coincidence. His was the first American presidency to incorporate real-time mythmaking into its central narrative, and the media followed suit, building the aura of a "Camelot" whose violent loss was all the more painful because of the storyline that had enveloped it. Those same forces were harnessed immediately upon his death, both by Kennedy's inner circle and the American media at large.

Thus, the millions of Americans who remember that era through childhood's looking glass were assisted by the multiple souvenir editions of Life and Look magazines and commemorative newspaper sections purchased by their parents. Today, more than 1,000 of these talismans are for sale on eBay.

To talk to members of this generation, to read what they've written and listen to what they've said about the assassination over the years, is to see a few major themes emerge. Mournfulness and mythmaking — the sense of something lost — are among the more obvious. But there are others.

There is the persistent insistence of government conspiracy, of events that have been hidden from the public — and of complicity by just about everyone for just about every reason. In the era of NSA spying, this remains as potent a notion as ever. If indeed there were and are actual conspirators, they would have found it easy, in the past 50 years, to hide among the vast crowd implicated in various versions of the conspiracy. This is not to say that the conspiracy theorists — who bristle at the term — are wrong, only that they can't all be right.

There is the sense that Vietnam might not have happened — or that this central trauma of modern America might have played out differently — had Kennedy lived. There is evidence to support this and refute it. "He was truly a man who was working toward peace ... He is not just a missing president," says Stone.

And lurking behind it all, there is a feeling that the assassination's mystery, the uncertainty about dark forces possibly at play, has somehow seeped into everything: If "they" can do THAT, the thinking goes, then they can do just about anything.

Lisa Pease, a researcher who has studied 1960s assassinations extensively, encapsulated this sentiment at an assassination symposium in Pittsburgh last month: "We have to know the truth of our past and our present," she said, "in order to make good decisions about our future."

"JFK, blown away. What else do I have to say?" — Billy Joel (born 1949), "We Didn't Start the Fire"

What more is there to say? There is, it seems, always more being said. Over 50 years, making sense of the Kennedy assassination became almost as much of an event as the assassination itself.

Simon, the writer about assassination art, has a theory. He says that Americans born during the baby boom look back upon the events of Nov. 22, 1963, and retrofit much of what has happened since then into that moment in time.

"What makes the boomer memory interesting is how much that memory is a reading backwards of what came during the 60s," he says. "And the meaning of the JFK assassination for them is largely written through the prism of the deaths of Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, the war in Southeast Asia. For them, the assassination is some detonator for the decade that follows."

"Reading backwards": They see things about that day in Dallas and add meaning that wasn't there when it happened. And, with each new reading, the snowball gathers more as it rolls.

We tend, as Americans, to pour meaning into "defining events." By doing so, we can persuade ourselves that history makes sense. It's unfathomable and terrifying to think that things happen incrementally and haphazardly, and that no single event, much less one act of a single disaffected soul, could upend what we have built. So, says Simon, "we kind of mass-psychologize this" — and no one more than the generation that lived through it as young people.

There is no sign that it is abating. Exactly the opposite: As the 50th anniversary dawns this month, a society still heavily influenced by baby boomers keeps turning back, looking over the national shoulder one more time.

Just look at the merchandise in recent months, aimed squarely at boomers with purchasing power and the desire to nostalgically commemorate. There is the obligatory "50 Year Commemorative Ultimate Collector's Edition" of Stone's landmark film "JFK," due out this week. There are dozens of new books with titles like "History Will Prove Us Right," "The Hidden History of the JFK Assassination" and "We Were There."

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