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JFK: American Antigone

American pop culture has been gradually working its way toward the predictable overflow of JFK coverage to accompany the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination. Media pages online and in print have been awash with the all too familiar colorful pictures of that sunny day in Dallas on the afternoon of 22 November, 1963. The President and Mrs. Kennedy are either at the airport surrounded by enthusiastic crowds or in the motorcade smiling and waving, seconds before the crisp fall air is pierced with the sound of gunfire.

The various pieces being written about the anniversary largely question why Americans never seem to move on, why they continue to contemplate this single, chaotic moment. One writer even contended that in the mind of the American public, Jackie Kennedy is forever frozen in her pink suit and pillbox hat; the motorcade is eternally held in place in that last moment of normalcy. In the span of seconds the Kennedy Camelot was replaced by the Johnson hoedown. Had LBJ remained safely confined to the vice-presidency, there never would have been those embarrassing pictures of the President of the United States baying with his hound in the oval office or pulling up his shirt to show the surgical scar on his furrowed belly.

When journalists are not pretending that public interest in the assassination is a mystery, they are rehashing the conspiracy theories. The CIA and the military orchestrated it; the mob ordered it; the Secret Service deliberately pulled back; pro-Castro forces did it; anti-Castro forces did it. One author devoted an entire book to reasons why LBJ arranged it. Didn’t LBJ crave the presidency for himself and wasn’t there friction between him and the Kennedys? Didn’t Texas give LBJ a home field advantage?

As we engage in the countdown to Friday, let us not imagine that the iconic status of 22 November is one of history’s mysteries. We’ll never know whether or not average people would finally stop talking about it if the media stopped rehearsing it, because that isn’t going to happen. Jack Kennedy and his family were enormously photogenic people who exuded optimistic energy. It was natural for the media to find the charismatic Kennedys fascinating after covering the grandfatherly President Eisenhower and his grandmotherly wife, Mamie. And JFK remains the model for presidential glamour. Every one of his successors has been compared to him by various media commentators, not in terms of substance but in terms of presentation. Is it we or the media that won’t let go.
JFK and Jackie in Dallas

Further, we have never been satisfied with the Warren Report, attributing the assassination to the work of a lone psycho, Lee Harvey Oswald. We may have no idea what happened that day, but we’re pretty sure that it’s more complicated than the official story would lead us to believe, even if Bill O’Reilly insists otherwise. And we almost like it that way, because we have affection for puzzles. A tint of the unknown rescues events from the open and shut dreariness that characterizes so much of life. Many believe that John Wilkes Booth got away, that it wasn’t John Dillinger whom the Feds executed back in ’34, that Superman actor George Reeves had some help with his 1959 suicide. For that matter, are we content with the official account of what happened in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen on that night in 1968?

President Kennedy is our American Antigone. Like the Greek tragedy that never became tiresome to loyal audiences, the Kennedy saga is replayed endlessly in major motion pictures and on television. In this story line we have the key elements of ancient drama. There is the attractive protagonist who possesses fatal flaws but nevertheless rises to heady heights. There are the romanticized days in leadership over a great kingdom followed by the unsatisfying sudden demise. Such a murky ending inspires lofty musings about what might have been. Our imaginations love to fill in the unfinished.

We can’t predict what lies ahead for this oft retold tale, but we can understand the reasons for its recurring potency.


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