Putting It to Rest
IT'S over now, if only for a short time. You can finally return safely to your television, newspaper or weekly magazine. The intense coverage is gone. No, not the presidential campaign, but something even more sinister--the relentless onslaught of the life, times and--most emphatically--the death of President John F. Kennedy '40.
In the past two weeks, there have been no less than 16 specials, documentaries, television movies and news reports focusing on President Kennedy and his assassination. This week, Kennedy's face is emblazoned across the cover of two great barometers of cultural consciousness, TV Guide and People magazine.
There is nothing wrong with remembering a fallen President, particularly one who has commanded such high regard in our national pantheon, but the timing and focus of these remembrances is nothing less than morbid, with a sick tendency to linger upon the assassination of the man rather than the accomplishments of his life.
The retrospectives on Kennedy on the anniversary of his death have lent themselves to gross sensationalism. One television movie, Kennedy, starring Martin Sheen, used as a backdrop to its logo, a red, white, and blue banner splattered with blood Geraldo Rivera has joined the fray with another of his infamous television specials, "On Trial: Lee Harvey Oswald."
THIS fascination with death and tragedy has become a recent media trend. When the shuttle Challenger exploded in January of 1986, television reporters rushed to make comparisons with the Kennedy assasination.
The networks expected--and even advanced the idea--that the Challenger explosion would become the national tragedy for a generation of Americans. People, they said, would always remember where they were when the heard the news, just as they did when they heard the news from Dallas. Stations dragged out psychologists to instruct parents how to deal with their traumatized children. It seemed as though there was a desire for the national bonding that the Kennedy tragedy brought.
Not all the attention on Kennedy this week has been disappointing. But serious and responsible attempts to remember Kennedy for his struggles and achievements are far too few. They are lost in the shuffle of perverse conspiracy theories and films of the Kennedy autopsy that are the standard.
DURING a recent speech at the Kennedy School of Government, Senator Edward M. Kennedy '54-'56 lamented the timing of most commemorations of his brother: "The November 22 anniversary is coming up, and it's understandable that people who admired President Kennedy want to honor him then. But that date is always a sad occasion for our family. We want to remember my brother's death, not relive his death."
By remembering Kennedy on the day he was slain, rather than on the anniversary of his birth, his memory becomes jaundiced. No matter how much attention is paid to his achievements in public life, these accomplishments seem less significant when viewed in the ominous shadow of his assasination. It is like watching a play of his life with a chorus sitting in the rear of the stage whispering "if only he had lived, if only he had lived..." Unfortunately, Kennedy's death, now a national obsession, has become the most memorable accomplishment of his life.
THIS ghoulish fetish for reliving Kennedy's murder does more than distort how he is remembered, it affects the national self-image and willingness to deal with difficult, pressing problems.
Over the past few days countless commentators, political scientists and Kennedy associates have lamented that America lost something with Kennedy's death. They disagree on exactly what--some say innocence, others say hope and yet others say confidence. But all concede that the nation changed drastically in the years that followed Kennedy's death, and that his death is in large part responsible for those changes.
It is true that in the 25 years since the assasination, America has seen a fair share of disaster and dissapointment. The murders of Robert Kennedy '48 and Martin Luther King Jr shocked Americans by showing the nation's violent side. Faith in government was shattered by the successive blows of Vietnam, Watergate, the sour economy of the 1970s and the Iran-Contra scandal.
Nevertheless, the claim that America lost something with Kennedy's death serves as a convenient--and misleading--excuse for explaining why America has had problems in the past quarter century. It is a wonderful scapegoat for national leaders or policymakers unable to solve major problems, whether they be poverty, the deficit or international terrorism.
Americans do themselves a great disservice if they believe the notion that some "Golden Age" died in the streets of Dallas 25 years ago. Kennedy's own administration, for all its energy and romance, had setbacks and problems: the Bay of Pigs, increased involvement in Vietnam, tensions over civil rights and fear of nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. Pretending times were once simpler and leaders once bolder is a self-pitying attitude that shifts attention from modern problems to fuzzy, romantic nostalgia.
Kennedy was a man who grew from tragedy and adversity, and he would likely be dissappointed that his legacy has been so distorted by the preoccupation with his death. America retreated because of Kennedy's death, at a time when it should have grown. Rather than lamenting a President's murder, America should have gained confidence that the constitutional system endured during a time of utmost crisis.