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Sharing in the Kennedy Mystique

By Timothy P. Yu

Today is the 30th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy '40. Expect to hear this question a lot today: Where were you when you heard?

What do you say if you weren't born yet?

The Kennedy assassination was one of those events that became a defining and unifying moment for a generation and a nation--something that only a great tragedy can do. For those who experienced it, the news of the assassination is etched into memory with the power of myth. Even today, the single word "Dallas" evokes a sense of despair: the twilight of our hopes and the beginning of 30 years of fear and decline.

Those of us born in the years after Kennedy's death are bound in a strange relationship to this piece of collective memory. We never felt the magic that our elders tell us flowed from this more-than president. We know little about who he was or the ideas for which he stood. Instead, we are handed Camelot on a platter.

And we believe it. A generation that has never known JFK helps to keep his cult alive. We embrace him as a symbol of an idealism that we never knew, of a time already a decade past by the time we were born.

In 1989, for example, a Chicago newspaper profiled valedictorians from area high schools. One of the questions asked of the graduates: Who are your heroes, past or present? Many of them picked their parents. But almost as many cited John F. Kennedy as a personal hero--almost inevitably paired with another martyr of the '60s, Martin Luther King Jr. Strong stuff for a generation supposedly without heroes.

Our generation has adopted Kennedy's voice as the ideal form of its own. Certainly no president--perhaps no person--is as extensively quoted on our public occasions. The words of Washington, Lincoln, or Franklin Roosevelt are rarely heard in our high-school valedictory addresses, but it's a good bet that more than a few concluded with a quote from Kennedy.

How is it that we have come to revere and identify with a man who led our country for less than three years? Kennedy enjoys a level of adulation not matched by that of any president, past or present. His charisma, confidence, and humor are often cited as striking characteristics by his contemporaries. Yet that barely seems enough to explain thirty years of deification.

Certainly we cannot be enraptured by Kennedy's accomplishments. In fact, many of the major policy initiatives attributed to Kennedy were not actually carried out until after his death. Franklin D. Roosevelt '04, who preceded Kennedy by only 15 years, was president for over three times as long; he presided over massive changes in the role of American government and in the body politic. But the Kennedy mystique still dwarfs his.

Quite simply, every aspect of the Kennedy era--which in our collective memories, probably includes all the good times of both the '50s and '60s--has been presented to our generation as idyllic to an extent that is beyond our comprehension. In a recent piece in Time, Richard Reeves waxed eloquent: "John Kennedy was a surpassing cultural figure--and artist, like Picasso, who changed the way people looked at things."

To us, this seems like particularly blatant bit of hyperbole. We cannot imagine portraying any present public figure in such a star-struck manner. All the talk of President Clinton's winning personality notwithstanding, any columnist who tried to describe him as "an artist...[who] painted with words and images and other people's lives" would be laughed off the editorial page.

Yet when referring to Kennedy, such metaphors are presented as fact, without a trace of irony. This idea that things really were once this way is all the more tantalizing because we cannot conceive of such a world.

Since our generation never experienced the Kennedy phenomenon, we have had to remake it in our own image, appropriating it for our own purposes. We tend to see Kennedy's reign as a time when anything was possible: when things got done, and people were willing to do them.

We truly believe that simply by speaking the words, "Ask what you can do for your country," Kennedy made them true. Those supposed days of optimism and hope have become a rallying point for our generation's crusades.

Yet they have also become a source of disappointment. When we compare the division and cynicism of our own time to the rosy glow of the Kennedy years, the present inevitably comes up short. Unsurprising, since our Kennedy is not built upon reality, but upon the hopes of a generation that never knew him.

During the 1988 presidential campaign, Lloyd Bentsen skewered Dan Quayle with the line: "You're no Jack Kennedy." But there was a deeper point: no one today is a Jack Kennedy. The strained Clinton-Kennedy comparisons show our yearning for that ideal. We would like to see the photograph of a young Clinton shaking Kennedy's hand as a passing of the torch; perhaps some of that ineffable magic rubbed off.

Clinton will, of course, be unequal to the task. The assassination left Kennedy frozen in time, immune to criticism and free of the slow decline that awaits any politician in retirement. He lives on in a heroic legend that no later stories of his personal shortcomings can dent; it is an outline that even John F. Kennedy himself, were he alive today, could not fill.

The current conspiracy mania surrounding the assassination reflects all of these factors. For young people, it may be the only way to get a piece of the Kennedy action. Since we were not around to prevent his death, perhaps we can set it right by discovering who really did it. But it is also an indication of our desire to see Kennedy's death in epic terms: a battle between the forces of good and evil, in which the evil has yet to be unveiled.

Kennedy's assassination became a flash-point in American history. Our parents share our belief that American society has been in steady decline since the '60s: more violent, less prosperous, less hopeful. We do not know what forces have driven our society to the brink; we fear that we could not control them even if we did. Kennedy's bloody death is a focus for our fears, less reality than metaphor: our shining future silenced by gunfire.

It no longer matters whether the Kennedy myth is true. We don't really care what kind of president he was; we don't want to know the secrets of his personal life. The legend has become our own, an ideal toward which the present can only aspire. Thirty years after his death, JFK haunts us all--the last apparition of a past that was never ours.

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