November 21, 2013

Please. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

There’s an old American folk legend of a sailor named Alfred Bulltop Stormalong, who wanted to give up the sea-faring life. “Put your oar on your shoulder,” they told him, “and walk inland until someone asks you what it is. Settle there.”*

I would like to try this with the anniversary of the JFK assassination, but I don’t think I’d ever find a place to stop. “Hey,” I would say, from town to town, brandishing my copy of the newspaper, “did you hear what’s coming up on Friday?”

“Yes,” everyone will respond, in unison. “Yes, I have seen eight documentaries about it already.”

Who is the beneficiary of all this news coverage? Is there someone sitting there in curlers, watching her eighth hour of JFK commemoration in unmitigated glee? “Okay,” she is saying, dabbing her eyes with some Kleenex, “that was pretty good, but I’d like to hear from another person who saw exactly the same thing and had an identical response.” What happened to the media’s slavish devotion to the 18-49 demographic, which by definition DOES NOT REMEMBER this event at all?

ENOUGH!
ENOUGH!
ENOUGH!

I’m sorry. I mean no disrespect to Camelot. It is one of my favorite musicals/administrations, other than Pippin. I mean no disrespect to JFK, or to Jackie, or to Rob Lowe as JFK or to Bill O’Reilly’s best-selling account “Killing Kennedy” or — to anyone, really. I mean this in the most delicate, respectful way possible when I say that if I hear one more word about this, I am going to run screaming off into the wilderness and live there forever as a recluse, gnawing on pieces of rusted metal and hissing at anyone who comes too close.

I mean no disrespect to the people who were there, the people who heard, the people who remember it, the people who don’t remember it but for some reason are on TV talking about it anyway, the famous people who weren’t there but Felt Something About It, the ordinary people who were there, the people who didn’t have phones and found out at the store or the people who were teachers or the people who were students or the people who — look, there were a lot of people alive then, and it is with the utmost respect for all their memories that I say — surely, surely we do not need ALL of this.

Conventional wisdom in the news business states that anything you can see coming will be over-covered. And we’ve seen this one coming for 50 years.

Everywhere you look there’s Too Much Coverage. The Post has published more than 50 pieces on it — 50! — in the PAST 4 DAYS. 50! in 4 days! And that’s not including the one I wrote myself. There are breaking news stories that haven’t merited so much.

On TV, you change the channel from “JFK: The Lost Tapes” to find “The Lost Kennedy Home Movies” to find “The Assassination of President Kennedy” to find “The Kennedy Assassination: 24 Hours After.” And that was just Thursday night! The weekend of the actual anniversary, with Rob Lowe as JFK in “Killing Kennedy,” hasn’t even begun.

I am not a media critic. I just sit next to one. I’m just a girl, standing in front of a newspaper or a TV set, begging them to Stop Commemorating This So Vigorously.

This is becoming the Christmas of news stories — it comes roaring in weeks before you were ready, mounts and mounts in intensity until you can no longer stand it, and then when the actual day of commemoration arrives, you just want it to go away. And that’s not right. It mattered. And within this attacking forest of over-coverage, there are many goodly trees. Talented writers and people with interesting stories to tell are in this marching grove. It’s worth remembering. But to this extent?

As the orgy of commemoration mounts up, it starts to wear on the uninitiated, especially those of us who weren’t around 50 years ago. Here are reflections from someone who stood behind the motorcade. Here are reflections from someone who stood behind the motorcade but a little bit to the left. Here are reflections from someone who stood behind the motorcade holding a camera.

“Everyone remembers where they were when they got the news,” is a sentence that you see over and over and over. Sondheim even wrote a song about it — “Something Just Broke” in “Assassins.” It was a big moment. I respect that.

That being said — please. Curb your commemorative enthusiasm.

I am probably just saying this because I am a jaded millennial, sick of being held hostage by Things The Boomers Remembered — from Boomer Holiday Songs (piped straight out to you, every Christmas without fail, from Nostalgic Recollections of Boomer Childhood) to Boomer Musical Milestones (my God, how is there still MORE recently unearthed footage of the Beatles for you to market at the holidays? Is there a magical goose somewhere laying Undiscovered Beatles Footage?) even to the Boomer Cultural Icons I actually like (Monty Python Reunion, hooray!). I realize that, for you, this was the Big Event That Hit When You Were Young Enough To Be Stunned But Old Enough To Remember It Forever, the one that made you feel there was nothing that couldn’t be broken. It was what 9/11 was for us. I don’t disrespect that. I have not spent the past 12 years reading my peers’ annual retrospective Facebook posts to suddenly deny the need for catharsis when a big anniversary comes.

Culturally, being a millennial often feels like being punished for a crime you are not sure you committed. You never have the remote. “I want to watch this,” you say. “Be quiet,” the person with the clicker says, “I have to take in 396 JFK retrospectives this month or Something Terrible Will Happen. And one Michael Jackson tribute, just to keep my hand in.”

But there’s just too much. At a certain point, in my case, hour 48 with 77 left to go, you lose the commemorative spirit and just want it to go away.

Maybe this is where we are trending. In the future there will be no news. In the future all news will be Retrospectives and Commemorations of the Days when there was news. The future will be horrible, and I will live in the desert on the top of a pillar. No one will visit me, because they will be too engrossed by Startling Revelations About Diana’s “Badgeman” Bodyguard. But I will be happy, because I will never have to spend three weeks wading through an ever-thickening tide of JFK Assassination Retrospectives ever again.

I just wish I didn’t have to go that far.

*Yes, I know this is also part of the Odysseus legend. Legends tend to reuse material.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.