Although much of what we’ve read or watched about John F. Kennedy this month is reverently cloaked in memories of his nobility and idealism, the fact remains that we are gathered here to fixate on his murder and the grief we still feel over it.
I say “we” in an empathetic and symbolic sense, because “I” was not alive when it happened. Neither were most Americans. There is still a faint tendency by our elders (who are getting more elder all the time) to disqualify the rest of us from both the conversations about and the feelings around Nov. 22, 1963. Mostly we listen — to the still-living newsmen (and a very few women) who broke the story that day; to anyone with a distinct eyewitness recollection (Secret Service agents, Parkland Hospital nurses, book depository employees, then-teenage girls who reached out for President Kennedy’s hand). We’ll listen to just about anyone who remembers the world stopping in its tracks.
I was born in 1968, and by the time I remember anything, it was all over. When it comes to the 1960s, I’ve watched the movies and TV shows and clips from the newscasts, all of which predate me; I’ve read the literature and cranked the old microfilm and memorized the songs and recognize the guitar riffs. This mountain of memory and evidence was foisted on my generation and those born after us, but we also ravenously consumed it, and consume it still. I’ve envied the look and feel of the 1960s, whether in old copies of Life magazine or in the shoe box that holds the white-bordered color snapshots of my happy parents and older siblings enjoying all that dappled light that seems to no longer exist. I’ve spent a lifetime getting there without being there, knocking on that door. May I come in?
Everybody still gets the ’60s because there is still so much of the ’60s to be gotten. You aren’t part of any conversation in modern popular or political culture without being able to fill in the basic timeline of the decade, and you aren’t anywhere without knowing that the cracks from Lee Oswald’s rifle are essentially the sound of the national narrative breaking in half.
My generation and every generation after it received a steady dose the ’60s beginning in 1970; even now, babies in car seats are lulled by the Beatles playlist. When it comes to other decades, we mostly make fun of them and play dress-up. We do that with the ’60s, too (when all its layers are peeled away, “Mad Men” is mainly a costume parade), but we also hold the ’60s in an entirely higher regard. The ’60s are irresistible to us in every category that matters — in leadership, movement, social awakenings, acts of rebellion; also in fashion, song and spirit. Collectively we bang on the door and tap on the glass. May we come in?
Still, there are a couple of things I don’t quite get, when it comes to the fixation on JFK: The endless and increasingly irrelevant search for answers that almost certainly cannot be found — the conspiracy theories, the ballistics arguments, the tendency to hunt under rocks that have been turned over hundreds of times — and the temptation to play games of “What if?” I’m particularly disinterested in that favorite fantasy of speculative history: What if Kennedy had lived? The question provides a chance to upend the board and pieces of a Trivial Pursuit game that has been in progress for decades. It’s an invitation to unimagine much of what happened after 1963, and it always seems to be conducted in the spirit of setting things right.
So I’m going to say something potentially terrible here on behalf of everyone under 50: We need for everything to happen precisely the way it happened.
In those gunshots you see and hear the literal death of a popular and complicated man and the symbolic death of the potential he represented. To have been an American on that day must have felt terrible; it must still feel terrible. But in those gunshots, which for most of us happen only in documentaries and dramatic reenactments, we see and hear the beginning of so much that forms us. We see and hear the hurtling toward the moon but also toward a montage reel of what we hold dear, culturally.
If we all get out Dealey Plaza clean, then what? America skips the ’60s?
In that horror, was there an opening of the gates — a liberation? If the shots don’t ring out, I have a hard time seeing the rest of the story: I don’t know precisely — in photos and words — what becomes of the civil rights struggle. I don’t know where or when the bra-burnings start. I don’t know if there is ever a Stonewall riot. I don’t know how “I Want to Hold Your Hand” so quickly gets to “Helter Skelter.” And from there, the narrative becomes less secure, like a science-fiction plot involving the disaster of paradox: Change a few seconds, and all of it changes. Where is the Reagan Revolution, where is MTV, where is the iPhone? Everything comes out looking different, including ourselves.
I assume the Kennedys, young and old, treat Nov. 22 as the anniversary of the horrible murder of a beloved family member, while the rest of us are simply working with footage and memory, lured into stories of scandal, betrayal, secrets plots and odd coincidences that surround this destroyed presidency. We are distracted by beauty, mystery, legend. We say that it was a damn shame and a national tragedy and that we wish it turned out differently.
But really we’re just being polite — because why mess with this American story after 1963 when it is such a fantastic and vital story? The ’60s became in that instant a burden to bear for five decades and counting; the ’60s are our standard to live up to and also down to. You can’t live with the ’60s and you can’t live without them. More than anything, you can’t live in them. You may want to, but you’ll always be born late.
Necessarily the convertible limo turns left on Elm.
Necessarily it slows.
Nothing gets started until this happens, and whether you are older than 50 or younger than 50, you can’t have it any other way. So our job is remembering. Our job is also, bit by bit and year by year, to let it go.