With JFK, boomers strive to keep history alive
They may be getting older, but baby boomers are not ready to pass the torch to a new generation when it comes to setting the national media agenda.
Exhibit A: the consuming attention surrounding the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy.
Boomers will never forget where they were on Nov. 22, 1963, which means the nation is awash in books, articles, tributes and television specials marking the 50th anniversary of an event that three out of four Americans cannot remember.
In point of fact, most Americans were either not yet born or too young to recall the day JFK took a fatal bullet in Dallas. Nobody is denying that his death shocked the world and became the touchstone for the generation born in the aftermath of World War II.
Still, times change: What was the defining comingof-age political moment for many older Americans is increasingly distant history for the generations that followed. In chronological terms, the Kennedy assassination is closer in time to the outbreak of World War I than it is to today. For most Americans, the Kennedy assassination might as well be the McKinley assassination in terms of its relevance. Their historic marker, the date they can’t forget, is Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists flew passenger jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
How many people younger than 40 can identify the following: Camelot? The 1,000 days? The Warren Report? The grassy knoll? There was a time when everyone knew these terms. Now, for many, they are firmly in the history books.
“It’s certainly a bigger deal for people who lived through it. That was the whole touchstone for an entire generation. Everyone knows where they were when it happened,” said Seth Masket, a professor of political science at the University of Denver.
Of course, Mr. Masket doesn’t remember where he was because, like most other Americans, he wasn’t around.
“It’s a piece of history for most people, instead of a piece of their lives,” Mr. Masket said.
Russ Smith, editor of Splice Today and himself a boomer, predicted in a recent Web posting that “most [JFK] books bomb, mostly because for most Americans those tumultuous days in 1963 are ancient history.”
“Kennedy’s assassination might as well have occurred in the 19th century. Save for ascending and budding historians, where’s the audience for yet another encore of Camelot?” said Mr. Smith. “Lee Harvey Oswald? Who dat? Same with Jack Ruby, Jim Garrison, Barry Goldwater, ‘the best and the brightest,’ and even LBJ.”
Here is a bracing test for boomers: Ask a few teenagers what Nov. 22 means to them. Nine out of 10 will tell you that’s the release date for the movie “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”
Ouch. Still, it’s impossible to convince boomers that they are not the center of the universe. Just as they didn’t listen to their parents, boomers have developed a case of selective hearing when it comes to their children and grandchildren.
In many ways, the Kennedy assassination signaled the beginning of the 1960s, a decade marked by epic turmoil and social unrest during the boomers’ formative years.
The 2010s appear destined to become the “anniversary decade” in which younger generations of Americans are prodded to pay proper tribute to the great and terrible ’60s. Expect 50-year commemorations for events including the following: the Beatles take America (February 1964); the subsequent British music invasion; the Tet Offensive (Jan. 31, 1968); the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (April 4, 1968); the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy (June 6, 1968); the moon landing (July 20, 1969); and Woodstock (Aug. 15-18, 1969).
Some of these truly resonate with enormous historic significance, but by the time 2019 rolls around, Americans are likely to find themselves suffering from a bad case of anniversary fatigue.
More than anything else, the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination is a chance for members of our largest and most influential generation to reminisce about a time when they were young and anything seemed possible, about a tragedy that defined their generation, and about the societal upheaval that was soon to follow.
The divide has started showing up in popular opinion polls as well.
A 2008 Gallup poll found a pronounced divide between the young and not-so-young on a ranking of America’s greatest presidents.
The survey found that 32 percent of respondents ages 50 to 64 rated Kennedy as the top former president they would like to see come back to lead the country, compared with 22 percent of those 18 to 29. The top choice of those in between was Ronald Reagan, with 30 percent of the vote.
Nostalgia, the Gallup pollsters concluded, “appears to play a modest role in Americans’ choice of past presidents to serve the country today.”
The periodic displays of Kennedy obsession in the media have sparked earlier backlashes. Writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer in the days after the July 1999 plane crash that took the life of John F. Kennedy Jr., Generation X computer specialist Rich Hampton wrote:
“Being born after JFK’s assassination, I acknowledge that I can’t possibly understand the significance of the president’s son to the American public of 1963.”
He added, “I suggest, however, that the only nonKennedys emotionally shaken by his death are folks in their 40s or older; people old enough to have become TV anchors, newspaper editors and politicians. They may truly believe that JFK Jr. is the closest person we have in America to a Prince, but for those of us in our early 30s and under (the majority of the American public), such romantic, melodramatic statements can only perplex us.”
In point of fact, most Americans were either not yet born or too young to recall the day JFK took a fatal bullet in Dallas.