With JFK, boomers strive to keep his­tory alive

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY VALERIE RICHARD­SON

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.

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