(7 December 2006)
JFK died on a hot Friday afternoon. The Friday before Thanksgiving. He met with supporters in the rain that morning and shook hands. He teased that it took his wife longer to get ready than most people, but then she always looked better. He had specifically asked her to wear the pink Chanel suit so she’d show up the hoity-toity, new-monied Dallas dames. He joked at a pancake breakfast that no one cared what he or Lyndon Johnson wore. That the only person anyone wanted to see was Jackie.
It was ridiculously sunny and Jackie kept slipping on her sunglasses, much to JFK’s annoyance. The last words he said to her: Jackie, take off the glasses. Then, either a bunch of conspiring, cross-dressing, homosexual loons rocking some unforgiveably bad hair killed the President (if you believe Oliver Stone) or Lee Harvey Oswald leaned out the window of the School Book Depository and made three good, not implausibly lucky, shots.
John Kennedy died on November 22, 1963. We all know that, but we forget how huge it was. Because now, it really isn’t that huge. In retrospect, we know JFK died and we know the country endured. And knowing that, the death of JFK seems less cataclysmic than it did the day after.
It seems less cataclysmic now because the most shocking result of his death— the way it was heralded to the world through continuous media coverage—has become routine. We’ve been subjected to 24-hour news all our lives. We’re used to stories that unfold all day long, for days on end.
Remember 9/11? Unless you’re under the age of five, undoubtedly you do. For three weeks after 9/11, VH1 and MTV played mournful music non-stop. There were no commercials. Only hours and hours of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” and U2’s “One.” And the occasional screening of a video hastily assembled by the group Live, which featured Ground Zero coverage and seemed anathema to the healing process the melancholy music video barrage was supposed to foster. I thought this was beyond bizarre, but I couldn’t tear myself away, simply because it was so novel. In my lifetime, there had never been a tragedy so great that even the music video channels could not go on. For the first time, I got a sense of that weekend in November 1963.
JFK had personified the dreams of an entire generation and his murder was unilaterally stunning. It was a national nightmare. He won the presidency by one percent of one percentage point, yet after his death, 78% of Americans would claim to have voted for him. But it wasn’t the violence of his death so much as the media’s coverage of it that became JFK’s lasting legacy.
There was no 24-hour news in 1963. News programming ran on the networks in the morning, at noon, and in the evening at six and ten. But when JFK was killed, the networks interrupted the soaps and ran breaking news non-stop. For four days.
This had never happened. It was shocking.
It was the first time in history when people watched a major news event unfolding live on television. The first time they watched television even though nothing new was unfolding. Even though they were just watching the same tape they’d seen twenty times in the hour before. People stopped on the street, in the stores, in their homes and they watched.
The assassination was televised. While the Zapruder film was not shown in its entirety until the mid-1970s, within days it was filtering through the media (with the most graphic frames, in which the President’s head literally shatters, edited out). There was no shortage of footage of JFK arriving in Dallas and riding in the motorcade. His final moments played again and again, the President blithely off to meet his murderer.
The post-assassination information trickled into the media with astonishing haste. UPI reporters in the President’s motorcade began filing their reports over police radios as the motorcade sped toward Parkland Hospital. The photographer who took the famous picture of a bloodstained Jaqueline Kennedy standing alongside Lyndon Johnson as he took the Oath of Office aboard Air Force One had the photograph in the hands of television producers by the time Jacqueline Kennedy had landed at Andrews Air Force Base. There, viewers saw the former First Lady for themselves, her skirt and stockings and shoes still caked in the President’s blood. In her grief, she blamed all Americans. “Let them see what they have done,” she said.
They saw it all.
They saw Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald as he was being transferred from the Dallas jail. They saw the murderer of their President murdered on live television fifteen minutes before they watched the cataflaque carrying the President’s coffin begin its journey to the Capitol Rotunda. The entirety of Monday was devoted to JFK’s funeral service and burial. In between official events, the networks continually ran retrospectives of the President’s life, interviews with the mourners who lined the streets of the cortege route, and reports gauging the international mood. The entire world had stood still and was watching.
We now take for granted our inclusion in the private dramas of public figures, but that was not the case in November 1963. The public did not expect to be so thoroughly included, but when given the opportunity, they remained glued to their television sets to be sure they saw everything. Ironically, it was Jacqueline Kennedy, the most private of celebrities, who insisted that they must see what had been done so they might know what they had lost.
Due to the drama of having news presented for days on end, those who watched would never forget the death of the President, the passage of power, the state funeral, the international grief. It would be crass to brand this as entertainment, but to some degree it was. People did not leave their homes for four days. The networks scored topshelf ratings.
We’re accustomed to this now. We watch the news as it’s breaking, cry a little, and wash the dishes. It seldom stops us in our tracks. Very rarely does the news change the way in which we interact with the media. But the coverage in the wake of JFK’s death did just that.
There is nothing new about tragedy. The only modern twist is the manner in which it is transmitted. For it is in times of great tragedy, when we are drawn into the global experience through grief or horror or shame, that we come closest to being there.When Abraham Lincoln died, it took weeks— in some cases months— for word to spread across the country. Within a minute of President Kennedy’s assassination, a UPI reporter had seized the police radio and the entire world knew what was happening.
The news is so often a bombardment of greed, stupidity, and small personal disasters that legitimate tragedy on a grand scale is the only thing that really hits us. It blows in out of nowhere and knocks us off our feet and it changes the way we think. To an extent, JFK’s greatest legacy is the way in which he was memorialized on television: the riderless horse, the sound of the drums, JFK Jr.’s salute, the eternal flame. A man whose reign barely eclipsed 1,000 days, the fallen leader was swathed in media-created mythology in less than a fortnight. And, in the end, it is the myth that we will never forget.