Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and America’s illusion of Camelot was shattered.
Of course, this anniversary isn’t a surprise to anyone who pays attention to some form of news. The recent media coverage on it has been extensive — weeks of segments on NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams, specials by Tom Brokaw and Bob Schiefer (both journalists who covered the story when it actually happened), PBS’ two-part retrospective, that made-for-TV-movie starring Rob Lowe, etc. — may seem relatively excessive. I mean, no one ever seemed to make a big deal out of McKinley’s assassination (in part because that 100th anniversary fell three days after 9-11, but mostly because he was such a yawn-inducing leader that he was listed as one of Time‘s 10 Most Forgettable Presidents.).
The reason the Kennedy assassination gets so much attention, however, is that it marked the end of American innocence. The beauty of growing up with older parents is that you get to hear first-hand accounts of what life was like in the 1960s and ’70s — you know, when Mad Men was reality rather than entertainment. Somewhere between the stories of my mom’s cousins Fran and Stan Baker introducing her to peppermint ice cream and hot fudge after her dad’s funeral and my dad’s Aunt Margaret “Mockie” Broderick working at the State Street Marshall Fields and buying him the toy fire engine that’s still in our basement, they imparted on me their own experiences regarding national events. JFK’s assassination was one of them.
My dad was in seventh grade when the announcement came over the main speakers. “I do remember getting in trouble afterward,” my dad says. The kid in front of him was messing around, and my dad got tired of it at precisely the wrong time. “Like in football, the guy who starts doesn’t get in trouble but the guy who hits back does,” my dad says, Sister Mary Ernestine scolded him that it wasn’t the right time for messing around. “I agreed,” he says. “That’s why I was trying to get him to stop.”
My mom was in first grade and rehearsing the Thanksgiving pageant in the auditorium (she had one line: “They may stay for three weeks”). While they were taking a break at the water fountain, the teachers started talking in hushed tones and corralled the students back to the auditorium, where they told them that the president was dead and they would be getting out of school early that day. Mom wrote in an email:
“I remember walking out to the bus and the big kids saying that there was a war now. I also remember the weird combination a loud silence. There was a lot of talking and arguing, but it was insulated by an echo of silence. It was kind of like there was a wall between me and the noise. I heard it, but I had to strain to understand what they were saying.”
Leading voices in the media have presented these same kinds of stories, only from a closer-to-the-event perspective. Tom Brokaw was working in Omaha as a novice reporter and wrote a blog post for NBC detailing his confusion at being a young journalist handed one of the biggest news stories of the century. Bob Schieffer discussed his experience covering the event in Dallas (and eventually giving Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother a ride) in an article for AARP Magazine.
All of this coverage can sometimes feel excessive, seeing as it started weeks ago. A more skeptical person could look at it as the Christmas Season of Nostalgia — starts way too early and lasts way too long until the actual day feels more of a finish line than an event in itself. I think a lot of people in my generation have turned the coverage to white noise, having little connection to the assassination other than stories their parents and grandparents have told them. But the Kennedy assassination wasn’t just one day in the lives of 1960s Americans. It was the beginning of a shift in our cultural attitude and journalistic practices.
The Kennedys were the first presidential family that Americans shared through their TV sets — they were stylish celebrities that inspired households to function more fashionably after the ’50s had been a time of TV dinners and two old fogey First Families.
Seeing the fairy tale Camelot era end with a bullet rather than an election was the last thing anyone expected or could understand. The country’s “it could never happen” attitude disintegrated, and the population started preparing for the turmoil of anti-war and anti-establishment protest that lay ahead.
Journalism was changed by the Kennedy assassination, too. Schieffer writes, “for the first time in the history of the country, the entire nation focused on one story and watched it unfold live on television.” When Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby, it was on live television — the last inkling of innocence was wiped from the broadcast community and from that day on live news broadcasts were staggered in case anything like that should happen again.
Which it did.
Almost 40 years after JFK’s death, Americans crowded around the TV screen again, this time on a September morning, to witness a country-changing event. The live broadcast of the planes hitting the World Trade Center was staggered, yes, but the event was nonetheless traumatic for everyone watching. Brokaw says in his NBC post of JFK’s death, “Ask anyone who was over, say, the age of three at the time and they remember.” The same goes for 9-11; even my sister, who was five at the time, has memory of that Tuesday.
In 38 years, we’ll be running the same — if not bigger — kind of coverage on the terrorist attacks. Unless there’s an immortality serum somewhere out there, Bob Schieffer and Tom Brokaw will probably not be able to give their perspectives, but I can imagine Brian Williams, Richard Engel, Diane Sawyer and a score of journalist we may not know today but will by then will supply their “where were you?” stories. I hope to be one of them.
That’s why this month’s coverage of the JFK assassination anniversary is so important; this is the first time that we have commemorated a major event’s 50th anniversary with the type of media and audience we have today. There are more “50ths” in the future (February marks half a century since the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan show and 2018 will have the 50th anniversary of both Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King’s deaths). The way the media has handled the JFK anniversary — similar to the way it handled the actual event in 1963 — has set a precedent for how to approach covering a half-century’s time since a major event.
Readers: feel free to leave a comment describing where you were when you heard about JFK’s death and any insights you feel like sharing!