When You're Through Feeling Sorry for Yourself, Feel Sorry for James Wolcott, Who Practically Lost a Father When JFK Was Killed.


Russ Smith of the great site Splice Today directs our attention to a wheezy James Wolcott essay in Vanity Fair. Wolcott provides a lengthy list of the many books about the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination that will soon be clogging Amazon's web pages.

Here Smith's take:

It's a surprisingly tame essay from Wolcott, who even in his early dotage still possesses the artful nastiness that's long disappeared from his peers' arsenal. I guess it's because Wolcott was a genuine JFK fan, and just as the BBC satireThat Was the Week That Was suspended its usual format the week Kennedy was killed, some historical events are sacred even for a delightful crank like Wolcott. How else to explain the following gooey reminiscence? He writes: "For kids my age, it was like losing a father, a father who had all our motley fates in his hands. (During the Cuban missile crisis, of 1962, a lot of us grade-schoolers thought we might be goners, our Twilight Zone atomic nightmares about to come true.)"

I'm a few years younger than Wolcott, but of course remember the day well, and yet I find his definitive, speaking-for-a-generation tone both offensive and wrong. One, as shocking as Kennedy's murder was, it wasn't "like losing a father," and to suggest so is an affront to all the children who actually did lose their own father at a tender age. Two, in comparison to the national mayhem later in the 1960s—riots, demonstrations, Vietnam body bags, the shootings of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, college students seizing buildings—that day in '63, at the time, seemed like an aberration. Sure, it was an almost week-long continuous newsreel on TV, but for "grade-schoolers" it was soon back to life as usual, with Christmas coming up and then a few months later the Beatles-led British Invasion turning the culture on its head. Despite Kennedy's youth (for a president), wit, good looks, stunning wife, money and "charisma," he was born in 1917, and very much a man of the World War II era. Had he lived, it's likely he'd have had almost no comprehension of the emerging Pepsi Generation—until, like civil rights, it was explained to him.

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As someone born a few months before JFK was killed, I can't pretend to have an emotional connection to the experience. But as someone who has kept up with the deluge of books that appear every fall, I must say the corpse is getting pretty bare. With the exception of leading-edge boomers—for whom remembering JFK is typically an exercise in open nostalgia—is there any interest in combing through Camelot like it's the ruins of a once-great civilization?

I'm happy to have been raised in an age when no one is any longer under illusions about the country's ruling class, the means to which the worst of them resort to gain power, and the elaborate Potemkin lives they stage. It's a better world all around than constantly having to check your bullshit detector at the door everytime you start to swoon for the giants of your youth.