John F. Kennedy

The Baby Boomers' JFK Fixation

Camelot nostalgia and assassination obsession as a form of generational arrogance.

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This story first appeared at The Daily Beast on November 6, 2013. Click here to read that version.

If there's one November tradition less digestible and more shart-inducing than Thanksgiving dinner (sorry, Mom!), it's the seasonal and ritualized fixation over the assassination and broad legacy of John F. Kennedy.

Each fall since November 22, 1963, regular programming is pre-empted and whole rainforests are clear-cut to bring us books filled with the latest minor (and often delusional) variations on who killed Kennedy and why; the supposedly transformative effect of the "Camelot" years on contemporary geo-politics and, more plausibly, the hat-wearing habits of the American male; and counterfactuals about just how awesome—or awful—JFK's second term would have been.

Whatever emotional immediacy, contemporary relevance, and news value this all once inarguably possessed, can we now admit that the topic has grown thinner than the post-1963 resume of Kennedy impersonator Vaughn Meader? It now lives on mostly as a sort ofrepetition-compulsion disorder through which the baby boom generation (born between 1946 and 1964) seeks to preserve its stultifying cultural hegemony even as it slowly—finally!—begins to exit the stage of American life on a fleet of taxpayer-funded Rascal Scooters. (Full disclosure: As someone born in 1963, I am at the very tail end of the baby boom.)

Among the three-dozen-plus books published in this, the 50th year after the assassination, are two volumes titled November 22, 1963, one devoted to the 39-hour life of Patrick Kennedy, and Jesse Ventura's They Killed Our President: 63 Reasons to Believe There Was a Conspiracy to Assassinate JFK. (What is it that Barack Obama's former preacher, Jeremiah Wright, likes to say?: "God bless America? God damn America!")

There are new novels about the event; a fully enjoyable, if equally unpersuasive, "case against LBJ" as murderer-in-chief; and a breathless expose by prominent Obama-birther Jerome Corsi promising "stunning new revelations about the JFK assassination" (to help readers avoid his books and concisely signal the crazy, Corsi graciously affixes Ph.D. to his byline).

The big, broad, deep lessons of the Kennedy saga have been duly taught, if routinely forgotten when it serves our fleeting partisan purposes. Among them: that history is a series of strange and often ugly contingencies, good-and-bad-faith mistakes, and wanton acts of evil, insanity, or a mixture of both; that our leaders—especially the ones with whom we fall in love—often lie, cheat, and obfuscate their way to power, which they then routinely abuse; and that governments cannot and should not be trusted, especially when they claim to speak the truth. "Trust but verify"—Ronald Reagan's wise dictate toward Soviet compliance on disarmament—is equally true when applied to our government, media, and power elite.

Americans knew all of this even before Kennedy became president and was gunned down not by a generalized atmosphere of right-wing "hate" (as Frank Rich would have it) but by a self-declared Marxist-Leninist who had defected to the USSR (Peter Savodnik's new The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union is a real addition to the Kennedyania published over the past half-century). And if we as a nation refused to grok fully the dark side of power prior to JFK's assassination, everybody got it by the time the Warren Commission report and the Pentagon Papers came out, Dion scored his last huge hit with "Abraham, Martin and John," Teddy Kennedy strategically donned a neck brace, and Dick Nixon flew off to San Clemente.

Indeed, by the early 1970s, what American over or under 30 didn't agree with the sentiments expressed in a 1971 New York Times Magazine story on youth politics co-authored by Louis Rossetto, the future cofounder of Wired magazine? "John F. Kennedy, one of the leading reactionaries of the sixties, is remembered for his famous line, 'Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,'" seethed Rossetto and Stan Lehr. "Today, more and more young people are instead following the advice of [author] David Friedman: 'Ask not what government can do for you… ask rather what government is doing to you.'"

But boomers were so much older then, they're younger than that now, right? Despite the raft of revelations not just about governmental abuses of power generally but those involving JFK specifically, boomers just can't quit him (or their airbrushed image of him) as their own mortality comes into focus. Here's Vanity Fair's James Wolcott, known for an "artful nastiness that's long disappeared from his peers' arsenal," still going weak in the knees for Jack:

I remember the light at the end of the school hallway reflecting off the floor as word went round and the weight in the air the days after. For kids my age, it was like losing a father, a father who had all of our motley fates in his hands…

As Splice Today's Russ Smith—himself a boomer old enough to remember where he was when Kennedy was shot—notes, this is pure overstatement: "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." Smith, who as the founder of the Baltimore and Washington City Papers andThe New York Press knows a thing or two about reader appetites, is "betting that most of these 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?"

That's something that Wolcott simply can't or won't conceive. The deluge of books is "too much and it's not enough," he huffs and puffs. "It will never be enough. Readers will never be sated, because too many hidden dimensions and murky links remain, an atticful of unanswered (and unanswerable) questions, hints of the possible future of which we were robbed. History left us hanging."

Even though I am technically a boomer, I'm left asking, "Who's us, kemo sabe?" If the past 50 years has been being robbed, all future generations should have it so good.

In such moments, the baby boomer's deeply engrained generational arrogance and solipsism is made clear. Since they were born, they were told—and came to believe—that the world existed always and only for them (remember when Steven Speilberg, in promoting Saving Private Ryan, declared that World War II's deepest meaning somehow involved a generation not yet born: "It was as simple as this: The century was either going to produce the baby boomers or it was not going to produce the baby boomers"?). Their obsessions, their memories, their hopes and dreams and fears are everybody else's.

But after 50 years, here's hoping that particular fever is breaking. Not because Kennedy's assassination wasn't a horrible event or because questions around it and the world in which it took place still linger, but because no generation should monopolize the past, present, and future to the extent the boomers have tried. At the very least, we owe our literal and figurative children the breathing space to get on with their lives as free of their parents' shadow as possible.

This story first appeared at The Daily Beast on November 6, 2013. Click here to read that version.

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  1. I’m feeling a bit of deja vu here. It’s like I’ve read this article before.
    I say I’m feeling a bit of deja vu here. It’s like I’ve read this article before.
    I wonder if they’ll run this article again
    And then several times more

  2. Meh. As much as people love to collectively fault generations, it’s a stupid and foolish exercise. Not every boomer is a self-involved asshole, just like not every millennial is an infantilized child, and not every Gen X’er is a slacker.

    1. not every Gen X’er is a slacker

      Not sure if serious.

    2. So, I’m listening to this old couple in the hospital. The man tells the woman about an article he’s reading about children as young as 2 years old using iPads and iPhones. She says that it’s all she sees: kids with devices, and that they don’t use their brains anymore. She then turns back and resumes watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire on the TV.

      “This is one if your shows, isn’t it?” he says.

      “Uh-huh,” she says.

      1. Do you just go hanging around hospitals trying to listen in on the ramblings of geriatric Alzheimers patients and their retarded spouses?

        You’re OK, kid.

        1. Do you just go hanging around hospitals trying to listen in on the ramblings of geriatric Alzheimers patients and their retarded spouses?

          I would have thought that was more of a Warty thing….you know…for the socialization!

      2. Yeah, this. My dad can sit and stare at a TV screen for hours at a time without moving. At least iPads and cellphones are somewhat interactive.

        1. It was much better back in the old days–when your only sources of information were your local newspaper, and three networks, who were all covering the exact same stories.

          I was trying to explain to this chick in her 20s the other day about how not so long ago, you couldn’t get the New York Times unless you were in New York. It was kind of mind blower for her.

          I will say this: being knowledgeable used to be a lot more important than it is now. It wasn’t just that you could converse on more subjects; it was also that you couldn’t fact check people very easily.

          Nowadays, if somebody’s full of shit, anybody can pull it up on their phone and see. Even just 20 years ago, it who was right was more a function of who in the room had the most authority. The average person in their 60s or 70s today is just living in a world with different rules.

      3. “The man tells the woman about an article he’s reading about children as young as 2 years old using iPads and iPhones.”

        They’re probably sick of their grandchildren fact checking their asses.

  3. This boomers fixation had to do with getting that Monday off school.
    Pretty sure other people died that weekend, and more than likely some who added to humanity’s value rather than sucked it off.

    1. Pretty sure other people died that weekend

      C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley both also died on November 22, 1963.

      1. November 22, 1963 – two great men died!

      2. Funny how these things work. I saved a newspaper from the Apollo 11 moon landing. Tucked into the bottom of page 1 is the first two paragraphs of a short article about Teddy Kennedy driving his car off a bridge and abandoning his fille d’une nuit to drown.

        1. Teddy really had to get home to watch Neil and Buzz step on the Moon. It was the Breaking Bad finale of its time.

        2. I saw a similar front page at a space museum.

          If he’d been “dry, sober and home with his wife,” he’d have given a front-page interview on His Brother’s Legacy, then he would have been elected President.

          1. Remember the gag VW print ad that caused a controversy a few decades back? It showed a Beetle floating in a river next to a bridge, with the headline, “If Teddy Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be president today.” Got Nat Lamp sued, if memory serves.

            1. Someone posted on the www, the picture of the fake VW print ad
              http://www.flickr.com/photos/starycat/3473567771/

              And that video exterpted from the movie “Repossesed” seem prophetic today.
              http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOTcuUVrdt0

        3. March 22, 2002 was a bad day for humanity.

          Uncle Miltie, Dudley Moore and Billy Wilder all taken on the same day.

    2. The Detroit Lions died.

      November 22, 1963, William Clay Ford bought the Lions. They have won exactly one playoff game in the fifty years since.

      1. It’ll be ok.

  4. This is cold comfort to me as I attempt to digitize the front page of our newspaper for that day from from exceeding shoddy microfilm.

    1. I remember that National Lampoon issue in the picture quite well — it was based on the idea of what would have happened if JFK hadn’t been shot. Pretty much, 22A gets repealed, and JFK stays on as Prez indefinitely. Everybody loves the President. Even all the music is about him.

      The faux Billboard Hot 100 from the issue was particularly funny — the hit single I remember the best was the Doobie Bros song “Jesus is Just Alright, but JFK is A-OK”

  5. If Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated, there was at least the possibility that he would have lost to Goldwater, sparing us the LBJ presidency.

    1. I doubt Goldwater could have won, but JFK and Barry were buddies and perhaps the campaign would have been a contest of ideas and not the sh*t LBJ’s campaign engaged in.

      1. ^^
        This.

        There was probably more in common between JFK and Goldwater than what could’ve been between LBJ and common human decency.

        1. JFK certainly wouldn’t have had Bill Moyers on his staff getting the Daisy Ad broadcast.

  6. My parents were in high school when Kennedy got his brains blown out. And they’re what I’d call “Progressive Republicans”. And they don’t give a flying fuck about Kennedy or any of his crooked clan any more than they do Warren G Harding.*

    *Actually, they may care more about Harding since he was a Buckeye. But they’ve never really discussed either of them.

  7. I don’t know how everyone can go on and on about JFK when LOU REED IS DEAD.

    LOU REED! DEAD!

    1. Wait, Lou Reed died?! WHY DIDN’T I READ ANYTHIGN ABOUT THAT!!!

    2. I thought he died in the ’90s.

  8. The reaction to this piece by the Lew Rockwell people is still hilarious.

    A piece called over there called, “Reason Magazine’s Despicable Nick Gillespie”? Gillespie should wear that like a feather in his cap.

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/lrc…..gillespie/

    The Baby Boomers really don’t like hearing about how they’re just not that cool or interesting anymore–actually, I’m not sure the boomers were ever cool or interesting to begin with.

    When interesting stuff was happening, they were all mostly somewhere else. They were so busy listening to singer-songwriters and the Eagles, they mostly ignored punk rock. Actually, I don’t know if there’s a copyright consideration, but “The American in Me” would have been the perfect video to imbed with this story:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ar9E65h6XK8

    I’d bet any kind of doughnut you want that the Baby Boomers you know have never heard of The Avengers.

    1. Are you kidding? Diana Rigg in leather was the number one masturbatory fantasy of the Boomer generation.

      1. I was more of a Jello Biafra guy during the Punk era.

      2. Okay, so somebody owes me a doughnut.

        1. Get Patrick MacNee to give you your fucking doughnut.

    2. A piece called over there called, “Reason Magazine’s Despicable Nick Gillespie”? Gillespie should wear that like a feather in his cap.

      Let him be known henceforth as Despicable Nick.

    3. they mostly ignored punk rock.

      Are you kidding? Those of us later-born Boomers (I was a 1960 baby) were the only ones old enough (and not too old) to be into the true era of punk. Who do you think were jamming to the Ramones, Television, New York Dolls, Stooges, Patti Smith, and punk/new wavers like Blondie and the Talking Heads in 1977?

    4. The only thing worse than Boomer self-absorbtion are their self absorbed critics whining about some other old obsolete musical genre I don’t care about.

      1. Big Eagles fan?

        Steely Dan?

        You ride a Harley, don’t you.

    5. The reaction to this piece by the Lew Rockwell people is still hilarious.

      I generally don’t bother with the Rothbot sites, but I followed that link, and… style-wise, it reads eerily like a North Korean or Maoist press release. I’m surprised they didn’t call Gillespie a “running-dog lackey” or a “rootless cosmopolitan” or “counterrevolutionary wrecker.”

      This is parody, right? I slept through winter and this is April 1st?

      1. it reads eerily like a North Korean or Maoist press release

        Isn’t Rothbardianism really just a form of Libertarian Leninism?

        1. Nah. They’re a libertarian form of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gb_qHP7VaZE , and Mr. Gillespie is apparently a splitter.

      2. I hadn’t visited those pages in a few years. One click and I remembered why. What a waste of electrons…

  9. Saw mum Saturday, and Nick’s series of articles here got me to ask her, ‘So, JFK, 50th anniversary of his assassination . . .’

    ‘Yup.’ Didn’t pause a second from her Angry Birds. Then I realized the faux pas, it was also her fifth-fifth wedding anniversary.

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    1. My back space key doesn’t go that far:)

  11. Sounds like a very solid plan to me dude.

    http://www.Privacy-Road.tk

  12. You know what I hate about the boomers? Their fucking stranglehold on entertainment. Try to tune the radio in any part of the nation and here is what you get: new country, old country, new pop, old pop, OLD ROCK.
    Believe it or not, there has been some awesome music created in the last 40 years, but god-forbid your local rock station doesn’t specialize in Led Zeppelin, The Who, Aerosmith, etc.
    Find a station that plays Cake, Beck, Offspring, Monster Magnet, Franz Ferdinand, etc. (Metallica, the most over-rated band of all time, gets plenty of air play, and they are only 31 years old, sure, but they suck; every single bass line is exactly the same and James Hetfield sounds like Elmer Fudd, or more precisely, like Robin Williams doing Elmer Fudd sings Springsteen
    And not just the radio…as the Boomer goes, so goes all. TV ads for Viagra, because Boomers are now at that age, etc. How long before we are all forced to watch endless commercials for Depends?
    It is getting better, but only because Gen Whatever-the-fuck-they-are are finally getting old enough to buy stuff.
    I guess when my old high school teacher told us we were Generation X because it meant that we were going to be ignored, he knew what he was talking about.

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  14. What I find ironic is that the oldest baby boomers were in high school when Kennedy was assassinated. How well do they actually remember his presidency? I think the Eastern liberals of the previous generation (the Robert Dalleks, etc.) bear the primary responsibility for propagating the Kennedy myth.

  15. I got over that compulsion in the sixties. It’s just the media guiding the flock.

  16. I had occasion to visit the Old Red Courthouse in downtown Dallas a few months ago, which has been turned into a museum of Dallas history. I remember they had a continuously playing documetary about Dallas history on a large screen TV and I sat down to watch. When it got to the he Kennedy assasination the narrator (a fellow I believe I’d heard on PBS) brought up the “right wing” extremism prevalent in the city at the time. He made no mention of the fact that the guy who shot JFK was a Marxist. It just didn’t fit the narrative.

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