The Baby Boomers' JFK Fixation

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


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.