The Kennedy Craze: History, Memory, and the Mourning of a President

Matt Brennan
Human Parts
Published in
6 min readNov 26, 2013

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President and Mrs. Kennedy in Dallas, November 22, 1963

“I remember.”

That was the day’s refrain, its endlessly repeated chorus. On the radio, Robert MacNeil remembered reporting from a bank of pay phones in Parkland Hospital, his voice patched into the national feed as he bore the terrible news. On television, Tom Brokaw remembered reading the wire copy in an Omaha newsroom as he prepared to end his morning shift. Dallas, flying the American and Texas flags at half-staff, remembered the motorcade coursing through Dealey Plaza, past book depository and grassy knoll; a former Peace Corps volunteer remembered kneeling to pray with the nuns at her Catholic school in Chicago at the age of five; columnists and commentators born long after November 22, 1963 gathered other people’s memories like lilies for a funeral wreath, arranged in delicate sprays on every page and screen.

I suppose you could say I “remember,” too, though always once or twice removed from the immediate experience. The first assignment in Mr. Bardo’s high school English class asked us to document our families’ responses to the 1960s and the Vietnam War, and because I styled myself a journalist I conducted formal interviews about assassinations and draft card burnings, My Lai and Kent State, walling myself in with books about an era which increasingly seemed alien, aberrant, a glitch in the matrix. I recorded the stories of mothers collapsed in a heap on the living room floor, of fathers who'd grown up in the Depression and served in the armed forces but were unable to meet the task of explaining the inexplicable. I fashioned from this research an essay that strived, unconvincingly, for a New Yorker effect, because that was what I was reading then and it seemed, as a form of expression, wholly new, though of course it was not. Viewed from a certain perspective, nothing is.

It may be this early, abiding fascination with the star-crossed Kennedy clan, this sense that the associations their history evokes — Fair Play for Cuba, Sirhan Sirhan, Chappaquiddick, Piper Saratoga — read as an incantation, or perhaps a curse, which left me sitting in my car at a red light Friday morning, listening to desperate gasps in a crowded concert hall at a half-century’s distance and suddenly unable to stop crying.

This was an eccentric reaction, to say the least. Word games aside, I cannot in fact remember Kennedy's death, only conjure it up at arm’s length — or, to put it more precisely, at the length of the Zapruder film, the radio segment, the essay I wrote for Mr. Bardo’s class. Certainly, the wet splotches I wiped from my face as the light turned green were a response to the frankness of the grief I heard as Beethoven’s funeral march began to play, and yet even on these terms I must admit ambivalence. What right did I have to eavesdrop on those emotions? What justified this mourning of a president who remains to me little more than a collection of rousing speeches, an icon of someone else’s nostalgia?

I wonder now if my reaction was not so eccentric after all, but rather the logical conclusion of our national mania for commemoration, the moment at which I surrendered to the day’s maudlin catechism: “I remember.” Two declarative, decisive words, words that promise the incandescence of being there — as in, “Where were you when you heard the news that President Kennedy was shot?” — but deliver only the evidence of how much we forget.

As the fateful day approached, the remembrance factory whirred to life. Reporters fanned out in search of witnesses. Web editors collected archival photographs for commemorative slideshows. Cable news teased special coverage, exclusive analysis, never-before-seen footage. The more unseemly media outlets dispensed with the networks’ stentorian patina in favor of outright opportunism: E! collated bon mots on the anniversary from Kourtney Kardashian and Michelle Trachtenberg; AccuWeather.com wondered, “Did Clear Weather Play a Role in JFK’s Assassination?” We learned “How Jackie Mourned.” We reconsidered “The Elusive President.” We continued to ask the central question — “Where were you when you heard the news that President Kennedy was shot?”as though remembering alone were proof enough of the event’s significance, but what the event’s significance might in fact have been remained, in those quarters most devoted to “commemorating” the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy's death, largely unexplored.

You need look no further than your local newspaper or network affiliate to witness a populace bound together by the Kennedy craze, slipping seamlessly between memory and dream.

“If the President of the United States can be killed, shot down in broad daylight you know, who is safe?”

“The air of uncertainty lingered for many years after that.”

“We lost our innocence. Nothing will ever be quite the same.”

“I remember.” Two words whose simplicity hides their meaning: to re-member is not to discover an unalloyed whole buried in the sands of time but to repair what’s been dismembered, broken, torn apart. The result is a Frankenstein’s monster of the actual experience, a crude replica with a life of its own. That this is the case does not invalidate the memory, but it may suggest why last week’s deployment of individual recollections in the service of national commemoration managed to become so unsavory a spectacle, mined for page views and Nielsen ratings as surely as “22 Cats Who Are Too Proud to Admit They Hate Snow.” In the hands of media outlets that deemed only one question worth asking, “I remember” became, with no little irony, the vessel of profound collective amnesia. That three prior presidents had been assassinated, that history has no use for certainty, that a nation culpable for the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of millions of African Americans might not be best described as “innocent” all went unmentioned. It might have seemed, in the hours following the assassination, that violence, chaos, and evil were wholly new to the American grain, though of course they were not. Viewed from a certain perspective, nothing is.

To suggest otherwise is simply a useful fiction we use to ward off the dark. We commemorate the past not because we want to remember but because we wish to forget. No amount of searching in the rubble of this distant tragedy will ever turn up King Arthur’s court or Eden’s gate, for neither existed in the first place. During the Kennedy craze the media amplified and simplified an honest human impulse — to explain the inexplicable, to smooth over the unpleasantness of the past — in order to monetize it, and in so doing dishonored those whose memories we can no longer hear.

“For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet,” Kennedy said in his commencement address at American University in 1963. “We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal... We must deal with the world as it is, and not as it might have been had the history of the last eighteen years been different.”

You see, it’s not that I doubt the sincerity of the grief that runs through our collective memory of the assassination or consider the events of that day anything less than a terrible wound to the country. It’s that the recent Kennedy craze demanded of even the most casual observer exactly what the man at its center warned against — that we replace the world that is, or was, with the one we imagine might have been, that we unhitch the act of remembering from the history we were supposed to remember. To wit: as Friday wore on, “we lost our innocence” kept getting repeated as an explanation of the event’s significance, though by then I had come to understand that this was just another refrain, another chorus, another incantation, another curse.

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Matt Brennan
Human Parts

TV critic, Indiewire’s Thompson on Hollywood! My work has also appeared in Slant Magazine, The Gambit, LA Weekly, Slate, Deadspin, Flavorwire, and more.