So the anniversary of JFK’s assassination has finally passed—I presume it’s passed, anyway. Surely not even the 24-hour cable news networks can milk anything more out of this, can they?
I found this anniversary a puzzling exercise in civil religion. I heard on the radio that the President declared it an “official day of remembrance,” meaning that flags were supposed to be at half mast. Um… why? Of all the tragic events that have happened over the course of American history, why did this one rise to the level of needing to be officially remembered a half century after it happened? What interests are served by the memorializing of this particular tragedy?
Is this a baby boomer thing—people in my parents’ generation reliving their “Where you when you heard…” moments? Will my generation similarly want to commemorate, let’s say, the Challenger disaster a couple decades from now?
Does this anniversary reveal the intensity of charisma that Americans invest into the presidency: is that the reason a presidential assassination rises to the level of requiring a 50-year anniversary commemoration? If that’s the case, though—was Lincoln’s assassination so memorialized? What about Garfield’s? Or McKinley’s?
Is JFK the Democrats’ Ronald Reagan? That is: Did our current Democratic president want the country to commemorate JFK’s assassination in order to ensure a past Democratic president’s high standing in the American pantheon, much as Republicans do when they name things after Reagan?
To what extent was this act of civil religion driven by the news media’s fascination with the JFK assassination—which in turn was driven to a considerable degree, I’ll maintain, by both sensationalism and convenience? The networks had plenty of footage of the tragedy to work with, so it was a broadcast-friendly story; there were conspiracy theories to be discussed, magnifying public interest; and contemporary figures like Lee Harvey Oswald’s widow are still around to try to hit up for interviews. So: Did the JFK assassination become an event that seemed to call for some kind of solemn remembrance because media outlets had decided to give a lot of airtime to it for less solemn reasons?
Is the JFK commemoration part of a larger trend right now toward finding things in American history to commemorate? We just finished commemorating the Gettysburg address. Before that, the “I Have a Dream” speech. Are these commemorations being driven by a kind of cultural malaise—anxiety about how polarized the country is right now, a groping for things that can bring us all together?