At the end of November, when Charles Krauthammer was calling for the elimination of welfare for mothers with babies, Nina Totenberg was advocating the nationwide erection of orphanages, and all the pundits were casting Al Gore's performance against Ross Perot (which included that ridiculous photo of Smoot and Hawley) as a "knock-out punch," it was a relief to escape back to a previous era. Not that any of us did this voluntarily: Everywhere we turned, we were inundated by assassination anniversary tributes. Since we currently have a President who idolizes John Kennedy and mimics him in more ways than one, we might do well to consider what residue these ceaseless tributes leave behind.
From CBS's shameless piece of hagiography titled, simply enough, Jack, to the NBC News "minute-by-minute reconstruction of what happened thirty years ago," all topped off by the sexually steamy yet violin-laden tear-jerker JFK. Reckless Youth, recreations of Kennedy's nobility in life and martyrdom in death have reverberated with endless op-ed pieces about why Americans remain in love with this President and fascinated by his gruesome death. These analyses are highly condescending, suggesting that - unlike sophisticated journalists - the public is overly credulous about JFK and conspiracy theories, unable to accept "the truth." So let's turn the tables and see what the anniversary onslaught says not about us, but about the media.
All this Jack-o-mania is more than wistful nostalgia. Despite the blather about Kennedy being a symbol, a legend, a myth, he has become, sadly, something even more important in America: a commodity, an image that helps sell cars and deliver audiences and ratings points. But that's not all these Kennedy retrospectives sell. With their highly selective, syrupcoated versions of the past, they promote an increasingly conservative political status quo in the present.
How does this happen? First, they urge viewers to misidentify what's important about history and to focus on the most distorting and trivial aspects of our past. I happen to think, for example, that Kennedy's obsession with assassinating Fidel Castro, and the way that obsession granted even more power to an already bloated and lethal CIA (documented in detail by Max Holland and David Corn in The Nation), is considerably more important than who JFK slept with when he was in his twenties.
What TV elevates as truly revealing - and shocking - are a politician's personal...