President Kennedy: Reality and Myth in Popular Culture

Though it’s been fifty years since President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, that dreadful day still has a hold on the American imagination. It is so deeply embedded in our culture that it has taken on the note of mythology. In fact it is our modern-day myth––the bold, handsome president shot down in the prime of his virility, while his wife and throngs of Dallas well-wishers in Dealey Plaza look on in horror. There is something almost classical in its mythology, like a Greek tragedy played out in real life. In an age before 24/7 cable news networks, the actual assassination was recorded not by newsmen but a dressmaker named Abraham Zapruder, whose footage wasn’t released to the general public until a decade later. Under those circumstances, it makes sense that the event ballooned into mythic proportions in the American public. That day was like a blank canvas onto which people painted their own memories or contributed their answers to questions that still remain unresolved. The Warren Commission’s handling of the investigation only sparked more questions, creating a cottage industry of conspiracy theorists who insist that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the lone assassin in Kennedy’s murder.

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Source: channel.nationalgeographic.com

This mythic quality has likewise sparked artistic and literary fascination. Only recently NatGeo aired a bio-doc on Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald, based on Bill O’Reilly’s book Killing Kennedy, along with a slew of documentaries have aired on TV about the assassinations, Kennedy’s final hours, or bios on Kennedy himself. Stephen King published a novel, 11/22/63, taking liberties with a time travel tale which centers around the assassination. There’ve been other works in the past, including Don DeLillo’s Libra, and Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK, which looks at New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison’s prosecution of the president’s assassination. The assassination is also heavily referenced in pop culture, such as The Simpsons, Seinfeld, The X-Files, and music videos. The cable TV series Mad Men dramatized the assassination in its second season to heavy anticipation.

No where in recent American history has an event scarred a nation so deeply. In JFK, America had found a model onto which it could project all of its best attributes: youth, vigor, imagination, intelligence. Not since President Obama’s 2008 presidential run, did Americans find similar excitement and transcendence. Yet five years after that historic election, Obama is facing some of the most stringent opposition to his policies and criticisms from the left and the right. Kennedy likewise faced similar criticisms. He experienced a major foreign policy blunder with the Bay of Pigs and had to be pushed to be more proactive on Civil Rights legislation. Yet his untimely and tragic death has cemented not the criticisms nor the mistakes, but Camelot, the image his widow and former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy carefully cultivated after his death. We see only Camelot, not the real and very complicated man underneath. The myth lives on in our culture, in our literature, films, and TV, but we’d do well to separate the facts from the myth.

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