AP Essay: For boomers, JFK death ripples still

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In this Nov. 22, 1963 file photo, President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy ride in the backseat of an open limousine on Main Street at Ervay Street in Dallas as the presidential motorcade approaches Dealey Plaza. Texas Gov. John Connally, and his wife Nellie are seated in the limousine’s jump seats. (AP Photo/File)

What more is there to say? There is, it seems, always more being said. Over 50 years, making sense of the Kennedy assassination became almost as much of an event as the assassination itself.

Simon, the writer about assassination art, has a theory. He says that Americans born during the baby boom look back upon the events of Nov. 22, 1963, and retrofit much of what has happened since then into that moment in time.

“What makes the boomer memory interesting is how much that memory is a reading backwards of what came during the 60s,” he says. “And the meaning of the JFK assassination for them is largely written through the prism of the deaths of Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, the war in Southeast Asia. For them, the assassination is some detonator for the decade that follows.”

“Reading backwards”: They see things about that day in Dallas and add meaning that wasn’t there when it happened. And, with each new reading, the snowball gathers more as it rolls.

We tend, as Americans, to pour meaning into “defining events.” By doing so, we can persuade ourselves that history makes sense. It’s unfathomable and terrifying to think that things happen incrementally and haphazardly, and that no single event, much less one act of a single disaffected soul, could upend what we have built. So, says Simon, “we kind of mass-psychologize this” – and no one more than the generation that lived through it as young people.

There is no sign that it is abating. Exactly the opposite: As the 50th anniversary dawns this month, a society still heavily influenced by baby boomers keeps turning back, looking over the national shoulder one more time.

Just look at the merchandise in recent months, aimed squarely at boomers with purchasing power and the desire to nostalgically commemorate. There is the obligatory “50 Year Commemorative Ultimate Collector’s Edition” of Stone’s landmark film “JFK,” due out this week. There are dozens of new books with titles like “History Will Prove Us Right,” “The Hidden History of the JFK Assassination” and “We Were There.”

And new movies, too. One, based on Bill O’Reilly’s book, “Killing Kennedy,” stars Rob Lowe as JFK. Another, “Parkland,” chronicles the Dallas hospital in the hours after the assassination and, two days later, the Oswald killing. A few weeks ago, USA Today came forth with a 48-page special commemorative edition about the 50th anniversary. Among its headlines: “Death is dividing line between eras.”

Last month, people fascinated by the assassination gathered in Pittsburgh under the auspices of Dr. Cyril Wecht, the forensic pathologist who has spent much of the half-century since Kennedy’s death investigating it beyond what the much-maligned Warren Commission did. There were panels, workshops, even a comedy show (“Is it too soon to joke?” said the flier).

But you looked around the crowd at one of the evening panels, and though people in their 20s and 30s were present, the majority of the seats were filled by folks with graying hair who appeared to be in their 50s and 60s: boomers. “There’s not enough young people here,” Stone said at one point.

Generations are funny things, if they even truly exist at all. An event that changes reality for one generation can, with the passage of time, be a mere historical footnote for another. The Kennedy assassination still resonates across American culture and will for many more years. But for those who came of age with it, who watched events spin out after it – all the way to another time-stopping reset at 9/11 – is it so unexpected that they “read backwards” to that weekend in 1963 and its message that things would never be the same?

“I was only really aware of how profoundly it changed the country years later when I was in college, because Kennedy’s assassination started a chain reaction – a kind of house of cards started to come down, not immediately but gradually over the next decade,” Steven Spielberg, born in 1946, wrote in “Where Were You? America Remembers the JFK Assassination.”

Author Stephen King, who has infused his boomer sensibilities into many works, spent 849 pages in 2011 delving into what the world might have been if someone could have traveled back in time and stopped Lee Harvey Oswald. King’s “11/22/63″ poked a stick into a central boomer worry: that the world isn’t what it appears to be, and that the Kennedy assassination ripped away the veneer.

“For a moment everything was clear,” King wrote in the book, “and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dream clock chiming beneath a mystery glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. . A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.”

What more is there to say? About this, will there always be more? To deploy an old Kennedy metaphor, the torch is being passed to a new generation of Americans. What they will do with it – and whether they can, or even should, let it go and move on – is the JFK assassination story of the next half century.

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EDITOR’S NOTE – Ted Anthony, born in 1968 to parents born in the early 1920s, writes about American culture for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted .

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