In case you missed it, November marked the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The city of Dallas spent more than a year preparing for the occasion, scheduling exhibits and lecture series and memorial ceremonies. The Frontiers of Flight Museum constructed a life-size walk-through replica of Air Force One as it looked on the fateful day of November 22, 1963, complete with “a highly detailed cockpit, the president’s bedroom, and the stateroom in which Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office.” The Sixth Floor Museum, located in the former Texas School Book Depository, offered the artwork of the Dallas LOVE Project, intended to rewrite the city’s 1963 reputation as a “City of Hate.” On November 22 itself, some 5,000 privileged ticket holders gathered in Dealey Plaza, where the shots rang out, to hear historian David McCullough recite from the former president’s speeches and observe a moment of silence. To commemorate the day, The Dallas Morning News offered a memorial box set with the sleek title “JFK50,” featuring a full edition of the paper from the morning after the assassination along with three “collectible JFK50 cards.”
Those of us who couldn’t make it to Dallas were nonetheless able to relive the assassination thanks to a months-long media blitz. In October, director Peter Landesman released Parkland, a feature film depicting the minute-by-minute chaos at Parkland Memorial Hospital on the afternoon of the assassination. Not to be outdone, Oliver Stone re-released his 1991 conspiracy film JFK, still the single most influential work in shaping how Americans think about the events of November 22. On the smaller screen, NBC, CBS, PBS, CNN, TLC, TCM and the Military Channel all broadcast documentaries, while National Geographic presented Killing Kennedy, a new docudrama starring Rob Lowe as JFK. On still smaller screens, CBS News streamed its 1963 assassination coverage in real time, while several iPhone apps (“JFK Assassination,” “JFK in Dallas 50,” “Ask a Conspirator”) promised to complete the picture with access to all manner of Kennedy minutiae.
And then there were the books—rafts of them—covering nearly every aspect of Kennedy’s life and death. According to Amazon, more than six dozen books related to the Kennedy assassination were scheduled for release in October and November alone. As Jill Abramson observed in The New York Times, no single one of these is likely to be the final word on an event and a presidency that seems ever more “elusive” as the decades pass. Together, though, these books can tell us an awful lot about what we want to remember, and what we might prefer to forget.
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The latest batch of Kennedy books can be divided into two categories, each with its own rules and traditions. The first and most obvious focuses on the assassination itself, presenting the events of November 22 as a grand who-done-it mystery. The second examines the Kennedy presidency and its lost promise—instead of who-done-it, the what-might-have-been. To some degree, both of these categories rest on irresolvable questions. The who-done-it literature tends to worry the evidence, circling around the same set of tantalizing ballistics, witness deaths and missing files. The what-might-have-been books grapple with Kennedy’s inner longings and outer stylings, attempting to puzzle out significant patterns in his presidential record. In both cases, the subject tends to fuel overstatement, with authors declaring again and yet again to have discovered The Truth about Kennedy and his death. This, in turn, provokes yet another set of questions: Why, fifty years on, is Kennedy still an icon, and why do we seem so stuck in the same old debates about his presidency?