From tragedy to pop-culture punchline

Reinventing Kennedy to suit books, TV and film has blurred his significance


In 2008, the gun that was used to kill John F Kennedy’s assassin was auctioned off as part of “a pop culture collection”. Other items included the hat worn by the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz and Indiana Jones’s whip.

John F Kennedy was, from the start, a pop cultural president. He was the first television president, beating a shifty-eyed Nixon in 1960’s televised presidential debates (radio audiences actually thought Nixon performed better). Marilyn Monroe sang happy birthday to him. He was a literary president, featured in Norman Mailer’s Esquire magazine report Superman Goes to the Supermarket (1960). He invited crooners to the White House. He influenced fashion, triggering an epidemic of hatlessness across a previously hat-wearing America. His White House was called Camelot. In a 1994 essay, The Cultural Meaning of the Kennedys, Steven Stark identifies them as “an entertainment family” and he likens Jack, Bobby and Teddy to other celebrity brothers – Everly, Smothers and Baldwin.

There have been many more politically influential presidents than Kennedy but few more culturally potent. His shocking death percolated through the narrative of the 1960s. It symbolised the death of the American dream in songs by The Byrds (He was a Friend of Mine), Don McClean(Bye, Bye Miss American Pie) and the Rolling Stones (Sympathy for the Devil) . A luridly learned literary subgenre emerged to analyse his life and the complexities of the Warren Commission (the best: The Death of a President, by William Manchester; Rush to Judgment, by Mark Lane).

By the 1970s there was already a disconnect between JFK the man and “Kennedy” the conspiracy-prop and cultural signifier. Paranoic counter-narratives abounded, influencing novels such as The Parallax View by Loren Singer and its Alan J Pakula film adaptation. But there was an increasing sense that the Kennedy obsession in itself was a bit unhinged. JG Ballard wrote a story titled The Assassination of John F Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race in which Oswald’s gunshot is the starting pistol for a grotesque race between Kennedy and Johnson. In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall a conspiracy theorist is played for laughs. In 1978, a quartet of California punks drained the Kennedy image of idealism with the name The Dead Kennedys.

More than a decade later, pop culture was still obsessed with Kennedy’s death rather than his life. Oliver Stone gave voice to the conspiracy theories in JFK. Bill Hicks riffed about how new presidents were shown footage of the Kennedy assassination from an angle never seen before (“Any questions?” they’d be asked). The assassination was now something to joke about. In a 1992 episode of Seinfeld, Kramer and Newman are spat at by baseball player Keith Hernandez. It’s shot like the Benjamin Zapruder footage of the assassination. The duo is troubled by a discussion of spit trajectories and the idea that there was a “second spitter”.

Literature still tried to deal seriously with the mechanics of the assassination. There was Don Delillo’s Libra (1988), Norman Mailer’s work of “faction”, Oswald’s Tale (1995) and James Ellroy’s masterful and murky American Tabloid (1995). Stephen King’s 11.22.63 involves a time-traveller trying to save the president.

For the baby-boomers, Kennedy symbolises lost potential and the loss of innocence. For Generation Xers, who grew up knowing about his adulterous shenanigans and political chicanery, Kennedy seems less saintly. So we get The Simpsons’ corrupt, womanising Mayor Quimby with his Kennedy-vowels and pill-
box-hat wearing wife. And we get Kennedy’s murder as an irreverent who-done-it.

The film Zoolander implicates a cabal of brainwashed male models. The X-Files blames Mulder’s chainsmoking antagonist The Smoking Man. A Family Guy flashback features a short-sighted Oswald shooting Kennedy by accident. In the British sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf, Kennedy is saved by time-travellers before being shot once more by his own time-travelling self. In the 2002 film Bubba Ho Tep a black President Kennedy (Ossie Davis) claims to have survived the assassination but was then “dyed black.”

JFK will always be more reverently treated in biopics and period dramas like Mad Men, The Butler and Forrest Gump, but elsewhere he has gone from being a symbol of lost-innocence and a touchstone for national paranoia to being a period-specific pop-cultural punch-line.

For a new generation, unmoved by dreams of Camelot, Kennedy has become kitsch.

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