Next week marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and countless books, articles, television specials and made for TV movies will no doubt commemorate the event. Bob speaks with Reason.com editor Nick Gillespie about how the media fascination with the fallen president has less to do with his impact on the country and more to do with the Baby Boomer generation's feeling of self-importance.
BOB GARFIELD: It's that time of year again. Leaves cover the ground with their autumn palette, foodstuffs get flavored with pumpkin spice, and John F. Kennedy shows up on the newsstand, magazine covers, cable documentaries, books. As November 22nd approaches each fall, so does the annual resurrection of Camelot. Now comes the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination and, with it, total immersion in all things JFK - unanswered questions about his murder, revisiting of the Bay of Pigs and the missile crisis and the women, mercy, the women!
To Nick Gillespie, editor of the libertarian Reason.com, it’s all almost more than he can bear, not for what it says about our martyred president, for what it says about a media culture he believes to obsessively pander to the Baby Boom generation. Nick, welcome back to On the Media.
NICK GILLESPIE: Thanks for having me, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: You have a name for this phenomenon. You call it repetition compulsion disorder?
NICK GILLESPIE: Yeah, and I think that’s an accurate diagnosis of what's going on here. Particularly to the Baby Boom generation, JFK remains the kind of athlete dying young. Because he never actually had to deliver on very much, in terms of his political promise, you know, you can go back and project onto Kennedy not just the glamour of the years when he was in the White House and his ascent through the Senate, but what would have been. The sixties and the seventies were tough decades, in many ways, and so you can go back to Kennedy and say, everything would have been aces, if he had only lived. He is a kind of perfect Rorschach blot that people can project what they want onto.
BOB GARFIELD: These all sound like legitimate lines of journalistic inquiry. What, what's your beef?
NICK GILLESPIE: I think my beef is that people rarely check their premises on a lot of these things. During the sixties itself, JFK was not a hero, necessarily. He was seen as part of the old guard. He was, in many ways, a conventional Cold War hawk. But then he was transformed by people like Oliver Stone, in the movie JFK, into somebody who would have immediately declared peace and honor in Vietnam and gotten us out, or he didn’t really believe in the Bay of Pigs, which went disastrously wrong, or he was going to really do great things on race relations, which, by all historical accounts, he dragged his feet on tremendously.
The flipside of this is that JFK is also kind of the mirror for all of the dark forces in America. His father was a bootlegger, which is actually not true. He came to power through all sorts of horrible machinations. He was particularly hideously awful towards women. So, JFK kind of hovers over the journalistic elite, as this guardian angel or this demonic force, by which we’re supposed to make sense of the current day.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, your piece, which ran in The Daily Beast, centers on the preoccupation with John F. Kennedy but, if I understood it correctly, your actual gripe is not with JFK obsession, per se, but with the Baby Boom generation, as a whole, which you find to be just loathsomely arrogant and self-absorbed. You describe the, the Baby Boom as having cultural hegemony over, among other things, the entire journalistic universe.
NICK GILLESPIE: Yeah. The Baby Boom, at least since it started appearing on Life Magazine covers in the sixties, has been taught that nothing has been so great in the world's history. When Steven Spielberg was promoting Saving Private Ryan back in the late nineties, he actually talked about the, the most important thing about World War II was the question of whether or not the Baby Boom was gonna be born. And it struck me then, and it strikes me now, as of a piece with the generational arrogance and kind of narcissism and solipsism that even World War II, which took place before the Baby Boom occurred, was really all about the Baby Boom.
The fact of the matter is, is that the, the sun does not rise and set on the Baby Boom. And the way the Baby Boom uses the JFK experience, both the assassination, as well as those shimmering years of Camelot, to kind of constantly try and stay front and center in American life, I find appalling.
BOB GARFIELD: Look, at this point I have to start pushing back a bit.
NICK GILLESPIE: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD: The, the Baby Boom is a cohort. It is – it’s a definition of, of demographics. It, it began with the - with the children born at such and such a date and it ended –
NICK GILLESPIE: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: - with the children born at another date, and that is 100 percent of what Baby Boomers have in common. And you seem to be imputing on this vast number of people personality traits - self-absorption, self-involvement, arrogance. Is that not kind of like drawing personality conclusions about all lefthanders or all Nebraskans?
NICK GILLESPIE: You know, there’s something to be said about making such large statements. They’re always subject to question and kind of deconstruction but, you know, we impute certain characteristics to the so-called “greatest generation,” which were born during the twenties, raised during the Depression and then fought World War II. We talk about the Silent Generation, people who came of age in the fifties, before the sixties and before the Baby Boomers. We talk about Millennials.
All of these generalizations are correct in some ways and incorrect in others. I don't think that there is much serious question that people born between 1946 and 1964, which is the general definition of the Baby Boom, have had a very, very long time on the national stage and always seem ready to extend their run another year or two, by asserting that the Baby Boom generation somehow really does define the American experience.
BOB GARFIELD: Nick, I must also ask you this: John F. Kennedy as a president may have been great, he may have been good, he may have been no good. His time in office, as you observed, was brief, However, in those not even three years, the world came on the brink of nuclear holocaust. He invaded Cuba and failed, at great risk. He captured the imagination of the nation in a way that no president, at least since FDR, had done. He was so super-hot [LAUGHS] in a way that presidents seldom are, and he was president of the United States. And finally, he was assassinated under circumstances that remain somewhat mysterious, to this day. All of those seem to me like not only good journalistic fodder, but, but grounds for enduring interest in the man's life and his presidency.
NICK GILLESPIE: I think there's a question of degree. So, for instance, this time around and, obviously, it's the 50th anniversary, we can expect a particularly high kind of tidal pull of, of interest. But, you know, there's an e-book that the Washington Post put out about the 36 or 39 hours of Patrick Kennedy, who was born and died when JFK was in the White House. That strikes me as a little bit much.
Or, you know, when you talk about his three brief years in office, it seems like we obsess more about the Kennedy years than we do about the Eisenhower years, which were far more consequential in every possible way, from a historical angle, and in a way that directly affects how America defines itself in the world today.
You know, there's a difference between, say, Marlon Brando as an actor and James Dean, you know, and if we cast James Dean as kind of like JFK, it’s – you can only pick over a small body of work for so long before things start to get ridiculous. And I think we have long past reached the moment of diminishing returns. There comes a time where we have to say, you know what, we’re no longer talking about the Spanish-American War, we’re not talking about the Spanish Civil War.
We have to leave the obsessions of our youth behind and start moving into the future, not in ignorance but in understanding that the past cannot govern us, or else we will be governed by the past
BOB GARFIELD: Nick, thank you so much.
NICK GILLESPIE: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Nick Gillespie is editor of Reason.com. He wrote this piece for The Daily Beast. It was titled, “JFK Still Dead, Baby Boomers Still Self-Absorbed.”