“JFK blown away, what else do I have to say,” wrote the Long Island poet William Joel in his 1989 epic “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” as a sort of bridge from one era (the age of innocence) to the modern age we’re living in (“the fire,” if you will). The moment when the president was gunned down in his car on a Dallas street was, in the eyes of Joel and millions of others, the end of one era and the start of a new, scarier one. What else did anybody need to say? Well, if you walk into any Barnes and Noble, you realize that a whole lot of people have a ton of things to say, evidenced by the fact that Kennedy, his presidency, his family, and his public assassination pretty much get their own section.
November 22, 1963 is a day that, along with the anniversary of Pearl Harbor and, more recently, 9/11, we as a country will never get over. They were traumatic, terrifying, and most importantly, people died. While the assassination of a president, the murder of a Dallas police officer, and the killing of Kennedy’s killer resulted in a much lower body count than these two other national tragedies, losing a president — especially one who captured people’s imaginations like Kennedy and his family did — is the sort of thing you have to live through to truly understand.
But the din is louder than ever on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, with lone fans and news outlets goading us to relive the tragedy by using a decidedly contemporary tool: technology, and specifically social media.
It’s difficult to understand how anyone has enough time on their hands to do the kind of minute-by-minute rundown of the Kennedys’ day in Dallas that we’re seeing on the Twitter account @RealTimeJFK. Based on the low follower count, I assume it isn’t some official outfit running the show; it’s probably one of the many JFK buffs out there who have been anxiously anticipating this anniversary.
But then there are the people who actually get paid to make the JFK assassination relevant to a new generation. This post at USA Today is a bit of historical fiction that imagines what it would have been like if platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram existed on that autumn day in the early 1960s when the world seemed to stand still for an entire generation. Over at Boston.com, the hometown newspaper of the slain Kennedy, there’s a “historically-accurate reenactment” as well — one that, while interesting, reads almost like a Kennedy-assassination roleplaying game. And even the above examples are in much better taste than most of what you’ll see online about JFK today.
The shame of all this is that most of us who didn’t live through John F. Kennedy’s administration only know about what happened as he rode in that motorcade, and what took place immediately after. We still hear very little about his actual, short presidency. And that’s what I find so bothersome about all of these Internet play-by-plays: we’re essentially celebrating the death of a historical figure we pretend to revere but can’t be bothered to learn much about, using WordPress and Twitter to relive every single moment of one of the darkest days in American history. In a few cases these remembrances have avoided being downright offensive, but for they most part, they are cringe-worthy, exploitative, and just all-around creepy.