Apropos the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of JFK (originally written in 1994).
The 22nd of November 1993 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The lofty civic aspirations enunciated in his 1960 inaugural address are etched indelibly in the imagination of American public culture. Kennedy’s youthful vigor, the elegance of Jackie Kennedy, and the attractiveness of their children reinforced the feeling that a glorious new chapter had been opened in the history of the ‘American century.’ The tragedy of the assassination continues to be experienced as more than the loss of life of a single individual or President; it is experienced as a deep and irredeemable collective loss for the nation, as if America’s hopes and political fortunes also died on that fateful autumn day in Dallas. Hence, this unhappy anniversary in American political history might afford an overdue opportunity for a general reassessment of the Kennedy legacy in American politics at the close of the century. Fortunately, there is no need to start from scratch. In addition to the spate of books documenting Kennedy’s life, character and times, the reassessment process has already been ignited by filmmaker Oliver Stone, who admirably produced a coherent, accessible and refreshingly partisan representation of Kennedy and the political aftermath of the assassination. Stone’s effort seemed to reflect the unspoken sentiment of a generation. It therefore provides a fruitful starting point for a new debate on the enduring significance of the memory of JFK for the political self-definition of American liberalism and for the ongoing conflicts over the heart and soul of the Democratic party.
Following its release in the fall of 1991, Oliver Stone’s film J.F.K. became the subject of intense criticism in the mainstream media (Time, Newsweek, the NY Times, Dan Rather, etc.). And similar to the hostile reaction to the film Thelma and Louise, which also garnered widespread public attention, the sustained attacks on Stone’s vision of the assassination of a president tended to generate more heat than light. Most analyses of the film made critical reference to Stone’s fast and loose cinematic play with the alleged “historical facts” and his use of “simulations” of “undocumented” events and “composite” characters. What was surprising (or at least unexpected) was the consistently hostile reaction from liberal segments of the press and academia. A representative negative review was articulated by Tom Wicker, who suggested that J.F.K., which throws into doubt the official version of the Kennedy assassination, will undermine the recently regained trust of the American public in its political institutions (as if the political fallout from the Iran-Contra Affair and the sturm und drang that surrounded the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court had somehow already been neutralized). Yet, apart from Anthony Lewis of the Boston Globe, none of the liberal critics – Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Daniel P. Moynihan included – has firmly embraced the report of the Warren Commission as a satisfactory account of the events. A more substantive critical perspective, centering on Stone’s depiction of a “homosexual conspiracy” behind the assassination, was raised by Michael Rogin. However, neither the effort to dismiss the film as a dangerously ideological (as opposed to a factual) account of history, nor the focus on Stone’s (and the nation’s) proclivity toward demonological projections and a paranoid political style, illuminates the central underlying motif in the filmmaker’s interpretation, the crisis of American liberalism, or the political significance of the film as a symptom of a persisting dilemma of contemporary American liberal identity. If J.F.K. has an overarching flaw, it is that Stone’s renewed effort to demystify naive belief in government by exposing the unseemly realities of money and power is undercut by his failure to puncture the aura of the Kennedy myth that continues to feed the desire for a positive liberal model of the American superpower.