Most of the media analysis surrounding the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination has been focused on its impact on journalism and American perceptions about TV in terms of news.
However, I’ve also been struck by how TV helped Americans who were between the ages of 7 and 45 during the “Camelot” years to emotionally connect with the Kennedy family. Vaughn Meader’s comedy album, “The First Family” not only made us laugh at the Kennedy’s but also, because of JFK’s publicly good-natured reaction to it, with them.
CBS Sunday Morning ran a story about JFK’s father, Joseph Kennedy’s plan to market his son for the presidency “like soap”. That story encouraged me to consider the consequences of Joe Kennedy’s marketing campaign and I’ve concluded that its result, to those of us watching, was a message about the ideal family and its values, attitudes, and behaviors.
Jim Stengel, in his book GROW, discusses the concept of the Brand Ideal. According to Stengel , a brand’s success relies on its ability to satisfy one of the following fundamental values: elicit joy, enable connection, inspire exploration, evoke pride, or positively impact society.
The Brand Ideal of Jack and Jackie Kennedy could be described as “a youthful, healthy, intelligent, cultured, loving couple who represented the hopes and dreams for America’s future”. In other words: Camelot. [ Feel free to quibble with this description and its basis for validity. I use it only for the purpose of example.]
The fact that Baby Boomers still revere JFK and Jackie today despite what we’ve learned about their very human flaws and short-comings seems to me to be a testament to how well Joe Kennedy’s marketing of his son worked.
November 22, 1963 was a Friday.
I was a typical shallow, self-possessed, care-free teenage male in the first couple months of my first year in high school at Mount Pleasant High in Providence, Rhode Island.
On Friday’s, my last class of the day was gym. In 1963, gym class for males was an active, athletic program to prepare young men for military service and which required students to develop skills on the parallel bars, pommel horse, horizontal high bar, still rings and for rope climbing. The gymnasium also served as the school’s basketball court, so the space was cavernous and the class was noisy. Consequently, we couldn’t hear messages being transmitted over the school’s loudspeaker system.
So, on that Friday, after I’d showered and walked along the typically noisy corridor to my locker, I was in a good mood and oblivious to what was going on around me.
I was in a good mood because that night was scheduled to be opening night for the Mount Pleasant High School Dionysiac Player’s production of Thornton Wilder’s classic play, “Our Town” and my theater debut as a member of the stage crew manning the main spotlight.
My original plan had been to try out for the football team but, at the last moment, I wisely changed my mind. The football coach was also my Geometry teacher and, for some reason, there was an unsettling level of antipathy between us.
So, instead, I decided to join the theater group at the urging of my friend, Mike Grace. It was a decision that, to this day, I’m glad I made.
Arriving at my locker and fetching my things for the bus ride home to Smithfield, I was blithely mocking the sweet young woman I’d befriended whose locker was to my right. She was emotional and, because I couldn’t hear what she was saying, my initial thoughts were that she was laughing. But then I realized that it wasn’t the sound of laughter but of grief that I was hearing.
When I asked her what was wrong, I presumed that she was reacting to a misunderstanding or breakup with her boyfriend. The usual stuff of adolescent drama. So, when she told me that the President was dead, it didn’t register. I laughed thinking that she was telling me some sort of sick joke. Then, I looked at her face…and I knew.
John F. Kennedy was a mythic figure in Southern New England. In 1963, Rhode Island’s population was heavily Roman Catholic Italian and, although JFK was Irish, he was one of our own. His was like a death in the family.
The first reaction I can recall was wondering how this tragic event might affect the play.
Our theater group had worked hard, rehearsed and devoted much of our lives for the previous two months in order to be ready for this moment. The school wouldn’t cancel opening night, would it?
Other than the moment when I was told about the assassination and the overarching sense of loss and sadness which enveloped the school, there are two incidents that I most vividly remember about that afternoon. The first involved one of the wise guys who, like me, was bused in from Smithfield and with whom I’d shared classes since elementary school. He started laughing and making jokes about Kennedy’s assassination. I was appalled and, frankly, embarrassed for him. Over the years, I’ve wondered if he sometimes stopped to consider how he’d reacted and, if he did, how that affected his life.
The second incident occurred when we discovered that the school administration had, indeed, canceled opening night for our production of “Our Town”. Of course, it was the appropriate decision under the circumstances. But, we were emotionally invested in our work and had difficulty accepting the decision. What shocked me was when the student who played George Webb, one of the play’s primary characters, lay down on the stage and while pounding his fist sobbed “Why did he have to go get killed on opening night?” I understood the kid’s angst but found his self-absorbed attitude embarrassing.
The Mount Pleasant High School Dionysiac Players production of “Our Town” did go on as scheduled on Saturday night. And, as I recall, the show was well-received by an audience which was probably affected more than usual by the play’s story of day-to-day life, youthful love, premature death, sorrow and grief. That play continues to touch me to this day.
On Sunday afternoon, while continuing wall-to-wall commercial-free live coverage of the weekend’s sad events were being broadcast on the existing three television networks (ABC, NBC, CBS), Mike Grace and I were doing a project for Mike’s aunt and uncle in the living room of their home when I happened to glance over at a TV and noticed the Dallas police escorting Lee Harvey Oswald down a corridor. It all seemed pretty mundane until, all of a sudden, a man in a black hat stepped out from the crowd, shoved his hand towards Oswald’s stomach and shot him. The black-and-white photo we’ve all seen over the intervening decades of Oswald crumbling in pain is still shocking. But, to see an actual murder occur live on a national TV broadcast as it happened was stunning. At first, it seemed unreal. And, thinking that I might be imagining it, I asked Mike if he’d just seen what I saw.
The 48 hours from the moment when JFK was killed on Dealey Plaza until the moment when Jack Ruby’s bullets ended Lee Harvey Oswald’s life, were surreal and shook America’s sense of order and complacency to its core. This was a time in American life when we lived daily on the brink of nuclear holocaust in our conflict with the Soviet Union. We were all subconsciously concerned that, at any moment, we might get word that the missiles were coming in.
Leading up to this anniversary, journalists have been focusing on how coverage of the events of that weekend changed news because it was on TV. I would argue that it changed America.
For the first time, we were able to not only hear but to see events as they happened. Radio had provided us with theater of the mind. With TV, we were there…watching Jackie grieve at her husband’s coffin, watching little John-John salute the passing caisson, seeing Lee Harvey Oswald murdered in cold blood.
On that weekend leading into Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays, we were shaken to the core.
When World War I began, we got our news on time delay via newspapers.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, we learned the news from radio.
John F. Kennedy’s assassination was the first calamitous event which we Americans shared communally through television.
It remained the most significant historical event of my lifetime through the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in the late 1960s, the Kent State Massacre, the murder of John Lennon and other tragic events which we experienced through the years.
For me, a change began to occur when I watched the Challenger disintegrate as Dan Rather was covering its launch live in 1986. It became obvious to me that I was going to continue to witness these occasional tragedies through my remaining days.
Then, of course, came September 11th.
PS- A fellow Rhode Island native, Bill Flanagan, has an interesting insight on how the death of John F. Kennedy affected our parents who were his contemporaries in the World War II generation. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/jfk-assassination-when-a-nation-coming-of-age-lost-its-youth/
There’s a scene in the HBO John Adams miniseries where the Tea Partiers tar & feather a British cargo ship agent in protest over taxes being imposed by the King. It’s a brutal and deeply disturbing scene which makes vividly clear how painful, demeaning and barbaric tar & feathering really was. As the naked, suffering man is carried away after being tied to a pole, John Adams is shown to be dismayed and concerned about the mob’s actions.
I’m reminded of that scene today as I watch the chaos in Washington as we read about the rift in the Republican party between the majority of Republicans and the Tea Partiers. Even the business leaders who originally supported the Tea Partiers are starting to realize that the group is getting out of control.
As the news media have been analyzing what’s brought us to this latest tipping point in the nation’s history, we’ve heard about how Americans have been self-selecting and are choosing to live in areas where they and their neighbors tend to agree politically. We’ve also been educated about the gerrymandering which has created partisan voting districts, both extremely liberal and extremely conservative. And, since most Americans don’t vote in the mid-term elections or in the primaries, those hardcore ideologues that do get to control the show.
In New York State, where I live, I’m not allowed to participate in a primary because I refuse to declare a political party affiliation. I’m an independent (not a member of the Independence Party) who prefers to vote for the person and the ideas rather than along party lines. I understand that this rule was adopted as part of some political gamesmanship in order to give one party an advantage over the other. But, it seems to me that we’d be much better off if all registered voters were allowed to participate in the primaries so that the extremists could be tempered by more moderate voices.
If I correctly recall my American history, there’s a certain similarity between our current political situation and that which existed 100 years ago back in the pre-World War I early 20th century. There was inequality in the distribution of wealth and the existing political parties represented ideas which were inconsistent with those of most Americans. So former president, Teddy Roosevelt ran as a third party candidate for the Bull Moose Party. His platform was geared toward diminishing the influence of the wealthy and powerful in order to provide more overall balance to the system during an era which, as the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has pointed out, seems quite reminiscent of our own.
Perhaps, we need a 21st century version of the Bull Moose Party to challenge the Democrats and the Republicans and to represent the majority of Americans whose values are fiscally conservative (sensible) and social liberal (open-minded).
We’ve had third party presidential candidates in the recent past but Ross Perot was a libertarian who hurt the Republican candidate (George H. W. Bush) and Ralph Nader was an extremist liberal who hurt the Democrat’s candidate (Al Gore). Instead, we would need to have a candidate with the charm, charisma, and political savvy of Bill Clinton combined with the integrity of Warren Buffett.
Prior to his most recent nanny-state rules, I would have leaned towards Michael Bloomberg. Now, I’m not sure who’d fit the bill.
Postseason=The beginning of the Major League Baseball season for me.
Don’t get me wrong. I like baseball. I just don’t care about the MLB until post-season. The same is true for the NFL. It wasn’t always this way.
I was raised in a small New England village with a great baseball field about 100 yards downhill from our back porch. Between the ages of 5 and 13 , during the daylight hours when I wasn’t in school, doing homework or participating in organized sports at another venue, that’s where you’d probably find me with the other guys from our neighborhood playing baseball in Spring and Summer or touch football in the Fall.
Since I was a New Englander, I grew up a Red Sox fan. The Yankees represented the Evil Empire. New England didn’t have an NFL team in those days and the Jets didn’t exist, so the New York Giants was my default team of choice.
In later years, I lived in Pittsburgh where I became a Pirates and Steelers fan.
But now I’ve lived more than half of my life as a resident of New York state and, although during some of those years I’ve been a half-hearted Yankees fan, I’m not emotionally committed to any of the New York teams. I may, at times, like certain MLB and NFL teams more than others but I’m not passionate about any of them.
I’m a fair weather fan.
Which is why baseball season starts for me this week. Now that “the wheat is separated from the chaff”, “the cream has risen to the top”, or whichever metaphor you choose to use to describe the process which has brought these contending teams to the playoffs, I’m about to get interested.
I was particularly looking forward to watching Terry Francona and his Indians battle the Red Sox. But, alas, it’s not to be.
Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to an October and early November of close games, late nights, emotional ups & downs, and watching some amazingly gifted athletes and managers perform under pressure.
I find watching them to be inspiring and educational….even if I’m just a lowly fair weather fan.
Batter up !
Brown uses his latest novel not only to educate us about Dante’s classic “Inferno”, the art it inspired and the controversy surrounding it but also to encourage our consideration of human overpopulation and its impact as well as the theories Malthus, Ray Kurzweil and other transhumanists.
Although “The DaVinci Code” is Brown’s most popular effort, I consider this book to be more important in terms of the issues that it addresses and the questions it forces us to confront. http://ow.ly/poRNd
If you’re a Baby Boomer like me, you’re probably annoyed with being dismissed as irrelevant because of a preconceived idea that your attitudes are similar to those of your parents and grandparents.
A recently released research study indicates that currently there are approximately 75,000 people over the age of 100 living in the US and that that number will swell to 6 million during the next 40 yrs. If you’re healthy and now in the 57-65 demo, you could be one of them. Retire ? Why would you want to?
Of course, with advances in technology, the world’s economy is changing. It’s a 21st Century reality. Companies are striving to become more cost-effective. Robotization and automation are factors which negatively impact the job market. But it’s also a reality that the American economy is consumer-driven. So, it’s imperative for our political and business leaders to focus their energies on how Americans can generate the incomes they need to participate in the economy as consumers.
The Baby Boomer generation brings a natural resource of experience, wisdom and tenacity to the table. Millennials bring to the table a natural resource of curiosity, optimism and 21st Century skill sets. To me, it seems obvious that by encouraging the members of these two generations to collaborate we can inspire each other and develop new solutions and business opportunities.
That’s the goal of our Linkedin group, Ambitious Energized Alpha Boomers. Here’s a link if you’d like to join the conversation
Although the show has just completed its third season and achieved its highest ratings to date, I’ve never watched it. But I keep hearing references to it. Mostly, on TV. Although I did see a young guy reading a Game Of Thrones paperback the other day.
So, is it a demographic thing? Is the audience for Game Of Thrones essentially the under-30 crowd? I gather that the show contains a lot of sex and violence so is its appeal primarily to young males. Is it to males what the Twilight series is to females? Or is the series more mass appeal than that and the attraction is its study of impact of power, sex, and violence and human relationships?
What exactly am I missing?
Lately, I seem to be having more conversations with my father. I’ll be on a morning walk thinking about some problem or concern and, suddenly, I’ll be asking Dad what he thinks.
Earl Brindle died in December, 2006.
It’s odd because I didn’t have that many conversations with my father when he was alive. Especially, as we both got older.
When my brother and I were kids, Dad always made it a point to be home for a family dinner at 6pm. He would ask us about what we learned in school or about our days and, if we asked him a question, his Dad’s response would be: “Look it up in the World Book”. [ World Book was the Encyclopedia Britanica for families of more modest means in those days but a useful reference source, nonetheless.] Dad’s response became a bit of a family joke. Whenever my brother or I asked a question, Dad would smile and we’d respond, “I know. Look it up in the World Book.”
My father is one of the reasons I ended up in Saratoga Springs. Dad loved to ride horses, a skill he picked up in Wyoming during his stint with the Army Air Forces, and enjoyed watching them race. Along with such sporting events as the Saturday night boxing matches, NY Giants football, and Red Sox baseball, we would always watch the Triple Crown races together. When I moved to Saratoga and took him to our legendary race course in August to watch the morning workouts, he was in heaven. Along with being able to give him a granddaughter who he adored, I’m glad that I was able to give him those experiences at Saratoga Race Course.
On this Father’s Day, I’m grateful for the time that my dad spent with me at the baseball field trying (unsuccessfully) to help me become a better player, trying to teach me (again, unsuccessfully) how to fish, and risking his life and his sanity as he endeavored to teach his 16 year old eldest son how to drive.
I was running errands this weekend and listening to the audiobook of Michael Chabon’s “Manhood For Amateurs” when I was surprised to hear Chabon talking about KFRC-FM, San Francisco and how its format change which essentially eliminated the Motown-British Invasion-Beach Boys music from the station’s playlist had affected him.
Chabon pointed out that most of the songs which he listened to on KFRC were already on his iPod but he observed that his reaction to the music in that context just wasn’t the same. “No medium is so sensuously evocative of the past as radio.”
That particular observation caused a low-level ecstatic reaction within my soul since the majority of my career has been invested in radio broadcasting. The irony, of course, is that I wasn’t listening to the radio in my car. I was listening to an audiobook which was talking about the radio listening experience.
But the real surprise for me was when Chabon mentioned that, while living in the Washington, DC area in 1972, his mother’s favorite radio station was WMOD-FM (“Stereo Gold”). I was an “on-air talent” on WMOD, (OK, a “DJ”) at the time.
In this chapter of “Manhood For Amateurs”, Chabon talks about how he listens to music radio virtually every day and about how that experience impacts his life.
For some reason, I feel grateful
I’ve just finished Jon Meachan’s biography, “Thomas Jefferson-The Art of Power”. It reminds me of the inadequate job that our education does in making history interesting and engaging for the teens in our school systems.
Did you know that there were people who wanted to impeach George Washington? That Jefferson received letters with death threats while he was President? That Meriwether Lewis of the famed Lewis & Clark originally was an aide for President Jefferson prior to being sent on the famous expedition and many years later reportedly went insane and committed suicide (or was murdered)? I didn’t.
As I listened to the audiobook version of Meacham’s book, I kept thinking how much more I would have taken away from my history courses in high school and college had my instructors explained the stories in context with events that were going on in the world at the time rather than on the this was the date/ this was the event/ this was the result approach.
I was also thinking about how great it would be if HBO reunited members of the cast from its John Adams series to recreate the same roles in a mini-series version of “Thomas Jefferson-The Art of Power”.