A Camelot Nostalgia Tour for Those Who Remember, and Those Who Don’t
By Peter Baker, NY Times, August 31, 2013
WASHINGTON—After all the ceremonies for M.L.K., there’s now J.F.K.
For anyone interested in another momentous era in American history, attention is turning to John F. Kennedy’s Camelot with as much intensity as the commemorations last week for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Fifty years later, the assassination of America’s 35th president will once again captivate the nation—or so hope museum curators, book publishers, filmmakers, documentary producers, magazine editors and conspiracy theorists. Not content to wait until November, the marketplace is already brimming with all things Kennedy, the start of a “deluge,” as the producer of one coming documentary put it.
Newsstands are making space for photo-heavy commemorative issues with essays by the likes of former President Bill Clinton. Bookstores are crowded with new volumes re-examining the single-gunman theory and Kennedy’s “vampire romance” with Marilyn Monroe (complete with exceedingly graphic sex scenes). Movie theaters and television sets will recreate the glory and the tragedy with actors like Rob Lowe playing the martyred president.
At the Newseum in Washington, more than 300,000 people have already trooped through exhibits displaying the first United Press International bulletin on the assassination, the revolver carried by one of the president’s Secret Service agents and a collection of intimate photographs. After watching an original 16-minute documentary titled “A Thousand Days,” visitors leave sticky notes with thoughts and memories.
"There’s an ongoing historical resonance," said Shelby Coffey, the museum’s vice chairman. "It’s a large part of the collective memory, even for people who are much younger."
Even amid the year’s other mile markers, including the 150th anniversaries of the Battle of Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Kennedy’s death occupies a distinctive place in the American story, harking back to an often romanticized era.
"It’s amazing that Kennedy should have this extraordinary hold on the public’s imagination 50 years after," said Robert Dallek, a historian, whose book "Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House" is being released in October. "He’s the one president along with Reagan who gave people hope. It’s hope, it’s optimism, it’s the feeling that he could have made this a different world."
It is also heartbreak and mystery, the beautiful widow and their young children, the whispered tales of secret assignations, the never-dispelled suspicion that there was more to his death than officially acknowledged.
The rosy view of Kennedy, while not always shared by historians and shaded by revelations of recent years, has made him the most popular modern president. In a 2010 survey by Gallup, 85 percent of Americans approved of him, higher than any president who has followed.
"Most politicians, presidents included, after they die they’re forgotten," said the Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, whose best-selling book "Killing Kennedy" is being made into a movie. "But not Kennedy. Kennedy is special. They still have a presence; the family is still a presence in politics. It’s still very relevant."
The Atlantic titled its commemorative issue “JFK: In His Time and Ours.” Along with an excerpt from Mr. Dallek’s book, it features an introduction by Mr. Clinton, an article by the historian Alan Brinkley and a fictional story by Thomas Mallon imagining what would have happened if Lee Harvey Oswald had lost his nerve.
So many authors have seized on the moment that an Amazon.com search turned up about 140 Kennedy-related books being released or rereleased this year. Skyhorse Publishing alone has eight new offerings, along with 17 reprints and a set of Kennedy-themed cards.
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas is remodeling its visitors center, adding artifacts and scheduling discussions. In Dealey Plaza outside the museum, the local government plans the first official event that Dallas as a city has held in Kennedy’s memory, featuring the historian David McCullough. Demand for the 5,000 tickets was so strong that they were distributed by lottery, underscoring the evolution for a city stigmatized by the assassination.
Those outside Dallas will still find it hard to miss the moment. Next month, Tom Hanks will release “Parkland,” named for the hospital where Kennedy died. ReelzChannel will broadcast a second-gunman documentary called “JFK: The Smoking Gun.” And Stephen Gyllenhaal is making “The Kennedy Detail” about the president’s Secret Service agents, to be released next year, based on the book by Gerald S. Blaine and Ms. McCubbin.
The media flurry might have impressed Kennedy, the first president to master television. But it raises an interesting question: How would Kennedy have done in the cable-Internet-Twitter environment?
Mr. O’Reilly is dubious. “J.F.K. was slow spoken, very deliberate, didn’t like confrontation,” he said. On the other hand, he said, “Bobby Kennedy could have his own show on Fox. He was feisty, in your face. He’s a guy I would hire.”