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Bad Subjects #85: Is Kennedy Dead?

November 2013 will undoubtedly see much ink and pixel devoted to November 22nd, 1963, the day US President John F. Kennedy was shot. This issue of Bad Subjects: Political Education in Everyday Life examines the imagery of his enduring legacy, and especially his assassination fifty years ago.

Mike Mosher

November 2013 will undoubtedly see much ink and pixel devoted to November 22nd, 1963, the day US President John F. Kennedy was shot. This issue of Bad Subjects: Political Education in Everyday Life examines the imagery of his enduring legacy, and especially his assassination fifty years ago.

His assassination, and that of his brother Bobby, made the nation examine the easy availability of guns in the US. A decade ago, his brother Teddy regretted supporting Bush's "No Child Left Behind" legislation , but Teddy survived long enough to cast his final Senate vote for the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"). The impacts of Jack Kennedy's contemporaries, the late Dr. Martin Luther King and (surviving!) Fidel Castro, remain worthy of re-evaluation. Do the United States' bizarre Afghanistan and Iraq wars in our time echo the errors and horrors of the Vietnam war in the 1960s?

Kennedy-referencing imagery surrounds us. The culture of his time is reflected in TV's "Mad Men", in its sexual politics, personal vices and style. A t-shirt in the style and colors of Shepard Fairey's 2008 campaign poster for Barack Obama instead depicts JFK almost five decades before. Contemporary fashion periodically references Kennedy's wife Jacqueline, and performers still look to his girlfriend actress Marilyn Monroe. In the 2010 video for her song "Window Seat", Eryka Badu, who grew up in Dallas, did a strip tease as she walked across Dealey Plaza, site of John F. Kennedy's assassination. A photo of Obama doing target practice on a rifle range (not like gun-owners' votes were anywhere near his mind, oh no) turns him into the alleged shooter on Dealey Plaza's grassy knoll. The movie "Parkland" played in October this year, set in the hospital to which the wounded President was brought, causing New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden to lament "The Kennedy industry grinds on, with no end in sight." In sniping at the Kennedy-era nostalgia of Vanity Fair magazine in the latest Bookforum, "How many more revisits to Camelot can its subscribers take before launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund a statue of Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas's Dealey Plaza?" asks Tom Carson.

Besides riffs upon the violence, the imagery of the assassination is so intense that it invites eroticization. One recalls the outrage in 1964 when humorist Paul Krassner wrote of bullet wounds enlarged by weird sexual congress between LBJ and Kennedy's corpse on White House One's flight back to Washington DC from Dallas, Krassner's explanation for inconsistencies in the Warren Commission Report on the Assassination. In 2012, artist Chad M. White created two "Kennedy porn" collages, which featured astounded Dallas Police Detective Jim Leavelle, the tall, white-Stetson'ed escort of alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald when Jack Ruby shot him, and Oswald with his face contorted now not in pain but in pleasure, enjoying two complaisant women. We thought of including the images here...but you get the picture. The 1975 Ann Arbor (MI) Film Festival featured Detective Leavelle on its admission badge, a face everyone recognized but couldn't name.

Our collection begins with two contributors whose own political activism goes back to the struggles of the.1960s. Rosalie Riegle writes of a meeting between the Catholic activist Dorothy Day and Joseph Kennedy Jr. and his brother John, two Boston Irish-American sons of wealthy conservative father. Dr. Riegle is the author of several books on Dorothy Day and faith-based antiwar activism.

Joseph Natoli laments that JFK has become but one more meme in the incessant infosphere, and if his Presidency was occurring today, it would look very different shimmering in the light of 24-7 news feeds, political blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

Walter Alter praises the Kennedy administration's support of science and technology, especially initiating the race to land a man upon the moon, but finds conspiracy theories abound in both assassination lore and alternative scientific publishing.

Motown Records' output in 1963 is then given a spin, to locate President Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Berry Gordy's ambitious and disciplined "Sound of Young America" coming from its midwest, along with its British epigones.

Molly Hankwitz Cox appreciates First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, locating her in the feminine expectations of her class and nation five decades ago. She is recalled in her emblematic outfit, as reins of Presidential power were passed on the flight back from Dallas on Air Force One. Thanks also to Molly Hankwitz Cox, and to Tamara Watkins, for editorial preparation of this issue.

David Cox unpeels one Dealey Plaza representation from another, in several instances of American cinema, California performance arts, computer simulation and a videogame. Much as Cox cites 3D simulation of the assassination by Dale K. Meyers, Dartmouth College Computer Science Professor Hany Farid recently reconstructed the famous 1963 backyard photograph of Lee Harvey Oswald holding his rifle, and declared it to be genuine.

The most lucrative simulation, the game JFK Reloaded, is further examined by Nate Garrelts. The game forever relives and reinvents the events of November 22, 1963.

Ron Henggeler provides a photo documentary of the funeral of a 1960s civil rights pioneer in San Francisco, that of flamboyant gay activist Jose Sarria. It weirdly evokes the funeral of the slain President...Well, maybe if you substitute bearded men in mantillas, veils and widows' weeds for the Kennedy funeral's riderless horse with boots backwards in the stirrups.

What was the impact of the JFK assassination for those who were kids in 1963? In high school in the early 1970s, my Film class team made a Super-8 mm short on the pursuit through the hallways, and ultimate shooting, of a guy in a Kennedy mask, a Hallowe'en item from his Presidency a decade before. Later, we tried to mastermind a friend's student council campaign as "The New Kennedy"; one prankster saw our posters, added one proclaiming the candidate "warns of nuclear holocaust". In the mid-1970s, two other southeastern Michigan youth, filmmaker/artist Cary Loren and his girlfriend wrote a song "November 22, 1963" about the autumn day that shocked us as children a decade before, and its story and lyrics are included here. Niagara remembers the song's genesis as well, and its subsequent life in performance.

Among other stalwarts of the Punk-era cohort, Greg Gaar photographed the San Francisco band called the Dead Kennedys.

Marilyn, John and John, a comic by Ben Rufisque and Olivia Nixon, presents us with an alternate history of the intertwined deaths of an actress, the President with whom she dallied, and a British rock n' roller.

Finally, Charlie Bertsch reflects upon the musical Camelot, in John F. Kennedy's era and ours, as he watches his daughter sing along to it. In a season where the federal government, already under a sequester, was shut down for over two weeks, in an attempt to somehow derail a health care initiative, it's appropriate to think back fifty years to another moment of national crisis, the death of a President. And the few years of his Presidency. And to contemplate and wonder how our current political season, bewitched and befuddled, will appear (probably remixed and several times reinterpreted) to 2063.

—October 22, 2013

Copyright © Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.