Friday, November 21, 2003

'The Birth of the Death Business'

President Kennedy was killed 40 years ago tomorrow, and if the wailings of the baby boomers who still dominate newsrooms are any indication, we still haven't recovered, four decades and eight presidential administrations later.

Philadelphia Weekly editor Tim Whitaker, for example, filed a painfully overwritten column that begins with a quote from Lou Reed's "The Day John Kennedy Died" and, I swear to God, ends with this paragraph:

Watching, it all looks as it did 40 years ago, when Matt was at the door with his basketball. But it doesn't feel the same. It can't. It won't ever.


Ugh. The rest of Whitaker's piece is no more relevant. Check out any paper or news Web site across the country and you'll surely see similar thoughts this weekend. Take, for instance, the three pieces on today's New York Times op-ed page alone.

For an even more tiresome angle, read Beth Gillin's story in today's Inquirer that draws the jaw-dropping conclusion that "for more than half of the U.S. population, not yet born on Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy's death is an event unclouded by sentiment." Oh. My. God. You mean today's college students don't see as the touchstone of their lives something that happened 20 years before they were even in existence? Are you as shocked -- shocked! -- as I am?

Somebody in the Inky's newsroom should have spiked that story idea the second it escaped from some clueless, 50-year-old editor's lips.

On the other hand, Wednesday's paper had an insightful, clear-eyed commentary piece from Karen Heller arguing that JFK's assassination marked "the birth of the death business, a profligate fascination with the loss of celebrated Americans whose lives ended early." Heller cites the aftermaths of the premature losses of Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Jimi Hendrix, and could have extended her thesis from the 1960s and '70s to the present day, when the passing of Princess Diana elicited a numbing amount of coverage.

Adding that "the man's legacy will never completely rest in peace," Heller perceptively writes:

For much of the baby boom and anyone younger, Kennedy has always been a martyr, a vessel. He's been known only in death. And this has helped fuel the prurient interest in his killing. Many of us, myself included, learned of his assassination before we understood he'd been president.

With that single bullet, or perhaps several, began a national pastime of celebrity necrophilia, an obsession with turning the dead into myth and embracing the myth more than the sometimes prosaic aspects of an actual life.

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