There’s a scene in Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK when Kevin Costner, playing the hero attorney Jim Garrison, breaks character and addresses the viewer directly to echo the words he just said to the jury passing judgment on the men who may have conspired to assassinate President John F. Kennedy: “Don’t forget your dying king.” Growing up Irish-Catholic, I learned to idolize JFK as a figure of great courage and to remember him as a figure of great sadness. The one item of non-religious art in my parents’ home was a bust of Kennedy’s head, bought years before I was born in the mad rush to commemorate his death. When I look at the official presidential portrait of Kennedy (above), completed by Aaron Shikler seven years after that day in Dallas, I can’t help but mourn the lost promise of that time, even though it came years before I was born. I also imagine sometimes that Kennedy can’t look us straight in the eye until we somehow come to grips with his death and the aftermath that seemingly stretches all the way to today. When I see Barack Obama, I see the same kind of JFK-style charisma and hope. Unfortunately, I see the potential for all that hope to be destroyed in a flash.
Whenever we look back at Kennedy there’s always some kind of barrier to what feels like the truth. Retrospection always blurs reality, but the layers between us and what happened on that day seem to have formed exponentially. From the very beginning, a mythos grew around the events, aided by the theater of the funeral itself. (I have a cousin who was born on the day JFK was buried. His name? Jack, of course.) Robert Rauschenberg’s Retroactive I (above, from 1963) beautifully depicts how JFK became part of a larger collage of images. Perhaps only an artist as tuned into the power of images and how they interact as Rauschenberg could weave such a powerful single image of multiple images so quickly, while the nation’s psychological wounds were still brutally fresh. Kennedy was the first president of the modern media age: television, full-color magazines, and lavishly illustrated newspapers. People knew his face and the faces of his family as well as their own. If politics is an art, Kennedy was America’s first political model and first political performance artist.
If there’s a book on Kennedy out there, whether a biography or a conspiracy theory, I’ve most likely read it. (Richard Reeves’ 1993 President Kennedy: Profile of Power is a no-nonsense, superbly written, personal favorite.) I’ve read everything about the assassination from The Warren Commission Report to Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, pouring over the illustrations in search of something I haven’t seen yet. Even the nightmare of the assassination itself spawned countless images—the most grotesque being the infamous Zapruder film. Perhaps the most bizarre is the “Backyard Photo” of Lee Harvey Oswald (above). Holding Communist literature in one hand and a rifle in the other, the “Backyard Photo” neatly seals the deal as to Oswald’s guilt as the lone assassin. Look closely, however, and you recognize it for the crude cut-and-paste job that it is. The shadows conflict with one another and Oswald’s head sits oddly on his shoulders, among other flaws. Who made this photo and why are questions that may never be answered. The dying king looks down at such surreal collage and wonders what happened to the social tapestry of his land. If we cannot save our dying king, at least we can honor his memory and replace the tragic pictures of the past with grand visions of our future.