Monday, November 25, 2013

Remembering Kennedy and the Power of Television

Fifty years ago: America goes to a funeral. And television discovers its power.
Fifty years ago today, America attended a funeral. Millions of people brought to an end a long vigil that had begun (for most of them) sometime on the afternoon of November 22, 1963.

It began with a shock. People remember where they were when they first heard about the unbelievable news. John F. Kennedy, the President of the United States, had been assassinated.

Among the millions was a nearly 11 month old little boy. I was later told that my mother was holding me as she wept. As one of the last of the boomers, I was born before this event took place, although I have no memory of it. Nevertheless I did grow up in its shadow; by the time I was an adolescent, it had become common for political figures to be assassinated, or at least to endure assassination attempts. Many other things that were new 50 years ago have long since become features of daily life, taken for granted. As I observe this 50th anniversary, I am struck by the fact that the Kennedy Assassination was not only a violent and tragic event in American history. It was also a singular moment in the "history of media" that I find compelling, as I try to ponder the significance and the challenges of our multi-platform, interactive, hyper-networked global village of today.

It is worth noting that the approaching years will be a time of more historic commemoration and, no doubt, reappraisal. Some events may receive more attention than others, but we are approaching many dramatic moments that mark the great shifting of historical epochs that I believe we are living through even now.

We will be marking 50 year anniversaries of the many twists and turns of that tumultuous and strange decade, the "Sixties". Far less likely to be noted by Americans are the 100 year anniversaries that will commence on June 28, 2014. This date has little hold on the contemporary imagination. Indeed, if you Google "Franz Ferdinand" your top search responses will be references to a popular music group. Wikipedia, of course, will appear to remind the curious that there was once an Austrian archduke by that name.

In contrast to November 22, there is no doubt that the assassination of June 28, 1914 was a conspiracy. It was also, unwittingly, the beginning of the unraveling of the Western world in a century of war and terror, and the rise of Something Else that we do not yet understand, but that has as one of its defining features the expanse of technological power on a Promethean scale. But I digress; I'll get back to this next June.

The rise of "Something Else" (an epoch that cannot yet be named) is part of the significance of the present anniversary, however. Technological power has affected culture in a profound way. It has affected how human beings experience public events, how they communicate them, and how these events shape their memories. November 22-25, 1963 marks the beginning of a new stage in the history of media.

President Kennedy died a tragic and untimely death by assassination, and this alone is enough to mark his place in presidential history with sorrowful memory. But something seemed different about John F. Kennedy's relationship with the American people. The people of this vast nation felt like they "knew" him; they "connected" with him through an entirely new kind of technological, but also human experience. And this experience was solidified in a singular way by the events that happened 50 years ago.

After Americans heard the news, they went to their televisions and turned them on. An entire nation gathered through the medium of television to grieve, to learn how and why it had happened, and -- as it turned out -- to witness more events unfold as Lee Harvey Oswald was captured and then was himself killed on camera by Jack Ruby. A nation watched as history unfolded, live, before their eyes. This experience, in itself, was "historic". Nothing so dramatic and intense had ever been experienced in this way before.

And 50 years ago today, America went to the funeral.

It seems almost trite now to remark that Kennedy was America's first "TV President." Multimedia are so woven into our daily experience today that it is difficult for us to conceive of the subtle but powerful innovation that occurred during his presidency. It was subtle, because by 1961 the television had already established itself as the technological hearth of the American household. But now this young, (apparently) vibrant, and articulate President became a familiar "guest" in America's living rooms.

Radio, of course, had already tilled the field of direct and "familiar" communication of a leader to his people. But video added a new dimension to this experience of familiarity (as well as new techniques of fabricating the image of familiarity). And the Kennedys were a perfect fit for making "friends" with America. Perhaps the high point of this connection was when 80 million Americans from New York to Kansas to Montana to California sat in their living rooms while being taken on a "live" tour of the White House by none other than the elegant Mrs. Kennedy herself.

This was also the age of the explosion of color photography, which also played an important role in this experience of connection. The Kennedys were everywhere.

Of course there was a great deal of illusion in all of this. The images were carefully cultivated during a time when it was still possible to keep secrets from the public. Ordinary Americans knew nothing of Kennedy's extensive marital infidelity while he was alive. But the biggest secret of all was the fact that this "vibrant young man" was chronically and even dangerously sick with Addison's disease (adrenal failure) and suffered from agonizing neuromuscular back pain. No one knew that he wore a back brace and traveled with doctors, therapists, and a virtual portable pharmacy of stimulants, painkillers, and of course the cortisone shots he needed to stay alive.

Thus the familiar feeling of Americans for their President was primarily a feeling for an "image" rather than the much more complex reality of the man himself. Of course, cultivating a public image is nothing new, but what was new was how media enabled this president to leave his audiovisual imprint upon the imaginations of millions of people. Thus he drew people's affection, and with his sudden death, he drew their grief. Public life would never be the same again.

Thus there was not only a death, but there was also a birth on November 22, 1963 and the days that followed. It was the birth of a cultural experience of historic proportions, the impact of which has perhaps surpassed the historical significance of the American President who was its subject.

A "New Medium" was born out of the sudden agony of those days. By this we mean not a new piece of technology, but a new means for human beings to participate in events. Television had awoken to the vastness of its power, which it would apply in many ways in the years to come, sometimes to clarify events and other times to manipulate them.

Television has since lost its monopoly on audiovisual media. The Newer Media have been placed in the hands of everyone. We must not forget, however, that they remain forms of power through which we can serve one another, or degrade and manipulate one another.

But there are some things that will always remain beyond our vision or any of its extensions. Beyond our power. This too we must always remember.

Rest in peace, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.