With JFK memories, baby boomers strive to keep history alive

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They may be getting older, but baby boomers are not ready to pass the torch to a new generation when it comes to setting the national media agenda.

Exhibit A: the consuming attention surrounding the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy.


SEE ALSO: 50 years later, John F. Kennedy’s death still haunts America


Boomers will never forget where they were on Nov. 22, 1963, which means the nation is awash in books, articles, tributes and television specials marking the 50th anniversary of an event that three out of four Americans cannot remember.

In point of fact, most Americans were either not yet born or too young to recall the day JFK took a fatal bullet in Dallas. Nobody is denying that his death shocked the world and became the touchstone for the generation born in the aftermath of World War II.

Still, times change: What was the defining coming-of-age political moment for many older Americans is increasingly distant history for the generations that followed. In chronological terms, the Kennedy assassination is closer in time to the outbreak of World War I than it is to today. For most Americans, the Kennedy assassination might as well be the McKinley assassination in terms of its relevance. Their historic marker, the date they can’t forget, is Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists flew passenger jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

How many people younger than 40 can identify the following: Camelot? The 1,000 days? The Warren Report? The grassy knoll? There was a time when everyone knew these terms. Now, for many, they are firmly in the history books.

“It’s certainly a bigger deal for people who lived through it. That was the whole touchstone for an entire generation. Everyone knows where they were when it happened,” said Seth Masket, a professor of political science at the University of Denver.

Of course, Mr. Masket doesn’t remember where he was because, like most other Americans, he wasn’t around.


PHOTOS: 50 years later: The unfulfilled promise of John F. Kennedy and his generation-defining death


“It’s a piece of history for most people, instead of a piece of their lives,” Mr. Masket said.

Russ Smith, editor of Splice Today and himself a boomer, predicted in a recent Web posting that “most [JFK] books bomb, mostly because for most Americans those tumultuous days in 1963 are ancient history.”

Kennedy’s assassination might as well have occurred in the 19th century. Save for ascending and budding historians, where’s the audience for yet another encore of Camelot?” said Mr. Smith. “Lee Harvey Oswald? Who dat? Same with Jack Ruby, Jim Garrison, Barry Goldwater, ‘the best and the brightest,’ and even LBJ.”

Here is a bracing test for boomers: Ask a few teenagers what Nov. 22 means to them. Nine out of 10 will tell you that’s the release date for the movie “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”

Ouch. Still, it’s impossible to convince boomers that they are not the center of the universe. Just as they didn’t listen to their parents, boomers have developed a case of selective hearing when it comes to their children and grandchildren.

In many ways, the Kennedy assassination signaled the beginning of the 1960s, a decade marked by epic turmoil and social unrest during the boomers’ formative years.

The 2010s appear destined to become the “anniversary decade” in which younger generations of Americans are prodded to pay proper tribute to the great and terrible ‘60s. Expect 50-year commemorations for events including the following: the Beatles take America (February 1964); the subsequent British music invasion; the Tet Offensive (Jan. 31, 1968); the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (April 4, 1968); the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy (June 6, 1968); the moon landing (July 20, 1969); and Woodstock (Aug. 15-18, 1969).

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