From the Boston Tea Party to rock 'n roll, Americans have always taken their fun seriously. A new books reveals the spirit of joyous rebellion going back to the Pilgrims.
Guest Host: Christina Bellantoni
This week, the nation marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It’s a milestone that’s hard to miss, given the dozens of TV specials, documentaries, books, articles and commemorations marking the date. Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever joins us to reflect on what the programming reveals about our cultural connection to the eras that ended and began Nov. 22, 1963.
- Hank Stuever TV critic, The Washington Post; author, ‘Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere’ (2005) and ‘Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present’ (2010)
Walter Cronkite Remembers Reporting The President’s Death
“For the first time I realized the enormity of what we’d been reporting for a couple of hours anyway. I was announcing the death of this young president of the United States, this horrible death by madness of some individual or group of individuals; we didn’t know yet. I have learned something about myself and drew a very quick comparison, not at that moment but as I had to review the day and how it all went.” Hear more from Cronkite’s reflection.
Lady Bird Johnson Reflects On Returning Home From Texas
“Somebody would come by and offer us coffee or bouillon or a sandwich, and that hardly anybody ate anything. That everybody was wrapped in his own cocoon, sort of, or nightmare or…. And Lyndon was vastly more alert than I was. I remember, suddenly he looked around, and he said, ‘This is the President’s compartment; let’s get out of here.’ And so we went back and sat in the body of the plane, and in just a few moments Mrs. Kennedy came in and, of course, went in there.” Listen to more of Johnson’s recollections.
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIWelcome back. I'm Christina Bellantoni of the PBS News Hour sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And 50 years ago this week, under a bright blue Dallas sky, the course of history was altered in an instant, with a burst of violence that left the president dead and the nation reeling. Five decades later the emotions can still be raw. Countless what ifs and whys are still left unanswered. Twenty plus hours of documentaries and specials airing this month attempt to answer some of those questions.
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIBut after watching them, TV critic Hank Stuever was left with still more questions than answers. Questions about the rituals surrounding grief, what we tune out when we tune into these shows and replay the past. And he's here now to reflect on what this programming reveals about our cultural connection to the eras that ended and began on November 22, 1963. Hank Stuever, thanks for being here.
MR. HANK STUEVERWell, thanks for having me. You summed that up a whole lot better than I did.
BELLANTONIWell, we have plenty of time to get through all of the details of it but, yeah, so these questions that you're left with, 20 plus hours of footage. That is a lot of programming. What are people trying to answer 50 years later?
STUEVERYeah, and I just barely scratched the surface. I did -- you know, I -- all year long, of course, I've known that the anniversary was coming up. And the DVD screeners from different networks kept piling up. And I probably shouldn't have binged watched 20 plus hours of JFK documentaries. They're all very different from one another. But they all -- none of them really surprised me. And I don't need -- you know, some people are looking for quote unquote "surprise" from JFK programming, like I need to know more of what happened. I need to know things I didn't already know.
STUEVERI don't come at that way. I just need to see that the story has evolved and is being told for an audience in 2013 instead of an audience that is sort of stuck in time. And I don't think a lot of the programming really achieved that. There's some really good moments but I had some problems -- I kept thinking, wow all this time and we really don't have a new way of telling ourselves this story. We're still sort of guarded by, well, reverence for one thing obviously. But also just sort of telling ourselves the story over and over and over the same way.
BELLANTONIAnd obviously looking at all the pictures, which we're going to talk at length about -- and I should point out -- sorry for not doing this at the outset -- you are the TV critic for the Washington Post and author of the books "Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere" and "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present."
STUEVERWell, thank you for saying that.
BELLANTONIYeah. So I will also point out that the PBS News Hour, we're doing our, you know, look at JFK this week. And one way that we've tried to do it a little differently is we're having conversation with our founders, you know, Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, about their experiences coming up in journalism at this event. They were both there. They weren't working together at the time but it did shape their journalism philosophy and their careers. And we're airing that this week.
BELLANTONISo what did these networks say that they're trying to achieve by doing this? Is it about getting audiences or are people really demanding this kind of coverage?
STUEVERWell, some of them have had pretty good ratings. You know, a lot of the JFK-related material that's on this month has already aired. This is a big week, of course, Friday being the actual anniversary. The Washington Post is doing its commemorative on Friday. And I've written a piece -- a shorter piece for that. You know, I think what they're looking for is just a piece of the game. You know, it's important. We all know it. It has to be observed in some way and I think that they all kind of reflectively ordered up some programming so that they would not be left out.
STUEVERI think everybody has, you know, the fear of missing out. I think this often drives a lot of news agendas and a lot of programming agendas as well.
BELLANTONISo were there any things that stuck out to you particularly as, you know, good content that you saw in these 20 hours or bad?
STUEVERThe best thing I saw aired early and it aired right before -- it was on National Geographic Channel and it aired right before -- they did "Killing Kennedy." They adapted the Bill O'Reilly book and had Rob Lowe playing Kennedy and Ginnifer Goodwin playing Jackie. And that was a bit stilted. But right before that they aired a movie called "The Final Hours," which is really sort of -- it sort of blew me away, the agenda that the president and the first lady were on in those couple of days in Texas.
STUEVERAnd it follows everywhere they went and talks to as many people who brushed up against them who prepared dinner for them or served them or touched them or shook their hands or made the beds, you know. And I liked seeing all those real people. You know, one notable thing about all this JFK programming is a lot of the people doing the talking were men. One thing I liked about "The Final Hours" on National Geographic was that it interviewed a lot of women who were teenage girls on November 22 in Fort Worth, in Dallas all cramming for a look at Jack and a look at Jackie.
STUEVERAnd, you know, so watching them was sort of a relief because I've watched a lot of male conspiracy theorists, male historians, male secret service agents who are still alive. You know, just all the people that seemed to be talking to the camera were guys.
BELLANTONISure. And then also the letters from Jackie Project, which...
STUEVER...is a very female centric project. TLC has "Letters to Jackie." I think it aired last night. All of these things are, of course, available to watch either OnDemand or you can ask your DVR to hunt for them. And "The Letters to Jackie" is a movie that takes some of the, I think, 800,000 letters that Mrs. Kennedy received in the wake of the assassination and has celebrities, male and female, read the letters in the voices of the people who wrote them.
STUEVERAnd it is moving. It's a very beautiful movie. It's a very -- it's a softer and more original approach to this anniversary than just a lot of Daley Plaza, a lot of Zapruder, a lot of conspiracy theories.
BELLANTONIWell, one of the -- the reason that the media can do this is because we like to reflect back on where we were, what it says about us, about our own role and how we viewed these major events. So we'd love to hear from the audience if you'd like to give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. You know, tell us if you've watched any JFK specials this year and what attracted you to them. Why were you interested? But we did get an email from Robin Cook asking specifically why have we developed such an obsession with milestone anniversaries? And we have seen this.
STUEVEROh, I know. And, you know, fasten your seatbelts because there's a lot of them in the '60s. The next big one we're going to have to deal with is...
BELLANTONIAnd a lot of baby boomers to celebrate that, right?
STUEVERYeah, exactly, exactly. And, you know, the baby boomers have had a sort of -- have been the controlling force in popular culture forever now for most of us. You know, it's interesting to point out that the average age in America is 37. So that disqualifies a lot of people from having any first-hand memories of the Kennedy assassination, or just about anything that happened in the '60s. I was born in '68, you know, so I get a lot of email back from people like, how can you possibly know what any of this means or how any of this felt?
STUEVERAnd part of my response is, well I want to know. I've always been interested in the '60s. But part of my response is, well I'm 45 now. I know what I know, you know. I'm not -- anybody who wasn't alive for the Kennedy assassination is not necessarily a child, is not necessarily naïve or unaware of what it meant to American culture and American politics.
BELLANTONISure. And we've seen that with replaying of September 11th events, you know. And the way that the networks are doing a lot of this coverage is sort of the minute-by-minute -- there are networks that choose to replay exactly what happened on September 11, 2001 with those terrorist attacks minute by minute. And even social media strategy, tweeting it...
STUEVERAnd I have heard from my readers that the thing that they would like to see most on television is sort of an accurate minute-by-minute replay of November 22, 1963. There's a whole lot less television to be watching on that Friday. One of the better projects is a PBS project that's about how Walter Cronkite confirmed the death and went on the air with it and how UPI had it and then AP had it and who had it first and how had it how. And it's called "1:00 pm Central Standard Time" on PBS.
BELLANTONIGood. Thanks for the plug for PBS. We appreciate it. So members of the Kennedy family participate in only very few of these programs. So it's important for us to sort of think about how this might be a shared national event for us, but for them this is a very personal tragic family loss.
STUEVERYeah, I think every time, you know, we are still curious about the Kennedys, the generation that was contemporaneous with Jack and Bobby, but also their children. I think probably one of the better projects that's ever been made about the Kennedys was last year on HBO when Rory Kennedy, the youngest of RFK's children made a documentary about her mother. It was certainly the most personal and obviously the most access to the family and to that sense of loss that we've ever seen.
STUEVERI keep reminding people that for the Kennedys this is a murder. This is murder that happened in their family and it was one of two really big murders that happened in their family. You know, they've processed a lot of grief and a lot of death and a lot of tragedy and a lot of mistakes. But they are officially pretty unavailable for everybody's need for a milestone anniversary. And I can't really blame them, you know.
BELLANTONIRight. Right. And, you know, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the tragic school shooting in Newtown, you've seen those families ask for the media to stay away. We don't want to do retrospectives. We don't want to be part of that because they're, you know, grieving very palpably there. So we've got a couple callers. You can of course join our conversation at 1-800-433-8850.
BELLANTONITell us how do you think the way we reflect on historic events, what it says about our current culture. You can also send a Tweet to @kojoshow or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Bob in Frederick, Md. is on the line and says he thinks there's something missing from the coverage. Thanks for joining us, Bob.
BOBOh, thank you. I'm 67 years old. I grew up in the Washington area and of course I remember delivering newspapers on that morning, the Washington Post that had the headline, you know. And I have watched all of the developments over the years. And I happen to be of that school who believes that this was one single crazy man who did it.
BOBAnd my remark about this is that it wasn't until I read the book "Case Closed" that I got a really whole picture of Oswald as a human being and what his background was in detail. I think that in the popular culture, I don't think enough attention has been paid to who Oswald was and what his demons were and beyond those questionable things, like what did he got to Mexico for, I wonder if you think that programs that would delve into a little more about who Oswald was as a human being would be of benefit to the whole country in terms of resolving the sadness and tragedy of the entire thing for all of us.
STUEVERWell, possibly, yeah, a good question, Bob. There is a program, I mentioned earlier, "Killing Kennedy" which was a movie on National Geographic channel which is still showing it. Rob Lowe plays the president, but, you know, the book by Bill O'Riley is called "Killing Kennedy" and it's sort of a rehash of just sort of all the available known facts about Oswald and why he did it.
STUEVERAnd it's actually the best part of that movie, is the young man who plays Oswald is really good. My colleague, Amy Argetsinger, gave me a great line. She's like, yeah, he was like the poor man's Ryan Gosling, which I put in the paper. But he's really good and that story is actually more about who Oswald was. It follows him to Russia where he meets his wife and comes back. He changes his mind, you know.
STUEVERHe defected to Russia. It was kind of in the news and then he came back and it tries to get a little of who was Oswald. The only other really sort of memorable project for me, of course, is Don DeLillo's novel "Libra" which came out probably 25 years ago. But yeah, you know, it would be kind of -- I mean, I'm sure people could remember 10 or 20 projects that were Oswald-centric. But, you know, and then, of course, the History Channel and all of its programming this Friday night.
STUEVERThey conducted a new survey that says presently, in the present day, 71 percent of Americans, they claim from their survey, don't believe that Oswald acted alone. I happen to believe that Oswald acted alone. I think I believe that because it's just easier at this point. You know, like, okay, what if he did, what if he didn't. It's still been 50 years. Kennedy is still dead. We went our way, you know, all of those events changed American culture, but we processed it and went on, you know.
BELLANTONIAnd there's actually a book out about Oswald, "The Interloper" by Peter Savodnik that's interesting. And I should point out that we're getting a lot of questions and tweets of people asking us about some of the programming you're mentioning and when it's airing. Hank did this great schedule in your story that we will make sure to post on Kojo.
STUEVERYeah, yeah, please do.
BELLANTONIKojoshow.org so check that a little bit later. So now, Maryanne is on the line. She is joining us from Woodbridge, Virginia. Thanks for calling, Maryanne.
MARYANNEHi. I was 15 when this happened. My dad was in Congress. I went to school in Alexandria. And I remember really well a teacher sticking his head in saying the president had been shot. And I started watching a lot of the programs and I agree with you that the best one was the day to day, moment to moment what they were doing. That was the best one.
MARYANNEAnd then, I stopped 'cause I felt like, god, I'm getting caught in my own past.
STUEVEROh, yeah, yeah.
STUEVERNo, yeah, fatigue sets in, absolutely.
MARYANNEYeah, it's sort of like -- it was a moment, but, you know, at a certain age, you start thinking a lot about the past and you need to stop doing that and thinking about the future and that's the way this felt to me. It was, yeah, it was major. It was really big. But it was 50 years ago.
BELLANTONIThat's right. Thank you, Maryanne, for calling. We're going to continue our conversation about coverage of the JFK anniversary, the assassination after a short break. I'm Christina Bellantoni. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
BELLANTONIWelcome back. I'm Christina Bellantoni of the PBS News Hour sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Hank Stuever of The Washington Post about all of the 20 hours of coverage of the JFK assassination that we are going to be seeing this week and have been seeing. We're getting a lot of people writing us and tweeting at us. So we've got one email to email@example.com from Silver Spring -- Constance in Silver Spring.
BELLANTONI"No more Kennedy shows, please. We have had quite enough, especially those of us who actually lived through the event. We now know two things about the assassination. Cheap guns kill people. Jack Kennedy is dead. Enough already. How about some shows about the many other worthy people both alive and dead." So Hank, what kind of response did you get to your story where you were saying there wasn't a lot of new in this 20 hours?
STUEVERI got some agreement 'cause the central thesis of my very long piece which ran on November 8, which you can find on WashingtonPost.com, is, you know, if we cannot move on from this, then we can certainly do less than we have done. It's not just 20 hours. It's 20 plus hours of programming, probably verging on more than 30 or 40 hours of programming spread out across all networks.
STUEVERIt seems like everybody wanted a piece of this. You know, so I did get response from people who were like, yes, agree, too much, enough, let's move on, live in the present, live in the future. Some of it was, well, you feel that way because you weren't alive for it, therefore you don't know how important this is to me. I would say that I, in fact, do know how important this is to you.
STUEVERI've spend a lifetime studying American culture and American history and listening to people talk about things that they remember. Nobody loves the past more than I do. But, you know, we're going to have a lot of these 50th anniversaries and people are going to have a lot of responses to a lot of things that happened in the '60s. The next big one is what is thought to generally be the healing moment in U.S. history, which is the Beatles came.
STUEVERFebruary 9, 1964 was "The Ed Sullivan Show" and CBS has already planned a big concert for that.
BELLANTONIThat's a feel-good event. I can get behind that. So we have a tweet to @kojoshow from Luigi saying "Kennedy's assassination is as distant to this generation as Lincoln's or Caesar's," which is an interesting point. So we have on the line, Jack from Washington D.C. who has some thoughts about what actually would be useful to learn about the assassination 50 years later. Hi, Jack.
JACKYes. Hello. Am I the person on now?
BELLANTONIYes. And actually -- sorry. You're...
JACK(unintelligible) I'm sorry. I'm sorry. That's why I didn't -- yes. I actually applied for a committee which was -- there was a second assassination committee struck. John (word?) was a part of that. (word?) was there and sort of thing. They came up with a finding which was an acoustical report and I think that we do a disservice to the entire situation when we talk subjectively, what we feel, what we don't feel, this, that and the other.
JACKWe should think in terms of -- after all, this was a president of the United States. That's number one. Number two, one commission may have had as a top objective, if not a secondary objective, called pacifying the country, to make ends meet. We can have a successful succession. LBJ is now president and our country rolls and that sort of thing. This has nothing to do with the factual discrepancies and that sort of thing.
JACKLifton, I believe his first name was David, wrote a good book called "Best Evidence." I would urge people to look at it, talking about what actually happened in the pathology room and discrepancy so...
BELLANTONIThank you for that, Jack. Appreciate...
JACK...that's about it. Thank you so much.
BELLANTONIWe've got a tweet from Bethie, who is curious to know with only print media existing, how people reacted to the 50th anniversary of President Lincoln's assassination. I don't know the answer to that.
STUEVERI don't know the answer to that either. I might go back to The Washington Post and look through the microfilm, what would that be? 1915? Yeah, 1915. You know, it's hard to think of -- and I did write this. It's hard to think of something that could have or would have occurred in 1913 that we would've cleared the decks for in 1963, like done a special sections in newspapers, special issues of magazines, 30, 40, 50 plus hours of television programming, you know.
STUEVERThere's a line of thought out there that we are such nostalgia addicts in this present culture that we are really having a hard time living in our own century because we have so many tools with which to look back, you know. We have good television from 50 years ago that we can sit and watch about this.
BELLANTONIAnd that's going to continue, absolutely, from that point.
STUEVERAnd that's going to just keep building. It's compounding interest in the nostalgia bank, you know. So I think, you know, in the long term, it would be interesting if American culture could learn to look forward instead of backward all the time.
BELLANTONISure. Well, back to the looking backward. I should also point out that it's the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address tomorrow and the News Hour's actually taking a look at that and the importance of the speech and everything about Lincoln. And we do, we take these milestones of, you know, these landmark presidents, presidents that meant something or changed our society and we reflect back endlessly, in some cases.
BELLANTONISo we have a question from Richard in Washington D.C. about a certain Oswald -- or no, a certain documentary from PBS, I believe. Richard, you're on the line.
RICHARDActually, many years ago, shortly after the assassination, CBS did a fabulous piece called "Four Days in November" which they then repeated in about 1988. And maybe you know it.
STUEVERNo. I remember it, yeah. I remember it being on in the repeat, yeah. The 25th anniversary.
RICHARDAnd my memory is that it was harrowing in that caught exactly the flavor of being 21 years old in 1963 and at Harvard. Do you know whether they are going -- CBS or anybody else is going to repeat that show and also I understand there is a piece that is also called "Four Days in November" that is on DVD by David Wolper and whether that is essentially the same content. Do you know?
STUEVERI do not know. I have not had any advisories from CBS that they're planning to reshow that.
RICHARDBoo, boo. That was so -- and I just advise anybody who's never seen it, if one can, and I observe that somebody has posted it in 12 not very easy installments on YouTube and it is just fabulous.
STUEVERWell, that is what I was going to suggest, that you -- one way or another, all things go to YouTube until, you know, some copyright attorney puts a stop to it.
RICHARDRight, yeah. Anyway, I would strongly recommend that to anybody who has not seen it and who wants the flavor of what that was like.
BELLANTONIThank you, Richard, for calling.
RICHARDThank you a lot.
BELLANTONIAppreciate it. So we have Anne in Silver Spring who has some thoughts about all of the extensive coverage that we're seeing here. Hi, Anne.
ANNEHi. Hi, thanks for taking my call. I was a freshman in college when President Kennedy was shot and I can remember it seems like dozens, hundreds of people, streaming back to the dorm where there was only on TV so everyone was going.
ANNEAnd hearing, you know, all the women in dorm -- well, maybe not all of them, but lots of them sobbing and I was one of those. But I have to say that over the years what I have read and heard from perfectly respectable sources about the Kennedys and the Kennedy administration makes me a little disturbed about the degree to which we are all plunging back into the past as if this were a great hero.
ANNEI do want to say that I think the assassination of anyone and certainly of an American president is a great tragedy and very shocking and continues to be, but I feel as if I think of those sobbing young women and think that -- I'm not a person who likes to dump on the media, but I kind of feel like we were fooled. We had an idea and the country had an idea of someone who was, in fact, not a hero at all.
ANNEAnd I don't want to go into any detail. I don't know if that would be appropriate, but I'm not watching any of these shows. I am just sticking with "Sherlock Holmes."
BELLANTONIMore PBS plans.
ANNEThis is a very disturbing week for me so I leave it to everyone else to critique the TV.
STUEVERThanks for calling.
BELLANTONIThank you, Anne.
ANNEThanks again, bye.
STUEVERYou know, that is an interesting response and a common response. I remember it firsthand. I remember how horrible it was. And now, all these years later, I have also had enough time and information, which I should point out, came from the media, to reevaluate this man, this very complicated, flawed man whose presidency was not a shining success, as brief as it was. It had its, you know, it achieved a lot and it set a tone for the country, but this tragic event put him in a perspective and put him on a pedestal from which we feel weird about removing him from in order to have a frank discussion about who he really was, what he really achieved.
STUEVERAnd I think Anne's response is completely valid, you know, especially if you feel let down in hindsight, you know.
BELLANTONIWell, it's another thing to reflect on for this week. So we have Karen in Washington D.C. This will be our last caller, I believe. So Karen, you have a different perspective on all of this coverage. Briefly, if you wouldn't mind.
KARENHi. I do. I'm a nurse practitioner and I was in nursing school at University of Maryland on the day of the assassination. And the assassination of our president, regardless of who he was, whether he was Kennedy or Nixon or Eisenhower or whatever, was absolutely devastating. And to this day, I find it far more devastating than 9-11 because regular people are supposed to be vulnerable, not -- we're supposed to be a civilized country where we don't assassinate our president.
KARENAnd I think that people who forget their history are bound to repeat it. And I think the idea of saying, well, this is behind us, it doesn't happen anymore, let's focus on the future, is wrong-headed, especially, with this particular president that we now have who has had targets painted on his back and who has been -- people have suggested that he should be hanged or shot or whatever. I think that focusing on whether Kennedy was a wonderful man or not or whether it was Camelot or not is wrong.
KARENI think the issue is that a president was assassinated.
BELLANTONIThank you, Karen, for your perspective. We really...
STUEVERThat's a great point. That's a great point.
BELLANTONI...appreciate that. And we want to remind everybody again that all these resources will be at KojoShow.org. I wanted to thank very much, Hank Stuever...
STUEVERThanks for having me.
BELLANTONI...TV critic for The Washington Post, author of the books "Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere," "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present." Thank you.
BELLANTONIAnd I have been filling in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm Christina Bellantoni of the PBS News Hour. Thanks very much for being here. Have a great day.
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