herald

Wednesday 19 September 2018

Still in thrall to JFK, 50 years on

WHEN it comes to popular discussions of the Kennedy assassination (and its aftermath) there have, traditionally, been two basic approaches.

There's, what you might call, the 'forensic' approach where it's all about the mechanics and the minutiae of the event itself. Where the focus is on, say, the trajectories of magic bullets,or blurry shapes on the grassy knoll. Where Dealey Plaza becomes a tragic stage with its own cast of enigmatic characters. Where each tiny piece of the puzzle ultimately points (depending on who you believe) to Sam Giancana, or the KGB, or the Freemasons, or, even, Woody Harrelson's dad.

Then there's the more speculative, nostalgic and romantic approach, where the assassination is frequently imagined as the moment that shattered a nation's 'innocence' (the "seven seconds that broke the back of the American century'', as Don DeLillo once put it). The end of a 'golden age' and the start of more uncertain times. A trauma from which America (supposedly) never recovered.

Commemoration

Liveline devoted itself almost entirely this week to a 50th anniversary commemoration of Kennedy's death. So which approach did it adopt?

Well, by the time a caller had described JFK as a "knight in shining armour on his white steed with Jackie Kennedy on the back of the horse", it was clear that we probably weren't about to get a piercing critical re-evaluation of the Kennedy presidency. The bubble of Camelot was not about to be burst. What we mostly got, instead, were reverential callers telling Joe where they were (and what they were at) when they heard the grim news, and attempting to explain, in Duffy's words, "why it was such an apocalyptic event for so many".

On Monday, Derek told Joe he'd been watching Coronation Street with his mother in Belfast when news came through (which makes you appreciate, if nothing else, Coronation Street's staggering longevity). A "disgusted" Nora, who was working in an Ennis hotel at the time, recalled how a "small group of Texans down in the dining room...started cheering" when Kennedy's death was confirmed.

Colin, from Co Limerick, remembered being "disgusted" too, but for somewhat different reasons. His father had been due to appear on Jackpot, with Terry Wogan. Then came the news flash and the cancellation of all scheduled programmes. Eight-year-old Colin's "immediate reaction"? "Why didn't he get shot some other time?". "I didn't blame Oswald at all", said Colin, "Kennedy was at fault for being there". It's all about priorities.

Breaking

On Tuesday, Kit explained why she may have been "the first person in Ireland to hear about JFK". She worked in "the telephone exchange in Exchequer Street" monitoring all international calls, and it was (apparently) she who put Michael O'Hehir through to the RTE newsroom so he could break the news. "He was in Dallas, I think, at the time...for I don't know what reason," said Kit, trailing off mysteriously. An act of mis-remembering that probably sent conspiracy theorists scurrying to find out more about O'Hehir. He was, it turns out, in New York.

Saturday's Documentary on One – Oswald Froze A Moment – attempted to offer a slightly more expansive and detailed portrait of "Ireland on the day JFK died". We heard tales of family tragedies and accounts of difficult births. We heard Larry Gogan recalling the day's pop chart ("It was the year of Brendan Bowyer") and John Bowman's street interviews with shocked Dubliners. We heard vignettes about poverty, work conditions, eating habits and contemporary fashions. All well and good.

When Oswald Froze A Moment strayed away from first-hand accounts and personal memories, however, it was far less effective. It had little that was fresh or incisive to say, and its forced tone of sombre reverence was dreary rather than moving.

Worse still, its nostalgic summing up of the Ireland allegedly "frozen" by "the assassin's rifle" was painfully twee. With its narrators wistfully droning on about "the smell of plainer food", women in housecoats, "the sound of different music", and, er, the "taste of wholenut chocolate". As bland, I fear, as the humble grub it was celebrating.

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