Celebrity, the "star" figure, as in movies, television, sports and occasionally politics, is one of the legacies of the late president who was shot and slain fifty years ago today. We all know where we were when we got the news, and for many moments, we were literally and metaphorically stunned. The world seemed to stop, go into a multi-frame 'slo-mo' as everything was drained of meaning, purpose and hope. We all lived our 'chorus' role in an epic "Greek tragedy" on that weekend in 1963, glued to the black and white television, and walking with our heads down, greeting others in their disbelief that matched our own, and finding ourselves reduced to tears at various moments, although for me that iconic photo of Jackie and her two children standing together as the body passed them, John saluting, is etched in some dark purple ink inside a young teacher's memory, only ten weeks after I had begun my first full-time job.
JFK's looks, his social and intellectual power and wealth, and for me, above all his rhetoric and the timbre of the voice...they were all of a piece, a piece of 'what-the-heck-is-this-phenomenon' who seemed to stride Pennsylvania Avenue, the Capitol Inaugural "set" and the many 'stages' prepared for him and his "family" as if he really were larger than life.
Of course, he had a supporting "crew and cast" of make-up artists and speech-writers and photographers and clingers who had their own niche of fame: Sinatra, brothers Bobby and Teddy, Jackie, Rose the matriarch, eventually Nikita Kruschev, Castro and many others, some even less than 'perfect'...and many unknown at the time (Munroe, for one). And all stars have to have a supporting cast, especially in the meta-theatre that has become the United States, both displaying and dependent upon all the latest 'technologies' for marketing and for selling and for campaigning and for entertaining an audience of consumers-critics-voters-and willing sycophants to the big seduction.
If a country is to have morphed into a stage drama, or television drama, as the United States did on that sunny day in Dallas, and then a Washington weekend of mourning and grief, joined willingly and in pathos by a planet in disbelief, then the most important supporting cast are the people whose eyes, ears and hearts are fixated on the screen, and the 'transistor' radios. There were, of course, no advanced technologies that we have today.
And, among the actors in the national drama, were and are the scribes, and the talking heads like Cronkite, with his professorial horn-rimmed glasses and his deep and resonating, even quivering at times, larynx playing his scripted and reflective role.
The Greek amphitheatres and Roman coliseum and then Washington are the stages for many of the most memorable and even tragic dramas in human history, both in reality and in fiction, increasingly blurred as one, while we continue our walk past those dramatic and moving and mysterious and almost stretching moments of our lives, taking those who we have deemed as "larger than life" (while we all know they also have their personal demons and devils to fight) and painting them on our canvases for both inspiration and despair.
Vicarious as we all are, we must have some of these characters, if we are to have a shared memory, a shared consciousness, and also a collective unconscious. In one sense we live 'through' their lives, including all of the dramatic swings of births, marriages, divorces and deaths, not to mention their professional accomplishments and struggles.
It is in watching how much a 'star' culture has overtaken the popular culture, through the newest technologies, that one has to wonder if John Fitzgerald Kennedy, if he were among us today, after a half-century of absence, would not shake his head in sadness, reflecting on his having donned the robes of power and influence, stardom in his day, and while he clearly inspired millions of others to public service, also deeply aware of the legacy of 'tinsel' that has become the model of stardom in the early part of the twenty-first century.
And, for our part in the chorus, are we prepared, ever again, to attach such importance and awe to any individual, planting them on a pedestal of power and kleg-lights, only to then inevitably bring them down through our own inevitable jealousy and shame at having planted them there in the first place, through all of our unconscious projections....
And that, too, is an integral component to all of our democracies...the projections of the chorus onto the figures in the camera lens!