Ed#445: Remembering When

11 November 2013 Alan Attwood

Ed#445: Remembering When

We measure out our lives with anniversaries. Last year brought us the 50th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe, also 50 years since the Rolling Stones’ first concert. Next year, 2014, marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in World War II and the centenary of the beginning of hostilities in World War I. This year, Canberra has been marking its own centenary. August marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. And this month there will be a welter of publicity around the 50th anniversary of the assassination in Dallas, Texas, of President John F Kennedy.

A movie, TV shows and books have or will appear to coincide with one of the most-examined events of the 20th century. The United States’ youngest president was in office for less than three years, but still has a much higher profile than most of his successors. “A leader’s legacy – a kind of life after death – is shaped by a career’s beginning and middle, not just an awful ending,” writes Larry J Sabato in one of those new books, The Kennedy Half Century. But, he continues, “The legend derives…from sorrow. In the aftermath of JFK’s assassination, all things Kennedy were sanctified.” The myth is of a golden couple, Jack and Jackie; the reality is that Kennedy’s personal behaviour in the White House makes Bill Clinton look like a saint. As Sabato writes: “Had a single one of his dalliances become public, history would have recorded that John Kennedy and not Richard Nixon was the first president to resign in disgrace.”

Instead, JFK is linked to Nixon for another reason: their debates in 1960 were the first to be televised during a US presidential election; something that, along with his relative youth (43 when he took office), boosts his standing as the first ‘modern’ president. “Not a sentence from the Kennedy–Nixon debates [from 1960] has lived on,” Sabato claims, “because nothing weighty was uttered in those hours on the air. We recall what Americans watching them perceived. Kennedy looked terrific: movie-star handsome, tanned, and forceful.” 

There is no doubt, too, that the manner of his death has overshadowed much of his life. Again, news of this was a modern event – the passing of the president was announced, live, on US television by a clearly emotional Walter Cronkite, who had been trying to make sense of conflicting reports coming in from Dallas. Those few compelling minutes of broadcasting history are now accessible through a few computer clicks. So, too, footage of King’s ‘Dream’ speech. And also JFK’s inaugural address early in 1961, which contains the famous lines, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It’s all there, as is the music of a man who only just stopped strumming – Lou Reed.

In time, 27 October 2013 will become another anniversary: the date of Reed’s death at the age of 71. The self-styled rock’n’roll animal, a hugely influential figure, has a place in Big Issue history – he graced our cover for Ed#270, back in January 2007. Reed told our interviewer: “Anything that reached young people, that’s what rock is. Rock is the tunnel to the mind of the young.” RIP, Lou. Through the wonders of recording technology, you will be forever young.

Alan Attwood is Editor of The Big Issue.