Dallas 1963, New York 1980, Washington 1981

Zapruder film, frame 312

On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, I happen to be staying at the Washington Hilton — the hotel in front of which President Reagan was not assassinated 32 and a half years ago.

Don DeLillo called the Kennedy assassination, “The seven seconds that broke the back of the American century.” But I had not yet been born on November 22, 1963.

Newsweek: attempted assassination of the Pope, 1981The murders and attempted murders that color my childhood are John Lennon (killed December 1980), Reagan (shot in March 1981), the Pope (shot in May 1981), and Anwar Sadat (killed October 1981). I saved the issues of Newsweek magazine that covered each event. The cover for the Pope issue featured a black-and-white photo, moments after the assassination attempt.  The caption, in bright letters, was: “Again.”

Kennedy’s assassination reached me via popular culture, in collections of Life magazine photographs, or the Kinks’ “Give the People What They Want” (1981), which includes the line: “When Oswald shot Kennedy, he was insane / But still we watch the re-runs again and again. / We all sit there glued while the killer takes aim…. / ‘Hey, mom! There goes a piece of the president’s brain!’”

That last line neatly encapsulates my 11-year-old self’s experience of the Reagan assassination attempt. Television news played the clip so frequently that it began playing on an endless loop in my head, too. My friends and I began re-enacting the event on the playground. The person playing Reagan would wave, and then duck into an imaginary car, pushed by the person portraying a Secret Service agent. The person acting the role of Press Secretary James Brady (shot in the head), would fall to the ground. The person playing DC policeman Thomas Delahanty (shot in the neck) would fall forward.

The attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981

Yes, we were aware on some level that our recess re-enactments of the Reagan assassination attempt were not “appropriate.” These were real people, wounded by real bullets. It was not something that we should be play-acting for fun.

So, why did we do it? Play is a way of understanding the world. Though horrific, the event was also so unreal (televised, rewound, repeated) that our improvised absurdist performances helped us make it real for ourselves. We were not merely making light of the darkness (though we were doing that, too); rather, our silliness was a way of understanding the seriousness.

Newsweek: John Lennon (1940-1980)My reaction to the murder of John Lennon was, I think, much closer to how people responded to President Kennedy’s murder. Neither of these were televised murders. (Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald happened on live TV, but the Zapruder film was not broadcast until the 1970s. While Lennon’s and Kennedy’s murder were both covered on TV, there was at the time no footage of the murders themselves.) The absence of the televisual made me feel Lennon’s murder more personally, more deeply — as did the fact that I was a fan of the Beatles. That was truly sad. The Reagan assassination attempt felt more surreal.

The highly mediated world in which we now live affords us little time to actually feel the pain, much less think about it. In public places (at a school, in a movie theatre, in a store), the gunman — it is nearly always a man — fires. People flee, get maimed, die of their injuries. Survivors tell their stories to the media. Our legislators assure us that these murders are a byproduct of living in a free society; regulating guns would somehow make us (well, those of us not murdered by guns) less free. The sad inevitability of gun violence, offered up for our infotainment, impedes our ability to make sense of it.

But it’s not just media. Experience also dulls the senses. I felt more acutely Lennon’s murder precisely because I had no memory of the murders of Robert Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Its newness made its impact sharper.

Perhaps, then, that is one legacy of the Kennedy assassination. There were political murders before November 22 1963 (Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley were all assassinated), but in the years since that afternoon in Dallas, they seem to have become commonplace. And, as DeLillo has observed, “Our grip on reality has felt a little threatened.”

Above: Steinski’s “The Motorcade Sped On” (1986); video by Coldcut (2008).

Images: Zapruder film from Fans in a Flashbulb; Reagan assassination attempt from L.A. TimesNewsweek cover of Pope from eBayNewsweek cover of John Lennon from The Pop History Dig.

4 Comments »

  1. Gwen Tarbox Said,

    November 22, 2013 @ 7:18 am

    I very much enjoyed this piece, Phil, and it got me to thinking about what it was like to grow up as the first generation of kids to watch national and international events on television.

    Most of my friends were born in the late 1960s through to the mid-1970s, and if I can speak in generalizations for a moment, one of the biggest differences I see between my childhood and theirs is that I have a very distinct memory not only of the assassinations of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy — as well as the attempted assassination of Gerald Ford — but the experience of growing up in what I would call “the culture of assassination” that began with Kennedy and extended through to the deaths you mention above. As you know, this historical moment was bookended by two international crises (The Bay of Pigs and the Iran Hostage Crisis) and had the heart of the Cold War, Watergate, Vietnam, Woodstock, and the Civil Rights movements smack in its center. That childhood of televised political and social upheaval is something that I have been working on from a scholarly perspective for a few years now, as I think it was a very disruptive, yet fascinating time to have come of age, and I also think that it compelled children to engage with violence and the concept of “the other” in immediate ways that are different than the ones you mention above. Mine was the first generation to see war, assassination, rioting, and presidential failure on television, and we had not yet made that shift into the surreal that you mention. Instead, I think that it made these events seem more pressing, more real, and more intense, especially as we, along with our parents, were trying to figure out the media’s pull.

    My generation, now its mid-40s to early 50s has only recently begun to fill the halls of power in earnest (if one works from the assumption that people in their 50s are the major brokers in our culture, usually holding the highest positions of power, including judgeships, CEO and CFO posts, etc.), it will be interesting to see how this generation governs and what impact from that era, if any, lingers in their consciousness. And for what it’s worth, I am arguing in my work that children’s literature authors from this era possessed ideas about childhood that would go on to revolutionize the field of children’s and YA literature in the 1990s.

  2. Philip Nel Said,

    November 22, 2013 @ 9:55 pm

    Thanks, Gwen, for your generous and thoughtful response. This was one of those posts that I almost didn’t write, and then, once I finished it, debated whether I should post it or not. (As I’ve probably mentioned before, sometimes I write a blog post, but then decide that it doesn’t work or isn’t appropriate, and so just put it aside.) So, I’m especially pleased to know that you found it enjoyable and interesting.

    Incidentally, my earliest political memory is the Watergate hearings on TV — I’ll have to write about that another time. Even though it happened after Watergate, I do not recall learning about the attempted assassination of President Ford via TV news. I learned of that later, possibly at the time of the attempted assassination of President Reagan.

  3. Gwen Tarbox Said,

    November 23, 2013 @ 8:12 am

    I’m glad you did post it; yesterday was actually quite surreal for me – I went to a political fundraiser where almost everyone was over the age of 60. Listening to their stories of “where they were when they found out” was fascinating.

    TV played an interesting part in my experience of Nixon’s resignation. My family and I were staying in a resort in Massachusetts for summer vacation. Everyone there got food poisoning from a picnic lunch, so on the day Nixon resigned, most of us were running back and forth from the TV coverage of the resignation to the bathroom…at a resort called Jug *End*. Even at the tender age of 10, I found this to be incredibly fitting and amusing.

    Out of curiosity, did you see All the President’s Men when it came out, or were you too young? Classmates paid me to go see the movie with them to explain what was going on. I do believe that I saw it 4 times in its original release. Once a geek, always a geek!

  4. Philip Nel Said,

    November 24, 2013 @ 9:41 am

    Hi, Gwen! No, I didn’t see All the President’s Men when it came out — in part because of my youth, and in part because it’s not the sort of film that would have interested my parents. In 1980, I began reading and collecting Doonesbury books. That’s where I first learned about (and thought about) Watergate.

    Garry Trudeau, Doonesbury (

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