#FridayFlashback : The JFK Files, What’s Left to Know?

Image courtesy of NBC, Washington

As we await the release of the remaining documents on the JFK assassination investigation and peruse the few pages that have been released, we have gone back through the BookTrib archives and found an interesting piece that asks the one question everyone is hoping the files will reveal: “What is left to know?” This piece from 2013 is certainly fitting for a #FridayFlashback and interesting to boot.

“Once upon a time” is how fairy tales begin. Most of the time they end with the prince (maybe he used to be a frog or a particularly arrogant member of the royal family) and the princess (sometimes she had an unfortunate penchant for fruit or severe sleep issues) living happily ever after. But America’s favorite political fairy tale, with our adopted royals, President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, takes a different turn. We even gave them their own mythical court, as the Kennedy White House—it’s not enough to emphasize the enormity of the presidential residence by merely reminding the citizenry that it’s not like that white house down the street from you: this one, with the capitalization underscoring the size of the dwelling and the letters, is one Big house—became Camelot.

But just as we know how all fairy tales end—princess wakes up, prince slays dragon, lovers unite, and happiness reigns—so it is true that we know the aftermath of the Tale of Kennedy. On November 22, 1963, exactly 50 years ago today, while riding in a motorcade through the streets of Dallas, the President was shot and killed by former Marine Lee Harvey Oswald using a 6.5 mm Carcano Model 91/38 carbine rifle, fired from the innocuous-sounding Texas Book Depository. We’ve had a few years to get the details right: time of death; type of weapon; entry and exit wounds; splatter pattern forever memorialized on Jackie’s bright pink coat. Or so it seems. We all know what Faulkner says about the passage of time: “The past is never dead. It’s not even JFK limopast.” Just like fairy tales morph and change, so do the facts, the myths, the theories, the federal commissions convened to get to the bottom of the assassination once and for all. In short, what do we really know?

Unlike a fairy tale where a sequel is possible but not necessary—what do Cinderella and Prince Charming do all day, go shoe shopping?—the Kennedy story is a tale with a beginning, myriad mismatched middle chapters, and lots of different endings. And even the beginning is in question, depending on whom you ask, and through what lens you’re viewing the story. Is it a biography of a man named John Fitzgerald Kennedy? Then his story begins on May 29, 1917 at 3:00 p.m. EST in Brookline, Massachusetts and ends on November 22, 1963 at 1:00 p.m. CST in Dallas, Texas. Or is it the story of Kennedy the politician, a Representative from Massachusetts from 1946 to 1952, a Senator from 1952 to 1960 and our nation’s 35th President, elected in 1960, after defeating Richard Nixon? Like the theories surrounding who pulled the trigger—and who told who to pull the triggerlee harvey oswald mug—there is no singular “Kennedy story.”

In literature, this is comforting (and a blessing for writers trying to make a living putting a new spin on everyday things) but in real life, it can be anything but. When we want answers, it’s hard to know where—and how—to look when you don’t know what trail, to return to the land of fairy tales, of breadcrumbs to follow. There are enough Kennedy tales—and Kennedy relations with their own political careers, scandals, and tragedies—to have occupied the American consciousness for these past five decades following President Kennedy’s death. And yet we are no closer to really and truly knowing the answer to biggest question of them all.

Yes, we can say, what happened that day in Dallas indisputably changed America and the face of American politics. Yes, we can say, as Roosevelt said in a speech over two decades earlier the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, November 22, 1963 will be a day that will live on in infamy. On these things we can agree. But those aren’t answers, not really. They’re platitudes, things we say when we don’t know what to say about something so miserably horrible that maybe, we think, we don’t want to think about it at all. And yet, it gnaws at us, the not knowing. And we want to know why. That’s the hardest question of all, the one we don’t want to face, the one that we devour books—like Larry J. Sabato’s The Kennedy Half-Century (Bloomsbury) and James L. Swanson’s End of Days (William Morrow), both recently published to coincide with the Book Review End of Daysanniversary—to avoid answering by arming ourselves with an impenetrable armor of facts.

But the truth is going to pierce through, just like Oswald’s bullet, and the one fired the next day by Jack Ruby, killing Oswald during his jail transfer: there is no question whose answer exists that will make the facts, the truth, the pain hurt any less. And that’s why we never really want to ask why, not really. Because we know that knowing is impossible and so, for fifty years, we’ve asked not the Big Why, the unknowable why, but smaller, more manageable ones. Even if we don’t believe in conspiracy theories, FBI cover-ups, government plants on that serenest-sounding of grassy lumps, we look for the smallest crumb of an answer to the smallest crust of a question. Because, and again we turn to Faulkner for the answer, “Between grief and nothing [we] will take grief.”

 

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Jordan is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon, after spending six years in NYC for college and graduate school (where she earned her MFA in Fiction Writing from Columbia) before realizing that her heart belonged in the Pacific Northwest. She (hopefully) puts that degree to good use writing for BookTrib and Publishers Weekly about the vast quantity of books she reads. While Jordan’s literary diet is largely crime fiction—as she was raised, often literally, in Portland’s only mystery bookstore—she’s perfectly content to read novels and nonfiction that lack a murder because good writing transcends labels. Follow her on Twitter @jordanfoster13.