50 Years Since the Death of the First Television President

IMG_2033As you are being made aware by the media, this week marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Fifty years is an eternity in politics, especially American politics, and yet the Kennedy assassination continues to resonate as one of the definitive acts of our time.

I always took it as gospel truth that Kennedy’s assassination was the event that sprung the lock on the Pandora’s box of the ’60s and ’70s. I thought so because everyone seemed to say so. It was the end of Camelot, the end of America’s innocence, and the start of all our troubles.

But as I processed this information over the years, part of me thought wait a minute, what about McKinley and Garfield in 1901 and 1881 respectively? Both of those presidents were shot and killed by mentally unstable lone gunmen, and yet hardly anybody remembered their names 50 years later, let alone the names of their assassins.

Why do people act like JFK is the first time something like this ever happened (since Lincoln, anyway)?

I chalked it up to the Sixties generation thinking that everything starts with them: psychedelic drugs, free love, teen rebellion, why not lone gunman presidential assassinations, too?

But hold on. Back in 1901 and 1881 how many people even knew what McKinley and Garfield looked like? You didn’t see the President on TV or film, and you didn’t hear him on the radio, because none of it had been invented yet. Maybe you saw his portrait at the Post Office or read about him in the newspaper, but that was about it.

You wouldn’t have known those presidents the same way you knew Kennedy, who was in your living room everyday. Kennedy was a new kind of president, a TV president. You probably had a crush on him, his wife, and his whole family. They were your family, just like all the other TV families were your family.

Kennedy was an Age of Television phenomenon, and his was the first TV assassination.


Although grainy and choppy, there is footage of the killing. You see the President get shot, more or less, which was unprecedented. (Similarly, the Watergate tapes were of poor quality, but you got to hear the President being a crook with your own ears, and that made all the difference).

Even more dramatic was the live network TV broadcast of the police station basement assassination of the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, which played out like a 1940s gangster movie, so real and surreal.

The Zapruder film, Cronkite’s special report, Oswald’s shooting, the presidential funerary procession and the grieving young family, these are the events that define the Kennedy assassination experience.

People born after 1963 internalize the shock of the assassination by watching footage of stunned, teary-eyed crowds gathering that day in front of store-window TVs to learn that the president was shot.

If you were part of such a crowd, you entered into a group consciousness that day. And if you watch those crowds and their reactions on TV years later, you also become part of the group. There probably wasn’t anything like it until 911.

Some people may have first gotten the news on the radio, but even that was a novel technology. There was no radio report for the assassination of McKinley or Garfield, and certainly not Lincoln 20 years before that.

This was unlike previous assassinations. Radio and, especially, television provide something that print journalism does not. It isn’t just the immediacy of the reporting (after all, the telegraph provided instant communication even in Lincoln’s time), but the human element. You’re hearing it from a human voice, you’re seeing the reaction on human faces.

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An objective observer from McKinley’s time might have thought that one innovation of film footage would have been its irrefutability as evidence. After all, when you read about a murder you’re just going by somebody’s word of what happened, whereas video footage gives you eyewitness proof.

And yet, the opposite is true. There is not an assassination that is more disputed than Kennedy’s. Even the 911 footage does not convince everybody. Film merely gives detractors the opportunity to spot their own evidence.  Any lawyer worth his salt can argue both sides of a case with equal vigor, and video doesn’t change that.

Television footage does not give us definitive certainty about an official version of events, what it does is give us the human element, the raw emotion.

The same media that feeds us Gilligan’s Island and the Flintstones also informs us of historical events like moon landings and assassinations. A defining characteristic of this age is that it all gets thrown together in the animal soup of television.

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