Why JFK’s death still fascinates us
November 22nd, 2013
08:48 AM ET

Why JFK’s death still fascinates us

By Fareed Zakaria

Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria is the host of Fareed Zakaria GPS, which airs Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN. This is the fifth article in a series on America’s identity and image since the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Watching the outpouring of interest and emotion surrounding the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination 50 years ago today, one has to wonder what is it about the man and the moment that so fascinates us.

At one level, the interest is obvious, indeed epic. The story of a young hero, cut down in his prime, has been with us since the age of myths. And Kennedy was a heroic figure – young, handsome, energetic, idealistic. He had a beautiful wife and two lovely children. He has an easy air of charm and grace about him. And then, there he was on the backseat of a car in Dallas, with his head shot off.

Robert Caro, the great historian and biographer, points out that Kennedy’s death was also a unique, cathartic moment for America because of the advent of television. He notes that the Nielsen ratings show that in the four days following the assassination, Americans watched an average of over 8 hours of television a day – all watching the same pooled feed. It became a great national mourning, made all the more so by that elaborate and momentous funeral procession.

But beyond Kennedy and beyond television, I think there is another, deeper reason why this event so captures our attention and interest. It marks a great divide in modern day America, between the world before the assassination and the world after.

Think of what America looked like in November 1963. It strode the world like a colossus, comprising 30 percent of global GDP. All the great global companies were American, all important industries were dominated by American firms. The United States had defeated Fascism in Europe and Asia and then, at staggering cost, rebuilt its enemy nations from the ground up. The Pentagon was seen as the most advanced fighting force in the world, now applying the management techniques of American industry thanks to newly appointed Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara, previously the president of the Ford Motor Company.

More from GPS: How would JFK have handled Iran?

Kennedy’s administration had taken American power and put it to purpose, founding the Peace Corps, expanding American foreign aid programs, helping start what would be known as the Green Revolution. Americans trusted their government and the world trusted America.

Now fast forward to five years later – 1968. There are race riots in every major American city. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King have been assassinated. The United States has 500,000 troops in Vietnam and yet seems unable to prevail in a military fight against one of the poorest countries in the world. Anti-war protests, the civil rights movement, a new women’s rights struggle, and general youth rebellion combines to attack every one of America’s cherished and established institutions. At home and abroad, America is under siege.

More from GPS: Why Americans are intrigued by conspiracy theories

When Americans look at that picture, they must, in some sense wonder, what if Kennedy had not been killed? Would we have been in Vietnam? Would the civil rights protests have gotten so ugly? Would there have been race riots? Would people have lost faith in their government, universities, and leaders? And they imagine a world in which America moved into a different future, one that looked more like 1963 than 1968.

The reality is that, most likely, most of the things that happened in 1968 would have happened anyway – with the exception of Vietnam, about which one can certainly hold the view that Kennedy would not have escalated the conflict in the way that Lyndon Johnson chose to do. But the other things that happened in America were part of long-simmering forces that would have erupted in some way, no matter who was president.

But that won’t stop us always wondering – and dreaming.

Topics: Uncategorized

soundoff (111 Responses)
  1. ✠ RZ ✠

    If one man with the RIGHT perspective can do so much, the notion of an entire nation doing the same would be labelled idealistic. You decide what's right and wrong.

    It is our duty still to endeavor to avoid war; but if it shall actually take place, no matter by whom brought on, we must defend ourselves. If our house be on fire, without inquiring whether it was fired from within or without, we must try to extinguish it.
    – Thomas Jefferson

    I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.
    – Thomas Jefferson

    “If ever a time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in Government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.” 
    –  Samuel Adams

    “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism”. 
    – George Washington

    November 22, 2013 at 9:40 am | Reply
    • banasy©

      I also love this quote:

      "Experience demands that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the general prey of the rich on the poor." ~ Thomas Jefferson

      November 22, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        Had Kennedy lived, he might have found himself contending with fresh rebellions from left and right. The tumult of the ‘60s, including the unraveling of the Johnson and Nixon presidencies, came in part, as a disillusioned reaction to Kennedy’s death. But the seeds had begun to sprout during his administration. It's unclear whether he would be able to deal with all these problems.

        November 23, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
  2. lindaluttrell

    Not only was a popular president killed, I think this showed Americans just how vulnerable America was. The president, one of the world's most protected leaders, had chosen this vulnerable car ride shortly after the Cuban missile crisis. I believe part of his decision to do so may have been to calm the country's fears. To see our president up close and personal. Ever since that day, each time I see a sitting president mingling with crowds, I still cringe.

    November 22, 2013 at 10:29 am | Reply
    • Karen

      I cringe, too. When live coverage came on of President Obama and the First Lady walking through DC streets during the inauguration ceremony, I had to turn it off (even though I wanted to watch it).

      November 22, 2013 at 11:25 am | Reply
      • vinster76

        losing Obama is nothing anyone would be sad over, JFK was a different story. At least JFK had some class and dignity

        November 22, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
    • sybaris

      It IS amazing that some racist wingnut hasn't done the same to President Obama.

      November 22, 2013 at 11:49 am | Reply
      • jojo

        The man has made many enemies. Not just Republicans. What about the people who've lost insurance and have just found out they have cancer or have been in treatment for cancer?

        November 22, 2013 at 11:56 am |
      • jojo

        Obama will always have to be on his guard. Besides the Obamacare mess he's the president that had Osama killed.

        November 22, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
      • banasy©

        Obama was hated from the moment he was elected. I watched the 2009 Inauguration half expecting to hear a shot ring out, sad to say.

        November 22, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
      • Flek

        This will never happen because it will cause race riots that will make Watts in '65 and LA in '92 look like a family picnic. I am about as liberal as they come and don't have a racist bone in my body. I love and support Obama. We have a phenomenal opportunity to turn this country around and change it with his leadership and we have squandered it on petty disagreements. Six months into Obama's first term I called Bill Press and said white, rich, fat cat America is finally taking their orders from a black man and they can't stand it. And I'm white. Bill disagreed then but he knows it's the truth now.

        November 22, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
      • JerryG1

        Interesting ... Sybaris mentioned "racist wingnut", and jojo jumped in and defended "Republicans".

        November 22, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
      • JerryG1

        Some of my best friends are Republicans.

        November 22, 2013 at 6:04 pm |
      • Lars

        I rarely comment, but read the comment section ravenously. I have read a lot of extremely stupid and mindless comments and I have to say that what Flek wrote above is one of the most asinine comments I have ever read. What a fool.

        November 22, 2013 at 6:59 pm |
    • sparks2000

      the link between the Lincoln assassination and the JFK assassination is clear,and gives us some big clues regarding who was responsible for the assassination–both decided they wanted the gov't to be able to print their own money–it was the 12 banks run by the Rothschild family that would have stood to not only lose their power over the US economy,but go completely out of business–So forget the mafia theory(although they could have been hired by the bankers to do their dirty work),forget the white supremacist theory(they would not have the guts),and forget the Castro theory(he had the will,but not the ability to pull it off).

      it is plain to see,when you see that JFK was going to take all the power away from the Fed Reserve.FBI informant,and CIA employee Jim Garrison spoke out on his death bed,and the truth is still ringing out today.JFK was murdered by the Rothschilds.

      November 22, 2013 at 5:32 pm | Reply
      • vinster76

        you are living proof of the idiocy of the American electorate.....

        November 22, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
    • Norm

      linda, um, the presidnet wasnt protected well at all during the time so to call him "one of the most protected.." is just iognorance

      November 22, 2013 at 7:34 pm | Reply
  3. bobcat2u

    One of the main reasons the fascination is still there is because it was the first time ever we saw a murder in real time. In 1963, we always got our news after the fact, but on that day, the truth rang out to all of us at the actual time it occurred, and it caused a shockwave. In the world of today, instant imaging is so prevalent that we have a tendency to turn a blind eye because it's so commonplace. In some cases we show a faux outrage, but in a matter of sometimes hours, it is forgotten.
    But I think also, that the conspiracy theories have kept this alive for 5 decades. Let's face it, everybody loves a good argument.
    But all in all, many of us who witnessed this assassination, have vivid memories of that day.

    November 22, 2013 at 10:45 am | Reply
    • banasy©

      As long as there are unknowns, there are conspiracies. Even if everything possible IS known, conspiracies will crop up; alternative explanations are entertainment to the masses.
      In this age of instant in-your-face media, this is quite easy to do.
      As long as there are people, there will be conspiracies.

      That, and the tendency for our elected officials to underestimate the intelligence of much of our citizenry; "you can't handle the truth!" comes to mind.

      That being said, I don't believe fir one moment that the WC's report contains anywhere near the truth.

      November 22, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Reply
    • jarvsi

      Well said and likely the real reason its still in our vision. Its a news media equiv of reaching the moon.

      November 22, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Reply
    • bobcat2u

      I too question the findings of the WC. After seeing the footage of the assassination, I continue to dispute the explanation of the reaction of the presidents body movement that day. I was only 14 at that time, but I knew even then, the reaction to an action.

      November 22, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Reply
      • banasy©

        I've seen Zapruder. There is no way that can be explained in the manner that the WC attempted to explain it.

        November 22, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
      • Norm

        two shots-first hit gov and jfk, second blew off jfks head

        November 22, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
    • Slat1040

      While I may agree with some of your sentiments, it is valid to point out that the assasination did not occur live on TV and footage from the Zapruder film was not shown until well after the assasination and the frames that show the fatal shot not for years after that. News of the assasination was immediate, but other major events also were communicated immediately ala the "news flash" and wire stories.

      November 22, 2013 at 4:15 pm | Reply
  4. IT's

    It's because it's really fascinating to see how George H Bush got away with murder using E.H. Hunt as the hit man under George's direction. Oh that silly Bush family! Hey, let's elect Jeb!

    November 22, 2013 at 10:53 am | Reply
  5. Really?

    Really? We all dream of a time before the civil rights movement? Mr. Zakaria, do you propose we also dream of a "prosperous" time in American history when southern landowners owned slaves and treated them as chattel? Hopefully not...

    November 22, 2013 at 11:22 am | Reply
    • Tempest

      You must be a young person. President Johnson, in one of his limited honorable actions, used his substantial political influence to honor the legacy of his predecessor by pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. President Kennedy's leadership in the civil rights movement was the inspiration for the act.

      November 22, 2013 at 11:44 am | Reply
      • Really?

        I guess I should respond by saying, "you must be illiterate" or something else negative to refute what I falsely interpret as your point. I will try and resist. My comments had nothing to do with President Kennedy, or his stance on civil rights. What I was responding to was my finding it odd for the author to wax poetic on how wonderful things were in 1963 were and his request for us to contemplate how wonderful things might be had movements such as the civil rights movement never occurred. While I am sure there were things that were better during that time, quite honestly how could they not have been, blacks not being able to drink from the same water fountains as whites, I believe is indisputably not one of those things and not something this county can be proud of.

        November 22, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
    • Tempest

      No, I'm not illiterate, but I agree that I did not address your criticism of the article. Those were times of both pride and shame for America, but I don't think that Mr. Zakaria intended to ignore your observations on America in 1963. The sins of the past could not be erased, but at least we had a president who recognized them and wanted them put right as me moved forward. The problems were there, as you indicated, but in 1963 there was also a glimmer of hope that the future would show improvement.

      November 22, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Reply
    • genxr

      I see your point that Zakaria's commentary implies that the Civil Rights movement, the Women's Rights movement, and 70's youth rebellion were destructive times for the country. He improperly implies that America was under siege by these things.

      November 22, 2013 at 2:47 pm | Reply
  6. Scott


    It's because it's really fascinating to see how George H Bush got away with murder using E.H. Hunt as the hit man under George's direction. Oh that silly Bush family! Hey, let's elect Jeb!

    SIlly liberal like you never makes sense.

    November 22, 2013 at 11:29 am | Reply
    • google the bush family

      google it tard.

      November 22, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Reply
  7. sybaris

    Why the fascination?

    The head shot

    November 22, 2013 at 11:46 am | Reply
    • jojo

      Yes. The terrible way he died.

      November 22, 2013 at 11:57 am | Reply
  8. banasy©

    Adding to your TJ quotes:

    "The country us headed toward a single and splendid government of an aristocracy founded on Banking instituitions and monied Corporations, and if this tendency continues it will be the end of Freedom and Democracy, the few will be ruling and riding over the plundered plowman and the beggar..."

    November 22, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Reply
    • ✠RZ✠

      Where did you find that one?

      November 23, 2013 at 5:38 pm | Reply
  9. dogmandg

    It still fascinates us because:
    1) It's obvious there was more than 1 shooter
    2) The government has lied about that.
    3) That means there's a lot we still don't know.

    November 22, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Reply
    • greennnnnn

      Show us some of your evidence that there was more than one shoooter, eh? Also show evidence that the gov has lied. I'd like to see it.

      November 22, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Reply
    • vinster76

      for the last time, there was no conspiracy, Oswald acted alone......Please, please, please do yourself and the rest of the world a favor and do some real research instead of watching an Oliver Stone movie......

      November 22, 2013 at 6:56 pm | Reply
    • Norm

      silly retarded conspiracists-one shooter, two shots only

      November 22, 2013 at 7:36 pm | Reply
  10. will

    I see the facination and obscession. Every major historical event in history was result of a conspiracy.

    November 22, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Reply
  11. Rainey

    Why are "we" still fascinated with JFK...plain & simple..... JFK was young, handsome, energetic, idealistic. He had a beautiful wife and two lovely children. He has an easy air of charm and grace about him. Their life appeared to be somewhat magical with an elegant & ladylike soft spoken Jackie Kennedy with her grace & dignity welcoming not only foreign dignitaries into the White House but the TV viewing public as well.
    Sadly for Jackie, her husband JFK & his brothers were playboys who had "women on the side", they had wild parties & affairs with these women. &, to the public Jackie, Ethel & Joan Kennedy turned a blind eye for appearances sake for the political arena.
    The so dubbed Camelot was a Fairy Tale, as is the play.

    November 22, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Reply
  12. Chris

    Why is this event always labeled as a stark turning point when "America lost its innocense?"

    Did we not just recently experience the horrors of WWII, make and use an atomic weapon? What about the Civil War and the assasination of Lincoln? Better yet, lets start with the birth of our Country through revolution?

    November 22, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Reply
    • ✠RZ✠

      Many of us admired JFK for standing up to what he believed was right. Peace, prosperity, liberty, equality, and the American people certainly seemed to be a good part of that. Imagine trying to hold your ground against the likes of Russia, the CIA, Corporate America, the MIC and maybe even the Mafia all the while your country is looking up to you for help and leadership. I don't think it was enough just to love this man, he needed our help and quite evidently in a very bad way. Are we guilty of letting him down? Bobby too? If so, And how can we ever be able to forgive ourselves? And on top of that, we can't even accept that those truly responsible for their assassinations have ever been caught and punished. I don't feel so much fascinated, as I do angered and ashamed. But with who?

      November 22, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Reply
      • banasy©

        Well stated.

        November 22, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
    • Bootsie

      Those wars had purpose.

      November 22, 2013 at 5:00 pm | Reply
  13. joe anon 1

    unlike jfk,

    obama has wall st, the pentagon complex, and israel controlling him, giving orders.

    masters arent gonna harm the puppet.

    the wing nuts are too busy watching/listening to the loons on tv/radio.

    November 22, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Reply
    • Brian

      Putin is Obamas puppet master, the recent foreign policy debacle in Syria and the next mistake talking with Iran proves it

      November 22, 2013 at 4:19 pm | Reply
  14. twoface

    You either die a hero, or see yourself live long enough to become the villain. JFK's legacy may not have been as mythic if had been forced to slog through like everyone else.

    November 22, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Reply
    • banasy©

      OTOH, who knows the direction the country may have taken if this event never happened?

      I often wonder what our country would be like today if Bush 2 hadn't gotten the electoral votes in 2000.

      November 22, 2013 at 5:45 pm | Reply
  15. macovic

    the crooked warren commission covered up the real story in this deal-hopefully the truth comes out one day

    November 22, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Reply
  16. WillB

    After an ambush in which 100 Americans were killed in Vietnam, a VC is quoted as saying, "I never understood why they came to my country in the first place." Answer: President Kennedy sent us.

    November 22, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Reply
  17. ss

    it fascinates because the generations that lived through it and the cold war are still alive and are in power right now. that and soccer moms and grandmas all had a thing for jfk.

    November 22, 2013 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  18. Elliott Carlin

    Fareed, You wouldn't like JFK-he was for low taxes and he was a lifetime member of the NRA.

    November 22, 2013 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  19. j b

    after getting his head blown out why does his head go tores Jackie u think he would of fell forward if it came from the back..

    November 22, 2013 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  20. sparks2000

    the link between the Lincoln assassination and the JFK assassination is clear,and gives us some big clues regarding who was responsible for the assassination--both decided they wanted the gov't to be able to print their own money--it was the 12 banks run by the Rothschild family that would have stood to not only lose their power over the US economy,but go completely out of business--

    November 22, 2013 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  21. sparks2000

    you can google these things,including the link between JFK and Lincoln,and find some very important information--is there no good reason why every reporter,politician and friend of JFK wound up dead when they got too close to the truth?

    November 22, 2013 at 5:22 pm | Reply
  22. musings

    I think it is very insightful to understand that the racial matters would still have been on the table had Kennedy not been shot. In some ways, though, they still are in that it is impossible for some people to criticize Obama for his deeds alone, but must drag in his parentage. The best thing I can say about today is that no one is afraid of seeming racist anymore simply for taking issue with Obama's policies. That is progress.

    I could imagine some changes which might have been in the works to expose Kennedy's private life (a la Clinton), which might have been driven by his stand on civil rights. It's not likely the social changes in American life would have taken a back seat had he lived.

    November 22, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Reply
  23. MD

    JFK's death does not fascinate me at all. Let the man rest in peace. Too many people make a huge deal out of someone passing away. While its sad, its past. Let it be past. Can't bring him back, or anyone else for that matter.
    The only lesson I learned was what he said about space, and the Ich bin ein Berliner. While lessons are good to learn, we also cannot dwell on someone who passed long ago into history. to idolize someone who is long gone isn't right.

    November 22, 2013 at 5:42 pm | Reply
  24. A. Darkes

    All anyone needs to do is go on youtube and look up the audio of JFKs speech on secret societies. 'We are opposed around the world by a ruthless and monolithic conspiracy.' Then ask yourself why he was killed.

    November 22, 2013 at 5:45 pm | Reply
  25. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    I was twenty-four years old when JFK died. Civil Rights dominated our attention; the change was progressing rapidly.
    The Kennedy White House was an inspiration to most of us. We wanted to make a better world. It turned out to be a society different from what we thought it would be.

    November 22, 2013 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  26. FrankinSD

    I'm not sure that we are still transfixed by JFK's assassination because it mean so much. I think it because it meant so little. One pathetic loser trying to overcome his own irrelevance? It can't be just that. It has to be more. He upended a country because he couldn't see anything in the mirror? Really? True as it is, it will always be impossible to accept.

    November 22, 2013 at 5:52 pm | Reply
  27. Bill A.

    You probably have to be at least 55 (I was 14 then) to understand what some folks are feeling today.

    November 22, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Reply
  28. Andre

    Glad the silly hype is just about over. Folks need to stop wallowing in this hysteria.

    So funny...what a great time it was...blacks at the back of the bus, women pregnant in the kitchen, JFK sucking up to Maddox, Wallace...the bishop in Boston. Commies under ever bed.

    November 22, 2013 at 6:13 pm | Reply
    • Ben

      Yeah, one of those commies got out from under the bed and shot JFK.

      So maybe it wasn't hysteria that there were commies with bad plans, seeing as it was actually true?

      November 22, 2013 at 7:15 pm | Reply
  29. vinster76

    the man was a notorious cheat on his wife.....if he hadn't died publicly and violently as he did, the fact is we have no idea what he would have done. He had some good qualities, but please don't deify the man....He talked a good talk, but the fact is he moved on civil rights when the nightly news reports of white discrimination forced him to....Americans love to romanticize dead figures, and idealize someone based on what he or she MIGHT have done.....If he could have kept in his pants, I might have respected him a bit more. If you are willing to cheat on your wife, you sure as heck wont give two thoughts about cheating on your fellow citizens.....

    November 22, 2013 at 6:27 pm | Reply
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