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. vinster76

    I also must add that his graphic death induces tremendous sorrow in us.....I get that.....but that doesn't mean the Camelot crap is true. The Kennedy family was, and is, notoriously ruthless when they don't get their way.....and by the way.....Oswald acted alone, there was no conspiracy....who in their right mind would take down the government of the United States using Oswald and Jack Ruby....if you believe that after 50 years of NO PROOF of a conspiracy, then you are too stupid to type on this site.....sorry....

    November 22, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Reply
  2. mark

    "Fascinates us?" Are you kidding me Zakaria?

    November 22, 2013 at 6:51 pm | Reply
    • Stinky Butt

      If there were 2nd & 3rd shots, what happened to the bullets?

      November 23, 2013 at 8:27 pm | Reply
      • banasy©

        You seriously think one bullet did all of that damage, and still managed to hit Conolly, too?

        November 25, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
  3. termlimits

    Does the doer and the thinker make allowances for the other? Obama is a fabian ideologue as he speaks only from envy! He will never be a statesman.

    November 22, 2013 at 6:54 pm | Reply
    • A

      He is a statesman and a very good one. He is extremely smart, intellectual and articulate person. I don't recall President Bush, no1 and 2 being in his caliber. But because who he is, he never got the respect as a President in this country. He has been hacked, ridiculed, called names etc. I don't remember any other President being treated this way. In Europe and elsewhere he is adored and much respected person. Open your eyes.

      November 23, 2013 at 9:26 am | Reply
  4. DaveNYUSA

    Fascinates WHO? The media?

    November 22, 2013 at 6:57 pm | Reply
    • Kay Brown

      Celebrate life not death.. I never think about where I was except for that brief second when I flip the channel to some place where they aren't fascinated with a violent death scene on a street in Dallas for hours on end

      November 24, 2013 at 6:32 am | Reply
  5. Oped Anderson

    It still fascinates us because the single bullet theory is total BS and anyone who has looked at the details of it will come to the same conclusion.

    November 22, 2013 at 7:00 pm | Reply
    • Norm

      nope-most authorities say there were two shots-the first hit the Gov and JFK, the second blew off his head-end of story

      November 22, 2013 at 7:30 pm | Reply
      • JD

        Hey Norm, get your head out of your a$$. There were five shots-at least. The one in the back (which is nowhere near his throat, the one that pieced his adams apple, the shot to the head, the one that hit the governor and the one that missed and hit James Teague. For a bullet to cause that many wounds in two people and come out near perfect is total nonsense. You deserve what you get when you believe in crap like that.

        November 22, 2013 at 11:15 pm |
  6. Mark

    Fascinates because liberals can not accept reality and the reality is that a communist killed JFK, not a right wing "nut"

    November 22, 2013 at 7:01 pm | Reply
    • Norm

      youre a real moron-most conspiracists are conservative, religious carzy white guys-duuuuh

      November 22, 2013 at 7:31 pm | Reply
  7. JussaThought

    Lots of reasons why it's still facinates

    1. The Zapruder film
    2. The incomplete story and unsatisfactory end of Oswald
    3. We haven't had a President die in office in 50 years. In the 60 years before Kennedy, 3 died in office (2 deaths, 1 assassination), so almost every adult had experienced that feeling of loss. I know we've had 9/11, but the death of a President is different
    4. Beginning the loss of the post-war faith in our gov't, both in the preventing the act and the investigation
    5. No shortage of enemies who benefited from Kennedy's death, but no linkage to any of them
    6. The what-ifs for a Kennedy presidency ... big issues faced the nation after his death. Could we have made different choices? Or would his personal demons have destroyed his presidency?
    7. Snake-bitten Kennedys
    8. The grace and strength of Jackie O in the immediate aftermath

    Could go on, but as a 43 year old, those are the things that fascinate me

    November 22, 2013 at 7:02 pm | Reply
    • David L. Snell

      That was very well put.

      November 22, 2013 at 7:43 pm | Reply
    • William Dunkirk

      The image of a bereaved Jackie faithfully keeping vigil at her husband's body's side is so powerful that it moves us to our own humanity. In large part it is the horrible contrast between the hate and murder on one side, and the humanity and love on the other, that makes Kennedy's death an irascible memory not only of a nation, but of the world. It is a memory of the human dilemma, with all its potential for the deplorable and hateful, and the great and noble, is encapsulated into a single thought: The Kennedy's.

      November 22, 2013 at 8:10 pm | Reply
  8. Mark

    The closest thing we have to Oswald today are Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. These are the people to fear, the radical lefties that believe the ends justify the means.

    November 22, 2013 at 7:08 pm | Reply
  9. Eric

    I think it is more accurate to say that the generation that lived during JFK is fascinated w/ JFK, if even true. I am 23, and there is no fascination with JFK among my peers. People remember a national tragedy they themselves lived through. I was eating out earlier when I hear a family taking about today's significance. The dad asked his kid, "did you and mommy put a candle in the window for him [JFK]?". The father then asked the mother if she remembered where she was when it happened. It's clear THEY are fascinated, and perhaps pushing it on to their children. Similarly, I remember where I was when 9/11 happened. It too, had its conspiracy theories. Though I wouldn't call it fascination as much as remembrance.

    November 22, 2013 at 7:26 pm | Reply
  10. Smukerq

    Fascinated by it? The media shows this crap every day.

    November 22, 2013 at 7:48 pm | Reply
  11. William Dunkirk

    Typical Kennedy-killers sadistically indulging in needlessly graphic, murderous and contemptuous portrayals of his death.

    You people make us sick and keep giving us reasons to remember Kennedy. He was a glaring contrast to trash.

    November 22, 2013 at 7:57 pm | Reply
  12. Carl

    We are not as much "fascinated" with JFK's murder as we mourn one of our great leaders. And the only ones who will be supporting Obama after he eventually goes will be the Afro-Americans. Because blacks are the biggest racists in America today.

    November 22, 2013 at 8:00 pm | Reply
  13. JFK was a fraud

    It fascinates some people because they don't want to accept the truth. He was killed by some nut. End of story...well should have been. Anytime people can throw in some conspiracy, they will. People used to say it was impossible to do what LHO did, but it has been replicated so it was deemed fully possible.
    As for JFK as a President, he was not nearly as great as people make him out to be. He was a disgrace to the office with his sleeping with countless women to include a freaking East German spy! Not only that, but his countless blunders to include the Bay of Pigs invasion and the coup in Iraq which put the Ba'athists into power. We all know how that party turned out after Saddam. His failed invasion of Cuba and putting nukes in Turkey forced the Soviet Union to react accordingly by putting nukes in Cuba. The Cuban missile crisis was ultimately caused by JFK's arrogance. He was essentially the George Bush of that era. He responded in an effective way to the crisis, but he was ultimately the reason it happened which puts A LOT of negative points towards him. It is still debatable about his effects on Vietnam though. Many say he was actually going to remove troops from Vietnam while many others say it was all lies. Regardless, all the other stuff makes him an utter failure. He is only popular because he was effectively a martyr with his assassination.

    November 22, 2013 at 8:38 pm | Reply
    • Richard

      don't forget his drug use also.

      November 23, 2013 at 2:27 pm | Reply
    • Daniel Daronda

      Great comment! JKF was just the son of a bootlegger........ 😦

      November 25, 2013 at 1:21 am | Reply
  14. MarkPurr

    to "Flek": 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.

    The fact is Obama is HALF WHITE not exclusively "African American".......He is the first White President with a black father...plain and simple....i am all WHITE and believe and still do Obama is the right man for the job....regardless of race...

    November 22, 2013 at 11:24 pm | Reply
    • Richard

      Actually, with an open eye you see it is Obama taking those orders, just like the last 4 or 5 guys.

      November 23, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Reply
  15. DemoRats

    No, not 'fascinates us' – we are deeply sad about the loss – JFK was one greatest! And we also know who organized this 'whiteandblackwatergateattack': it was organized from 'mazda-marines'.

    November 23, 2013 at 5:08 am | Reply
  16. mickinmd

    I don't think it was so much about power and arrogance. Americans in 1963 did not have enough money to go to restaurants or travel like we've done since. One parent worked and if you lived on the East Coast you were extremely jealous of the rare friend who had gone to Disneyland.

    I think it was that an Era or Personal Freedom had ended with Kennedy's death. We became a much more violent nation in the succeeding years.

    Before Kennedy, we did not have an Era of Violence. From the age of 7 in 1957, I was allowed to walk 1 mile home alone from school and past 1/2 mile of housing projects. There was no conception that it might be dangerous. There hadn't been a murder in our 15,000 population suburb since it was established at the edge of Baltimore in the early 1900's. When I was 13 in 1963, the nuns at our school let another 8th grader and me carry one or two big money bags – with typically around $600 in them ($4600 in 2013 dollars!) and walk half a mile to the bank with them. And in bags that were clearly money bags to any passers-by.

    In 1963, my 11-15 year old friends and I could walk a mile through suburbia with our 22 rifles in cases, walk into Sears and buy 22 short shells. We then walked another mile to an abandoned chalk quarry to take target practice.

    In 1963, people could leave their doors unlocked without worry.

    THAT is the time people who remember 1963 lament when they think of Kennedy's death.

    November 23, 2013 at 9:52 am | Reply
    • Nani1996

      I agree with you. I grew up in Brooklyn and walked 13 blocks to my junior high school with no fear of walking through different neighborhoods. I worked in the summer in Manhattan and took the subway with no fear even late at night. I remember my parents getting all dressed up taking the subway going to Harlem to a night club with no fear.

      Five years later in 1968 our faith in our America decreased, we did not trust our government, believing we knew more than our leaders, and the Vietnam war added salt to the wound of distrust in our government. There was a sense of humbleness, humility, do something for your fellow men and country, not the selfishness we seem to have now. The middle class was strong and we paid for things in cash, we had Chevrolets and going to Niagara Falls was great. No one borrowed money to go on a trip.

      November 24, 2013 at 10:23 am | Reply
  17. Richard

    I did not care 50 years ago, I care less now.

    November 23, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Reply
  18. DisReverant

    There are very few events that have the disinformation swirling around them, the way the Kennedy assassination does. In my opinion, that in itself points the finger in one direction in particular. That being the case, it will never be proven or solved.

    November 23, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Reply
  19. airjackie

    The United States showed a false image to the World and the assassination of JFK by the Government would allow the World to see we are no different then they are. The plan almost worked as it was done before. FDR had numerous plots of assassination by Republicans/Wealthy Americans in the 30's. All failed because of security of CIA/FBI. 1960 plans for the VP to be elected President but he lost. The country had a new young President who wanted all to have Rights. That set in motion the plan with cooperation from CIA/FBI and Southern leaders. Few realize how much deep hate their was as many voiced their hate for Kennedy including Lawmakers. The sloppy assassination of JFK and anyone with a brain knew Oswald would be dead before he could talk. But it was an inside job and as each person involves dies a piece of the truth comes out. Few Republicans even honored the 50th anniversary of JFK's death because it was the US Government that plotted his murder. We see the hate today but nothing like the 50's. Kennedy fought for Civil Rights/Voting Rights and was killed for it. Remember Lincoln freed the slaves and was killed because he took the free workers from the South. 2013 President Obama just being President eats at racist and notice he fought to give all people affordable health care and Republicans/Tea Party and their supports don't want that. When I watch the Tea Party lunatic lawmakers they really do sound just think the old Dixiecrats.

    November 23, 2013 at 3:31 pm | Reply
    • Keith

      Wow, it took some doing, but you managed to twist and spin the subject so that you could insert your personal politics and modern bigotry into the discussion. Quite a feat, I do say.

      November 25, 2013 at 6:29 pm | Reply
  20. nik green

    So who was Lee Harvey Oswald? Well, it depends who you want to believe. You can take him at face value or you can listen to the same people who sold you the Gulf of Tonkin, incubator babies and WMDs in Iraq, Jessica Lynch, and a million other lies.

    November 23, 2013 at 5:24 pm | Reply
  21. Kero

    He was a president who stopped nuclear war, loved by his people, and was ready to embrace a shinning future with America on the moon, and perhaps a possible end to the Cold War. Zakaria's point is not to explain who shot him, but the facsination of what the 60s could have been have he lived. The man could not even make it to the end of his first term. Ever wonder what America would be like today if Vietnam were not what it was? That is the wonder and facsination.

    November 23, 2013 at 7:56 pm | Reply
  22. warren dowdy

    I remember my dad voting for Nixon when JFK was elected. My father had fought in Europe durring WW 2 and was a staunch Republican because he loved Ike. The fact that we were Black and lived in the South always amazed me that my dad had such deep political feelings for a party who I thought didn't really care for us. Sadly, my father died in May of 1963 but I feel like he would have voted differently in the next election. Both my dad and JFK died so young with so much ahead of them and when I think of my father, there's a connection with Kennedy. I know two figures that I admired were lost to me and for me my world changed in 1963. I think of the song by Don Henly, The end of the innocence, and that's why I think the world would have been a little different had both of them lived.

    November 23, 2013 at 11:52 pm | Reply
  23. jrvinnh

    I was standing in Dealy Plaza. I remember thinking that we were living in one world when that car came down Main Street and turned onto Houston and then we were living in another world as the car sped under the railroad overpass.

    November 24, 2013 at 1:15 am | Reply
  24. PM

    He died a long time before I was born. I have trouble imagining most people care about this anymore, but when the media makes it sound like something huge and relevant, they can make some $$ off it....

    November 24, 2013 at 4:26 am | Reply
  25. matslats

    Back and to the left,
    Do the geometry Fareed

    November 24, 2013 at 4:28 am | Reply
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    November 24, 2013 at 10:55 am | Reply
  27. cpc65

    People like to believe in conspiracies because it makes them feel smarter.

    November 24, 2013 at 10:59 am | Reply
  28. Hoo

    "Why JFK’s death still fascinates us"

    People wants to know who was the other shooter and what other secrets lies to his assassination, thats why....

    November 25, 2013 at 4:14 pm | Reply
  29. Keith

    the only people it fascinates are the media, who won't let the subject die

    November 25, 2013 at 6:27 pm | Reply
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