When a bullet (or two, depending on what theory you subscribe to) hit President John F. Kennedy on a crisp autumn morning, America gained a whole new mythology. Regardless of who JFK was that morning when he started along the parade route, he would leave a martyr.
Every culture has a key mythology that shapes its identity. These stories enshrine important values and hold up great heroes. The Anglo-Saxons had the tale of Beowulf, a mighty warrior. The Tlingit of the Alaskan interior had the Raven. The ancient Romans had the mythical twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. Over time, even historical events are folded into the myth.
In America, we have the apocryphal tale of George Washington and the Cherry Tree, which teaches us the value of honesty by using a prominent figure from our nation’s past. We have stories about Pilgrims founding a colony in Massachusetts to gain their independence, another value Americans hold sacred.
But most important of all are the martyrs. Every great national myth requires sacrificial figures who die for the sake of liberty. Abraham Lincoln is elevated to a level of reverence as a father-like figure who held a broken nation together. While was surely a great man, would he have risen so high in the popular imagination if he’d survived the turmoil of the Civil War and its immediate aftermath and just died of old age?
So, too, John Kennedy has been placed on the pedestal of American myth. With Kennedy, it is his unfulfilled promise that captures our attention. He is remembered because of his youth and charisma, as well as for his larger-than-life persona. I think a lot of his mythic status is due to the fact that he died just before some of the most traumatic events of the late-20th century in this country: the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.
I think the reason Kennedy stands out more than William McKinley (who was also killed in office) is the nagging idea that perhaps he could’ve spared us the growing pains that America suffered in the decade after his untimely death. Unrealized greatness is a powerful narrative.
The mystery surrounding his assassination also makes him larger than life. Tiny doubts about the circumstances of his murder let us craft a broader story with multiple villains and powers of darkness that sought to slay the young, popular president. You can add your own ending to suit the moral you want to teach, be it the evils of Communism, the human desire to thirst for power or instilling a distrust of government.
If Kennedy had died of food poisoning or had lasted long enough to make the mistakes that so often tarnish a leader’s legacy, perhaps we would not remember him so fondly. But the innate hunger for a national mythology, a story that defines us, has transformed John F. Kennedy from a man to a legend.
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Jonny Eberle is a writer and student of history and politics. You can follow his musings on the Twitter machine, where those in the know call him @jonnyeberle. Thanks for reading.