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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: March 2017

3 - From History to Memory: Assassination and the Making of a Sacred Symbol


As we have seen, Kennedy's thirty-five months in office, notably the policies he pursued and the way he and his wife comported themselves, had shaped his public identity. In fact, he and his wife had fashioned their own brand, basically a positive representation of themselves and the nation that most Americans found enormously appealing. That brand, moreover, would survive the president's death and become even more appealing, as evident in the way most people reacted to his assassination and what they said about his life. Indeed, it's impossible to understand Kennedy's commanding role in American memory without understanding the terrible shock of his death, both in the United States and around the world. People were shamed by what had happened. They felt a profound sense of guilt and personal loss, as if they had lost a friend as well as a champion who wanted to bring the blessings of liberty to those who did not enjoy them. These feelings account, in part, for why people would remember Kennedy so fondly and why their memories would long endure.

But this is not the whole story. In the United States, the assassination triggered a dark psychic state that contrasted sharply with the joyful exuberance, confidence, optimism, and hopefulness that most Americans associated with Kennedy's politics and personal style. The contrast alone made his remembrance more compelling. What is more, most people identified Kennedy with what was best in American life and his murder with a dangerous trend toward hatred and violence that was tearing at the nation's political fabric, destroying its social cohesion, and calling into question the shared identity of its citizens. As they saw it, the president had given his life trying to staunch the violence and heal divisions, which meant that his sacrifice could only be redeemed by honoring his memory and completing the unfinished work of his presidency. All of this explains why Kennedy's murder added luster to the image that he and his wife had constructed of themselves, why he would emerge from death as a larger-than-life figure, and why his brand, now overlaid with the sanctified mantle of a martyr, would become so deeply embedded in the collective memory of the American people.

News of the assassination shot like a thunderbolt across the country.