You don’t have to look far to see how John F. Kennedy still pervades popular culture 50 years after his death.
Scandal, one of the most talked-about series in prime time, often reworks Kennedy lore, including a philandering president and conspiracies so abundant they exhaust even the most ardent JFK-assassination skeptic.
You can turn to Fox’s Glee and hear Sue Sylvester name-drop Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe in the same phrase. Watch Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a certified blockbuster with $115 million in revenues and counting, and there among its parade of U.S. presidents is JFK, played by James Marsden.
Indeed, playing Kennedy can be a regular gig. Actor Brett Shimely, though not a name you see on marquees, has picked up paychecks as Kennedy in four movies, including Watchmen and Transformers: Dark of the Moon. That makes him an acting companion to the better-known Mike Farrell, William Devane, Martin Sheen, Greg Kinnear, Stephen Collins, Cliff Robertson and William Petersen, who have all played JFK — as have other actors in a sprawl of Kennedy-connected tales.
Petersen, for that matter, has also played JFK’s father in a TV production. Sheen was Robert Kennedy in another film, a would-be president in yet another, and the president in the TV series The West Wing. That show’s Kennedy echoes, by the way, also extend to cast member Rob Lowe, recently seen as JFK in the TV-movie Killing Kennedy.
In popular music, we have had ‘‘Abraham, Martin and John;’’ the band Dead Kennedys; and the Rolling Stones blaming John and Robert’s assassinations on “you and me.” Indeed, while Kennedy’s own musical taste ran toward show tunes, his relative youthfulness and currency suggested a connection to the pop tides of his era. Jeff Greenfield’s speculative history If Kennedy Lived has the Beach Boys, Roy Orbison and the Supremes at JFK’s second inaugural gala, and the Beatles visiting the White House in 1964.
In books, besides the mountains of biographies and other nonfiction, JFK and his assassination are part of novels by Stephen King, James Ellroy and Don DeLillo. Among the plays are Deanne Stillman’s ‘‘Inside the White House,’’ in which Monroe and Kennedy meet in the afterlife.
For that matter, political chronicle Double Down: Game Change 2012 seemed to invoke Kennedy when it referred to Mitt Romney’s “million-dollar head of hair and a multi-million-dollar net worth.” Kennedy money was part of the image, after all — and so was his hair, a stark contrast to the Bryl-creemed look most politicos favored in his time.
Looking back, it seems as if politicians before Kennedy were in grainy black-and-white, maybe jaunty (at least in some images of FDR) but mostly monochrome. Jack — and Jackie — seemed made for color, and the culture was ready for that: Walt Disney’s TV anthology changed its name to the Wonderful World of Color the same year Kennedy was inaugurated.
The passage of time has made Kennedy less meaningful in the national conversation; when Double Down brings up a Kennedy by name, it refers to Edward, and even he had died in 2009. Young fans of Glee likely had no idea what Sue’s allusion to Jackie and Marilyn meant. As young as Kennedy seemed in his era, try to convince one of today’s teens that a man in his forties looks young — let alone a fortysomething who died before that teen’s parents were born.
But the fact remains that Kennedy was the first pop-culture president. His reach extended far beyond politics and social-justice issues. He could have been famous even if he never entered politics. Stillman told KCET.org that her Inside the White House play is “part of a cycle of plays about our country’s worship of fame and celebrity” — and Kennedy, whatever his personal flaws, was ripe for worship.
Observing Kennedy on the verge of his nomination as president in 1960, Norman Mailer wrote: “America’s politics would now also be America’s favorite movie, America’s first soap opera, America’s best seller.” Mailer said so in an essay called “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” the title itself linking Kennedy to a pop-culture icon.
The first scripted movie about Kennedy — the hero-worshipping PT 109 — was in theaters before his death. Profiles in Courage, the book bearing his name, did not become a TV series until 1964. But Kennedy, who had seen the impact of TV in his political campaigns and televised press conferences, reportedly was approving scripts for Profiles before his death — “the first time,” one reference says, “that the President of the United States was directly involved in the production of a television dramatic series.”
‘‘The First Family,’’ a series of comedic sketches, was the best-selling album in America for 12 weeks beginning in late 1962. Other presidents had been joked about, even imitated. But ‘‘The First Family’’ made the president a full character, not unlike a dad in a sitcom. The record made a star of Vaughn Meader, the comedian who gave voice to Kennedy, and a follow-up record in the summer of 1963 went to number four on the charts. There were also imitations, including ‘‘The Other Family’’ (mocking Russia’s Nikita Kruschev) and a different Kennedy set, The “President” Strikes Back.
He even affected book sales. Kennedy’s endorsement of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels “sent sales rocketing,” says The James Bond Encyclopedia. Jacqueline Kennedy, meanwhile, encouraged attention to the classical arts — and drew more attention to high fashion in her outfits from Givenchy, Cassini and Chanel. The JFK library website declares her “a trendsetter, although she discouraged the excessive focus on her appearance by magazines, newspapers, and the general public.”
And then one of those fine outfits was covered in blood and brain. JFK was dead, killed under circumstances that still perplex some observers. While there had been reports of his womanizing and other failings during his lifetime, they have become more a part of his legacy in death. Yet, whether because his complexity is more evident, or because people cling to the idealized older image, he remains a subject of fascination.
Indeed, the Kennedy fixation has only grown. One History Channel documentary claims there are more than 300 theories about his death. Norman Mailer, who wrestled with the nature of America as much as any writer until his death in 2007, kept coming back to Kennedy — “again and again in works of fiction and nonfiction,” says biographer J. Michael Lennon.
As fewer people are alive who remember where they were on Nov. 22, 1963, the more difficult it is to see Kennedy as something more than a chapter in our long, bloodstained history. But there was a point when he suggested that a president was more than a political leader, that he could cross into the culture generally.
Since his death, some politicians have achieved similar kinds of crossover impact. But that does nothing to diminish how things changed when Kennedy emerged.
Rich Heldenfels — who was 12 when John F. Kennedy was shot — writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.