Commemorating the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s death, this commentary was excerpted from “Shooting Kennedy: JFK And The Culture Of Images” by art historian David M. Lubin of Wake Forest University:
STATE FUNERALS HAVE LONG BEEN USED as an occasion for rousing the sentiment of the people. The measured dirges and muffled drums, the rhythmic clip-clop of the horses, the flag-draped coffin, the solemn march of foreign dignitaries and heads of state, the grieving crowds have all been part of the spectacle of patriotic grandeur by which monarchs and national heroes have been laid to rest.
The lying-in-state of Kennedy’s body in the Rotunda of the Capitol was modelled on that of Lincoln in 1865. The catafalque that had borne the Great Emancipator’s coffin was brought out of storage and used again. No one was allowed to miss the historical significance of this restaging, which accorded to JFK in death a Lincolnesque moral stature in relation to African American advancement that he had not attained during his lifetime. So many ordinary citizens came to pay their respects that the Rotunda was held open all night long. More than a quarter of a million mourners, eight abreast filed past between 1:30 Sunday afternoon and 8:00 the next morning.
Although the officials in charge followed the rule book for military and state funerals to the letter, Mrs. Kennedy added a number of personal touches and orchestrated the event. When she insisted on walking behind the caisson to the funeral mass rather than ride “in a fat black Cadillac,” researchers were dispatched to the Library of Congress, where they were relieved to find in the volumes of yellowed newsprint verification that a precedent existed in the funeral procession of Presidents Washington, Lincoln, and Grant.
A more recent touch was the riderless horse carrying a pair of boots reversed in the stirrups. That funeral motif supposedly dates back to the time of Genghis Khan as a way to commemorate a leader lost in battle. It had been used for an American presidential funeral only once, eighteen years earlier, at the wartime death of Roosevelt. A gelding that ironically bore the name Black Jack — the nickname for Jackie’s father — was led behind the flag-draped bier of the other Jack, her husband. As historian William Manchester describes it, “His streaming flanks were unnatural, alarming. His steel hooves clattered in jarring tattoo, an unnerving contrast to the crack cadence in front; his eyes rolled whitely. He was nearly impossible to control.” The horse brought a note of barely tamed urgency to the proceedings, but he did not upstage the first lady. The funeral, attended by delegates from 80-two countries (including eight heads of state and 10 prime ministers) and watched live by hundreds of millions of people across the globe (it was broadcast even on Soviet state television), was Jackie’s show from first to last.
No actress ever trod a greater stage before a larger audience, yet for this performance she was her own wardrobe mistress, her own makeup assistant, and even the music director, asking that the plangent sounds of the Black Watch bagpipers and the poignant navy hymn “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” both favourites of her late husband, be added to the program. Her ultimate touch was the idea of the eternal flame, which she lit at his grave.
PERHAPS THE MOST ENDURING IMAGE from the funeral, if not from the entire assassination weekend, was one that Jackie played a major role in creating. It was John John’s salute at the bottom of the cathedral steps. He was saluting the flag-draped coffin as it was affixed to the caisson, the same caisson that had borne Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. He was saluting his father and, in the sense explored above, the nation’s father. He was saluting the commander in chief. Film footage of the moment reveals an important detail that the still photographs do not. Immediately before John John saluted, Jackie leaned down and whispered to him, instructing him to make his move.
[Note: See the most famous version of this picture here; a similar one is on the right].
The December 3, 1963, issue of Look that was on the stands that day with its featured photo essay, “The President and His Son,” shows that already back in October John John had been learning how to salute. In the Look photo, he mistakenly uses his left hand instead of his right, and the salute isn’t crisp and smart, but the rudiments of his polished salute on the cathedral steps are clearly in the making.
A salute is a bodily gesture, a precise movement of the arm and hand meant to confer honour. It belongs to the category of what linguistic philosophers call “performative utterances.” Such an utterance, for example, “I declare you husband and wife” or “I give you my word,” accomplishes the act it describes. To say “I give you my word” not only tells what you are doing but actually does it; the description and the action are inseparable; the dancer cannot be distinguished from the dance, the saluter from the salute. John John’s salute is a performative utterance — it says, in effect, I give you my respect, and in so doing, it does just that. It might also be regarded as a piece of performance art, though belonging more to the mother who prompted it than to the son through whom, we might say, it was performed.
John John looks so heartbreakingly vulnerable in his double-breasted coat and short pants, with his white ankle socks and his wobbly knees and his left hand at his side, fingers pointed inward, like that of his Uncle Bobby, who stands above and behind him in striped trousers and morning coat. If nothing else, the picture reminds us how fragile children are, how breakable.
WHEN THE PRESIDENT’S WIFE and family gathered around his gravesite at Arlington, a dull roar rose in the east and 50 military jets streamed through the sky in a farewell salute. This too was an act of honour and respect, and a symbol of closure and grace. Yet perhaps, in retrospect, it didn’t bode well. On the front page of the November 25, 1963, afternoon edition of the
Sacramento Bee are three headlines. The first and largest reads, “KENNEDY IS LAID TO REST: Joins Other Heroic Dead in Arlington.” The second, smaller but in bold print, says “Oswald Is Slain in Burst of Revenge.” The third and smallest headline announces, “Johnson Renews Pledge of US Viet Nam Victory.” Centered amid the three narratives of heroic death, mad vengeance, and pledged military victory is a photograph of the beautiful veiled widow and her two handsome brothers-in-law, Robert and Edward, walking in measured cadence behind the caisson bearing the coffin of the dead warrior-prince.
What might we conclude, then, about the great piece of theatre directed, stage-managed, and performed by Jacqueline Kennedy in late November 1963? Did it liberate Americans from a national trauma by making the nation better, teaching its citizens the value of inner nobility and self-sacrifice? Or did the funeral ultimately give rise to a more sustained trauma in which, in the crucible of the Vietnam War, the nation all but cracked, with loyalists to the state, inspired by patriotic idealism, in constant clash with antiwar protestors, whom they accused of rank selfishness but who themselves laid claim to a higher patriotism that cherished peaceful republicanism over war-making imperialism? To put this but another way, was the Kennedy funeral a moment of peace and healing and moral inspiration, or was it simply neoclassical theatre on a giant scale, a spectacle that mesmerized the public and diverted its attention from the war on which it was already embarked? Was the funeral in essence a grand opera finale, with Jackie giving a performance that even Maria Callas couldn’t rival?
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, wrote the Latin poet Horace. It is a sweet and seemly thing to die for one’s country. In a very real sense, that was the underlying message of the Kennedy funeral, a message many of the nation’s sons (and daughters too) came bitterly to reject, especially when they took it also to mean that it is a sweet and seemly thing to kill for one’s country. In that context Mitford’s phrase “the American way of death” took on an ironic new meaning, referring less to how Americans died than to how they dealt death to others, with their technologically sophisticated planes, artillery, and napalm.
The spectacle of John Kennedy’s funeral, like the spectacle of his life, inspired many observers across the land to comport themselves with courage, dignity, and patriotic self-sacrifice. But in the national schism that lay ahead, what counted as courage to one American signified cowardice to another, and love of country expressed itself in radically different forms, from excessive zeal to abject shame. If the nation mourned as one during the funeral of the president, it would mourn as many in the years to come.
Republished with permission from “Shooting Kennedy: JFK And The Culture Of Images” by art historian David M. Lubin of Wake Forest University. See also his commentary on the global reach of the Kennedy funeral, the Zapruder film, and the last beautiful picture of JFK and Jackie.
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