Earlier this week the nation marked the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, in which President Abraham Lincoln speculated, “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here…”
Today marks another important anniversary. It is doubtful, however, whether many people 50 years ago could have imagined how the assassination of John F. Kennedy, traumatic and gruesome as it was, still would be such a fixation for many Americans in 2013. A veritable industry has grown up around the events of that day in Dallas, with countless books, movies, symposia and studies being spawned by conspiracy theories that, if all were true, would have had the street outside the Texas Schoolbook Depository virtually lined with snipers.
No doubt, the reasons for this fixation are many and varied. Many Americans who lived through that day mourn for more than a young president who seemed so full of life and energy. To them his sudden death was an end to boundless idealism, just as it seemed to mark the beginning of a series of events that tarnished their trust in government and political leaders.
Even Kennedy himself has suffered in ensuing years as the truth about his dalliances and his cold political calculations on civil rights and other key issues have come into focus. Fifty years ago, the office of the president commanded respect and dignity. Even those who showed up in Dallas that day with signs protesting the president’s policies were tame compared with what his successors — beginning with Lyndon Johnson and the anti-war protestors and carrying on through Barack Ohama and the vitriol of talk radio — have had to endure.
Americans have seen many wars and scandals in the ensuing years, including the resignation of a president and the impeachment (and acquittal) of another. They have seen runaway spending jeopardize the nation’s credit rating following the near collapse of the economy.
There are plenty of reasons to regard 1963 as a happier time.
But there is one overriding reason why the fixation continues. Thousands of pages of documents related to the investigation of Kennedy’s death remain classified and off-limits to researchers.
As an Associated Press report noted this week, author Jefferson Morley, former House investigator G. Robert Blakey and others have joined in a lawsuit to try to get the CIA, which controls most of these documents, to release them. Surely, after a half-century, whatever national security issues these documents might concern have dissipated. Surely, the nation has more to gain from their release than would be protected by their continued obscurity.
As British author Anthony Summers told the AP, “By withholding (Kennedy-related documents) the agency continues to encourage the public to believe they’re covering up something more sinister.”
Perhaps these puzzles will be solved four years from now. A law passed in 1992 set up a review board charged with releasing assassination records. The law requires all remaining documents to be released by 2017 unless agencies can successfully argue that doing so would pose a danger.
Something tells us the intelligence community won’t be so eager to let go.
For an older generation, the 50th anniversary has brought many old emotions to the surface. The filmed and televised murder of a president and the subsequent public mourning of a wife and two small children presented the nation with a trauma it can’t soon forget. For Americans who lived through those events, Nov. 22always will tug at the heart.
But for the federal government, the never-ending barrage of questions and theories should be a constant reminder that the nation finally needs to know as much about what happened to its president as possible.