Twas a dark day in Dallas, November ‘63
A day that will live on in infamy
President Kennedy was a-ridin’ high
Good day to be livin’ and a good day to die
Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb
He said, “Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?”
“Of course we do. We know who you are”
Then they blew off his head while he was still in the car
-Bob Dylan, Murder Most Foul
November 22, 1963. One of the most infamous days in American history: the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The beloved president stood for equality and ambition in the eyes of Americans, and his iconic image has been invoked ever since.
Ronald Reagan called Kennedy “a patriot who summoned patriotism from the heart of a sated country.”
“As a leader, as a president, he [JFK] seemed to have a good hard, unillusioned understanding of man and his political choices.” — Ronald Reagan
In 2017, when he received the Profile in Courage Award, Barack Obama said of Kennedy, “My life in many ways would not have been possible without the vision that John F. Kennedy etched into the character and hearts of America.”
JFK was a complex man, and the legacy he left behind is even more complex. Woven into the fabric of modern America, the ghosts of Kennedy live on.
And I do mean to use the plural here, because there are more than one of them.
Last year, Bob Dylan released a seventeen minute epic addressing the assassination of JFK. The song is titled “Murder Most Foul” in reference to Hamlet. The line is taken from the scene where the ghost of Hamlet’s father returns to reveal he was murdered.
I opened this essay with the first stanza of Dylan’s song. In it, Dylan portrays JFK as an innocent lamb being helplessly led to slaughter. An unseen “they” conducts the assassination.
Is JFK’s ghost speaking through Bob Dylan? Just like Hamlet, we can never really know what happened that day. And we have no way of knowing if the ghost is lying or not.
The rise of Donald Trump brought with it another of JFK’s ghosts. This one, conjured by the “Make America Great Again” movement, channeled the conspiracies and mystery that has surrounded Kennedy ever since his death.
Trump’s followers connected with Kennedy as a symbol of American dominance. After all, it is Kennedy’s image that is invoked when Americans think of power. He was the leader who dared us to go to the moon.
For many, Kennedy represents a kind of King Arthur figure: the good knight, the Paladin. And it was an image that was concocted after his demise.
By now, most readers will have heard of the QAnon conspiracy, either from mainstream news outlets or on Facebook, where the group held a significant following before being taken down.
For those still in the dark, QAnon is a far-right movement of Trump loyalists who believe a so-called “deep state” is plotting the downfall of America. This would, of course, be the same “deep state” that supposedly assassinated JFK and pinned the murder on Lee Harvey Oswald.
By “deep state,” they mean the agencies and officials who transcend the administrative changes that follow any new presidency or shifts in Congress. Of course, such officials do exist.
QAnon has gone so far as to suggest that JFK Jr. is alive and supports Trump from the shadows of the internet.
But the obsession with JFK goes well beyond far-right movements. The JFK conspiracy is a household topic even today. I’ve already mention Bob Dylan’s hit song. But another of America’s beloved writers recently invoked the ghost of JFK to massive success.
Stephen King’s 11/22/63 is about a time traveler who attempts to prevent JFK’s murder. The novel was released in 2011 and became an instant best-seller.
In the book, the protagonist makes a detailed study of Lee Harvey Oswald. Explaining Lee’s motives, King writes:
“He was ideologically pure. They were cowards who had abandoned Mother Russia when she was on her knees in ’43, who had licked the Germans’ jackboots and then flew to the United States when the war was over, quickly embracing the American Way…which to Oswald meant saber-rattling, minority-oppression, worker-exploiting crypto-fascism.” — Stephen King, 11/22/63
The last decade has seen a massive revival of the image of John F. Kennedy, both in the artistic and political realms. In one image, we see an innocent man being led to slaughter, a sacrifice to an ideological war. In the other, we see a king, a dominator who never backs down from a challenge.
In reality, JFK was neither of these images. He was an American president. He was a complex man that came to symbolize a moment of American crisis. How did he end up with multiple ghosts?
As Robert Samuelson wrote in his New York Times piece, The JFK Fascination, “It’s not about him, it’s about us.” The fascination with Kennedy, Samuelson argues, stems from the shattering of the illusion of control that followed the death of the president.
JFK was a dramatic figure. His tenure in the White House was plagued by scandal to a mythic proportion. And his assassination was further mythologized in order to keep America strong when it was struggling during the 1960’s, both internally with the civil rights movement, and externally in the Vietnam war.
What’s more is that JFK represented a turning point in America where the old guard was replaced by a new, ambitious youth. It was JFK who argued that diversity was important to America, not on moral grounds, but on the logic that it was the only way to stay competitive with the growing threat of socialism.
While the far-right celebrates JFK as a figure of male dominance, it was feminist author Betty Friedan, and her book The Feminine Mystique, who best articulated what would become of JFK’s vision.
In her monumental work, released the year of Kennedy’s death, Friedan argued that the United States was losing its competitive edge because it refused to let women and minorities participate in the process of government and administration.
While groups like QAnon blame rising inequality and cultural stagnation on multiculturalism and feminism, it was Kennedy who challenged America to rise above it’s bigotry in the name of excellence.
JFK stood at a nexus of American history, one that shattered old world views and opened the space for new frontiers and new lives. It seems that his ghost is invoked precisely because he has been mythologized in the public mind as a symbol of these changes.
In order to further understand this phenomenon, I turned to the philosopher Jacques Derrida and his book Specters of Marx. Written in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the book examines the phenomenon of hauntology, or the conceptual study of ghosts.
A ghost is a type of after image of a person that lingers in the public mind. We see ghosts every day, or their simulacra: the copies of their images. For instance, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is invoked every time I look at a five dollar bill.
There has never been a scholar who really, and as scholar, deals with ghosts. A traditional scholar does not believe in ghosts — nor in all that could be called the virtual space of spectrality. There has never been a scholar who, as such, does not believe in the sharp distinction between the real and the unreal, the actual and the inactual, the living and the non-living, being and non-being, (“to be or not to be” in the conventional reading), in the opposition between what is present and what is not, for example in the form of objectivity.
— Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx
To explore these ghosts, Derrida, just like Dylan, turns to Hamlet. Prince Hamlet is tragically fated to suffer the unnatural haunting caused by the unjust murder of the old king.
The ghost of the king comes back. It comes back to seek vengeance against the one who had killed it. Hamlet hears the ghost and hence becomes the agent of vengeance in the hands of the specter.
Through Hamlet, Derrida explores how ghosts appear and who is affected by them. In the first act of Hamlet, we learn that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
That something is rotten in the state seems to be a precondition for the arrival of ghosts. After all, ghosts only appear in the dark, or when we mourn the loss of something, or someone.
Like Hamlet, America mourns the loss of its father figures, its sense of right and wrong. Like Hamlet, time feels “out of joint” for many people. You can hear this in their slogans (Make American Great Again). Somewhere things have gone badly.
The ghosts speak to those who invoke them. They whisper secrets. They speak truths, and they speak lies. They tell stories of a better world, when things made sense and communities were stronger. They whisper to those who want to hear.
They say, “you have my permission.”
They say, “thou mayest.”
Should we listen to the ghosts? Do we have a choice?