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Experts explore why we can't stop obsessing over JFK | (KRT) DALLAS Four decades later, time hasn't healed this wound.

The killing of John F. Kennedy left a deep and stunning gash in the national psyche. Who President Kennedy was, what he represented, and the optimism of his era made his slaying psychologically personal to much of the nation.

Beneath that scar, mistrust and disillusionment still fester - products of a profound national grief, the mystery surrounding the murder, and nagging notions of what might have been.

Few observers expect the mistrust to ever fade, or the wound to ever heal.

"It's a scar because it's an unsolved murder, let's face it," says communication professor Barbie Zelizer, of the University of Pennsylvania. "The more we look at the Kennedy assassination, the more questions that arise. And we don't like our history that way."

Furthermore, to accept that Kennedy's murder was the act of an insignificant malcontent, some experts say, is to accept that hope may be an illusion, and that modern enlightenment could be just a myth.

"Somehow it is more satisfying to believe that a president died as the victim of a cause rather than at the hands of a deranged gunman," writes Thomas Reed Turner, a scholar of the Abraham Lincoln assassination.

The fatal shots in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, heralded a new era in American attitudes. The public's confidence was shattered. People who trusted the federal government most of the time, or almost always, fell from a peak of 76 percent soon after the killing to a low of 21 percent three decades later, data from the National Election Studies show.

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"There's such a gulf in history between the day before and the day after his assassination," says historian Howard Jones of the University of Alabama. "It's as if we passed through a hundred years in a day."

Kennedy's ability to captivate many Americans - and many more after his death - is one reason it's so hard to let go of the questions surrounding his murder.

The president cultivated an image of youth and vigor, of ideas and inspiration, of faith and service. He was rich and handsome, and seemed to be such a family man. His untimely death didn't allow the public to see him grow old and bitter, historians have noted, or to see the political sausage-making necessary to turn many of his ideas into action.

And just as a eulogy transcends the warts of the deceased, a mourning nation quickly elevated the dead president to astronomical popularity. Only three years before, voters had favored him by the narrowest of margins.

"When Kennedy was shot, for four days there was nothing on television but stuff about Kennedy, all complimentary," explains political scientist Sheldon Appleton of Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. Subsequent surveys of those who had voted in 1960 showed so many people selecting Kennedy that, if everyone were remembering correctly, he would have won by a landslide, Appleton says.

Mythologizing is not unique to the Kennedy assassination, adds Appleton. Lincoln, Washington and Truman, among others, have all been nearly deified since their deaths.

And right after Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize, he received higher negative ratings from the public than did Richard Nixon the week he quit his presidency in disgrace, Appleton says. "People forget that a lot of people did not like Martin Luther King. Now he's an icon."

For the millions who mourned Kennedy, the grief and disbelief that followed his killing left a mark that is indelible to this day. Many likened the event to the death of a family member.

Vast majorities of Americans pitied Kennedy's family, research from the time shows. They mourned his loss at the height of his power. They felt shame that such a thing happened in America.

The assassination hurt physically, too, according to an examination of Americans' symptoms just afterward. Roughly half the people surveyed nationally reported crying, feeling dazed and numb, or having trouble sleeping. Other symptoms included loss of appetite, nervousness, dizziness, clammy hands, racing hearts, headaches and upset stomachs.

The shock of the event was much like that surrounding the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, says Bradley Greenberg, co-editor of a 1965 book examining the assassination and its social fallout.

"In both cases, the kind of sequence people went through is that grief period that comes with the death of a loved one," says Greenberg, who edited a similar collection on public and media responses to 9-11.

A 1966 article explored the phenomenon of group grief after the assassination, noting that rarely do groups identify as closely with an individual as another individual does. "In the case of President Kennedy, however," the Nursing Forum article said, "the identification of the people with the lost person was so strong that the grief of the group had the intensity characteristic for individual grief."

While unique in the modern era, Kennedy was not the first president to be so mourned - Lincoln, too, was remembered as kin, says Turner, whose book "Beware the People Weeping" explores public opinion after the Lincoln assassination.

"Soldiers saw him as `Father Lincoln,' " Turner says. And the public spoke of Lincoln's slaying "as being a family kind of thing - `our father is gone.' "

The death of anyone before his time inevitably leaves survivors considering what might have happened, had the person lived.

The loss of Lincoln, after the hard-won Civil War, was marked by a sense of unfulfilled destiny, says Turner. "Lincoln got the American people to the Promised Land," people thought, "but God didn't allow him to cross over and see the fruits of this victory."

Similarly, thoughts of what Kennedy might have accomplished have dogged his followers for decades. In particular, the Kennedy killing touches on another very sore spot on the national psyche: the war in Vietnam.

Perhaps, says Jones, the 58,000 American deaths - and thousands more in Southeast Asia - might have been avoided had Kennedy lived.

The great, unspoken truth in the 1963 White House, Jones learned, was that a U.S. war in Vietnam could not be won. So the president, Jones says, was firm in resisting pressure to beef up military aid to South Vietnam.

"He would grant military advice, economic aid, but he was not going to take over the war - it was their war," says Jones, whose new book "Death of a Generation" discusses how Kennedy planned to withdraw from Vietnam.

Kennedy planned first to withdraw 1,000 military personnel in late 1963 and then continue through 1965 to prune their ranks to 1961 levels, says Jones.

That plan was derailed by the unfolding of religious and political events in South Vietnam - first, a violent clash between Buddhists and the Catholic regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, punctuated worldwide by a photo of a monk setting himself afire in downtown Saigon. Then Diem, who was to be ousted with Kennedy's tacit endorsement, was killed.

Expecting to face staunch conservative Barry Goldwater in the `64 election and fearing he'd be branded soft on communism, the president decided to wait until after his re-election to withdraw from Vietnam, Jones says.

Before that could happen, Kennedy was killed.

A mere week after Kennedy's assassination, Gallup polling found that only 29 percent of Americans thought that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

Accepting that lone killers slew presidents James Garfield in 1881 and William McKinley in 1901 was much easier, says Turner. For one thing, the trauma over their deaths wasn't as great.

The public hardly knew Garfield, who was shot after just four months in office. McKinley had presided over the popular Spanish-American War, but didn't achieve the monumental status Lincoln did. And both assassins seemed overtly disturbed: Garfield's killer believed God told him to do it; McKinley's appeared paranoid and claimed to be an anarchist.

Lincoln's killing has not been put to rest as easily. Amateur historians took up the case for more than a century, Turner says, before he and other pros weighed in.

The Lincoln assassination in fact was an effort of a band of conspirators, led by John Wilkes Booth, Turner notes. But whether there was a wider conspiracy - that is, whether the Confederate secret service induced Booth to try to kidnap Lincoln - has been debated for about two decades. "The Lincoln assassination is still wide open," he says.

In any case, it's just human nature to first think "conspiracy" when the course of a nation is so swiftly changed, suggests Turner, a history professor at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts.

"If you look back at antiquity, and even some myths in antiquity, and you get a great king, a great figure, and he is slain by somebody who doesn't appear to be as great a figure, even in antiquity people couldn't accept that," says Turner, citing an argument by historian Lloyd Lewis.

"It doesn't satisfy people. And that's why I don't think you'll ever close the (Kennedy) case, really."

It's also hard to accept something that had no authoritative witnesses, says Zelizer, a professor at Penn's Annenberg School for Communication. The media, although ever present in the wake of the assassination, didn't actually see what happened, she notes.

Reporters were in the president's motorcade but were a few vehicles back from Kennedy, says Zelizer, author of "Covering the Body," a book describing how the media shaped beliefs about the assassination. "So you have people who were eyewitnesses at the side of the road seeing things that the journalists didn't."

Then Oswald was captured. Jack Ruby shot him. The funeral began. Events came faster than reporters could grasp them, Zelizer says.

Understandably, Zelizer says, journalists couldn't process all the implications amid the chaos. "The circumstances, however, changed over the years that followed, and their stories did not."

For the most part, she says, journalists stuck to their original story, of a lone assassin, leaving it to independent assassination investigators to explore other possibilities. But, lacking the support and cachet of major media outlets, the credibility of those investigators was hobbled. "Journalists could look at them and say, these guys are crackpots, and not attend to what they were bringing up," Zelizer says.

She thinks the time has passed when one piece of evidence could be found that would put the Kennedy controversy to rest. "But there were moments when evidence was lost," she laments. "Had there been a more vigilant public sphere, including politicians, including journalists, one might be able to say we might have known things differently."

Meanwhile, over the past 40 years, the public has grown more and more accustomed to itself witnessing - via the media - notorious events, notes Greenberg.

Up-close images were distributed of Robert Kennedy's 1968 assassination, for instance, and the 1981 attempt on Ronald Reagan's life. "Each of those was increasingly available to us to examine," says Greenberg, a professor of communication and telecommunication at Michigan State University. "We didn't see Oswald pull the trigger."

And nothing has paralleled the public's witnessing of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"We shared 9-11 in its original moment," Greenberg says. "Time and again, we saw it."

Sheer fascination with conspiracy also appears to fuel the continuing Kennedy flame.

Appleton has noted the vast number of Web pages devoted to conspiracies - on one search engine, counted before Sept. 11 there were nearly 350,000.

The Americans who are most likely to embrace conspiracy theories are those with lower education levels, and those who feel alienated from government and political activity, says Appleton.

His work has also suggested that people with a low tolerance for ambiguity are more likely to be convinced of conspiracies at work. And conspiracy abets conspiracy: People who believe in one are more likely to believe in others.

But all of that doesn't mean Kennedy wasn't the victim of some conspiracy, he says.

"The thing that strikes me is not that people are wrong, but we probably could count on our fingers the number of people who really know, if there are any, whether there was a conspiracy or not," says Appleton, who researches the nature of assassination and conspiracy beliefs. "How many people could know? Yet so many people seem to be so sure and with such emotion, and such force.

"Those things tell me that the origins of those beliefs lie less in the factual realm than in the emotional realm."

Even Nellie Connally, the Texas first lady who was in the car when Kennedy was shot, says she doesn't know what really happened. The assassination has thus becomes a kind of Rorschach blot - an ambiguous situation onto which people passionately project their own beliefs, Appleton says.

Diehard assassination buffs remind him of a line from The King and I:

"They fight to prove that what they do not know is so."

Psychological processes even today, and even among those who hadn't yet been born in 1963, appear to make any resolution of the Kennedy tragedy impossible.

For instance, a 1995 study, by social psychologist John McHoskey, demonstrated that people bring their own baggage to the evaluation of the lone assassin vs. conspiracy controversy. The study asked 253 college students, all born after Kennedy was killed, to consider summaries of evidence supporting each theory. Predictably, people on both sides of the debate perceived the same evidence as supporting whichever belief they already held, a process known as biased assimilation.

A wide body of literature demonstrates this process in a number of situations, says McHoskey, of Eastern Michigan University. "People have a need to feel that they're kind of competent and that they understand the world, that they're smart," he explains. "And one of the ways is that they come up with ideas about how the world is, and they keep convincing themselves that they're right."

Given such tendencies, McHoskey says, the Kennedy debate is utterly unresolvable. "There's no evidence that could ever materialize that could convince us," he says.

At the same time, the generations newest to the debate have come of age in an era where doubt and disbelief often eclipse trust and faith. Compare this with the naivete of 1963.

"You're looking at a period in which the bitterness over Vietnam had not hit, the bitterness over Watergate had not hit, the (government) credibility gap had not hit," Jones says. "You're looking at a time when if the president said something, you believed it.

"Afterward, people questioned everything."

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© 2003, The Dallas Morning News Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services