Jewish World Review Nov. 24, 2003 / 29 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764
Camelot . . . not
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | It was one of those small things that usually go unnoticed in TV news coverage. A news network (not my own) teased two upcoming stories. I'm not quoting it exactly, but it went something like, "a look back on JFK then a look forward to Michael Jackson." Two compelling issues joined at the electronic hip. I half expected the next tease to read, "from the King of Pop to the guy who got popped. Next!"
Oh, how far we've come. This past week we've been soulful and soulless at the same time remembering a president we once thought did nothing wrong, and relishing the bizarre personal life of an entertainer we're convinced did nothing right.
I don't remember much about John Kennedy. I was only 5 years old when he was killed. I do remember my mother crying for what seemed like, and what actually was, days. She loved JFK. Given her Irish descent, it was like one of her own had hit the professional jackpot.
I'm grateful in a way she left this world before all the nasty allegations came out, before the reports of womanizing and pill popping. I don't know how she would have handled it, or whether she even would have believed it. There was something about how things were covered then that's a marked departure from how we cover things now.
Yet I am convinced that without deconstructing Kennedy, we never would have gotten to the point where we're so zealously going after Jackson. One fed the other. One led to the other. One, in a sense, brought closure to the other.
I suspect it was cathartic for the American press when the JFK allegations went from gossip among a few reporters to unmentionable musings in a few newspapers. The more we were titillated, the more we wanted to be titillated. It was like driving past a car wreck. You resent everyone slowing down and stalling traffic to take a peak, but find yourself doing the same exact thing when you drive by.
So it was with JFK. So it is with Michael Jackson. One mesmerizes us, despite all the foibles, while the other captivates us precisely because of those foibles. Each is fair game today. Each is zealously pursued today. Each is put in perspective today.
I'm not here to weigh the pros and cons of such treatment. I'm only here to say it exists. Get used to it. My colleagues in the press are quick to point out that today everything is news: a politician's positions and his peccadilloes, a musician's songs and his sex life. And the creepier, the better. We can argue whether they are all newsworthy. But we cannot argue over whether today, they are news. They are.
I'm told by some seasoned reporters, who covered JFK at the time, that they knew of his dalliances; some even knew of his chronic pain. But that kind of stuff didn't make news. Never mind the behavior was sullied and sinful, it wasn't necessary to compound the sins by reporting them. So we did not.
Much was rumored and suspected of Judy Garland's drinking at the time or Marilyn Monroe's moodiness at the time. But only among a few, shared with fewer still. Now politicians and their flaws and celebrities and their sins are reported with the same zeal and the same gusto.
And it all started with JFK, first with his death, then the inexorable hunt to deconstruct his life. My father used to say that it would only have been a matter of time before Kennedy's womanizing would catch up with him, that his dalliances with mob mistresses couldn't be hidden forever, and that had he lived, the press would have all it eventually needed to pounce.
It took Vietnam and Watergate to complete the cynical trajectory, to rightly question those who misled us and attack even those who did not. No president was too grand or actor or singer too talented that something couldn't be dug up to mangle the myth.
It's why presidents who soar in popularity come down to earth and why superstars who seem to own the press are eventually torpedoed by the press.
Like I said, it's a weird trajectory, and its timeline an even weirder one.
But it's why we wasted little time burying a president's perfect sheen only a few years after we buried him, and why we do the same to politicians and celebrities alike long before we bury them.
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11/17/03: Cordially speaking, I hate you!