The Boomers and Kennedy

February 7, 2013

I recently finished Stephen King’s 11/22/63, his 2011 novel about a time-traveling English teacher who hopes to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I found the book entertaining, but I’d like to focus ever-so-briefly on the odd idea clung to by Baby Boomers that JFK would have struck for peace if he had survived. (There are some spoilers ahead.)

In 11/22/63, English teacher Jake Epping is introduced to a wormhole of sorts that sends him back in time to September 9, 1958; stepping back through the wormhole returns him to his present, plus two minutes. When he travels to the "Land of Ago" he can change what happens in the present, but each time he returns to September 9, 1958, there is a "reset." The changes he has made to the past are erased.

Epping’s goal is to live in the past for five years and stop Lee Harvey Oswald from gunning down JFK on the titular date. There are many adventures along the way—he spends some time in the town of Derry, King’s fictional Maine town that served as the setting for It and has popped up occasionally elsewhere; he falls in love with a librarian in Texas—but saving JFK is always on his mind. Doing so could have avoided the horrors of Vietnam and altered America’s course.

Which it does! Though not necessarily for the better. One of the keener aspects of King’s work is that he is willing to consider the negative consequences of Camelot’s extension.

One of the less-keen aspects is King’s insistence that Kennedy would have minimized our various global conflicts. (In the book’s alternate future, Kennedy left a small number of advisers in South Vietnam but waged no wider conflict, instead focusing on a doomed civil rights agenda. A later—wickedly conservative, natch—administration then nuked Hanoi, for some reason.)

The oddest thing about the Boomer infatuation with JFK is their insistence that this consummate cold warrior who ran to the right of Nixon on foreign policy, risked nuclear annihilation over missiles in Cuba, and thrust us into Vietnam was actually a man of peace. There is a reason that a communist murdered JFK for his global belligerence against communist nations.

James Piereson examined this dissonance in his excellent book, Camelot and Cultural Revolution. JFK, Piereson wrote,

was in many ways an exemplar of the brand of pragmatic liberalism that emerged after World War II. He was tough and realistic, much like his Democratic predecessors Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman, yet at the same time idealistic about the prospects for reform and progress in American life. … Kennedy, the hardnosed cold warrior who would "bear any burden and pay any price to insure the survival and success of liberty," was viewed after his death as a dedicated peacemaker in the image of T.H. White’s King Arthur.

While King rejects the conspiracy theories so popular amongst his cohort, he still buys into this basic reformulation of Kennedy as a man of peace. As I say, it’s all quite odd.

That being said, I recommend the novel, especially if you’re the sort of King-Nerd who lives for Dark Tower connections. There is a longer piece to be written about 11/22/63’s ties to Roland Deschain’s world and that, between this book and The Wind Through the Keyhole, the Gunslinger seems to be calling King again.

But that is a tale for another time.

Published under: Media