JFK at 100, The President in Music & Film, + Reviewing the Podcast-as-Novel

JFK portrait by Jamie Wyeth

This week: fresh impressions of JFK with Jamie Wyeth, Richard Reeves, Caitlin Flanagan, Bobby Shriver, Eileen Myles, Sally Fay, and Marty Nolan. Listen today at 2 pm on WBUR or anytime at our website.

MM: It’s hard to say anything new about the one and only JFK, but our show this week was a pretty great grab bag of stories, anecdotes, memories and emotion about a man America still loves like crazy. And these days, well, what’s to say … we didn’t know Jack Kennedy, but Mr. President, you’re no Jack Kennedy!

The story of Jamie Wyeth’s painting of JFK was new to me, and it framed our show — a posthumous portrait and our own attempt to establish a memory from different distances and angles. Chris described the painting this way:

In John F. Kennedy’s hundredth birthday Spring, let’s look again at the man’s oil portrait we all know, sort of. The painter Jamie Wyeth is going to help us read it. His canvas summoned the late president as a ruddy sort of ghost, face aglow in front of deep brown shadows, beefy hand in front of his chin, eyes alert but just out of alignment, one looks into you, one past you. He’s returned from another place, mouth open a crack, not quite smiling. I’m seeing bemusement, the mind of an A student, hesitating, kindling a wise-crack, maybe hiding something, perhaps pain, injury, illness. He looks not combative exactly but forceful, open to the fun of teasing or an argument, open to the pleasure of his own company…

Zach did a beautiful job of setting Wyeth’s words to music, pictures and films he dug up.

And our star illustrator Susan Coyne did a magical job of creating her own portrait from one we all recognize.

Illustration by Susan Coyne

Zach Goldhammer: Having been born three three decades after JFK’s death, I have fair amount of trouble understanding the romance of the Kennedy years. My main way of understanding what Kennedy meant for past generations comes through music and film.

13 Days, the 2000 dramatization of the Cuban Missile Crisis starring Kevin Costner, was one of the first political movies I remember watching in theaters. Yet what impressed me when I was 9 as an introduction to the real grown-up world of Washington politics seems less realistic and more childish today. The film seems symptomatic of the same Bush-era liberal fantasies that motivated so many episodes of the The West Wing (“an elaborate fantasia founded upon the shibboleths that sustain Beltway liberalism and the milieu that produced them,” as Luke Savage puts it in the most recent issue of Current Affairs).

The cinematic take on on Cold War crisis wants to see rational, reasonable men steering the American ship between Scylla and Charybdis. It’s a movie that’s fascinated with logic and rhetoric, history and literature; with leaders who speak in breathless, impassioned paragraphs.

A slightly more cynical take on the Kennedy White House comes from the 2016 film, Jackie. In Pablo Larrain’s version of the story, the romance of Camelot doesn’t come directly from JFK, but was heavily filtered through the First Lady, who carefully crafts and manipulates the president’s image both before and after his death (with a little help from the journalist Teddy White).

But in terms of understanding the real emotional appeal of the Kennedys, the best source me comes not from movies but from music.

This is slightly strange because, as Chris Lydon readily admits, JFK had terrible taste in music. The president himself said that he never really understood classical music and never knew when to applaud the end of a piece. He was mostly just a fan of schlocky show tunes, tin pan alley pop, and of course blockbuster musicals like Camelot.

Still, watching video clips from the Kennedy’s 1962 “Pageant for the Arts” it’s hard not to admire what this White House did for artists. It’s incredible to watch, for instance, the debut of a 7-year old Chinese cello prodigy named Yo-Yo Ma followed by a master class fr0m the 86-year old Catalonian exile Pablo Casals, with the Jewish-American genius Leonard Bernstein orchestrating the meeting and transition between the two.

In terms of understanding the tragedy of Kennedy’s death, and the conspiracy theories and counter-mythologies it provoked, the best source I have is the Lou Reed song “The Day John Kennedy Died.

It might be one of the most sincere songs that Reed — patron saint of jaded New York hipster cool — ever wrote. These three lines in particular are devastating to me.

I dreamed I was the president of these United States
I dreamed I was young and smart and it was not a waste
I dreamed that there was a point to life and to the human race
I dreamed that I could somehow comprehend that someone shot him in the face

Another incredible resource is the Dutch musicologist Guido van Rijn’s book Kennedy’s Blues: African American Blues and Gospel Songs on JFK. Some of the songs Rijn discusses — Son House’s “President Kennedy”, Otis Spann’s “Sad Day in Texas,” The Jewel Gospel Singers “The Modern Joshua,” or Mahalia Jackson’s “The Summer of His Years”—reveal an incredible number of references to JFK as “my” or “our” president in black music following the assassination. It’s hard for me to imagine this level of sinceriry and one-to-one identification with any president in the post-Watergate era.


Listening: Revisiting S-Town and seeking new, big idea podcasts

Our crew has been having a heated debated about the podcast S-Town this week, inspired in part by Aaron Bady’s critical piece “Airbrushing Shittown” in Hazlitt. No spoilers here, but Bady argues that by the end of the series he recognized that

For all its magnificent intricacy and beauty, the show … is a work of creative non-fiction, not public-interest journalism. The difference matters. S-Town is literary, explicitly patterned after novels, and utterly successful at what it does — as an exploration and imagination of character, it is engrossing and deeply moving. But it doesn’t pass muster as journalism; it is, at best, journalism-adjacent.

This critique seems to me all well and good except for the fact that I don’t think S-Town was ever intended as a work of public-interest journalism in the first place. Bryan Reed has described his work as a “non-fiction novel” which seems accurate me. The show is, and always was, “journalism adjacent” as Bady suggests. The problem is that many media commentators seem to have lost their instinct for holistic literary reviews. The model for critiquing podcasts is almost purely one of social critique and problematization. They often falter when forced to think about a thing purely in terms of aesthetics and structural innovations in storytelling rather than in terms of social service and public good. If the various This American Life spin-off projects continue to lean towards this literary storytelling mode, reviewers will need to start thinking about new terms and forums for analyzing this work.

On the other hand, we hope that not all podcasts will try to emulate this storytelling model. We’re still on the hunt for other big, omnivorous free-ranging ideas shows like our own. One recommendation we’ve gotten recently which I’ve enjoyed is the intellectual historian David Sehat’s podcast, MindPop (check out his recent episode on Trump and the Reagan revolution).

& Speaking of Trump…

We’ll probably have to cover the fallout from the Comey firing this week, but we’re not sure about the frame yet: Nixon parallels, constitutional crises, FBI history? Or maybe Trump will open up long secret files about the Kennedy assassination and get the Comey story off the front page. No kidding — under the deadline set by a 1992 law, Trump has six months left to decide whether he will block the release of an estimated 3,600 files related to the assassination that are still under seal at the National Archives. Drop us a note and tell us what you’d like to hear and who you want to hear from.

Chris Lyon’s Moment of Zen

Happy Mother’s Day!

Mary, Zach, and the Open Source crew