Generation Y Studies JFK's Life and Times

Forty SMU undergraduates have a unique opportunity to capture the zeitgeist of a turbulent time as the nation prepares to observe the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22. SMU political science Professor Dennis Simon and senior English lecturer Tom Stone in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences are teaching a special course during fall 2013 that examines the life, times and legend of JFK.

The students and professors are blogging about their experiences here. Learn more about SMU’s experts and archival collections related to the presidency and assassination at smu.edu/JFK.

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How TV changed history

An update from Tatum, a sophomore management science major and business minor:

“JFK: His Life, His Times, and His Legend” is easily the most specific academic course I have taken at SMU. This focused approach to one time period, one man and his presidency has allowed us to gain an understanding and exploration far deeper than I have ever had with one historical figure. It quite honestly has made me infatuated with the legacy and image of Kennedy and increasingly aware of how relevant it is in Dallas and across the country as we approach the anniversary. The sources we have been reading and movies we have watched have also made me think critically about the nostalgic images of Kennedy that are viewed today and compare how the country perceives him fifty years ago to now.

In class last week we watched the movie The Making of the President, 1960, which was based on the nonfiction book by Theodore White in 1961. I found it really interesting that the movie was finished shortly prior to Kennedy’s assassination but released without revision. The film seemed to favor Kennedy’s strategies and personality throughout the election, which, from one perspective, showed me how much Americans idealized and loved JFK even before he was martyred.

Another factor the documentary brought up was the new importance of television during the election. Because of the timing, most Americans finally had TVs in their homes, allowing 70 million to watch the debate between Nixon and Kennedy. It is interesting to think how much television changed the presidential image and the way candidates campaigned since that election. Kennedy had the looks, the charisma, and the confidence of public speaking on camera, while Nixon’s poor choice of suit color and weaker disposition made him appear to be the lesser candidate, regardless of the actual arguments the candidates made. Some say that Americans who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon won, while those who watched it on TV believed JFK to be the winner. When Kennedy’s public response soared, it proved how impactful TV appearance is to the public perception, as the documentary called it the most crucial episode of the 1960 campaign.

As a true member of generation Y, it is difficult to imagine how a country judged its political figures before there were a million media sources documenting and publishing every move in video. Kennedy’s television appearances added to the unique glamor of his image and his presidency, which make him such a fascinating figure to learn about and base our course around.

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