Kennedy assassination television transformation politics

Event and Mediality (PDF with illus. and fn.)


Event and Mediality. Andy Warhol’s „Jackie (The Week That Was)“

published in German in: Bilder machen Geschichte. Historische Ereignisse im Gedächtnis der Kunst, hrsg. von Uwe Fleckner (Studien aus dem Warburg-Haus 13), Berlin 2014, S. 357-370. Translation: Daniel Hendrickson

Chapter 2: The Media Transformation of Politics

The crisis triggered by the assassination was handled masterfully, at least by tele¬vision. Shortly after Kennedy’s death the three national broadcasting channels ABC, CBS, and NBC decided to interrupt all running and planned programming and to switch to direct broadcasting until the funeral on Monday. This gave rise to what is still the longest and most elaborate live broadcast in television history. “I don’t know of anything before or after that reached that peak. . . . I was responsible for the television coverage and still coverage of the entire funeral. It was a difficult task but everybody cooperated; we had cameras from everywhere, we had cable from everywhere, and the coverage and cooperation of television was, I think, just absolutely stupendous,” is how J. Leonard Reinsch, Kennedy’s media advisor, described the task at hand. The events of this weekend were transformed in the moment of their happening into a media event, the historical break of Kennedy’s assassination became the high point of television history. It even includes a sensational live moment: While ABC and CBS were showing the dreary procession in front of the coffin on Sunday, NBC switched to Lee Harvey Oswald’s transfer into the district prison. So the spectators of this broadcast could watch his shooting in the parking garage of the Dallas police headquarters at the moment it happened.
Television did not only document the events, but at the same time took on a previously unknown role in the political and emotional life of the nation. J. Leonard Reinsch calls this the manufacturing of a “a community of interest”: “Everyone–whether they happened to be in Atlanta, Georgia, or New York City, or Keokuk, Iowa–felt as one. They joined in their grief for the slain leader and they felt they were participating in this tragic ceremony. . . . Television took them there. The sight of this riderless horse going down Pennsylvania Avenue [Kennedy’s favorite horse Black Jack, which followed the coffin to the Capitol] was bound to tug your heart, and little John-John saluting [Kennedy’s three-year-old son at the hearse’s departure for the cemetery] was just world-wide heart-appeal.”
The continual flow of images actually played down the shock of the sudden political vacuum. On the one hand, the immediate and uncontested transference of power to the vice president was made visible to everyone, on the other, Jacqueline Kennedy was pushed into the limelight of media attention: as the guarantor of continuity as well as the figure of emotional identification, in whose mourning and courage the feelings of the nation could be reflected. If nothing new was happening on the sad stage of Washington, which was often the case in these four days, the past scenes of the weekend were shown over. The incessant repetition of images and reports became, as witnesses testify, an essential component of the memory of this time. Even through this redundancy, television helped to deal with the inconceivable.
The print media also contributed to the media coverage, as it is so fittingly called in English, above all what was then the most widely circulated magazine in the world, Life, with its nearly ten million copies. The issues from November 29 and December 6 included extensive visual material of the assassination and the memorial events, from which Warhol culled five of his eight images. But the next issue on December 13 already marked the completed transition. The cover image shows Johnson in the Oval Office behind the presidential desk, the main article carries the title “Johnson on the Job.” How far the tacit alliance between the mass media and the government’s efforts to secure peace and security in the country went–which included officially presenting Lee Harvey Oswald as the single perpetrator while not supporting any conspiratorial setting–can be clearly seen in Life magazine’s coup in securing, on the day after the attack and for a large sum of money, the Super 8 film that the clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder had made in close vicinity to the scene of the crime and which to this day represents the main document of the course of the assassination. While the FBI confiscated the copies, Life purchased the original film and reprinted some individual images from it in its November 29 and December 6 issues, albeit without frame numbers, which would have attested to the order of events, and leaving out certain frames that would have been able to undermine the thesis of Oswald having acted alone. – “Everything begins with reproduction. Always already: repositories of a meaning which was never present, whose signified presence is always reconstituted by deferral, nachträglich, belatedly, supplementarily.” This formulation by Jacques Derrida is perhaps the most succinct description of the relation between event and mediality as they were presented in those days.
As far as concerns the media’s involvement, Kennedy’s presidency came to a worthy end. He was the first president to recognize the significance and possibili¬ties of the new medium of television and to target it specifically. Particularly during the 1960 campaign he was very clever in his use of the media. The fact that the first of the newly instigated television debates between the two leading candidates went in Kennedy’s favor and indeed decided the election, is above all due to his extraordinary telegenic quality, which his opponent Nixon lacked. Thanks to information leaked from the television company CBS, this advantage could be expanded. He found out that the studio walls that they would be standing in front of during the debate were painted white and that their appearance would be lit with strong spotlights. So he appeared in a dark suit and freshly tanned from a campaign tour in California. While he presented the spectators with a ‘distinguished’ shape, Nixon got lost in the background in his light jacket. The glaring and hot spotlights made him, who had just been released from a hospital visit, appear waxen and unshaven, the drops of sweat appearing on his forehead gave the impression of a lack of steadfastness. The political commentators may have found that he had the better arguments, but they were undermined by this optically clear situation. A survey after the debate conducted with those who had heard it on radio showed Nixon as victor, while the estimated 74 million television spectators spoke out clearly for Kennedy. Kennedy, who was previously less well-known nationally, gained the edge over his opponent for the first time, which he would then never lose again. In light of the fact that Kennedy was elected with a majority of about 100,000 votes (34,221,463 against 34,108,582), the significance of the television debate becomes clear. Events of this kind mark the all-encompassing changes in political culture through television, which have not only brought about a medialization of politics, but above all a personalization and emotionalization.

Chapter 1: Warhol’s Use of the Documentary Material
Event and Mediality Chapter 2: The Media Transformation of Politics
Event and Mediality Chapter 3: The Refusal of Visibility
Event and Mediality (PDF with illus. and fn.)