OLIVER Stone's celebrated film about the Kennedy assassination, "JFK," hits the theaters this weekend. With its suggestion of conspiracy, the movie will trigger yet another round of debate in what has become, perhaps, the culture's greatest lingering obsession over the past three decades.
On one level, asking "Who shot Kennedy?" is a way to retell a mystery story that has already attained epic cultural proportions -- a TV-age version of the Iliad or the Odyssey in which everyone can recite the names of Ruby and Garrison. Moreover, for many, the Kennedy assassination is remembered as the defining event of the era. Understand that, perhaps, and you understand everything that followed.
Perhaps that is why the argument over who really killed Kennedy has always been intense and still has relevance today. It is a symbol for a debate about something else. On one side are "the lone gunman" theorists, still in the minority, according to polls. They believe the assassination was an aberration, a symbol of life's capriciousness, a national version of when bad things happen to good people.
On the other side are the conspiracy theorists, who see the assassination as representative of something that went terribly wrong with America. Whether blaming the CIA, the FBI, the Mafia or Kennedy himself for trying to remove Castro, a conspiracy theorist sees the assassination as a somewhat logical reflection of larger cultural forces. As such, the event becomes not a freak occurrence but a symbol of national disease.
In retrospect, what is striking is how prevalent that deep pessimism about the nation was, even in the days following the assassination.
But this event was different from the start: Americans blamed themselves and their institutions. As Godfrey Hodgson wrote in "America in Our Time," three weeks after the assassination the New York Times was asking, "What sort of nation are we?" Sen. William Fulbright said, "It may be that the nation as a whole is healthy and strong and entirely without responsibility for the great misfortune that has befallen it . . . I, for one, do not think so."
Why did much of the nation have this unusual reaction? In part, it had to do with the nature of this tragedy. When presidents such as FDR or Lincoln had died, there was a sense their work was done. In contrast, this younger president was struck down in his prime. What's more, he died in a period when, largely because of television, the president has become a far more important political figure and symbolic embodiment of the nation than was the case before.
In addition, the murder of Kennedy came at a time when American institutions and values were under fire. Rightfully so, the civil rights movement was delegitimizing the entire nation. Michael Harrington's "The Other America" revealed pervasive poverty amid the affluent. The years that followed the assassination only reinforced pessimism. There were more shootings, riots, a discredited president, an unpopular war, a threatening youth culture and a still unsolved racial problem. For many of those who grew up in that era, the operative assumption about the country became that it was grossly flawed and headed downward.
So it still goes today. We can quibble about the details, but writ large the debate over who killed Kennedy continues to reveal two larger, opposing views about the direction of America. Despite flaws and tragedies, are we fundamentally good, continuing to progress, headed in the right direction?
Or was the Kennedy assassination the beginning of decline, a product of a larger malaise, a portrait of a society rotten to the core?
Fifty years from now, maybe historians will be able to provide an answer. Meanwhile, we will go see the Oliver Stone movie and debate among ourselves for the thousandth time what really happened on the grassy knoll.
Steven Stark is a Boston Globe columnist.