So much of John F. Kennedy’s brief presidency has been immortalized in print, on film, and in interviews that it’s hard to imagine anything relating to his life and death having the ability to surprise anymore. Still, “JFK,” a show with three parts now open at the Newseum, offers glimpses into the 35th president’s life and death that feel both fresh and profoundly moving.
The two exhibition parts of “JFK” focus on the light and the dark sides of the Camelot phenomenon. “Creating Camelot,” a show of photographs by the family’s personal photographer Jacques Lowe, is almost all sunshine, featuring glorious large-scale portraits of John, Jackie, and a two-year-old Caroline Kennedy toddling around the Oval Office. The young president’s mystique is clear, but it’s Jackie who’s the star, luminous in image after image, whether she’s posing for Lowe in a yellow-and-white gingham dress or charming Nikita Khrushchev at an otherwise unsuccessful Cold War summit. But even these photographs have a tragic history—the negatives, stored in a World Trade Center vault, were all destroyed during the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York, so the Newseum has restored them from prints and contact sheets kept in a separate storage space.
“Three Shots Were Fired,” hosted in the Newseum’s sixth-floor exhibition space, focuses on the assassination of JFK, and it’s a testament to the show’s creators that the show is both wrenching and fascinating in its extraordinary details. There are important artifacts, such as the shirt Lee Harvey Oswald was wearing when he was arrested, and the service revolver carried by the Secret Service agent who responded first to the shooting, but more interesting are the little things—the stationery used by Jackie Kennedy to respond to letters of sympathy, and the first lady’s personal schedule for November 21 and 22, 1963, with her own notes scrawled in pen. Also remarkable: an ad placed in a Dallas newspaper by an organization opposed to the president which accuses him of appointing non-Christians to key positions, having communist sympathies, and having lied to the American people about much of his personal history. It’s an example that reminds us in a potent way of how conspiracy theories predated talk radio and e-mail blasts.
The final part of the show is A Thousand Days, a film produced by the Newseum to explore the short Kennedy presidency, and its uncanny stamp on the American psyche. As Walter Cronkite put it toward the end of his news broadcast on the day of JFK’s funeral, “It is said that the human mind has a greater capacity for remembering the pleasant than the unpleasant. But today was a day that will live in memory and in grief.” Almost five decades after the assassination of a young president, documentation of his life and death retains the ability to educate and to move.
“JFK” is at the Newseum through January 5, 2014. For more information, visit the Newseum’s website.