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Fifty years of icon-hood

November 25, 2013

It’s funny how we don’t get to choose our icons even though we’re all involved in making them. One can explain it a thousand ways after the fact, but the iconic, like new slang or a literary blockbuster, just happens.

An icon—not the religious ikon or the computer graphic but something we come to regard as symbolic—rises up from the wellspring of events and persists as a marker in our collective memory.

Need we note that Kennedy is an icon? Certainly, John F. Kennedy is a critical figure in modern history, but I consider “Kennedy” the icon. Perhaps you’ve seen the display at the library: black-and-white photos, “Look” and “Life” magazines, a memorial picture book, a John F. Kennedy Space Center pamphlet, a presidential collector plate, all displayed around an old ironing board.

The ironing board is the glue. It is proof, in fact, of the iconic character of “Kennedy.” It is the perfect display for the images of Jacqueline and the children on the covers of the leading magazines of the day.

What are those images but memorials to loss, not just for the Kennedy family but for a nation losing its short-lived fantasies of security. Ten years later we were into gas crises, the writing on the wall for a shrinking, interdependent world.

Fifty years of icon-hood, developed day by day as we held on to “Kennedy”—the politics; the conspiracies of the assassination; the beauty and tragedy of the family; secrets of the clan; the pictures and films played over and over on paper, on screens, and in our heads; the affection for or disgust at the American society and sensibilities of the Fifties and Sixties—have made an industry for writers, film-makers, artists, and purveyors of collectibles.

Without the memorabilia, the ironing board is a different kind of thing. In a world of wrinkle-free fabrics, how many homes even have ironing boards now? And if a person is standing beside one, it’s as likely to be a man as a woman.

Okay, maybe not quite. But that’s why Kennedy is still iconic. Fifty years later, domesticity is still female. Of course, if a household has an ironing board today, it is not unlikely to have a househusband ironing organic linen clothing. Privileged domesticity.

Even laying down these stereotypes is part of “Kennedy,” because our present culture is still caste- and role-laden. Maybe we’ll remain that way with a smaller slice of the world pie, or maybe we’ll continue to evolve on the remarkable civic foundation we’ve enjoyed up to now.

The Kennedy display was assembled by the “Rocketman,” Jimmy Descant, around photographs taken by his father in Grand Rapids in 1960 as John F. Kennedy traveled the campaign trail.

Jimmy’s father was able to jump in front of the motorcade and stop it long enough to snap nine pictures. Clearly, it was a different time, and if stopping a motorcade were still possible three years later, it certainly wasn’t thereafter. As related in Friday’s Mountain Mail, everyone beyond a certain age has a memory of where they were when they heard the news and the memory of the shock.

In a way, it’s funny, too, that America after the horrors of World War II seemed to have this childhood of sorts, at least in its popular culture, and yet it reflects not mere naivete but hope and vision for a civil society. For something good. I still feel affection for that.

Rocketman’s display will be up just a little longer. Come look.


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