A week earlier, on January 2, 1960, then Senator John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for President of the United States, ending several months of speculation about his intentions. JFK was the first to introduce "speed" into presidential politics, as he was the first presidential candidate to use a private aircraft as his primary means of transportation--"the soaring 60s" indeed (see my blog entry for January 5). According to the page devoted to JFK's airplane at the National Air and Space Museum website, the aircraft was a Convair 240 that had been purchased several months earlier by Joseph Kennedy in preparation for his son's Presidential campaign. According to the NASM webpage:
Historians credit this aircraft with providing Kennedy with the narrow margin of victory for it allowed him to campaign more effectively during that very hotly contested race. The "Caroline," named after President Kennedy's daughter, revolutionized American politics; since 1960 all presidential candidates have used aircraft as their primary means of transportation.
Following his successful bid for President, for security reasons the aircraft was seldom used by JFK afterwards, although it was used by members of the Kennedy family until 1967, when in September of that year Senator Edward Kennedy, recognizing its historical significance, offered to donate the airplane to NASM. Following a formal ceremony in November 1967, the plane was flown to Andrews AFB and then trucked to Silver Hill where it was dismantled and left outside to deteriorate for the next twenty years. In the late 1980s, a curatorial crew and the conservator cleaned the filthy interior of the aircraft, and finally it was moved indoors to safety.
Certain material artifacts of historical significance, such as JFK's Convair 240, have a curious circulation in our culture in their "afterlife." Unlike most quotidian (manufactured) objects, they are transformed into "found objects," capable of being contemplated as works of art, but unlike found objects they often also become excessive signifiers, quasi-magical objects with demonic powers. Think of the myths surrounding James Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder for instance, or the custom-built 1961 Lincoln Continental in which President Kennedy was assassinated. While I could provide many other examples of this sort of fetishization--visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to get an idea of what I'm talking about--this sort of preoccupation is a peculiar characteristic of the so-called "Baby Boom" Generation (of which I am a member), which has detailed and catalogued every last compartment of Baby Boom Culture. While the preservation of such objects serves to connect us in a material way to previous generations, and thus provides the important function of continuity from one generation to the next, the transformation of these manufactured objects into excessive signifiers seems to me to be a recent historical phenomenon, perhaps because the recent hundred years or so seems so characterized by the disaster.
In the Middle Ages, superstitious religious pilgrims often purchased holy relics such as saints' bones, duped by unscrupulous merchants into buying them. The value of the contemporary equivalent of the holy relic is largely determined by that particular object's excessive signification. About a year and a half ago I visited the Titanic exhibit in St. Louis, where a portion of the hull was displayed under plexiglass. A small round hole had been cut into the display, allowing visitors actually to the hull. The hull of the Titanic, JFK's Convair 240, James Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder--even Graceland itself--are all examples of excessive signifiers.
Did I reach through the hole in the plexiglass display and touch the hull of the Titanic? Of course.