I’m not one of those who cried at the televised images of Princess Di’s funeral. I have always sniffed at the hot-air-bloated emotion that follows in the wake of celebrity disaster or triumph. Something democratic in me resists the lure of paparazzi-designated royalty. I don’t grieve, not sincerely grieve, for people I don’t personally know, and I certainly don’t admire people for the good fortune of their birth or the clothes they wear or the shining places they take their vacations. I think of all that as the rites of a false American religion, one that conveys sainthood on the famous and confuses good design with virtue, visibility with intimacy. This religion reveals a hollowness, a Disneyland Mickey Mouse sordidness at our communal core.
But when the news came of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s lost plane, I took my seat in front of CNN and watched the shots of Martha’s Vineyard and rocky beaches and marinas until my eyes began to smart. I listened to Coast Guard and Air Force spokespeople repeat themselves and, as if touching a sore place with my tongue, I watched J.F.K. Jr. salute his father’s coffin and hide under his desk and run to his daddy on the runway of an anonymous airport.
This seemed the last straw, the too-much of death and disaster. The sadness of the wasted youth, his beautiful wife, the Icarus-like flight to a cousin’s wedding, the sun setting on the impersonal seas, the haze on the Vineyard, the inexperienced pilot, the horizon tilting and tilting, made me want to wail, hit something, protest. This is not fair. The grief of Kennedy history washed over me and I imagined the Kennedy compound. Caroline once again losing and losing. The cousins in prayer. Does God love or hate the Kennedys? I ran up the list lip-synching with Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw and Wolf Blitzer: PT boat, leukemia, mental retardation, overdose, skiing accident, two assassinations, some life-threatening cancer, alcohol abuse, well-publicized adulteries, rape accusations and worse.
What is this, the longest-playing soap opera in history? What is this, a lachrymose tale told around the American campfire to frighten the children into better behavior? Is this a myth of Greek proportions? Is this some punishment for hubris, for gifts of fortune that were not paid for with the right kind of sacrifices? Or are the Kennedy tragedies themselves sacrifices for something that we have all done or not done? “Curse,” the commentators were saying with a touch of irony in their voices so we would not think they were practitioners of voodoo, swirling bloody chickens over their heads in the newsroom, right off-camera.
John, child of history, fatherless too soon, had power and money, as well as good looks. He could have been in motion pictures. He could have been in politics. Ah, death, the great leveler, now he is not anymore, and this seems significant even to me, habitual cynic, scoffer, hard-boiled like rubber.
Newsweek , Time , U.S. News & World Report have placed him on the cover. What is going on here? Why am I, too, so struck in the chest, so heavy of heart, so shallow of breath? I know he couldn’t pass the bar twice. I know that his beautiful wife was hardly the Hannah Arendt of our time. I know that, without his name or money, he might have been the best-looking head waiter at the four-star restaurant of your choice. I know that some of the Kennedy tragedies are the result of impracticality, lack of caution, bravura that imitates but is not the same thing as bravery. My wary offspring would never fly their own plane or play dangerous games on ski slopes. We are a cautious, ordinary tribe who believe that macho is taking care of the young, not running the rapids. But still, I grieve with all the others in America whose wives are not from Greenwich society and whose families do not have compounds but rather gather like we do around the kitchen table when something really bad happens to one of our members.
At bottom, it is not the glamorous differences between ordinary people and Camelot that have fascinated us so. It is not the beauty of J.F.K.’s jaw that makes me sorrow for him. It is rather, I think, that the Kennedy life is just like ours, only with more expensive toys. But we know that our own sons die in car accidents, drink too much, take overdoses, chase the wrong women, have trouble with fidelity and purpose and on occasion fail an exam or lose a job or just behave badly at the barbecue. We ordinary Americans, if we counted, probably experience as many tragedies as have the Kennedys: a child with cancer, a brother who had a diving accident, a sister who ran off with a man who left her bruised in Las Vegas, an aunt who was conned or an uncle who went to jail or a cousin who fell off a roof and never walked again.
Most of us have not lost a relative to the assassin’s bullet but we have, and we will, lose many of those we most dearly cherish. The everyday tragedies of any family are different from the Kennedys only in that there are more Kennedys and we follow each of them.
So the Kennedy family serves as our communal mirror. When I grieve for John-John, I grieve for my own fragility, for my own children out in the night where I can’t protect them, for the planes that might dip and disappear with my loved ones aboard. When I grieve for J.F.K. and the Kennedy family, I am overcome by the thin line between life and death, the here but no longer here of all our lives. When I look at the picture of John-John under the desk, I tear up for the fathers that couldn’t or wouldn’t, for the loneliness of children, for the imperfection of all our lives and how the shadows may recede for awhile but they will surely come again. J.F.K. gave us a noble image of what America might be and his words echo in our minds and when his son dies so casually, on a night trip to a festivity, we cringe. The American dream, “Ask not …” etc., may not have a happy ending. We see ourselves writ large. The obituary column on Sunday, July 18, was full of routine death, a 21-month-old baby, an old man, a blind man, a wife of 58 years, etc. But the headlines were of J.F.K. Jr., who deserved better, meant no harm, was graceful in a hard public place and reminded us all that fate has its own plans for us and those we love.
It is for those who knew him to eulogize the murdered President’s son, but the sweetness of his smile will linger for a while, offering consolation to those who know that courage is the only answer to capricious destiny.
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