He was the star of the last generation of America's most star-struck and most star-crossed family. Now, John F. Kennedy Jr. joins fathers and uncles, cousins and aunts in a procession of tragedies going back more than half a century that has compelled the imagination of a nation and provoked some of its most searing self-reflection. From the moment when a photographer's flash caught him as a 3-year-old saluting the coffin of his martyred father, John F. Kennedy Jr. had a place in America's collective heart that no other of its citizens could rival. As he grew into a strikingly handsome young man he acquired an aura that was equal to that of any public celebrity or icon from any professional sphere. So great was the adoration his presence inspired that it transcended anything he had ever achieved or could ever hope to accomplish.
This, ultimately, is the cross he had to bear through his adult life, and he did so with a dignity and a sense of self-irony that prevented him from getting involved -- and then submerged -- in the destructive behaviors that overwhelmed so many of his male Kennedy cousins.
Most important of all, he eschewed the political career that was the birthright expectation of all Kennedy males, but one that his mother,
Jacqueline, widow of the martyred president, specifically wanted him to avoid. Instead, John F. Kennedy Jr. became a journalist, which seemed a very un-Kennedy profession by the time his generation came to manhood. By then politics had become the only career worthy of Kennedy males.
In part this was because of the ghost of unfulfilled promise that haunted the memories of the Kennedy martyrs, John and Robert, who had been struck down in their prime. In part, it was because of the demons that had been unleashed by the tarnish to the Kennedy name after the fathers were gone. This tarnish occurred as the result of revelations in the 1970s about their association with illicit women, with Mafia plots to assassinate foreign leaders, by the above-the-law and above-the-rest-of-us attitude that came to fruition in their brother Ted, and took the life of a young woman at Chappaquiddick.
But the journalistic career, which was JFK Jr.'s courageous path out of the Laocoon of the Kennedy myth, was actually the profession his father had pursued in the time of innocence, before the first Kennedy tragedy and the ambitions of the family patriarch impelled him on a political course. JFK's brother Joe had been the family patriarch's chosen vehicle for the presidential ambitions that had been thwarted in himself when he emerged as an appeaser during the Second World War. It was Joe who was going to run for president when the war was over. But Joe never made it to the end of the war.
The first Kennedy tragedy was also a plane flight over water. During the last days of the war, Joe had volunteered for a highly risky mission to pilot a plane loaded with explosives -- a flying bomb -- across the English Channel toward the German V-2 rocket sites on the other side. His orders were to aim his plane at the sites and bail out before the plane exploded. The first Kennedy was killed when the explosives detonated before he could make his escape.
The second Kennedy tragedy, too, was a plane flight and much closer in circumstance to the one that has apparently taken JFK Jr.'s life. His aunt Kathleen, the fourth of Joseph Kennedy's children, had undertaken a forbidden romance with a wealthy Irish earl. Kathleen's mother Rose had already disowned her daughter because her betrothed was married and was not a Catholic. The couple had set off in bad weather in the earl's private plane to meet secretly with Joseph Kennedy and arrange their eventual elopement. But the plane never reached its destination.
In fact, in all the Kennedy tragedies, down to the present, there has been a powerful element of hubris, a defying of fate and the gods, as though members of this family had to be more than mere mortals, just to prove they were Kennedys. As appropriate to his character, JFK Jr.'s hubris in the flight to Martha's Vineyard was mild at best. A novice pilot, who was not instrument-rated, he had set out in not quite full physical health to steer a brand new plane at night in weather that became problematic.
These were risks that a Kennedy would hardly notice. If he did, he would be scorned by other members of the family for his faintness of heart and would redouble his resolve. And this seems to have happened to JFK Jr. A cousin reportedly mocked his flying abilities, saying "I'm not getting into that plane with him." Anyone familiar with Kennedy family rituals also knows the response. In the years Peter Collier and I were writing our book, "The Kennedys: An American Drama," I found being with the risk-taking family more frightening than being with the Black Panthers.
An irony of this conclusion to a young and promising life is that it should occur off Martha's Vineyard and thus near the island of Chappaquiddick. And that it should do so on the 30th anniversary of the incident that engulfed the Kennedy family and unleashed the demons that have tainted its name. Until that moment, the Kennedys had been seen by all and sundry through the prism of Camelot, that fantasy kingdom whose image Jacqueline had invoked to memorialize her husband's reign. But with the incident at Chappaquiddick, there began a series of interrogations and revelations by citizens, journalistic institutions and eventually congressional committees.
It was this blot on the Kennedy escutcheon that was to become a primary inspiration for the family members of JFK Jr.'s own generation to orient their own life ambitions towards public service in an attempt to redeem the great myth their fathers had created. But most of the young knights who set out to rescue Camelot from its sordid fate were engulfed by the demons that had been unleashed by the family myth. Scandal dogged the scions of the Kennedy name and stymied their political ambitions. Amidst these disappointments, JFK Jr. alone emerged into manhood unscathed, holding all the promise of a golden future that had been aborted in other family members for so many years. The awful conclusion to this young man's life can be said then to symbolize the end of the Kennedy quest. Both the family legend and the hope for its redemption have been sunk off the waters of Martha's Vineyard for good.
JFK Jr. would have appreciated this final irony. I once interviewed the man who had been defeated by JFK Jr's cousin, Patrick Kennedy, to gain his first political office. At the time Patrick was a young and callow upstart, without notable claim to public office other than the Kennedy name and the power that flowed from his father's Senate seat. His opponent, a local undertaker named John Skeffington, was a seven-term member of the Rhode Island House. Skeffington was a Kennedy Democrat, and was bewildered that a political family to which he had been so devoted would attempt to take away his seat just because they had a kid who wanted it. The district at stake was so small that there was only one significant polling place, serving the vast majority of voters. On the morning of the election, a raft of Kennedys including John Jr. and Caroline appeared at the polling place with a photographer. A sign offered free autographed snapshots with a Kennedy to the voters who showed up. Patrick easily won the seat.
But there was a coda to John Skeffington's story. When he showed up at the polling booth, John F. Kennedy Jr. came over to where Skeffington was standing and said to him. "I'm sorry about this. I have to do it. It's a family thing." Here was a man blessed with privilege, who acquired humility and grace. But he was also a man who -- like so many of his kin -- was unable finally to free himself from the myth that undid him.