Famous for being famous

From his salute to his father through his career at George, JFK Jr.'s triumphs were mostly style over substance.

Published July 18, 1999 11:00AM (EDT)

If the 1960 presidential campaign between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy represents the dawning of the age of mass media, then John F. Kennedy Jr. was its first child, conceived in its turmoil and born at its epoch, just three weeks after the election. His mother, Jacqueline Kennedy, had suffered immensely for her family, toughing out John Jr.'s premature birth, the death of an infant and a previous stillbirth as well. But that didn't stop her from pushing a 3-year-old boy out into the street to salute his father's passing coffin. John Jr.'s first and defining media moment was in one sense meaningless, in that he could not have known what he was doing; it was a simulacrum of grief. But it also succeeded, on its own vacant terms, which, as Jacqueline Kennedy knew, was what mattered.

JFK Jr. could have become, after such beginnings, a monster or a clown. Instead, he became a cipher. The child of the media age became its first effective recluse, under the protection of a suddenly discreet mother. Under difficult conditions -- the assassination of one uncle, the destruction of the other's national political career, his mother's cold remarriage, myriad other tragedies and embarrassments in his extended family -- he carried himself with a measure of dignity and grace.

This, again, was a triumph of style over substance, but in a family whose male members could serve as "poster boys for bad behavior," as he famously put it, it was a triumph nonetheless. The things he did accomplish -- eventually passing the bar and serving as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan -- would in some families be considered achievements, but in his represented marking time until he could find his rightful public place in the world.

When he did, through journalism, it was duly noted that his famous father had also begun that way. The comparison is unhelpful: Though it was never mentioned this pious weekend, JFK's best-known publishing accomplishment, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Profiles in Courage," is generally considered to have been the work of ghostwriters. But George, the magazine JFK Jr. launched in 1995, was not an embarrassment.

Kennedy took chances, as in his searching essay on his family's peccadilloes; more recently, in publishing a racy, well-reported look at Eleanor Mondale's personal life. One of the best attributes of the magazine was Kennedy's fluid use of his own celebrity to obtain, with rigorous regularity, interviews with high-profile, often unlikely figures, from George Wallace to Richard Mellon Scaife to Fidel Castro to Garth Brooks.

In these, he did what a journalist should do -- ask interesting, sometimes hard, questions -- but there were at least two ways in which, again, his presence was slightly shadowy, like a celebrity playing the role of a journalist. First, despite Kennedy's pretensions to irreverent, no-punches-pulled journalism, you never got the feeling that he had the journalist's ability to go for the jugular, or any affinity for journalism's necessary iconoclasm, its core opposition (not always in evidence these days) to the perquisites of celebrity. I read and respect George, but don't really trust that the magazine, presented with a damaging but newsworthy scoop about someone in power, would go with it.

And secondly, there is this sad fact: Kennedy was not a writer. With the exception of his essay on his family, he was capable of neither stylistic elegance nor rhetorical power. This sentence, taken at random, has Kennedy's typical book-report cadences: "[Garth] Brooks is an American icon who transcends the erroneous stereotypes that often accompany the Nashville sound."

That is not to speak ill of the (presumed) dead, but rather to say what apparently could not be said during the weekend of hagiography. Indeed, Kennedy's disappearance was distinguished by "Diana-style coverage," as someone on CNN just described it. As many commentators noted, he was not being covered for anything he did -- besides, like Diana, handling celebrity reasonably well.

A George contributing editor named Walter Shapiro assured us that Kennedy was not "a pretty-boy airhead." Faint praise indeed. We were told that he was nice to his fans. That he had a self-deprecating sense of humor. USA Today's Brian Kelly contributed the unexpected, the-emperor-lacks-for-clothes observation: "He was not a significant figure, George was not a significant magazine," he said. But that was a rare moment indeed.

The presumed crash forced US News & World Report, which had already completed nearly half of a print run, to change its cover from a feature on memory loss to the presumed tragedy -- a million magazines sacrificed for a man who was nothing but a somebody. But Kennedy had what this country values even more than accomplishments: He had poise, class, culture, politesse, a famous father and glamorous mother and, most importantly, a place, it turns out, in a remarkable century-long family epic of high crimes, florid ambition and decapitated promise.

Another generation on from his famous and genuinely tragic phalanx of predecessors -- nine siblings, only four of whom (if we count the troubled Ted) led a fulfilled adult life -- John Kennedy Jr. in the end became the ultimate celebrity simulacrum: Famous in life for being famous, and revered in death for the same reason, and nothing more.

By Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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