U.S. shares Kennedy tragedies

Family: Americans again watch the grim inevitable unfold in what has become a painful but familiar ritual.

July 18, 1999|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- For a generation of Americans, the tragedies of the Kennedy family have become a grim but familiar national ritual.

Everything else seems to be frozen in place. The country stands still while we wait for some definitive word that we have come to know is almost certainly going to be bad news.

Almost 36 years ago, we waited for the news about President John F. Kennedy from Parkland Hospital in Dallas.

This time we waited for news about the fate of John F. Kennedy Jr. -- whom many of us knew first all those years ago as John John, the little boy who saluted his father's flag-covered casket.

Five years later, those of us who write about national politics waited outside Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles to hear what we knew from the outset we would hear, that Robert F. Kennedy had died of the gunshot wounds inflicted on him by Sirhan Sirhan in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel.

Again tens of millions of Americans sat staring at their television screens following the drama of the death and then the funeral train that carried Robert's body to lie at Arlington near his brother.

Bridge at Chappaquiddick

A year later, on another July weekend 30 years ago, we sat before our television sets spellbound by the reports of the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne in an accident in a car driven by the third brother, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

The ritual has many elements. The Kennedy family gathers at Hyannis Port. They are out of sight to the hundreds of reporters and dozens of television cameras convening outside the compound.

But there are reports seeping out of a matriarch offering solace to the others, first Rose, mother of John, Robert and Edward, and now Ethel, the widow of Robert. We are reminded of the family's strong Roman Catholic faith, and we are told of priests inside the compound.

The television networks drop everything else, as ABC News did in abandoning its coverage of the British Open golf tournament. The newspapers clear space on their front pages.

Reporters race to find any witness to the events or any claim, however remote, to expertise: Another pilot who saw JFK Jr. take off from that airport in New Jersey. An expert on general aviation to explain visual flight rules. A meteorologist to define the weather when he took off and when he approached Martha's Vineyard.

There seems to be a pattern even to the television news coverage of these stories -- breathless shock reporting the first word of possible disaster, then endless and detailed repetitions of the steps that are being taken to get at the facts, finally the grilling of the official investigators that sometimes seems to suggest they are not doing enough fast enough.

It has been a cliche for years that the Kennedys are the closest thing to an American royal family, and JFK Jr. has been the closest thing to an equivalent of Princess Diana.

Glamour and risk-taking

He has been the most glamorous of the cousins, the handsome one who broke a million hearts when he married the beautiful Carolyn. He has been the one going his own way and living in New York, the city his mother adopted as her home after his father's death.

And he was the one who broke with the family business by starting a magazine about politics, George, rather than running for office like his cousins Joe, Kathleen and Patrick.

Although he clearly enjoyed his high-profile role in doing the interviews that were a regular feature of his magazine, he and his wife managed to conduct their private life without providing fodder for the tabloids.

Indeed, one of his most striking qualities was his ability to wear his celebrity comfortably without alienating everyone around him. He was not one of the Kennedys who inspired gossip among headwaiters.

But he also has been one with the family penchant for taking risks that sometimes could lead to tragedy, as in the death of Michael, a cousin of JFK Jr., in a skiing accident two winters ago.

It was no surprise to learn JFK Jr. enjoyed hang gliding or that he had become a pilot and bought a fancy and, of course, "high performance" single-engine airplane three months ago.

The notion of tragedy befalling JFK Jr. might be hardest to accept for those who first saw him in photographs as a 2-year-old peeking out from under the president's desk in the Oval Office. It seems like only yesterday that he was the golden child everyone loved in those innocent times.

With his sister, Caroline, he was one of the Kennedy children who didn't get into trouble. They were the kids who lost their father but grew up with the poise and reserve of a mother who set high standards for their personal conduct.

As a college student working at a summer job in Washington, the young John Kennedy was a self-effacing young man indistinguishable except by his parentage from the hundreds of interns who come to the capital every year. He was one of those whose bosses praise them to the skies.

So we had every reason to expect the young Kennedy to live the golden life. With the Kennedys, nonetheless, there always seems to be another dark moment. And a nation ready to endure the ritual of their tragedy.

Pub Date: 7/18/99

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