Loss triggers memories of tragedy and idealism

This Just In...

July 19, 1999|By Dan Rodricks

HE'S 9, THE SAME age I was when President Kennedy was killed, and my son wants to know why he should put down his Nintendo Game Boy and give some attention to the news about JFK Jr. "Because," I say, not knowing what else to say, "it's history."

Sort of.

It's not the monsoon that struck us when Junior's father died in Dallas. It's not history the way Bobby's murder was history. It's not like the assassination of Dr. King. It's not like the moon landing. Or Watergate. Or the fall of Saigon. Or the shooting of Reagan. Or the space shuttle disaster. It's not like that.

And yet it's something more than Diana-like. It's not simply the tragedy of a pretty celebrity gone, by accident, too young.

This tragedy has a unique chemistry.

If you're old enough, JFK Jr.'s disappearance instantly triggers memories of Dallas and the dark passages that followed, as if a terrible spirit had been unleashed in America in 1963. There's all that horrific history, packed into just a few years -- the murder of a president, the escalation of a war and the splitting of a nation, the murders of RFK and MLK, the riots. You don't want to hit a 9-year-old with those particular history lessons every day. But some days, memories erupt. He was John-John, after all. November sunlight, blue suit, little right-hand salute. Impossible to forget.

If you're too young to remember Dallas and Vietnam, if you're still flying through your 30s or 20s or teens, you know John F. Kennedy Jr. as the wealthy hunk in great suits, Elaine's fantasy on "Seinfeld," a cool guy who seemed to have his head on straight, his life in control and the world on a string. For you, his disappearance hammers a message I heard just the other day from a good friend: "Control is an illusion. Outcomes are the stuff of karma, and our best-laid plans can be overcome by a bus driver having a bad day."

Or a small plane lost in summer haze.

John F. Kennedy Jr. had great looks, great hair, money, fame and the attention of beautiful women. He had lots of toys. He had anything he wanted. He wasn't exactly idle rich. He worked as a public prosecutor for a few years. When he wanted to be a journalist, he started his own magazine.

The nice thing was, he didn't seem like a jerk. He didn't become what some might have predicted -- a rotten rich kid with bad habits, unable to cope with life in the long shadows of Kennedy expectations.

"I want John to grow up to be a good boy," his mother told Theodore White in her famous interview for Life magazine three weeks after Dallas.

I'd say Jackie did all right with John and Caroline. I can only say that from a distance, of course. But it's the same distance at which most of you watched those kids become adults.

A lot of us grew up with them. Sort of.

We inherited the same America, ripped apart by the brutal history and the human struggles of the 1960s, and still in recovery from it. I used to think we attributed to Lee Harvey Oswald's rifle more of an impact on American life, politics and culture than any such single event deserved. But I've changed my mind as time goes by. I think it marked the birth of an age of cynicism. And events that followed Dallas only compounded the condition.

Though its wings flicker in the shadows now and then, I don't see the great bird of idealism soaring among us yet.

I grew up in Massachusetts, where the Kennedy mystique was thick, though seriously deflated in the years after Chappaquiddick.

But I really didn't get a dose of the K-clan's toothy vigor and idealism until I got to Maryland.

This is where I found Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, enthusiastic to the point of being giddy the first time she campaigned for office. Her idealism was undiminished in the face of political defeat. She didn't give up. She's been lieutenant governor since 1995 and, despite the relative obscurity of her office, Townsend has become known for two things -- mandatory community service and innovative anti-crime measures, a smart blending of the idealistic and pragmatic. She could be Maryland's first female governor.

About 10 years ago in Cherry Hill, I met Mark Shriver, another cousin of JFK Jr., who was up to his eyeballs in an evolving program that tracked kids at risk of ending up in jail. Shriver was committed to an ideal. He was in his early 20s, talking about the hard-sweat ways of stemming crime, drug abuse, welfare dependency and kids dropping out of school.

He's a member of the Maryland House of Delegates now. We haven't heard the last of him, either.

Was JFK Jr. planning to expand his public life to include public service? I guess we won't ever know.

He was as famous and as photogenic as a movie star, but he also seemed to have some substance, some spirit, the potential to lead. Such a man could have inspired people who've grown up in a cynical age.

That's the hell of it.

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