An American tragedy off Martha's Vineyard

JFK Jr.: Talented lives cut short cheat the world of what they might have contributed.

July 20, 1999

"HE WHOM the gods favor dies in youth," wrote the Roman poet Plautus, to whom almost everything was a coarse joke.

Not a new idea then, it unhappily never runs out of the need to be expressed anew.

The premature, unexpected, inexplicable loss of three talented young people is always a tragedy -- especially when it happens before they could make the contributions their lives had promised.

The nation's sympathy goes out to the families of John F. Kennedy Jr., Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and Lauren Bessette, all blessed with talent, all in their 30s.

Perishing with such notoriety makes these three into important symbols for the uncelebrated others who may have been equally blessed with promise and who may have died of equal quirk -- acts of God or human failing, tricks of fate or betrayals of destiny.

The world cares about this mysterious accident because the handsome pilot had been that brave toddler who stood uncomprehending but saluting as taught, when his father's coffin went by nearly 36 years ago -- an image the world could never forget.

What a burden to carry, the name John F. Kennedy with Jr. appended. Yet he carried it with grace.

Condemned to celebrity-hood, he learned to live with, even relish, it. As editor and publisher of a magazine such as had never existed -- one he invented -- John F. Kennedy Jr. had found his metier.

George is a frothy blend of fanzine and politics -- part Vanity Fair, part New Republic -- that he first imagined and then made real.

Whether this man, at 38, had public service yet before him was a possibility that he never repudiated. But at this time of his life, he was where he belonged, at George, doing what he should have been doing.

Something went terribly wrong last Friday night near the end of a seemingly routine flight Mr. Kennedy had undertaken in his new light plane -- something too sudden to correct or to inform anyone about. What actually happened may never be known.

What is solid now is the genuine sense of loss -- for the families, for the nation and, indeed, for a caring world.

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