Kennedy myth dims across generations

Youth: To some post-baby boomers, the attention given to the death of JFK Jr. is all but inexplicable

John F. Kennedy Jr.

July 20, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman and Georgia N. Alexakis | Ellen Gamerman and Georgia N. Alexakis,sun national staff

WASHINGTON -- To some born after the Kennedy assassination, John F. Kennedy Jr. was the heir to his father's legacy, a natural leader with unlimited possibilities and a sense of purpose. To others, he was a man best known for his tight abs and his girlfriends -- a super-hunk with inherited fame whose death, however tragic, would not shape a generation or brand him a national hero.

The under-40 generation grew up with the Kennedy myth but never lived its reality. For some who experienced the Kennedy era through history books, the national significance of that plane's disappearance seems itself lost in a kind of haze.

"Certainly he wasn't just living the legacy," said Alan Light, the 32-year-old editor of Spin, a magazine that targets a younger generation that never knew the Kennedy years. "He could have done anything he chose to do. I just don't know that people have a firm handle on what exactly that was."

For those who grew up surrounded by the Kennedy legend, who can remember where they were that November day in 1963 and who can recall the tragic widow shrouded in black, the younger Kennedy's death carried instant resonance. And, in many cases, that sense of history is shared by the next generation.

"My grandmother and aunt and father were always pretty into President Kennedy and I always felt John Kennedy Jr. was a link to that legacy," said Barbara Coulon, 26, who works at a youth trends forecasting company in New York. "He was a little bit older, but he was like a role model to us. You definitely felt like change could have happened through him."

But others in their 20s and 30s cannot see Kennedy's life and death as part of a larger story -- instead they see a famous person but never an idol.

"I don't have this superstitious reverence toward this family," said Thomas Woods, 26, a Columbia University graduate student. "I'm not sure how much people in our generation really know about [his father]. I mean, frankly, I doubt many of them could name the years that Kennedy served as president."

If members of a new generation did not know what to make of the younger Kennedy, it may be because they are seeing him without the perspective of history.

"You clearly need to look at him as part of the whole Kennedy dynasty," said Barbie Zelizer, author of "Covering the Body," a book about the Kennedy assassination and television's treatment of that event. "He is part of a continuing saga -- an embodiment of all the hopes and aspirations we have attached to this family over the decades. He cannot be seen in isolation."

An older generation is riveted to this story, having known the 38-year-old Kennedy since he was a toddler. But to a younger crowd the overwhelming coverage and national attention devoted to this plane crash are a bit of a mystery.

"It's much less of an impact on me," said Lee Renzin, 24, a New York University law school graduate. "I didn't live through his father's assassination and I didn't watch him growing up. So I have no real sense of what he went through in his life."

Psychologists who have talked to those in their 20s and 30s in the aftermath of the weekend plane crash say the front-page treatment of the Kennedy story was met with some frus

tration.

"There's sort of this disconnect -- you might think this guy is important to young people but it isn't the case," said Armond Aserinsky, a psychologist associated with La Salle University in Philadelphia. "They don't really seem thunderstruck that he's gone. If anything, people are expressing some annoyance that whole newscasts are being given over to this story."

But to a generation that celebrates fame -- and has watched the lines blur between politics and entertainment -- many saw Kennedy as a perfect symbol. He managed his image with skill and savvy.

"It was the way he inhabited his celebrity," said Jim Cullen, a Harvard University cultural historian. "He was someone that people really looked up to: The guy who managed to have a good time, not to get too annoyed and who managed to be a pretty attractive person, in every sense of the word."

Some considered him an inspiration -- a person who handled fame with ease and took on politics with cool humor. Kennedy's magazine, George, attracted a crop of young interns eager to watch him meld celebrity and politics.

"He had an optimism about politics and that was certainly transferred into the magazine," said Dan Loss, a recent George intern. "When it came down to it, he was a down-to-earth guy, a really nice guy. He seemed to have so much potential."

To an older generation, the reaction to Kennedy is just as personal. Carol Wallace, People magazine's managing editor, believed Kennedy had the power of both a politician and a movie star. She suggested putting Kennedy on the cover of 1988's "Sexiest Man Alive" issue -- and, like her, many of the executives who approved the idea grew up when Kennedy was president.

"We always considered him like America's adopted son,"

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