Mourning the loss of promise, grieving the memory of long ago

July 20, 1999|By Michael Olesker

The man on the radio says he's tired of all this coverage of the Kennedy plane crash. He's such a sensitive soul. He says this on the air yesterday morning, barely 12 hours after authorities in Massachusetts finally acknowledge John F. Kennedy Jr. and the two women are "presumed" dead, and immediately he helps place us in a post-search, post-mourning, let's-get-on-with-life-and-blame-the-media mode. Too much coverage all darned weekend, he repeats, when we knew from the start that Kennedy had no chance to survive. And then his first three callers dial in, and each one of them agrees.

Poor, overburdened souls, with their ruined weekends. Poor annoyed souls, with their TV plans upset by the air crash coverage: They might as well declare too much oxygen in the air.

Couldn't the networks find something else to cover, the radio callers want to know. Did Dan Rather's eyes have to well up right there on television, someone asks. Did the networks have to trot out all the old file footage of 3-year-old John-John saluting his father's casket, they ask.

Poor, sensitive souls, forced to watch this latest story inscribed in the nation's family album, when they could have been watching celebrity tennis matches or the 17th showing of "Porky's, Part 6."

Or they might have just turned off the set and gotten lives of their own.

Yes, the file footage was important. It is precisely because a little boy saluted his father, the fallen American president, 36 years ago in the most wrenching hour of national grief, that the networks pull out such pictures now. For everyone alive back then, it's a piece of shared family history. For everyone not born then, it's the shorthand explanation for his elders' grief: We've known Kennedy since he was a child in our living rooms.

In May, he was in Chestertown. The graduating seniors at Washington College invited Kennedy and honored him for a program he had helped start for the disabled. He arrived in a friend's car and spoke for several minutes. Ron Matz, a WJZ-TV reporter who has covered news for the past three decades, was there.

"It was amazing," Matz was saying yesterday. "The constant, unrelenting attention. Everybody there had a camera and was taking a picture of him, and he was marvelous with them. It's difficult to conceive, but he seemed like a regular guy. There were no bodyguards, no police.

"When the ceremonies were over, he walked around and shook hands with people. He seemed oblivious to who he actually was. He seemed like a free spirit. I followed him to his car and said he ought to come to Baltimore. He said: 'Baltimore's a great town. Maybe I'll take you up on that.' He was just charming."

Matz was the anchorman of the station's morning news last weekend. Saturday, somebody handed him the first Kennedy bulletin. "Oh, my God, not again," he said.

And there it was: Yes, once again.

The Kennedys have long since transcended partisan politics. They transcend all differences uncovered between the public President Kennedy, bringing to life a generation's ideals, and the private man partying behind his wife's back.

But, though we can deplore this difference, though we can draw the intellectual distinctions between the public calls to idealism and the private tawdriness, we all remember something else: what it felt like to be alive long ago, when our hearts were touched; what it felt like before we imagined Oval Office sex with interns, before we imagined presidents lying about American body counts in Asian jungles, before we imagined illegal wiretaps and wholesale lying to cover presidential crimes.

The gunshots in Dallas took away the remains of our national innocence. The weekend Kennedy was assassinated was also the weekend we learned to grieve on national television, which is a medium of emotion as newspapers are a medium of information. We mourn the death of young people with so much promise, but we also grieve in specific memory of how we felt long ago when we saw Kennedy as a little boy with his slain father carried past him.

Did the networks tell us anything new from one hour to the next last weekend? No, but that's not precisely the point: They took many people through their shock and grief. Whatever doubts still existed, millions of us wanted to know how much hope to invest.

The people on the radio yesterday found this tiresome, did they? They found it a waste of their time, did they? Was someone forcing them to watch? Why didn't they go outside and toss a baseball around with their children, mow their lawns, read a good book, or ponder their own marvelous fortune to be older than 38, with a glorious 33-year-old wife and a smart, loving sister-in-law, all of them with everything to live for, in a public family with an unbelievable history of heartbreak -- while their own life is so petty as to somehow find public grief over this a personal annoyance.

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