An American prince

July 21, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The extraordinary national response to the John F. Kennedy Jr. tragedy has given us a clear definition of what constitutes celebrity in America today.

The news that he, his wife and sister-in-law were missing after their plane plunged into the sea off Martha's Vineyard Friday night seemed to bring the nation to a standstill over the weekend. Everyone seemed to be following the story of the search for the small plane. For television news, it was essentially the only story for two days.

In New York, where the young couple lived, mourners built a memorial of flowers and cards outside the couple's TriBeCa apartment building. The same thing happened at the family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., and at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. Religious services were dominated by prayers for the missing couple and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy's sister, Lauren G. Bessette.

Television reporters interviewed anyone with even the most remote connection to the Kennedys. Old reporters who had covered the White House almost 40 years ago, who might recall Mr. Kennedy as the toddler John-John, were suddenly in great demand. Anyone who had written a biography of any of the Kennedys was an even greater prize.

The airwaves were filled, too, with the expertise of those who know something about small airplanes, the weather and search- and-rescue missions. And, finally, there were all of the self-anointed sociologists analyzing America's apparent need for a royal family and our own Princess Diana.

By objective standards, the intensity and scope of the reaction seems puzzling. Mr. Kennedy was, by all accounts, a decent and pleasant man who had worn his mantle of privilege comfortably without being ostentatious about his humility. He and his wife were visibly active in many charitable causes in New York, giving of both their time and their money.

Glossy magazine

But his career as a lawyer and, more importantly to him, as publisher of George, a political magazine, had not been especially noteworthy. Indeed, there had been reports recently that the magazine might be in financial distress, although Mr. Kennedy had reassured his writers and staff.

In fact, conventional accomplishments seem to have nothing to do with becoming popular national figures. It is impossible, for example, to imagine a similar reaction among Americans at the downing of a plane carrying a brilliant author or a painter or a teacher or an inventor or a giant of business and industry.

And heaven knows there is no one in public life today who is viewed as an icon. All you have to do is read the opinion polls to know that there are no heroes in U.S. politics these days.

One explanation of the reaction to this loss may be that Mr. Kennedy had been a national figure since he was born in the White House. Many Americans seemed to think of him like the child of a longtime family friend. But other children have grown up in the White House in the television era without becoming the kind of national idols whose death would stop the country in its tracks.

Another element may be that there is indeed a feeling of national guilt about the tribulations that have been visited on the Kennedy family for so many years. Lord knows not many families have been as star-crossed as the Kennedys.

But it has been 36 years since President Kennedy was slain in Dallas, 31 years since Robert F. Kennedy was shot down in Los Angeles, so there is an obvious limit to the number of us who experienced their loss firsthand.

Still another answer is that Mr. Kennedy was so handsome that People magazine named him the "sexiest man alive" a few years ago. But, again, it would be hard to imagine the same kind of outpouring in response to the death of even the most revered of popular legends from show business.

The answer, of course, is that all of these factors probably have played a role in the extraordinary outpouring of emotion in the past few days. But the critical element may have been the remarkable class displayed by John F. Kennedy Jr. as he grew up before our eyes.

If the nation needed to think of him as royalty, he seemed to accept it, though he was unwilling to play the part.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 7/21/99

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