Kennedy saga will live on

July 23, 1999|By Richard Reeves

NEW YORK -- When President John F. Kennedy was shot down 35 years ago in Dallas, James Reston of the New York Times told a friend, "Three hundred years from now, people will still be talking about this."

I don't think I would have agreed with that then, but I do now. The tragic death of John F. Kennedy Jr., whose third birthday was the day his father was buried, has pulled yet another generation of us, the ordinary viewers of the world, once again into the saga of the Kennedys.

The little boy who saluted the flag draped over his father's coffin -- and when he was given that flag asked for another for his daddy -- became a handsome and promising young man cut down before his time.

"Saga" comes from the Scandinavian languages, from the stories of the deeds and adventures of great medieval warrior families. "Narrated in prose," says Webster's New World Dictionary.

Now, though, we tell the stories in pictures. That is why I think the story will live on. The coverage of Mr. Kennedy's death and unfulfilled promise adds a new chapter of photographs, film and tape to old images of his father, his grandfather and his uncles.

The news coverage (of which I was a part as a CBS News consultant) was picture-driven. To exaggerate a bit: on television, no pictures, no story. The salute photo, news footage and the work of People magazine and paparazzi everywhere were the raw material of the massive coverage -- and all that will be ready again in 10 years or 100 years, and perhaps 300.

The dramatic death of this young Kennedy -- while piloting a plane on a hazy, moonless night -- was, in a tasteless phrase, made for television. It particularly suited the narrative style of one-big-story-at-a-time television news in fashion today: Monica. Kosovo. John Jr. We had and saw it all: endless footage of beautiful people, the suspense of the search and what Hollywood would call an irresistible "background story."

We are seeing the triumph of the visual, where stories and, one day, history, are driven by what good pictures are available. It may be cruel or just old-fashioned to say this, but if this were the old days, the continuing story of President Kennedy's children and their cousins would be no more than a footnote in prose history.

It was the very availability of so much fascinating visual material that made the young Kennedy more significant than he actually was. But that is the point. The continual coverage itself becomes part of our shared experience and collective memory -- the stuff of history.

In hindsight, the Kennedys seem to have known or suspected this turn of events. Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch, after all, was in the movie business for a while, learning the making and marketing of visual images. He used those skills to help promote his son as war hero and new-generation politician; then his son the president used images of his children, John Jr. and Caroline, to advance his career.

It is striking, to me at least, how much of what we saw on television and in the print press last week was Kennedy-generated, from old home movies to White House photographs.

It is as if they saw the future and it was visual history. And we and our children and grandchildren will see those visuals almost forever.

Those images will be the elements of new history as prose history, words without pictures, inevitably declines.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/23/99

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