Marking an anniversary

John F. Kennedy Jr.: His life added a dimension to the history of a famous family.

July 17, 2000

IN THEIR public and private lives, the Kennedys have led this nation to strive and dare, to know that great progress requires risk -- and a demonstrated value of good judgment.

In a eulogy for his nephew at St. Thomas More Church last July, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy observed: "John's father taught us all to reach for the moon and the stars."

That ambitious reaching put men on the moon in 1969, right on the president's schedule. Here, courage and American know-how triumphed and spoke of the Kennedy elan.

Everything you saw in the president and his glamorous son bespoke a confident, purposeful and joyous approach to life.

And JFK Jr. added his own dimension to the legacy. He seemed to have no need for the kind of exploits that sometimes ensnared his cousins, his uncle, his father. He had an aura of great comfort with himself, of fundamental confidence. He lived his life well in spite of who he was.

Now, we may ask, what lessons might be learned from a reconsideration of his death?

Aviation authorities say JFK Jr. became disoriented and lost control of his sophisticated airplane when it crashed last July 16.

If that is so -- and who can say with certainty -- he was caught by forces well-known to him and to other pilots. But foreknowledge in such matters can be of little help, experts say. Disorientation can defeat even the most experienced.

From everything we know about this young man's life, he had no compulsion to be a macho hero, taking unnecessary chances with his own life or the lives of others. His wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and her sister, Lauren, were with him after all.

So, if he made an error in judgment, we can use that thought in our own lives. No one is immune from time and tides and a sky without an orienting horizon.

In the end, he became more like the rest of us: fallible, unlucky, both.

The pain is undiminished, but perhaps the myth is tempered. He might have welcomed that.

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