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Kennedy With Tears

John Kennedy seemed to be breaking the family mold. But in our grief, we are discovering what 40 years of public fascination with the Kennedy clan was really all about.

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I am 8 years old and 9 years old and 10 years old. During these summers, I am on my father's shoulders every Friday evening in August on the tarmac of Otis Air Force Base in Cape Cod as the young president and his family descend from Air Force One. I remember everything. But these are not good memories. They are painful ones. The young president is dead. His young wife is dead. Now the son in his arms is dead. My father is dead, too.

How would you reasonably explain the nature of this grief -- 40 years' worth of recurring public sorrow bound up in one's own private losses?

The youth, the loyal family, the carefreeness, the beauty, the presidency itself are lost illusions. None of the Kennedys is particularly young anymore (and in Teddy Kennedy, you see what an old Kennedy becomes); the family is at least as dysfunctional as most; we understand that the carefreeness is largely about living under different rules (or without rules); as for beauty, in general, the Kennedys turn out to be a fairly homely bunch -- even JFK Jr., the theoretical hunk, had a certain gold-chain Philly-sound look; and obviously, the presidency is hardly a job description to get all choked up about anymore. So what is it we're dwelling on? What are we grieving for?

Why after 40 years is the connection to this family so powerful?

There are other rich, patrician families in politics in whom we once took an interest and now don't. On television, commentators credit our continuing interest in the Kennedys to the family's great tradition of public service. Oh, sure, we all believe that.

It is undoubtedly a media thing: They sell magazines; they raise ratings; they fill column inches. Every national newspaper or magazine or television news show has its Kennedy specialist. There are journalists whose principal asset is their connection to the Kennedy family. And there are journalists who have become famous themselves because of their opinions about the Kennedys (and there are journalists now trying to grab that mantle -- writing this, perhaps I become one, too). The Kennedy discipline here is only slightly less formalized than the U.K. journalists whose specialty is the royals. However, the first call I got about the downed plane was not from the editors at this magazine (which has surely done its part in promoting this Kennedy) but from my mother. Nobody except the Kennedys' most inveterate political foes would claim it is only the media's obsessive attention that has sustained this story for 40 years (the media, in fact, has a notoriously short attention span). No, this is a much different order of phenomenon.

He was a likable, apparently eager-to-please, untested fellow. Indeed, one of the interesting and attractive things about him was how much he diverged from the past 30 years of Kennedy troubles. There wasn't the public agony and arrogance of the cousins. He maintained control. No drugs, no overturned cars, no ice-cream-cone incidents, no courtroom appearances. No familial claim on seats in Congress (this sudden presumption about his Senate prospects is clearly more ours than his). This balance was, the legend goes, the Jackie influence, under which John and his older sister, Caroline, become something like counter-Kennedys: John, a striving (albeit suave) media entrepreneur; Caroline, an exceedingly respectable Upper East Side lawyer (with two books to her credit) and mother. Both achievers, professionals -- as much New Yorkers as they are Kennedys.

They aren't normal, but in New York, they aren't abnormal either.

There was a Kennedy-Manhattan equilibrium. The Frisbee, the Rollerblades, the fights in the park. Kennedy lived here, openly, easily. There are investment bankers who are more protected, remote, limo'd-up. He didn't hinder the quality of life, either; his presence even made the neighborhoods he lived in slightly more interesting. There are many celebrities you'd prefer not to have in close proximity. They make you feel smaller. But some actually make you feel better, larger. They don't at all disrupt the ecology. (I'm reminded of John Lennon, who in the few years before he died became a fixture on the Upper West Side -- if you lived in the West Seventies, you'd likely bump into him a few times a week buying a paper or ice cream or lingering over vegetables.) JFK Jr. will emerge forever from a doormanless building into a chauffeurless car.

You have to hand this to him. He stood out, and he fit in -- for whatever that's worth.

Once, on Broadway, he stopped my wife and daughter, then 8, pointing at her school T-shirt. "My niece goes there," he said. "Maybe you know her."

Another time, I watched him dance a little jig with a panhandler on the subway stairs. They seemed, JFK Jr. and the panhandler, to be on a first-name basis.

For a time, my office was at 1633 Broadway, the media tower (Showtime, Paramount, MTV) and headquarters of Hachette Filipacchi, the publisher of George. Kennedy's presence in the building improved just about everybody's day. A JFK Jr. sighting was . . . well . . . a JFK Jr. sighting. You wouldn't turn that down. It was a freebie. Plus, he was doing what everybody in this media-heavy building (in this media-obsessed town) was doing: struggling to figure out how to say something in such a way and with such a marketing spin that he might carve out an acceptable profit. And he was doing it at a fairly basic level: in a perilously financed start-up enterprise. While he could be accused of starting at the top, it was the deepest bottom of the top. His offices were ones I'd rejected before he moved into them -- too cramped.


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