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.
And this was his magazine. He actually ran it. He may be the first Kennedy in two generations – other than his mother – to have had a real job (one he could lose; one in which he was as accountable as any of us). He was all over the place, too. It got to be that writers and editors could mention that they’d taken a meeting with him and not even change their inflection: “I was up talking to Kennedy …”
Indeed, George, which at first was wildly successful, a seemingly brilliant bit of merchandising of the family franchise, soon became a rather more complicated business proposition. He fought with his partner. His editors left. Advertisers pulled out. At his death, he was in tense negotiations with his backers. (If they’d initially been awed by who he was, they evidently weren’t now.) He was shuttling between investment bankers and possible new partners – and getting the brush-off. His problems were the problems of anyone who has ever tried to start a magazine (which is not a small population of people in Manhattan). I know the sons-of-bitches he had to deal with. He was paying serious dues.
While he seemed, if possible, to be a happy guy, to be enjoying himself, it wasn’t a cakewalk.
His accomplishment, in other words, was to be halfway normal.
That accomplishment, however, that half, was not what anyone was interested in. It was the other half, the inconceivable and unknowable half, the totally weird part, that was the point and the obsession. That’s what you wanted to glimpse when you saw him – that’s what you did see. Not Mr. Frisbee but Mr. Un-fucking-imaginable. Twilight zone. Or Kennedy zone. When he wasn’t meeting your eye, you just knew he was looking at something you couldn’t see – a world not accessible to an ordinary, non-Kennedy person. Even the people who knew him well, or claimed to know him well – you don’t really think for a single second that they weren’t trying to suss it out, too?
What do they – the Kennedys – feel, know, think? What is it like on their side – the other side?
If you could get close, if you could get inside, around those defenses, into … there’d be answers. Surely, there are answers. Confide in me. Unravel the riddle. You know what this has all been about? You’re a Kennedy – the Kennedy – you know the secrets.
Which now have died with you.
In Notting Hill, a movie otherwise uninformative about celebrity, there is one scene where Julia Roberts, the face, the star of incomparable proportions, goes to dinner with an especially ragtag bunch of nobodies, and the ordinary sister of the Hugh Grant character says, dreamily, I always knew we could be best friends.
That, pitifully, is what this is about: the illusion and fantasy of a personal relationship. I have a completely developed, finely nuanced relationship with you, even though you don’t know me. But if you did, you’d really like me. If you knew me, we would get on. We could trade clothes. There would be no secrets.
Frankly, this sort of craving may only be sated by the celebrity’s death and the ensuing media frenzy (if you had gone down and hung around the TriBeCa stoop when they were alive, you’d have been arrested as a stalker).
Postmortem, we no longer have to deal with the wound of knowing that we never will be the celebrity’s friend. In addition, the whole world is suddenly obsessing on the same subject. The obsession, in other words, becomes quite acceptable.
This is sick, but still, it’s a perfect media moment. What’s more, the media has the attention of the world and doesn’t have to perform at anything like a high order – it doesn’t have to say anything smart or fancy or expensive or entertaining even. Nobody can get enough. Friends who were hardly friends, experts who became expert overnight, gawkers who are now that honest man on the street, and journalists, of course, who speak for the Zeitgeist, or the social scene, or practically any old bullshit – just get them in front of the camera. (Occasionally, in the sheer vacuum of having nothing whatsoever to say, someone on TV will say something interesting. “What is a compound, exactly?” I finally heard a correspondent in Hyannis Port ask, after all these years. A compound, apparently, is a street.)
What happens in all this, of course, is that reality is firmly displaced. This whole media thing becomes the thing.
You can’t remember Di before death. You can’t locate what she was. That Di doesn’t exist anymore.
There’s a whole pack of celebrities – Elvis, Di, John Lennon, Grace Kelly, Kurt Cobain, Selena, Gianni Versace, pick your favorites, as well as the Kennedys – who have become separated at death from their actual existence.
That’s the real function of the celebrity death beat, to repackage these lives. Grief is the ultimate fan magazine.
This is not mourning; it’s idolatry.
One primary winter, assuming that anyone named Kennedy would know something worth knowing about being a Kennedy, I took a two-hour car ride across Iowa with a Kennedy cousin. But he was hopelessly tongue-tied about it all (and in fact about everything else). I crisscrossed Alabama with another Kennedy cousin – an articulate one – who sat up all night reading Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s books. I presume he was looking for the secret as well.
Once, by the weird turns of being a reporter, I found myself, during a political evening, in Rose Kennedy’s New York apartment on Central Park South, trying, in the furniture, in the décor, which was some perfectly preserved Florida-modern moment (on an end table, a photo of JFK and Jackie touched up with oil paints), to fathom an explanation for the frisson of personal connection we – generations of us now – feel to these people. (While I may have a Kennedy obsession, what is not clear to me is why people too young to remember the origin of this stuff – most of the people in this magazine’s office, for instance – should be obsessed, too.)
I’ve asked everyone. I have logged all the explanations. My father left me all the books.
The one explanation that makes some sense to me is that the story itself is the opposite of what we – or the people on television – say it is. This is the game we play with ourselves. It’s not about nobility. It is not an uplifting saga. We all know it is the opposite of those things and its appeal is exactly that it resists sanitization and deification. That it’s about the darker urges. It is our most vivid picture of wealth and power, and its very coarseness redeems it. It is epic. For every noble moment, there are a hundred down-and-dirty ones – and the fact that we know what they are is something. Something like truth.
That said, though, it seems also clear that what was attractive about JFK Jr. was the possibility that he had purged the darkness. He was a sanitized version of JFK. He wasn’t saddled with those horrible, unloving, absent parents, or with those unreconstructed Irish Catholic resentments, or with having to compete to be heard at the dinner table. He appeared to have self-control, to live within at least the societal rules of Manhattan. He seemed, as one woman on the street put it to a network interviewer, “like his father – I mean the good parts.” We finally seemed to have cleaned up this story, in other words.
Indeed, we knew him and accepted him for what he was: a well-dressed man-about-town with good manners and a lot of political capital that he might or might not have been able to use effectively. Nothing more; nothing less. It is, of course, infinitely sad that he and his wife and her sister died this young.
But this other thing is happening, too: In dying, quite apart from anything in life, he is, right now, being transformed into our future and our hope – or our lost future and lost hope.
This, I’m afraid, is the pull. This is why the Kennedy-family thing is so powerful and has persisted so long.
The Kennedy-family business isn’t politics; it’s death, and the fantasies that death allows. We are ennobled by the grief we share with the Kennedys, and by the better, more interesting lives we’ve all lost without their sons.
Apparently, we need this.