THIS PAST WEEK has been a remarkable journey into the past for me. The death of John F. Kennedy Jr. brought an outpouring of sympathy and grief from most Americans, presented and shared through the news media. There was no escaping the story of the latest visitation of the Kennedy curse, and it widened into a retrospective on the entire clan and its serial tragedies.
When I saw again in somber black and white the announcement by Walter Cronkite of President John Kennedy's death in Dallas, I was thrust back in time to Joel White's American government class at Tucson High School. We'd just returned from lunch and a girl from Dorothy Shirley's class next door poked her head through the door and said, "Turn on the radio. Somebody's shot the president."
Sitting alone at home as A&E ran the familiar footage, I felt that same sick hollowness at the pit of my stomach that took hold of me as I hung on the words of Cronkite in 1963, telling me that the president who had given me reason to risk the anger of elders for political principles had died by an assassin's bullet. I've felt similar kicks to the gut over personal setbacks since then, and last week revisited one of those major watersheds for me, too. But watching the biography of John F. Kennedy Jr., and the events leading up to his famous goodbye salute to his father, passing in a casket on a horse-drawn caisson, put me precisely where I was and how I felt, physically and emotionally, 36 years before.
It made me shiver.
On November 22 of 1963 I was a high school senior just beginning to carry some serious attitude about my beliefs and how I expressed them. Just five years later I was married and covering the news for a daily paper. Two more years and I was writing editorials for that paper, advising the high and mighty how to conduct themselves in public life. A very few years can make a world of difference when you're astride the gulf between boy and man. The subsequent three decades have witnessed a deceleration in the passage of time, at least as viewed from my eyes. The last five years have been pretty much of a sameness: certainly nothing like the sea changes from '63 to '68.
We haven't seen a president to inspire us the way John Kennedy did. Not unless you live in Green Valley, use Grecian Formula 16 and voted for Ronald Reagan. I voted twice for Bill Clinton, in part because he invoked the spirit of JFK, and I've been more disappointed in him than any politician dead or alive. Forget Monica; concentrate on The Bill of Rights. Clinton is barely more tolerant of the First and Fourth Amendments than he is of the Second. His social conscience favors stockholders more than single mothers and minimum-wage workers.
The best I can say about the seven men who have been president of the United States since November 22, 1963, is Jimmy Carter. And he was a mediocre president. But he was and is a good man, and probably the best ex-president ever.
Thirty-one years in the newspaper racket and I am still amazed at how remembering the Kennedy presidency, and reflecting on the promise and the loss the Kennedy family has lived on the American stage, affects me. Casual readers may be surprised, may indeed protest to hear this, but a lifetime in the news biz has not made me a cynic. My beliefs in the power of leadership, of inspiration, of the motivating force of the right word at the appropriate moment in history, remain intact. I am an optimist.
An optimist with the mouth of death, perhaps, but committed to the notion that things get better as often as they get worse, probably more often.
Which is why it made me so sad to see John Kennedy Jr. die. He wasn't going to save the nation from the Clinton hangover or the Son of Bush bandwagon. We are indeed in a period of political pathos, and some of us may not live to see the best and the brightest return to Washington. But in dying, John Kennedy Jr. opened the videotape vaults to his entire family's history in politics and public life. We have been conditioned by contemporary political mores, particularly the mores and questionable morals of the Clinton administration, to concentrate more on the feet of clay our leaders would hide, than the heads they like to keep in the clouds. We of the media have had ample time to exhume the bodies of scandal in the Kennedy family history. From rum-runner Daddy Joe to Jack's fling with Marilyn Monroe to Ted's sleazy saga to a whole slew of younger generation petty crimes and misdemeanors.
And still the walls of Camelot remain standing. Because Jack Kennedy was a charmer, not only to women, but to the most grim-eyed of men. He was quick, witty, inspiring and by any standard (but especially today's poll-driven spin-doctoring) astonishingly candid.
We don't mind our presidents randy; we just don't like them slimy. JFK Jr. was a far less known commodity than his father. He was public but not political. He graced the cover of People magazine as The Sexiest Man Alive, but for such a prominent office, he was known in the Biblical sense to surprisingly few women, and in the public relations sense to equally few civilians of either gender. For that he had to thank his mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, another surprisingly private person for such an international celebrity. John Jr. and his sister Caroline were raised by their mother not to be Kennedys, in the sense that the clan was bred, born and raised to political life, but to be world citizens.
So we came to know John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr. late, in a major sense, only after his plane, carrying his wife and her sister, crashed into the Atlantic, and all three died.
The young man I saw in the deluge of news coverage and biographies was an appealing human being. I'd like to have known a person like that. He seemed smart without being arrogant. He seemed to appreciate the gifts his birth and upbringing gave him, without losing a sense of what other people still needed. He seemed to possess, and to carry himself with, an amazing grace. Sorry, but it fits.
And damn it all to hell, he had to go and die, along with a wife who Kris Jones and I agree was a really classy looking and acting woman, and it makes me feel bad. Why couldn't it have been the Menendez brothers in that plane?
You don't have to be into voodoo to believe in a curse on the clan of Kennedys when A&E takes you back through the biographies of all those so named who rose so high, and fell so suddenly and so far.
You've only got to have an elementary grasp of statistics.