HYANNIS PORT, Mass. — Something holds them together.
Some quality, some strand that only they can see and feel, binds the Kennedys through unfathomable sadness.
Just what it is is anybody's guess, said John Seigenthaler, director of the 1st Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and a former administrative assistant to Robert F. Kennedy.
"But like no other family I know . . . there are remarkable bonds of love that pull them together," Seigenthaler said. "I think they find strength in each other."
Then there is the Kennedys' faith. It is the anchor, those close to them say, that tethers them through storms that would topple most others.
Rose Kennedy--the family's late matriarch--attended daily Mass at St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church while at the family's vacation compound here until the time she could no longer walk. Today, her descendants carry on.
Her granddaughter Maria Shriver, for example, is an active member of St. Monica's church in Santa Monica. Shriver often is seen taking communion with a baby on her hip, and three little ones toddling alongside. When the church sustained severe earthquake damage, buzz among the parishioners was that Shriver and her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, quietly had helped finance repairs.
Family Customs, Too, Have Rituals
The Kennedys' deep religious beliefs are an assumption, and the importance in the family of that steadying presence cannot be overstated. Even those who have married outside the Catholic Church--Caroline Kennedy's husband, Edwin Schlossberg, for example, is Jewish--continue to practice Catholicism. It is that religious tradition that they pass on to their own children.
Just as ritual figures prominently in the expression of their faith, the Kennedys also have formalized family customs. They are a big, sometimes rowdy, group who love to get together and have fun. With all their perfect white teeth and their every-which-way hair as they toss a football or skipper a sailboat, they allow others to vicariously share in what sometimes looks like a Kennedy carnival.
Physically, they love to push the envelope--a trait that has gotten them into trouble. Long before he took off on the airplane flight that apparently cost him his life last weekend, John F. Kennedy Jr. began flying ultralight aircraft. About a year and a half ago, he started to take off from a small airport here in very high winds. A local pilot said that if he hadn't waved him down, Kennedy would have ended up in Provincetown, about 30 miles away.
"I could see he was oblivious to what the air was like at 500 feet," said Randy Charlton. "He just wanted to go out and have a little fun."
Laurence Leamer--author of "The Kennedy Women" and its forthcoming sequel, "The Kennedy Men,"--traces the daredevil nature that unites many of these young Kennedys to the lessons of the family's late patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.
At Harvard around the turn of the century, Leamer said, "the old man"--as he was often referred to--carefully observed the models of male success that surrounded him. "The theme of manhood in this family is often missed," Leamer said. "The old man picked up these ideas that to be a man is to be physically proficient. He came to identify physical courage and athleticism as part of the American elite. So he instills this in his sons--and they really live out that life."
Under this interpretation, Leamer said, John F. Kennedy Jr. "wasn't reckless" in taking off for Martha's Vineyard under questionable flying conditions Friday night. Instead, "he was intrepid."
The Kennedys also love to laugh, often at their own expense. Young John Kennedy would have laughed his socks off at the thought that, at 38, people are saying now that he should have written an autobiography or left a legacy, Seigenthaler said.
An NBC colleague of Maria Shriver said the glamorous television newswoman often makes fun of herself. "What do I know?" the colleague said Shriver sometimes protests. "I'm just a girl from Hyannis."
Hardly. In fact, said Darrell West, a professor of political science at John F. Kennedy Jr.'s alma mater, Brown University, "the Kennedys have an ability to exist comfortably in the middle of New York, in Washington, D.C., in California and in fascinating places around the world."
In so many ways, West said, "the Kennedys embody our hopes and our aspirations, and I think that's the reason why they have become cultural icons. When they do well, people feel good. When they have problems, people get upset."
West pointed out that the Kennedys are different in part because they are treated differently from anyone else.
"They really are unique in the way they are seen by people around the world. Mention the name in Europe, India or Africa and the name has great currency. It's not just about the money, the wealth and the connections. It's how we see them," West said.