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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Remembering JFK Jr.'s Life, if Not His Future

July 21, 1999|MIKE DOWNEY

Thank God he didn't get shot. That's all I could think. Thank God nobody shot him. At least it saved us from the anger that would have accompanied our sorrow, spared Americans being condemned globally as barbarians who could not keep their leaders alive, could not even keep their leaders' descendants alive.

I thought such thoughts all weekend long, while a search party was out trying to find John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane, while hope sank, while a prince was being taken from our midst much as a princess had been, on a brief jaunt, venturing out into polite society, gone in a blink of an eye.

I thought about a playful child, hunched under a father's desk, an Oval Office offspring, doing what came naturally in an unnatural surrounding, John Kennedy running a republic from a stiff-backed chair, John-John Kennedy romping on a round rug.

I thought about a fabled first family, Jacqueline Kennedy breathlessly conducting a guided tour of the White House on live television, Robert Kennedy declaring a private war on selected Teamsters or gangsters, Vaughn Meader making fun of dropped-r accents on a long-playing album, until the fun came to an end.

I thought about being seated at a desk in Mr. Whitson's social studies classroom at the hour when the world learned that JFK was dead, about Walter Cronkite laboring to remain composed, about the motorcade, about that little prince in the short pants, giving that salute, breaking even the hardest heart.

*

The more time that passed, the less the searchers found, I began to speculate whether the death of anyone anywhere would affect us as this one was about to do. A dignitary, a philanthropist, a captain of industry, an artist, an athlete . . . was there someone other than JFK Jr. whose death would create a greater impact, jar Americans more?

I thought not of this Kennedy himself, of any specific qualities or qualifications he possessed, of any particular contribution to mankind, but of his jinxed genealogy, of this land's most unfortunate privileged, of why lightning strikes a family tree.

I thought about how the British had to have felt, when a woman so lustrous and illustrious as Diana was suddenly no longer theirs to admire, someone who had seemed so unaffected by a link to history and glory, someone who mingled among the commoners so easily because at heart she was one herself.

I thought about sudden loss, back to Lincoln, McKinley and Kennedy, and of the martyrdom of Rev. King and Malcolm X, and of yet another Kennedy, and of days when a John Lennon or a Selena were alive and singing happily at one moment and not the next.

I thought of hearing on the news that someone had fired gunshots at Ford, at Wallace, at Reagan, or had shot elsewhere in the world at a Gandhi, at a Sadat, shot even at a pope, and how lives we take for granted could be lost or saved, depending on a flinch, or on an assassin's aim.

I thought of how vigorous, to borrow his father's word, and how handsome John F. Kennedy Jr. looked, how he made heads turn, how gags regarding his glamour might need to be deleted from the reruns of television shows, how a photograph of "George Washington" on the cover of George magazine could have been equally striking had the model been not Cindy Crawford but the editor himself.

I thought back to his bachelor years, prior to Carolyn Bessette, when magazines edited by someone other than JFK Jr. linked him socially with the actress Daryl Hannah, and of times I mused, for no reason, about the splash a woman who once portrayed a mermaid could someday make in becoming our first lady.

*

I think now of John F. Kennedy Jr. being identified as "Junior," 36 years after Senior was slain, and of going in one's own direction while following in such footsteps.

I think of the warmth felt by a cold, sober media toward a celebrity who himself was part of the media, a man who would rather interview Billy Graham or Louis Farrakhan, Madeline Albright or Janet Reno, than be put on the spot himself.

I think of Dan Rather choking back sobs on CBS, of Katie Couric sounding grief-stricken on NBC, of Diane Sawyer requesting a few days off at ABC, of Christiane Amanpour of CNN speaking sweetly of a boy she'd known since school days.

And I think we should think of what John Kennedy was, not of what he might have become. That's all that is left for us to do now. We hardly knew him.

*

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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