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Grand Delusion

John Jr.: A Life Imprisoned by a Tiny Salute

July 25, 1999|Richard Rodriguez | Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service, is the author of "Days of Obligation."

SAN FRANCISCO — Anyone who was not alive when John F. Kennedy was elected president could have learned a good deal about what happened to America in the early 1960s, watching TV last week after the death of Kennedy's son, John.

Four decades ago, America got its first celebrity president. Show business, politics and journalism--the three most important public avenues of America--converged on one golden boulevard.

It wasn't what Kennedy, as a young congressman, had intended. But by the late 1950s, America was entering a new media age. At the first televised presidential debates, the camera found JFK tanned and relaxed, a contrast to a perspiring and pale Richard M. Nixon. The visual difference was everything.

Last week, after news of the disappearance of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane, television was crowded with journalists and Kennedy courtiers (it was difficult at times to tell the difference). There was much talk of the Kennedys as "our royal family" and of John as America's "prince"; much mention of Camelot.

Most teenagers in America are more familiar with Dungeons & Dragons than with any place called Camelot. So who knows what sense they took from the middle-aged conversation?

All today's teenager needs to know about Camelot is that the Kennedy family was very rich in the 1960s, with big houses on Cape Cod and in Palm Beach, and a populist politics: thus was American idealism married to what looked, through a TV lens, like Old World wealth.

The Kennedys, when we first saw them, seemed an old order--a dynasty--and very young. They were new Irish money playing at being old WASP aristocracy. The family patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy, had intended his first son to become president. But that son died heroically in World War II, so the duty fell to the next.

Unlike Charles A. Lindbergh or the Rockefellers, the Kennedys invited the nation to watch them--and we wanted to. Unlike any political family previously in America, the Kennedys were our first family of television.

JFK had a queenly wife with a queenly name, though the press preferred to call her "Jackie," a familiarity she rebutted and toyed with. She was rumored to hate politics.

She was beautiful: That's all we in public America needed to know. She had two beautiful children and a flair for myth-making the equal of anyone on Madison Avenue.

It was Jackie, after her husband's assassination, who encouraged a Life magazine writer to name the Kennedy years "Camelot." Journalists (especially Washington journalists who had gotten themselves invited into the glow of a Kennedy dinner party) decided the metaphor fit. Besides, the country's guilt and the pain of assassination were placated by the sentimentality.

Camelot refers to a period of idyllic peace in a kingdom long, long ago. In truth, the Kennedy years saw the beginning of our disastrous war in Vietnam, as well as growing discontent among black Americans. We now know there were molls and blond movie stars in the royal entourage we then knew nothing about.

Last week, myth reasserted itself. We were invited to contemplate the black-and-white golden age.

We watched John grow up with more interest than we watched Caroline. She was diffident; he was more beautiful, a Bouvier more than a Kennedy, his mother's creature. There was something rare about him. He would grow up outside the common touch.

But what separated him from other Kennedy boys is that we had seen him saluting his father's coffin. That tiny salute, prompted, unconscious, heartbreakingly appropriate--surely one of the most famous images of our century--would doom him to celebrityhood and make it impossible for him to avoid our need for him.

He was hidden by his mother; hidden years--we caught glimpses of him. We saw him graduate and his beauty mature. We watched him become a lawyer and date a movie star. We saw him without his shirt. We saw him in black tie. We saw him marry a woman who never spoke.

Except for a sound bite, we rarely heard from him. Hard to remember now a thing that he said, except that sometimes he shouted in frustration at some photographer camped outside his apartment.

We Americans have always known that it is harder to be a rich man's son than a hard-luck kid. What is denied the former is the dignity of making one's own way.

But what we demanded of John is that he live up to the destiny of his salute, a salute he said he couldn't remember making. He kept insisting that his father was simply his father; his life a real life. But we insisted on reading him mythically. We doomed him every time we stared at him in the pages of People.

George, a magazine devoted to "political lifestyle," his oevre, is not expected to survive him. But can there be any doubt that the terrible, blinding "life as style" culture that he so gamely withstood and joined, with humor and a sly smile, will continue? There, hours after his death, was Barbara Walters of ABC News reminding us of his rumored affair with Madonna.

In our Age of Celebrity, the subject of our interest changes rapidly. But as long as we are interested, we are capable of big feelings. We're also capable of ignoring how much we don't know.

All week, strangers outside Kennedy's TriBeCa apartment and at Arlington Cemetery, where his parents lie buried under an "eternal flame," voiced opinions about where he should be buried. For wasn't he, after all, ours?

Then one journalist remarked that the torch passes now to Caroline, "if she chooses . . . " But, at week's end, when his ashes were cast to the sea, speculation was that Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg had wanted to avoid burying her brother anywhere where we could get to him.

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