John, Gone: From Man To Myth in Forty-Eight Hours

John, Gone: From Man To Myth in Forty-Eight Hours

July 19, 1999, 10 am

Please, no Icarus jokes.

The first sentence for this does not come easily to my mind. I don’t
think there’s anything about the Kennedy family that hasn’t been
spoken, printed or etched into marble by now, and the accumulated
word volume has gone in the direction of Dow Jones over the past few
days. The reader surely knows what I’m talking about. The height of
ignominy is ignorance of what happened on the 16th of July. Because
it’s inescapable. Only a total recluse wouldn’t have heard, and many
recluses are better connected to the world than most regular people.
For those who aren’t, a recap: John F. Kennedy, Jr. piloted his Piper
Saratoga out of New Jersey at 8:38 pm, and was never heard from
again. Also in the plane were Carolyn and Lauren Bessette, sisters,
the former being Mrs. Kennedy. They were going to the wedding of
John’s cousin Rory, set for six pm Saturday at the family compound
at Hyannisport. It was cancelled, and catering trucks, florists
(carrying what were suddenly the wrong arrangements) and a few
guests that had not been watching television were turned away as
the cameras rolled, as the network correspondents yipped and
yapped away like the sick, intrusive bastards they can be, like
sharks when blood’s in the water. Extra phone lines were installed in
the compound, and the amassed royalty of the American scene
gathered, and this country gathered vicariously through the miracle of
satellite feed, waiting for what will probably be the worst possible
news. The plane parts recovered thus far point to a horrific ending,
and part of me hopes they never find the fuselage.

I feel obliged to point out that I don’t really have any regard for the
Kennedy family. I don’t hate them, I’m simply ambivalent. Mere
mystique and glamor do not appeal to me, and their political legacy
is that of stillborn potential. Any discussion of the Kennedys leads
inexorably into a labyrinth of hypotheticals that constitutes an
alternate universe in which bullets don’t fly and planes don’t crash.
The finality of mortality is an iron lock on the doors of perception, a
barbed-wire fence between what is and what should have been. One
may start anywhere. If John F. Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated,
he would have won in ’64, and Lyndon Johnson might never have held
the top job. A run in ’68 would have been possible, but an aging
Johnson has no hope against Robert Kennedy, who would have
treated Johnson at the polls like he treated McCarthy. Why even
bother to speculate on who the outgoing 51-year-old JFK would have
endorsed? And what if Sirhan Sirhan had missed or been neutralized
before he could get a shot off? Imagine: Kennedy-Nixon II. Need I say
more?

The Republicans had nothing in those years that could have defeated
the Kennedy political machine at that point. They were too
handsome, too charismatic on the stump, and they knew all the right
people. Only Nixon knew how ruthless they could be. They exploited
his swarthy appearance without ever mentioning it: it was implied that
truth and beauty could not exist apart from each other. Even Pat
Nixon would’ve crawled on her hands and knees to Hyannisport if JFK
gave her the right look. And so Nixon was vanquished thanks to
television, which has not ceased to be a factor in Presidential
campaigns since. Nixon’s banishment from national politics — which
he’d had coming ever since his vulgar crack about Helen Douglas’
“pink panties” — would have lasted forever had Robert left California
alive, but he didn’t, so the tragedy is twofold.

The political scenarios conjured above are based on how the
Kennedy men are regarded today, in glossy revisionist hindsight.
Scandal and bad legislation could have wrecked their legacy far more
than the assassins did. John and Robert died before they could do
(or be caught doing) anything, so we assume that it would have been
smooth sailing. The two most significant domestic events of the ’60s
were civil rights legislation and the moon landing, both ideas of JFK,
both of which could have happened in Kennedy administrations.
Kennedy-style liberalism is better exemplified in speeches than on
paper, though LBJ clearly tied some of the loose ends of JFK’s policy
together to forge his own legacy. Nobody knows what concessions
JFK might have made later in his term for expediency’s sake,
concessions that LBJ did not have to make, due to the nature of his
promotion. The Kennedys’ politics are inconsistent with their wealth,
and that is the most intriguing thing about them. They are famed for
their populist rhetoric, but unlike most populists, their actions have
never directly contradicted their words.

As for John, Jr., what is there really to say? He was 38, married
three years, the publisher of George for four. As a young man, he
fucked Madonna, back when that meant something. (Terrible remark,
yes, but irresistible!) Definitely Kennedy stock. He could have been
the total package, the standard-bearer for the American male at the
intersection of today and tomorrow. Three of the beautiful people,
combined age of 106 (35, on average), the flames of passionate
youth snuffed out with no warning and no logic at all. I haven’t
actually shed any tears, but I almost think I could if I tried hard
enough. It’s not about fame. To exit this planet as they did, when
they did, sucks regardless of who it was. Whether it’s Glenn Miller,
Amelia Earhart, Roberto Clemente, nobody, whomever. When I hear
that they found part of a seat, one landing gear, a prescription bottle,
a suitcase that washed up on the beach, I can’t escape the thought
that, you know, they saw it coming. The very idea that there were at
least a few seconds of total clarity in that tiny little plane, in which
the fact of what was about to happen became more clear than such
things should ever have to be, such an idea makes me cold all over,
and I have to blink a little faster to keep my eyes clear. I think if that
happened to me, I’d prefer to go alone, or with strangers, but certainly
not with my wife or sister. If nothing else is possible, one should be
able to face the end of his life with total self-concern. For all the
wealth and privilege JFK, Jr. had, he wasn’t even allowed that luxury.

This weekend’s Extreme Championship Wrestling pay-per-view was
probably the only piece of live television that did not mention the
plane crash. I was planning to watch it anyway — Yoshihiro Tajiri was
challenging Taz for the heavyweight title — but a weekend of Kennedy
consumption left me all the more eager to embrace any kind of
wanton escapism. At one point in the show, the guy I was watching it
with said: “You know, how the fuck do three people in the same
family die in three unrelated plane crashes? What are the odds of
that?” A very good question that I do not know the answer to.

I suppose the most appropriate way to end this column is with Ted
Kennedy. The youngest of the Kennedy children has been the oldest
male member (no pun intended) since 1968. He’ll never be President,
he’ll never contend (though I’m sure he’s fine with that), so he is
doomed to third or fourth place among the most famous Kennedys,
even though he has spent more years in the Senate than his entire
family combined. He’s the butt of comedians’ jokes, people say he’s
a drunk, that he’s a dirty old man, that he’s to blame for the death of
Mary Jo Kopechne, and so on and so on. Yet some say he might be
the luckiest Kennedy of all, because he gets to be an old man,
because he gets to see his children and grandchildren. I say this: if
you were Ted Kennedy, you’d be so much worse than whatever he is.
You wouldn’t be able to deal with it at all. I say to Ted: drink, smoke,
fuck, whatever the hell you do to keep going, keep doing it. His
brother Joesph, Jr., killed in a 1944 plane crash. His sister, Kathleen,
plane crash, 1948. John, shot, 1963. Robert, shot, 1968. (A weird
effect of the Kennedy mystique, if you’re Ted, is that you never know
when you might see videotape of your brothers being murdered on
television.) Three nephews: David, drug overdose, 1984. Michael,
skiing accident, 1997. And now JFK, Jr., the guy who was supposed
to carry the family name back to glory, something Ted wasn’t able to
do…Plane crash, 1999. Ted himself broke his back in a plane crash
in 1964. I don’t know if there’s a “Kennedy Curse” or not, but
whatever it is, it’s some ill shit.

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