Tuesday, July 20, 1999

A generation will remember Jackie's boy

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        He was a 38-year-old man. Can that be? Well, of course, we know that John F. Kennedy Jr. was not a child. We have watched him from his baby days in the White House, playing with his mother's fake pearls and under his father's desk.

        We realize he had grown up. Lord knows we have had every opportunity to see it in living color and black and white headlines. “Hunk Flunks” was the ungenerous notice of his first attempt to pass the New York bar exam. “The Sexiest Man Alive,” crowed People magazine.

        Still, we appear to be surprised. Like a maiden aunt at a family reunion, America seemed to want to pinch this young man's cheek and exclaim at the passage of time.

Familiar ritual
        We can picture the Kennedy compound. Most of us can recite with some fidelity the names and circumstances of previous Kennedy family tragedies. We have seen the white Masses. We can guess which cousins will be selected to be pall bearers. We know them by name and have seen them in similar circumstances. Many times. Where is Caroline, we wondered anxiously, as news unfolded of the missing plane, the search.

        We recognize the names on the maps, tracing the doomed flight, the search area. Edgartown. Chappaquiddick. Hyannis. And now Gay Head. At her mother's funeral in 1994, Caroline Kennedy read from Edna St. Vincent Millay's “Memory of Cape Cod.”

        Reporters staking out the Cape Cod home of the late Rose Kennedy probably know exactly where the phone hookups might be. At newspapers, there is no dearth of photographs of this young man, the best-looking of all the Kennedys, male and female.

        ABC's Barbara Walters talked about when “my daughter and I were at the Kennedy home.” NBC anchor Tom Brokaw spoke about the “good relationship” he shared with John Kennedy Jr. CBS' Dan Rather choked up on the air. Monday morning, NBC's Katie Couric resurrected unaired footage from a May interview.

Rush to blame
        Talking heads were busy all weekend, including an unseemly haste to assign blame. Kennedy biographer Richard Reeves suggested that perhaps the accident had been the result of “recklessness,” a Kennedy not willing to “wait in line.”

        A New Jersey columnist wondered unkindly whether the Kennedys have “some kind of speed gene.” Kathleen O'Brien of the Newark Star-Ledger wrote, “You'd think after all this carnage, they'd get the message. Take the bus.”

        Occasionally, somebody would remember guiltily that another family has suffered an anguishing double loss. But the thing is, we don't know the Bessettes. This was John-John. We liked this kid. We admired the way he managed to sidestep the drugs and scandals that appeared to be the modern-day Kennedy curse.

        For that, he credited his mother. “I always grew up just living a fairly normal life,” he told USA Today. A normal life. Bless his heart. He couldn't possibly have known what a normal life was all about.

        There have been the inevitable comparisons to the death of Princess Diana. But it is not the same. Not at all. We met Diana when she was a young woman, a bride. We have known JFK Jr. from birth. The way we feel about him is more like the way we feel about Diana's children — particularly Wills — than the way we felt about her.

        We Americans have strong maternal and paternal instincts. Our children who are of an age with John Kennedy Jr. and with Prince William may see the sadness, the waste.

        But an older generation will take it harder, the generation who can remember “where I was” when the news of another death came out of Dallas. We will not be thinking of the man he worked to become, the affable guy with a wife and a future.

        We are mourning Jackie's beautiful little boy.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears regularly on WVXU radio, NPR's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky magazine.