At the time of John Kennedy Jr.’s untimely death in 1999, we were deluged with sycophantic hyperbole from the media and maudlin keening from the public. His death was a very sad thing. As the Kennedy family grieved privately and the community at large enjoyed its more public outpouring, I felt especially bad for Caroline, the sole survivor of her immediate family. I felt the same compassion for my own father, and for the same reason.
But beyond that, it occurred – and occurs – to me that significance of the death of this public figure went beyond the death of one man. It was representative of a troubling phenomenon pervasive in American culture that, having taken root, is popping up like those weird mushrooms that show up in your front lawn and start taking over. This phenomenon shows up on the red carpet at the Emmys and Oscars, at big-time sporting events, at any occasion populated by so-called public personalities, more familiarly called celebs by those in the know. I use his life and death as a symbol of this troubling phenomenon. Follow me.
As I see it, JFK Jr. was rich, handsome, and undoubtedly a fine fellow. After all, he did take the subway. And his beguiling salute in the Christopher Robin coat at his own father’s funeral procession was both memorable and heart wrenching. But he wasn’t a national treasure. He didn’t do anything notable, with the possible exception of failing the bar twice. Even George, his magazine, was failing, although I question the value of a magazine that was touted as surfing between CNN and MTV, objecting as I do to the dumbing down of Important Issues. There was talk of the legacy he left the nation. What legacy? According to my lexicon, a legacy is the long-lasting effect of an event or person. I don’t see any long-lasting effect coming from his short life. So he left us a failed magazine, a sad picture of a little boy saluting his father’s casket, and the memory of a handsome rich guy who loved his mother and wasn’t affected by his wealth or fame. Not much.
Some mourners claimed that we felt his loss so keenly because we, as a nation, watched him grow up. At the same time, we also heard much by way of congratulations that Jackie Onassis successfully shielded her children from public notice as they grew up. Which was it? Either we watched him grow up, or we didn’t because Jackie wouldn’t let us. It can’t go both ways. And if Jackie was successful in keeping her family’s private life private, as I believe she was, we didn’t watch John Jr. grow up, we didn’t have collective fond memories of his childhood and youth, and there was little reason to exhibit paroxysms of public grief.
Some media experts in the JFK Jr. cult mourned over what might have been. What promise went unfulfilled, they wondered; what legacy might he have left us? JFK Jr. was 38 years old. A lot of men, by that age, have at least started working on their legacy. JFK Jr.’s own father was a senator and well on his way to becoming the youngest U.S. president. Other men have started raising happy families, have successful careers, have accomplishments to point to with pride. Interesting that JFK Jr.’s legacy was still a great big question mark.
We also heard much of Camelot; John Jr. was an American prince, we were told. A what? Perhaps I dozed off somewhere along the line, but I thought we live in a republic. In fact, I thought the fact that we don’t have a monarchy was sort of a point of pride for Americans. Isn’t that why we fought the Revolutionary War a little while ago? We don’t have princes around here; some of us don’t necessarily want them, either. This is America. JFK Jr. was not a prince. He was the son of a former president, and there’s a big difference.
Many claimed their right to mourn by intimately referring to JFK Jr. as John-John, which nickname was a media invention never adopted by the family. I suspect this public mourning was at least kind of fun for those who indulged in it. But it was misguided. For one thing, it was an intrusion into what should have been the private mourning of a family who had lost a loved one. It trivialized the very real grief of Kennedy’s family and friends. In fact, it trivialized grief in general, making it just a showy pretension of intimacy with the rich and powerful. And that is the key to this troublesome phenomenon that Kennedy’s death epitomizes.
The self-indulgent public keening that was rampant at the time of his death was symptomatic of a larger underlying problem. JFK Jr. was a private citizen who led a relatively private life and who left behind no legacy. He did not touch the lives of multitudes in any public way. He was, however, rich, handsome, and a member of a very powerful family. And so we adored him.
It is this national obsession with wealth and celebrity that is the problem. We esteemed a man above all others because of the wealth he possessed, and the name that he bore, and the power that he wielded, and it was wrong. It still is.