The Fallen Son: John F. Kennedy Jr.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, some thoughts on this tragedy from NewsHour regulars Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, Journalist and Author Haynes Johnson, Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant and essayist Roger Rosenblatt, plus Frank Mankiewicz, former Robert Kennedy press secretary, now a public relations executive here in Washington. Tom, why are so many so interested in this tragedy of John F. Kennedy?
TOM OLIPHANT, Boston Globe columnist: Jim, I’m positive that it’s not because it’s merely soap opera or celebrity or some other maudlin thoughts about tragedy running in families. I’m convinced that the roots of this are in the murder of John Kennedy’s father and of his uncle, Robert Kennedy. I don’t think the legacy of the Kennedy’s, like other families in American life, is fixed in time like say, the Roosevelts or the Adams. I think it’s ongoing. And part of it is this ability to motivate Americans to be interested in public service and politics. Inside politics, a lot of it is the Kennedys’ contribution through all these years to new thinking that has influenced both parties. I think one of the most inaccurate things said 35 years ago was this analogy of Camelot. It was not one brief shining moment. I think it’s been almost 50 years of American history, and there’s another chunk yet to come.
JIM LEHRER: But why this young man? This man died in a plane crash. He had not, unlike his father and unlike his uncle, he was not involved in public service yet, as he told Barbara Walters.
TOM OLIPHANT: But the link, I think, in the public mind, in the public stomach, in the public heart is so direct between him and his father he was an unformed person, obviously — as the steers – if he was going to have them — were in front of him. But the connection was so direct that I think it’s brought it back in a way that makes this far transcend something like an American Diana episode. As I say, that legacy lives on through Kennedys that you can see in public life today, not just his uncle, Senator Kennedy, but a whole slew of them who in some ways are more active in public life and politics than John was.
JIM LEHRER: What would you add to that, Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I would agree a lot with what Tom said. And I think the other thing is, you know, I sort of remember, I was seven when John Kennedy was murdered. And one of the things that really brought that home to me — as if it needed to be brought home — was the fact that John Kennedy had a son who was only a couple of years younger than I was. And I could sure imagine what it was like to be that age and to lose your father. And I can remember thinking at the time that the one thing that made me feel little bit better was after all, the son was left, and the son might have a bright future, and the son might even one day run for President and win. And I think there has been this sort of unspoken assumption perhaps by most of us that there has always been the possibility that John Kennedy, Jr. at one point in his life – it could have been 20 years from now — might run for President. And if he won , it would be a restoration of the Kennedy era and in a way, triumph over that horrible event in Dallas in 1963.
JIM LEHRER: But what about Tom’s point that there is no such thing as a Kennedy era? It just goes on and on and on.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think it does. But the Kennedy era of the 1990′s is very different from the 1960′s. John and Robert Kennedy were doing all sorts of heroic things, it was a heroic time, defeating the Soviets in the Cuban Missile Crisis, achieving civil rights, RFK campaigning to open American society to all sorts of groups and do things for the poor. Our politics in the 1990′s is downsized and so is to some extent, I think, the Kennedy dynasty and also the aspiration of those Kennedys, who are operating now. Even Ted Kennedy the last couple of weeks has been campaigning for a health care program that is in many ways noble and wonderful, but very much downsized from what he would have liked to see in the early 1970′s.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, John F. Kennedy, Jr. in that clip that we just saw from the Barbara Walters interview talked about expectations that his mother set. Is there something called a Kennedy expectation that all Kennedys have to live with?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think there’s no question that what’s run through this family for four or five decades is the idea that public service is the real treasure, that if you want the respect of the other Kennedy family members, which I think they all do almost more than the outside world’s expectations of them, that that’s your ultimate goal.
And it’s interesting, you know, way back in 1946, Lord Beaver Brooke wrote a letter when Jack won the congressional race predicting that the Kennedy family would become like the Adams family in American history. And it seemed like a wild prediction at the time.
But in many ways, they have, and it’s in part, because they are an extended family. Here we are in a modern nuclear family, fragmented culture age, and we’ve lived with this family through a whole series of decades. We’ve watched shared rituals; we’ve watched them at the obligatory mealtimes when Rose would stick up on the bulletin board what they’d talk about. We’ve watched them run for elections, we’ve seen them at conventions.
And we’ve shared with them these vigils of death and these funerals over and over again. And at a time when we don’t feel in our lives that same sense of an extended family and the fact that it’s all captured in film, we can’t take away the fact that the 20th century provided something for them that the Adams family didn’t have, continuing photographs, film footage.
Each time one of these tragedies occurs, like now, a whole new generation of young people are brought into the whole Kennedy past. They see Jack young again; they see Bobby young again. It’s almost as if even though they all died young, they re forever in our imaginations, still alive. And I think that’s what keeps this chapter going so that it’s a story that seems to have no ending for a long time to come.
JIM LEHRER: But what about this particular young Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Jr.?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think what he did was to have a combination of his mother’s and his father’s qualities. I mean, clearly, that love of talking, that desire to be with people, the ease with celebrity, and the somehow embracing of the Kennedy tradition was part of him.
But Jackie had taught him to stand on his own, to feel a sense that he had to make his own way in the world and have that independence and that separation from the public. Part of her mystique was that she wasn’t very often seen. Suppose he’d become a politician at 20; he’d already be one of those Washington characters. The fact that he took so long to figure out what he wanted gave him part of that distance that I think Jackie always had, which only adds to the mystique, because you can always imagine, he could have been whatever you want him to be, rather than an ordinary person running around the Congress or the Senate.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Now, Haynes, as a young reporter, you’ve been covering Kennedys from the very beginning.
HAYNES JOHNSON: The first big story I ever wrote was the lead story of John Kennedy’s inauguration. And I did – as Tom and the rest of us – carried it all the way through. I was with Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles. I wrote a book out the Bay of Pigs. I got to know the family a little bit; I’m not trying to be intimate or whatever, but they were all part of our lives.
The assassinations, all of these things we’ve talked about, and watching those films, Doris is so right.
This is something that goes way beyond. I think it transcends politics, I think that it transcends Jack and Bobby and the rest. I think this is such a human story; that is our story. We can’t escape it. Anyone who is alive at the time John Kennedy was murdered shared in that moment in a way that you will never forget it. When you see the pictures now, John-John, I still think of him John-John and watching him grow up. I mean, I was at – the two Kennedys when they were at Arlington the night they were both buried out there. I was with Bobby that night coming back on the train, and before that, I was there.
I don’t even know why I was there at Arlington Cemetery when John Kennedy was at the funeral site. It’s all — it’s not just my — it’s the American story. And it’s also even beyond words. You can’t put it into sort of an easy historical or journalistic context. This is a fable. This is a human drama, and the young, the young one, the youngest one is all a part of that, all dying, and we all recognize them.And the worst part, we all have children. And the idea that one of your children might die is so horrible a thought that you don’t want to say it out loud. And then this family over and over and over again going through the trauma and the heartbreak and the tragedy and again and again, and you see it. They’re attractive and yet it’s also Icarus, it’s — you name the fable.
JIM LEHRER: So if somebody says, well, a minute, I don’t understand all the fuss about this kid, who really didn’t do very much himself, other than just be a Kennedy, they don’t get it?
HAYNES JOHNSON: He’s a human being that was a part of a family and a life and a country in which we’re all part of that– events that took place before our eyes. And just watching tonight, seeing those pictures once again, I can’t help — maybe it’s my generation — maybe it’s my age.
But I think for people who were his generation also, they saw him, rich, famous and you wonder how he’s going to live out his life. He didn’t sort of throw it away. He didn’t become wasteful.
He wasn’t a drug addict or a drunk or so forth. So, he seemed like a decent, nice young man who was just making his way. And I guess the last thought — I don’t want to filibuster here — the last thing about that, we all thought when John Kennedy was killed, the idea that 46 years old, forever young as Doris said, think about the boy that we watched is now at 38 — I cat get that out of my head. Now, that to me, is a human drama that surpasses the ability to put into words.
JIM LEHRER: Frank Mankiewicz, a lot of talk has been talked these last several hours about all of this. And a lot of people talked about, oh, the Kennedy curse and all of that. And I know you feel very strongly that that’s bologna. Tell us why you think that’s bologna.
FRANK MANKIEWICZ: Well, I don’t think there are curses. I’m not sure anybody on this program believes that. Maybe a few wiccans watching do but nobody else. There aren’t curses. They are events that happen in human life. I mean, we can all be a little superstitious.
But nobody really believes that if you walk under a ladder, bad luck will come to you. I think what’s going on here — and the reason people are so upset now is because we’re beginning to realize on the surface, I think, what we’ve realized subliminally for 35 years; that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was perhaps the central event of the 20th century in American history, that it was a shifting of the tectonic plates having to do with violence and custom and politics and history and the way we live. And it’s changed it forever.
And it came along with the emergence of television. Every American has seen Jack Ruby shoot Lee Oswald. Maybe they’ve seen it 50 times. They’ve seen young John Kennedy, Jr. salute his father’s casket more than that, and they see it every year. And that makes it a huge difference. And this young man bore the name. And we always thought, well, there is a John F. Kennedy.
We see him now and then. And he’s a serious person, and he shares some of his father’s irony and distance and detachment. And now that’s been taken away. And I think we’ve suddenly come to realize how important that first event was in our history and in our lives. Forget the politics.
These people are enormously handsome and telegenic and photogenic and they talk and listen and make jokes, and we all accept that. But there’s more than that; there’s a thread there, and that thread in a way has now been snapped. And we have to think seriously.
JIM LEHRER: What is that thread, Frank? How would you describe the thread?
FRANK MANKIEWICZ: Well it’s — after all, here was John F. Kennedy as our first President from our generation. He was not a father figure. He was an older brother figure. He was the first President born in this century. He was a young World War II veteran.
These were all important things, and they went on for a thousand days, and then that was snatched away. And we want to cling to that because there was such enormous promise there. And so I think John F. Kennedy, Jr., in some way, provided that continuity.
JIM LEHRER: Roger, do you agree that this is a lot more than about one young man who was flying an airplane the other night to Martha’s Vineyard?
FRANK MANKIEWICZ: Oh, there’s no question of that, there’s no question of that.
JIM LEHRER: Roger.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I do agree. I also would just add that it’s more than about one young man and the two wonderful young women died also in that crash, and that what Haynes said about all of us parents being brought to our knees at the mere thought of one of our children going is too painful to express. What everybody said, I agree, too. I think it is our story, as Haynes said.
We didn’t know much about him. What we knew we liked and admired. What was there not admire? He became the emblem of a family. And the family wasn’t royalty. There’s a lot of talk about royalty. They weren’t a royal family.
They were our family, an American family, and in many ways, an ideal of that family, whatever mistakes were made — a family of faith, a family of loyalty, and togetherness; a family of action. It’s an interesting combination in the Kennedys, the ideal Kennedys, of intelligence and action. It isn’t kind of gloomy introspectiveness. It’s the people who want to do something in the country, the combination of Daniel Boone and Harvard, and the no self-pity in the family, none of that self-reflective gloom. In many ways, they’re — the ideal American is the Irishman without gloom. They were just wonderful to watch this way.
JIM LEHRER: You had an experience– tell us about that experience when you witnessed the Kennedy grief in action.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Well, this was at a ceremony, a book award ceremony in Hickory Hills some years ago, and -
JIM LEHRER: That’s the Robert F. Kennedy home here in Washington.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Right. Robert F. Kennedy family home in Hickory Hill, Virginia. And at the ceremony, Ethyl Kennedy, a wonderful woman, Ethyl Kennedy stood up to speak, and this was rare for her. But she caught the sight of the award which was a bust — actually the head of her slain husband, a sculpted head. And when she saw it, she started to falter and to break down in tears. Immediately, the whole family, Teddy, the other children- oh, I should have said that her son, David, had died not long before from an overdose — so all of his tragedy was in the air — her whole family rushed to her side, at her knees, surrounded her, touched her and began to laugh and to make cheerful sound like birds. At that, she started to laugh and to come out of it and to gain her composure. It was as if you were seeing a biological ritual of a family that had learned to deal with grief, had developed techniques, mechanisms to deal with grief and to go on. And the strength of it was overwhelming.
JIM LEHRER: Tom — yes, Doris.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I was just going to add that I remember one time when Rose Kennedy was about 90 years old, she told me that she took enormous solace from the thought that if her children were to come back and be told that they would have the shortened lives they had — Joe, Jr. at 29, Kathleen at 28, Bobby at 43, Jack at 46 — she was absolutely certain they would till choose to be who they had been because they had occupied such a great space, adventure, excitement, a life of great promise and responsibility. And I think that’s what happens in this family. Action, the next step takes over from the sorrow of the past. And you decide you had the best you could, and you go on from there, which is an extraordinary way of looking at the life.
JIM LEHRER: Tom, you spent some time with — you knew John F. Kennedy, Jr. Tell us about him. What was he like to be around?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, again, as Haynes said a second ago, there is no simpler contradiction in terms than the self-identification of Kennedy intimate. I’ve written about them for 30 years. The one thing you learn number one is, never to use that phrase. The second thing you learn is that talking about this family in the collective sense is absurd. These are individuals, and they are vigorous in asserting themselves as individuals.
And if you treat them as Stepford children or something, they’ll come at you like gang busters. The most interesting thing about John Kennedy was his– he was an emblem for his generation, as so many of them tend to be.
And he reflected its semi-cynical detached look at the world in general, at politics in particular, at big shots especially. And yet, for all that detachment, he saw his current role as a kind of outside half entertainment-half political observer as being the best way of getting back into politics. In other words, if he had run for office — and I have absolutely no doubt in my mind he was headed that way — he would have been a happy, Irish American intellectual Jesse Ventura, if you can put that all together.
JIM LEHRER: And I think that’s where we’re going to leave it. Doris, gentlemen, thank you all very much