October 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 6
Is there something we should be doing about this?” “This” was the airplane accident that had claimed the lives of John F. Kennedy, Jr., his wife, and her sister, and as soon as the editors gathered in the office on that hot, disconsolate Monday after the crash, we started casting about for some thread that might lead to a story for us.
We always operate under the mandate to put current events in historical perspective, and this one had sent very powerful tremors through the national consciousness. The problem—or, rather, our problem—was that everyone else was busy doing just the same thing. From the moment the Coast Guard started combing the waters off Martha’s Vineyard, the media were full of pictures and accounts of events long past: of a handsome young flier whose life was snuffed out in a risky, failed experiment in 1944; of that boy’s sister, killed in a plane wreck four years later; of the motorcade in Dallas, of course; and always of the child in the short coat.saluting the caisson.
We know these faces, and it seemed natural, somehow, to see them again when another son of the family went to join them in the shade. But in fact there is something of a mystery in this instinctive reaching to the past; it’s by no means the media’s first instinct. In this decade, for instance, we have gone through two major, hotly debated bombing campaigns overseas, yet I do not recall seeing a single article or television show that looked back to assess what the four earlier air wars Americans have fought in this century might have to tell us about the efficacy of bombing. We were shown no B-17s while Riyadh and Kosovo were under bombardment.
To take a more recent example, as I am writing this Hillary Rodham Clinton is at the peak of a long and microscopically scrutinized flirtation with announcing her candidacy for the Senate, but nobody I’ve seen has taken a look at what happened the last time a New York Senate race was so vigorously challenged by an outlander. Our “In the News” columnist, Kevin Baker, does so here, and the canny audacity Robert Kennedy brought to his campaign makes a terrific story.
Mind you, I’m not complaining about the media’s failure automatically to pursue the historical background of events; if they did, there’d be nothing unusual about American Heritage magazine. But why is everyone so quick to reach back when it comes to Kennedys? My friend and former boss Geoffrey Ward, who includes the Kennedy family among his areas of historical authority, told me, “I think it’s pretty simple. I think it’s the last time we really felt good about ourselves as a country.”
He meant more than that, of course, and it reminded me of seeing on television a couple of years back a five-second clip of Jack Kennedy. He’d been watching a missile take off, and he turned away from the plume of vapor toward the camera grinning, his hands thrust into the pockets of his wind-breaker, and all the interminably reported sexual pathology didn’t matter a bit; I wanted to be back there with him. I don’t think this pang was solely a reflection of the lost potential both of father and son that we heard a good deal about during the long weekend of the missing plane—at least not on the national level. Certainly that amazing grin flashed on a country where not one citizen in a million knew what Tet was, where Dr. King was alive and fighting, but I wonder whether the sense of loss Kennedys bring us isn’t at once larger than regret over those poisoned opportunities, and more intimate.
In his 1967 novel The Man Who Knew Kennedy , Vance Bourjaily has his main character declare that “the lesson seems to be that you can be the richest, the best looking, the most powerful. You can be witty, charming, married to the prettiest girl, the one whom fashion copies. You can be the son of a strong man, surrounded by fierce brothers, father of lovely children, friend and patron of the wisest poet, survivor of a dozen deaths. The youngest leader ever chosen by your people, by the world.
“And a screwy, jittering little clown can dream his hand to a gun, fantasize his way to a window, be a make-believe marksman through a nine-dollar scope—but if the finger of the diseased imagination presses a real trigger, you will, in the next moment, be truly and terribly dead.
“Every man, even the most blessed, needs a little more than average luck to survive this world.”
Every family does its best to shore up its defenses against the furies of living, and every family takes its losses nonetheless. So it is with this extraordinary family whose fortunes both mirror and amplify our own, and when the Kennedys suffer yet another blow, perhaps part of the reason we look into their past is because one of the melancholy solaces of history is that all its children are there to be visited. It is always an imperfect connection, but it is a real one. There is a place where Theodore Roosevelt still bares his teeth at “malefactors of great wealth” and “mollycoddles,” where Ike shakes the paratroopers’ hands and wishes them well, where my newly engaged parents bask under the cardboard fronds of Gus Bergman’s Tropical Photo Studio at Playland amusement park, where your grandmother or uncle or college roommate catches a fish or cooks a steak or squints down the fairway—and where a small boy peers with grave eyes from beneath his father’s desk.