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Jewish World Review July 20, 1999 /7 Av, 5759

Paul Greenberg

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Celebrity and person --
JOHN JOHN, THEY CALLED HIM. Not his family or friends, but the public. And so John John he was. In the public eye since his birth -- no, before his birth -- John F. Kennedy Jr. had the greatest of legacies and the greatest of burdens to bear: a great name. Even in what was surely the most alone of all human experiences, the spotlights searched for him, glaring, probing, refusing to let him go night or day.

Americans would not give him up, not easily. Even as the kind of raging sentimentality that now substitutes for grief goes into screeching high gear -- the 24-hour coverage, the quickie biographies in the press and on the tube, the solemn kitsch, the news as summer blockbuster, the Princes Di treatment, the platitudes in place of perspective, the kind of celebrity journalism his own magazine, George, specialized in. Something in the American spirit still resisted all that, still tried to keep hope alive. Or at least perspective. That is no small assurance amid all the burly-burly.

On an otherwise quiet Saturday in the newsroom, it was clear something was up when reporters arriving for the evening shift could see all three of the major networks' anchormen simultaneously on the bank of TV sets in the newsroom. One of our American icons was missing. Somewhere off Martha's Vineyard. A Kennedy. The Kennedy for this generation. Minute by minute, hour by hour, and by now day by day, hope has faded. But it would not go gently. That, too, is a Kennedy thing: Never give up.

Even now something within resists writing his obituary, delivering the eulogy, marking Finis to so young and promising a life. So long as he is only presumed lost -- he and his young wife and his sister by marriage -- the country cannot seem to give him up, cannot quite believe it could happen again. In that sense, the Kennedy legacy has come to belong to all of us -- a natural extension of the vigorous, chin-up Roosevelt-style spirit. Viguh, as his father used to say in pure Massachusetts.

What an impossible weight, what a habitual imposition, our Walter Winchell culture places not only on our heroes, but on their children who never sought the limelight. As an ancient sage once said, a name made great is a name destroyed.

Perhaps that is all there is, really, to the fabled Kennedy Curse: Their lives are unavoidably public. Their rises and falls, troubles and attainments, triumphs and tragedies inevitably become the stuff of news and what now passes for it. They cannot take refuge in the blessed obscurity that shields the rest of us. We have a priceless luxury they cannot afford. Their lives are played out in the unblinking eye of the camera, the graceless prose of the gossip columnists, the false light of infotainment.

Perhaps in Emily Dickinson's time, fame was the one that did not stay. Today, transmuted into mere celebrity, it is handed on generation after generation, like an iron collar. And there is no escaping it. Only living with it, rising above it, being a person.

In the reams of newsprint and hours of television time now to be devoted to a young man taken too soon, much like his father, one hopes it will be noted that John F. Kennedy Jr. rose to the impossible challenge with some of his father's irrepressible charm and his mother's unique grace. And innate dignity. He proved it was possible to be self-effacing, gracious, and even live a private life of some dignity even though a Kennedy. Understatement can be a remarkable accomplishment in his circumstances, and he achieved it.

To one generation, John John will always be the little boy under his father's desk, the innocent child saluting his father's casket. Images linger when they are impressed by hope, or seared into the mind by a nation's pain and bewilderment.

To another generation, John Kennedy was the world's most eligible bachelor or, in the less than subtle lingo of these graceless times, a hunk, The Sexiest Man Alive. But despite the two-dimensional photographs and the stereotype in the big black headlines, one could sense the man emerging, going his own way, moving at his own pace. Who knows, in time his magazine might have shown more judgment about current events rather than a general amusement with them.

Despite the publicity agents and tabloid coverage he attracted, despite all the Pierre Salingers and glamour mags, John F. Kennedy Jr. would not let his life be reduced to a photograph, a headline, an obligatory mention in the Society column. He didn't go into politics, though the door was always open and the possibilities remained unlimited.

Instead he steered his own course, started his own magazine, founded his own family, developed his own character. And it was that of a natural aristocrat rather than the ersatz kind that celebrity produces. There was a dignity and honor about him that cannot have been simple to achieve, yet he made it seem simple.

All of that is no small achievement for the youthful bearer of a name made great. And now, on the brink of maturity, with his greatest contributions still ahead, he is lost and -- though one still fights the thought -- presumed dead. Like his father, John F. Kennedy Jr. leaves behind a promise of greatness cut short. Like his mother, he was able to remain his own person despite all the snares of celebrity. That is no small achievement at any age, and in this age, almost impossible.


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07/08/99: Today's tax tip: the Webb Hubbell System
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06/24/99: A Cafe Called Time: A Play In Three Acts
06/22/99: Amazing stories from D.C. Comix
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06/02/99: In praise of failure
05/26/99: Betrayal in the making: let's not make a deal
05/20/99: Israel's big switch: new era or just a mood swing?
05/18/99: Free our kids: revive the land of opportunity
05/13/99: This war will end --- or spread
05/11/99: South Sider comes through
05/07/99: There is no substitute for victory
05/05/99: A Tale of two colonels
05/03/99: It's the culture, stupid
04/30/99: Bumpers' 'B.S.'
04/27/99: An American tragedy: the fall of Kenneth Starr
04/23/99: Presidents and the press
04/14/99: A revealing moment
04/14/99: War Day by day
04/12/99: Just a few questions
04/06/99: The problem with the Left
04/05/99: The problem with the Right
03/30/99: But can he convince himself?
03/26/99: Short bursts
03/24/99: Once more into the quagmire
03/17/99: Big time in Little Rock
03/15/99: Our own Roger Taney
03/09/99: A different ‘Waterfront’
03/05/99: Law and disorder
2/26/99: King Richard's revenge
2/25/99: Open season on the fetus, and a good word for the pagans
2/23/99: It never ends: Here comes the judge
2/19/99: After the storm: Going through the debris
2/17/99: Where's the closure?
2/12/99: Hussein the Hashemite: The wiliest player on the board
2/09/99: The social security game
2/04/99: Our own Inspector Clouseau
2/01/99: Night scene, night thoughts
1/28/99: The decay of the art of lying
1/26/99: Impeachment: Short subjects
1/22/99: Bounce, glitz and tedium: The State of the Disunion
1/20/99: Destructive engagement: How to encourage tyranny
1/18/99: Martin Luther King: The radical as conservative?
1/11/99: Why America is apathetic about Bill's date with destiny
1/06/99:The year of Moronica
1/04/99: Clinton’s janitorial crew of two
12/29/98:The Senate will be on trial, too
12/29/98:A look down the avenue
12/22/98: The surreal impeachment
12/17/98: Another moment of truth approaches
12/15/98: The President's defenders: witnesses for the prosecution
12/10/98:The latest miracle cure: CensurePlus
12/03/98: Sentences at an airport Sentences at an airport
12/03/98: Games lawyers play
12/01/98: Ms. Magoo strikes again, or: Janet Reno and the law
11/26/98: The most American holiday
11/23/98: Same game, another round
11/18/98: Guide to the perplexed
11/09/98: A vote for apathy
11/03/98: Global village goes Clintonesque
11/02/98: Farewell to all that
10/30/98: New budget, same swollen government
10/26/98: Of life on the old plantation -- and death in the Middle East
10/22/98: Starr Wars (CONT'D)
10/19/98:Another retreat: weakness invites aggression
10/16/98: Profile in courage
10/14/98: A new voice out of Arkansas
10/09/98: Gerald Ford, Mr. Fix-It?
10/07/98: Impeachment Journal: Dept. of Doublespeak
10/01/98: The new tradition
9/25/98: Mr. President, PLEASE don't resign
9/23/98: The demolition of meaning
9/18/98: So help us G-d; The nature of the crisis
9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
9/15/98: George Wallace: All the South in one man
9/10/98: Here comes the judge
9/07/98: Toward impeachment
9/03/98: The politics of impeachment
9/01/98: The eagle can still soar
8/28/98: Boris Yeltsin's mind: a riddle pickled in an enigma
8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
8/12/98: The French would understand
8/10/98: A fable: The Rat in the Corner
8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
so what else is new?
7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
7/16/98: In defense of manners
7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate