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Jewish World Review July 30, 1999/ 17 Av 5759

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A Slow News Week


http://www.jewishworldreview.com --
TAKING NOTE of the continuing, and shameless, nonstop media coverage of the Kennedy-Bessette tragedy is unavoidable if you’re a sentient being, especially in New York City.

A number of disparate observations struck me during the last week, sedated though I was by the crass commercialism on eBay, the JFK Jr. shills-for-hire on tv (historian Douglas Brinkley, brilliantly dubbed “the William Ginsburg of the Kennedy death circus” by Slate’s David Plotz, is only the most obvious example, perhaps followed by George contributor Al D’Amato) and endless loops of Jack and Bobby Kennedy’s funerals and Uncle Ted’s eulogies. It’s not as if this footage is unfamiliar: every time there’s an anniversary of a Kennedy death (but not of the deaths of Bobby’s sons David and Michael), the same scenes are broadcast on almost every television station. And if I hear or read one more time the comment from Ed Koch that he’d sent Kennedy a note after the latter failed his bar exam, telling him it was no big deal, after all he flunked the exam too and became mayor, I’ll don a Rudy Giuliani mask and tap Koch on the shoulder at his favorite Village restaurant.

I have no idea why so many newspaper columnists had to write five or more pieces on the catastrophe: it’s not as if they added a single new insight. Locally, I found Newsday’s Ellis Henican over the top when he declared last Sunday that the media deserved praise for its intrusive coverage: “I am not at all ashamed of my business this week.”

Henican’s co-perpetrator, Jimmy Breslin, perhaps with the help of Jesse Jackson, upped the ante on the same day: “On North Moore Street, hour after hour, for days and nights, there were these silent throngs appearing out of the hot sun and darkness, people of so many colors and oblivious of it, that they put a thrill, and so much hope into the night. There has no been no sight like it since 1968.” What “thrill” and “hope” of ’68 was Breslin daydreaming about? The assassinations? Vietnam? Chicago’s Democratic Convention? The riots in several major cities? The Tet offensive?

As for all the “hope” at the carnival on N. Moore St., it’s actually fairly revolting. We have a new tourist destination in Tribeca; aside from the ever-present tv crews there are double-decker buses parking on the corner and people slurping ice cream cones while they wait on line to get a gawk at the shrine. One visitor, a Russian who now lives in Texas, asked a local, “Which way is N. Moore St.? And where is 5th Ave.? Also, is Washington, DC nearby?” As Michael Wolff writes in the Aug. 2 New York, “[I]f you had gone down and hung around the TriBeCa stoop when they were alive, you’d have been arrested as a stalker.” (Wolff’s piece “Kennedy With Tears” was better than most, but ended with his signature twist that leaves you wondering “Say what?” His last two paragraphs: “The Kennedy-family business isn’t politics; it’s death, and the fantasies that death allows. We are ennobled by the grief we share with the Kennedys, and by the better, more interesting lives we’ve all lost without their sons.

“Apparently, we need this.”

In contrast, The New Yorker’s John Seabrook, in the Aug. 2 issue, romanticized Kennedy’s Tribeca residency. You know what? John actually ate at the diner Socrates! He petted dogs on the street! He rode his bike to work like an “urban knight”! And he joined community members to oppose a multiplex movie theater across the street from his apartment, “helping to preserve the integrity” of the neighborhood. Frankly, I was for the project. Tribeca’s expanding at such a clip, with new restaurants opening monthly and with no objections, that I felt he just didn’t care for the multiplex’s proximity to his loft.

The Post’s Andrea Peyser, inadvertently injecting some levity into her sloppy, sentimental writing, came up with this whopper on July 24. “His spirit belonged in the wind. Yet the official memorial took place uptown, in the pricey reaches of the East Side that John Kennedy long ago abandoned for downtown funk.” I haven’t heard the word “funk,” unless ironically, in years; but what kind of fool is Peyser to describe Tribeca, the most affluent part of town other than the Upper East Side, as funky? I applaud the Post’s practice of employing a lean editorial staff—The New York Times in particular would benefit if it trimmed its workforce by half—but certainly there’s an editor who realizes that Peyser, while she shouldn’t be drummed out of the business, really belongs at a magazine like Tiger Beat.

But it was the Post’s Steve Dunleavy who took top honors for whoring a celebrity story. On July 23, he wrote: “Life goes on, yet you wonder why the Kennedys have been handed so much premature death. It doesn’t seem fair. And it isn’t.” And the next day: “Well John-John we did know you because you let us know you and that makes you a real New Yorker. We kidnapped you and thank God you went along for the ride.” Right, so Dunleavy could milk two weeks of easy gibberish passed off as prose and collect a paycheck.

But examine Dunleavy’s slipshod collection of columns (and I say that even though I agree with many of his political opinions: it’s just that he’s a bad writer) from the past 12 months and you’ll find a different view of the Kennedys. For example, on July 27, 1998, in a piece about Bill Clinton’s subpoena to appear before Ken Starr, he wrote: “The master of the media game was a wise old owl called Joe Kennedy who knew edition times of newspapers as well as most editors. He would tell his sons, and believe me they took notice of him: ‘Break bad news on a Friday, because the edition times are earlier and the newspapers are smaller.’ I have seen the Kennedys, for the last 30 years’ worth of scandals, do exactly that. I even co-authored a book with my colleague Peter Brennan about just how the wild, wild Kennedy boys played all of us reporters like violins.”

And then on November 24, 1998, in an article about District Attorney Robert Morgenthau: “With the exception of Morgenthau’s habit of hiring members of the Kennedy family who are academically challenged, he has proven to be a steady and decent prosecutor.”

Barnicle
The Post’s “Page Six,” choosing to ignore Dunleavy’s rank hypocrisy, nonetheless nailed Daily News columnist Mike Barnicle for the same sin. And the lazy Barnicle has been shameless: ubiquitous on the tube, up in Massachusetts, trying to buy his way back into the media elite with dewy-eyed reporting on the tragedy. On August 14, 1997, Barnicle trashed JFK Jr. in The Boston Globe, calling him “dim-witted,” with an “empty head,” and said: “Thinning bloodlines present more of a threat to Irish-Americans than thinning hairlines or waist sizes larger in circumference than the Mir spacecraft. And JFK Jr.’s monthly missive in his spectacular glossy ‘Woodrow,’ is another indication that the Irish are in danger of getting so Wasped-out that they could eventually lose all ability to marry outrage and anger to wit and insight and get paid for it.”

In his Sunday column, Barnicle, still bitter about his justified firing from the Globe last year, blaming “small publications” for the dismissal rather than his blatant plagiarism, wrote that Kennedy was a gentleman about the ’97 column, and “proved to be far more forgiving than I would have been under similar circumstances.”

At the other extreme, The New Republic commissioned the tiresome Neal Gabler for a highbrow article, imaginatively headlined “The People’s Prince,” for its Aug. 9 issue. After reading the following tripe, maybe you’ll think it’s best to stick to the tabs: “For JFK Jr., the extremes were indeed extreme—the promise of his life and the tragedy of his death. Unlike most celebrities, he was born of gods—the son of an improbable marriage between the Apollo and Aphrodite of American politics and the grandson of the Zeus and Hera of twentieth-century America, Joseph and Rose Kennedy. Hubris, the bane of the classical hero and the occupational hazard of the modern celebrity, was in his blood, though in the case of the Kennedys the sense of ease and entitlement, the feeling that there were absolutely no limits to their dreams, presented itself less often as overbearing arrogance than as confident charm.”

Yes, Neal, Teddy Kennedy’s blaming a family curse for his reckless actions at Chappaquiddick 30 years ago was indeed charming. Here’s something I don’t quite understand. It’s agreed that JFK Jr. was dealt a royal flush in life’s lottery; that he chose not to play that hand especially well is not for others to judge, but it does make you wonder. For all the talk about the Kennedy family’s intense loyalty—which for the most part is on the mark—the slain President’s son doesn’t fall into that category. How else to explain his obscene cozying up to Larry Flynt just a few months ago at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner in Washington, DC?

He embraced a man who, years ago, published nude photos of his mother, the woman who’s rightfully praised as a shrewd lioness who consciously attempted to keep her two children out of the media’s glare, and frowned upon their consorting with the wilder Kennedy cousins. If it was your mother whom Flynt had exploited in his trashy Hustler, would you suck up to him years later? Similarly, as I wrote a month or so ago, I don’t understand why Kennedy accepted ads from the NRA in his magazine George. It wouldn’t make business sense to turn down the cash, especially for a floundering publication on the verge of extinction, but you’d think that a man whose father was murdered by a gun-wielding assassin would have such a visceral emotional reaction against the NRA that he’d refuse the ads. It just shows me that young Kennedy was a little bit off.

Flynt
Another common thread to the coverage in the past week was that JFK Jr. wasn’t fully formed, that he had all this potential just waiting to explode. That’s wishful thinking on the part of Kennedy loyalists like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and contemporaries who wanted him to make his career in politics. The man was 38; surely too young to die, but it’s not like he was a kid in college who didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up. Had Kennedy reached the age of, say, 50 and still not entered politics, sycophants like Douglas Brinkley would no doubt still be saying he was biding his time.

On Chris Matthews’ Hardball last week I saw Mort Zuckerman and Jerry Nachman, expressing their sorrow and respect for Kennedy, and they related stories of how he’d gently chide them for their respective tabloids’ relentless coverage of every move he made. But if he was really troubled by the paparazzi, why would he play Frisbee in Central Park without a shirt on? Obviously, he liked to show off his fine physique and enjoyed the attention. Also strange was the near-nude photo he published of himself in George that accompanied his editor’s letter chastising his cousins as “poster boys for bad behavior.” That sort of decision simply doesn’t square with the Kennedy family’s reputation for unswerving Irish loyalty.

Perhaps the most galling sentiment heard on television shows was that JFK’s assassination was the key event in American history this century. That’s perhaps true for a portion of the populace, the Boomer generation specifically. I don’t exclude myself from this group. I remember exactly where I was when the President was shot—on a school bus coming home when the normally jolly bus driver Paul told the mass of third-and-fourth graders to shut up and pray for Mr. Kennedy. And when I got home from Sunday school two days later, I witnessed, along with my mother, the live killing of Lee Harvey Oswald. To an eight-year-old boy, it was both thrilling and frightening.

Broder
But certainly to the World War II generation, who saw friends and relatives die with numbing regularity and who’d lived through the Great Depression, JFK’s murder, while politically charged and shocking, paled in comparison. And as for those who were born after 1963, many of whom are on the cusp of middle age, they’re simply bored when their elders indulge in nostalgia with all that “Where were you when...” questioning. As The Washington Post’s David Broder wrote last Sunday, the Civil Rights movement and the development of the atomic bomb, computers and the Internet—in addition to the two world wars and the Depression—are all more significant.

The Daily News’ Jim Dwyer is an admirable city columnist; I don’t often agree with his politics, but his prose is steady and well-reported. But even he fell prey to the Camelot dust that was scattered about the land in the past week. Writing on July 22, he made what I consider a preposterous statement: “[JFK Jr.] was the only infant to live in the White House this century; his father was the most famous murder victim in United States history; at a moment when many Americans first owned television, he was the first little kid they saw on the screen. And he was impossible to forget.”

Dwyer’s not a stupid man, and surely if he reread his piece he’d realize how filled with holes it was. Obviously, Abraham Lincoln, who presided over a civil war, ended slavery, and delivered a short speech, the Gettysburg Address, which was more powerful than anything Ted Sorensen wrote for John F. Kennedy, was “the most famous murder victim in United States history.” And revisionists can’t have it both ways: it’s largely acknowledged that Kennedy won the 1960 election because of the televised debates. In fact, it could be argued that Little Ricky on the sitcom I Love Lucy was the first kid that a majority of Americans saw on tv. And though John Jr.’s heartbreaking salute to his father at the funeral in ’63—it makes little difference that Jackie Kennedy rehearsed him for the moment—was poignant, in the aftermath of the assassination it was possible to “forget” the three-year-old, and most Americans did as they went about their daily lives. It was only later, when John Jr. was an adult and became a celebrity in his own right, that he regained the spotlight he’d held so briefly in the early 60s.

Schmoke
I’m against any sort of affirmative action; it’s a destructive entitlement dreamed up by liberal (often wealthy) politicians seeking minority votes. Just one example of the havoc it can wreak is the city of Baltimore, where Mayor Kurt Schmoke has made a hash of its economy and inner-city neighborhoods, with the result of a mass exodus to the suburbs, in contrast to other urban centers to which people are moving back. Schmoke, a man of ordinary intelligence and extraordinary athletic ability, was whisked through Yale, Oxford and Harvard and then to a prestigious law firm. He was elected state’s attorney in 1982, defeating a popular redneck from South Baltimore, and then became the city’s first elected black mayor in 1987. Running for a third term in ’95 against a popular white liberal, Schmoke, his record undistinguished, ran an unapologetic race-based campaign.

But affirmative action has always existed; it’s just taken different forms, like the Old Boy Network, the clubbiness that allows children of privilege, like the Kennedys, into schools they’d be rejected from had they been born with different names. Likewise, it’s rampant in the media and in politics. Yet for the life of me, I can’t figure out why a lightweight like Albert R. Hunt is allowed to continue at The Wall Street Journal. Probably more than any other Beltway media insider, Hunt can be counted upon to champion the Democrats’ agenda, and with a far more strident tone than his peers. His July 22 column on John Kennedy Jr., entitled “America’s Family,” was filled with the symbolism and the nostalgia for a long-ago era that make Hunt a fixture at DC cocktail parties, but did little to edify his readers. Most WSJ subscribers I know just skip his column; I imagine most of the paper’s staff does as well.

Shriver
What irked me about this particular Hunt travesty was his familiarity and cliches. Sargent Shriver is “Sarge”; William Kennedy Smith is “Willie”; he speaks of “the poetry of the Kennedys” and their “bedrock Irish Catholic faith.” He ticks off the successes of the Kennedy cousins, singling out Maria Shriver for being a “prominent television journalist,” Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Lt. Gov. of Maryland and, most laughably, Patrick Kennedy, the Rhode Island Congressman who’s the chairman of the Democratic House Campaign Committee. He neglects to mention that the I.Q.-challenged Patrick is quite openly manipulated by Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. Perhaps the most amazing sentence in this embarrassing exercise in hagiography, one that makes Schlesinger look like Rush Limbaugh, is: “Unlike some other wealthy families, the Kennedys spend little time at polo or yacht clubs.” This is ludicrous: more important to the family’s mystique than any legislation that’s been passed by a Kennedy, certainly more important than any article published in George, is the image of the Kennedys at play in Hyannis Port, playing touch football and sailing.

Hunt wouldn’t include this particular anecdote about President Kennedy, public champion of civil rights, but Peter Collier, in the Aug. 9 National Review, did: “In one famous moment, when his brother was brooding in the Oval Office, Jack told a friend who noticed it, ‘Oh, don’t worry about Bobby: He’s probably all choked up over Martin Luther King and the Negroes today.’”

On the other end of the spectrum, the churlish John Podhoretz wrote a scathing attack on patriarch Joseph Kennedy that ran in the early editions of last Wednesday’s Post, before being yanked by editor Ken Chandler. It was inappropriate, certainly at that date, and was a not particularly clever take on an imaginary Faustian deal Papa Joe Kennedy made with the devil, which resulted in all the family’s future fortune and tragedy. The telling paragraph, however, goes to Podhoretz’s anger at what he perceives as the family’s anti-Semitism. That anger probably motivated the column. He writes, in the voice of Satan: “I can’t tell you how it filled me with pride just to know you back when you were America’s ambassador to England, saying all those nice things about Hitler, doing everything you could to prevent Jewish emigration from Nazi Germany. Thousands of Jews died because of you. That was quite a demonic performance!” Podhoretz takes a swipe at Teddy Kennedy, too:

Kopechne
“That Chappaquiddick business? He called on me to save him from a manslaughter charge. He’ll be keeping you company when his time is up.” But everything about Podhoretz is shaped by the Holocaust, and he used John Kennedy Jr.’s death to mount that soapbox again.

Then there’s President Clinton, the First Emoter. I suppose he could’ve been more unctuous during the past week’s events—he was almost restrained—yet he couldn’t resist lying about being the first president to have John and Caroline Kennedy back to the White House for a visit. As many pointed out seconds after he made that smiling, warm statement, the Kennedy children were feted by Presidents Nixon and Reagan.

When Clinton weighs in on moral and spiritual matters such as the Kennedy/Bessette plane crash (or Littleton, Oklahoma City or Kosovo), it’s not just instantly hollow and horrendously insulting. It’s also tiresomely apparent that this man has forfeited his right to be the country’s healer/griever. He isn’t qualified. This man is an exposed liar, chronically insincere, a congenital phony. Is there anyone who isn’t aware of the lip-biting, method-acting technique? Is there anyone who doubts Clinton’s inner glee at the First Healer star turn an opportunity such as this presents? I wish there was a congressman who had the balls to make a speech in the House of Representatives proposing legislation that prevented impeached, disgraced presidents from expressing sorrow on behalf of the American people.

In Saturday’s Boston Globe, John Ellis went against the grain of his fellow pundits, especially in that region, and wrote about the tv ratings race—not to mention the extra millions made by magazines with commemorative issues, the dirty secret that someone like Hunt would never admit. He was particularly on target with this passage: “Last Saturday morning, Barbara Walters abandoned the Hamptons and came clucking back to ABC headquarters in New York, talking on her cell phone down the Long Island Expressway about her ‘personal friendship’ with John F. Kennedy and what his death meant to the country.’

“There was a time, during President Kennedy’s era, when Barbara Walters was just the host of a morning chat show. No one cared what she thought. No one would have thought to ask. But over the years, through some terrible, Hogarthian transformation, she has somehow become Babwa Wawa, the insufferably overbearing mother hen, smothering us with her claustrophobic self-importance and faux concern.”

Walters
Finally, a friend in a different time zone sent me this message, disputing the notion that “obitutainment” is a latter-20th century phenomenon. He wrote: “People have feared and been fascinated by death forever. Private death, public death. It’s the great theme. It’s universal. Death is cathartic and thrilling. The death of a famous person is morbidly entertaining. In gentler times people would go to public hangings. Now that’s entertainment.

“I don’t think people today are any more ‘addicted’ to this sort of thing than they were in years and centuries past. But how news of a famous person’s death reaches us keeps changing. Booth shot Lincoln and word spread faster than in previous generations because of the telegraph. Newspapers printed special editions. Ford’s Theater became, and still is, a tourist attraction. JFK was assassinated and a lot of people watched tv for three days. The book depository in Dallas is now a strange museum. JFK Jr. goes down in a plane and you inform me by e-mail before I see the morning paper or turn on the television. Some people spent the week looking at old pictures of John-John on CNN. This is obsessive behavior, but then it always has been.”


JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and publisher of New York Press. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

Up

07/28/99: Trailing the Bad Guys
07/23/99: Stop the Whining!
07/21/99: What the World Needs Now? A News Blackout
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07/02/99:Make Room for MUGGER
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04/09/99: John McCain's Moment
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03/17/99: Clinton's a Broken Man: The GOP's Huge Opportunity
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03/11/99: Who is Dorothy Rabinowitz?
03/10/99: It's George W.'s to Lose
02/26/99: Springsteen Ain't No Chopped Liver; Vanity Press Musings
03/05/99: This Must Be the New World: The Mainstream Is Left Behind
02/26/99: Hillary, Juanita & Rudy Kazootie; First Baker, then Rich and Soon Lewis
02/24/99: The New Yorker Takes the Local: Mister Hertzberg Strikes Out; A Search for the Clemens Upside
02/19/99: The Howell Raines Conspiracy
02/17/99: History Lessons: An Immigrant's Advice
02/12/99:The Man Who Owns the World
02/10/99:The Impeachment Trial Splatters: Lindsey Graham Emerges a Hero
02/05/99: A Slight Stumble for Bush
01/29/99: Rich Is Back in the Tank
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12/11/98: Irving's the King Wolf
12/09/98: What do Matt Drudge and Tom Hanks have in common?
11/26/98: Starr's Magnificent Moment
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11/11/98: Send Dowd Down to the Minors
11/05/98: Feeding Gore to a shark named Bush
10/30/98: "Pope" Jann and his rappers speak ---it's time for fun again
10/28/98: Lowered expectations, but the GOP holds the cards
10/23/98: Speaking from Zabar's: Michael Moore!
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10/16/98: Gore for President: The Bread Lines Are Starting to Form

©1999, Russ Smith