After the Crash


John F. Kennedy Jr. died the same week I saw Cats, and it's hard to say which is more of a puzzle: the popular success of the play or the popular fascination with the man.

It is sad, of course, when someone dies suddenly and prematurely. But most people whose lives are abruptly cut short do not get comprehensive TV coverage, front-page stories in The New York Times for seven days in a row, and an endless series of op-ed eulogies.

Kennedy's main accomplishment was founding George magazine, an odd combination of GQ, People, and The New Republic that was neither serious enough to interest people who follow politics nor fun enough to be a commercial success. It was the perfect project for a vaguely political celebrity, famous for being famous, distinguished from other handsome rich guys only by an accident of birth.

To be sure, Kennedy cannot be blamed for the media's obsession with him while he was alive, much less the absurdly excessive coverage that followed his death. He was, by all accounts, a nice fellow with charitable impulses and a good sense of humor.

But this is not exactly the stuff of which legends are made. The details of Kennedy's life cannot be reconciled with the hagiography we have witnessed during the last two weeks.

"He was America's prince," Time declared in letters an inch high, "an icon of both magic and grief who flew his own course to the lost horizon." That makes everything perfectly clear, except that America has no royal family, icons don't fly, and Time seems to be confusing Shangri-La with Camelot.

Writing in The New York Times, Douglas Brinkley, a contributing editor at George, called Kennedy "my generation's photogenic redeemer." Brinkley claimed that JFK Jr.'s death struck "a crippling blow for my generation."

Now, Brinkley happens to be talking about my generation. If I were to follow his example and extrapolate from my own personal reaction to the experience of millions, I would say that my generation was not as upset as Brinkley seems to think..

It was more shocked and saddened, for example, following the 1998 death of comic actor Phil Hartman, a talented man who worked hard to become famous. My generation was a big fan of Phil Hartman.

Judging from the reports of people who knew him, Kennedy's main virtues were the things he was not. He was not arrogant. He was not stuffy. He was not snobby.

"The ease with which John interacted with witnesses, police officers, court staff and colleagues was striking," Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, in whose office Kennedy worked for four years, wrote in the Times. Morgenthau emphasized that Kennedy was at ease even though "others were often awe-struck in his presence."

Treating people decently is not usually the sort of thing that is considered worth remarking on. The subtext here, as in so many of the post-crash commentaries, is that aristocrats go above and beyond the call of courtesy when they deign to treat commoners as their equals.

In Newsweek, Jonathan Alter described Kennedy as "a man with an astonishing psychological balance for someone in his position." What position was that, exactly? Alter explains: "He wore his royalty lightly."

Though the Constitution forbids Congress to grant titles of nobility, let alone anoint a prince, JFK Jr.'s royal status did get a kind of official recognition. Not only did he receive a Navy burial at sea–an extraordinary honor for a private citizen with no military background–but far more public resources were devoted to recovering his plane and body than would have been expended on someone with a different name.

President Clinton explained that he authorized the extra efforts because the Kennedys are special. New York Times columnist John Tierney suggested that perhaps the major news organizations, the main beneficiaries of all the Kennedy hoopla, should reimburse taxpayers for the expense.

Trying to explain "what JFK Jr. meant to America" in The New Republic, movie critic Neal Gabler said he was like a character in a soap opera. No, on second thought, he was more like a Greek hero. I guess if I really want to understand, I'll have to dig out my copy of the Iliad.