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  •   JFK Jr. Deserves No Blame

    By Richard Cohen

    Tuesday, July 20, 1999; Page A19

    Now, before we bury the victim, we must blame him.

    This is what is happening with John F. Kennedy Jr. We are being told by those who do not know and those who cannot know and those who cannot know yet, that Kennedy was reckless, irresponsible -- an inveterate risk-taker who flew out into the moonless night, inexperienced and not yet ready to fly over the water. His death -- and those of his wife and her sister -- are his own fault.

    This is the latest Kennedy conspiracy theory at work. This is our latest attempt to make sense out of the senseless. We could not comprehend how a loser like Lee Harvey Oswald could take our golden president from us, and so we concocted explanations to account for the unaccountable. It was the Mafia. It was the Cubans. It was the CIA. In the end, if this thing can ever be said to end, it was one man with one rifle, uncannily accurate on that one day.

    It was the same with Robert F. Kennedy. Here, too, some sense had to be made out of what happened. Sirhan Sirhan shot him, and that is all there was to it. But we had to do better. Once again, the Mob was summoned as explanation, the Cubans again -- the Soviets, the Arabs. Please, help us work this out.

    So we talk now of a Kennedy Curse. There is no such thing. There is, though, a large family that we know all too well, a family with 87 surviving members. It is an active family, an achieving family, and so its members have taken some chances. But to die in war, as Joe Kennedy did, was hardly unique in the 1940s, and to crash-land in private planes, as Ted Kennedy did, is too often the fate of politicians looking to shake one more hand.

    Every man who has a father has a problem. This is the truth, and most men know it. How do you measure up? Can you please him and yourself at the same time?

    John F. Kennedy Jr. had a problem few of us can even imagine. His father was a myth -- that and a salacious whisper. You can look at the sons of really famous men and, often, you see wrecks. They can never come out of their father's shadow. They are pale and wan from being unable to find their own sun. Either that, or they rebel: This is me, not him. Often, they make fools of themselves.

    Who knows how John Kennedy Jr. managed his problem? We do know that he seemed to be who he was -- no one else. We do know that he could have stayed a lawyer, ferried from one boring meeting to another by limo as he made oodles of money. He chose otherwise. He chose to ride a bike in Manhattan. He chose to use the subways. (God knows what some might have said had some nut attacked him on the subway. He would have been called reckless.) He chose to create a magazine. If it failed, it would do so very publicly. It would be his failure, not some corporation's. He named the magazine George, but it could be nothing other than Kennedy.

    On television the other day, Doris Kearns Goodwin quoted Rose Kennedy, the late matriarch, as saying that her dead children -- John, Bobby, Joe, Kathleen -- had lived the lives they had chosen and, she was sure, would do it all over again if they could. Who's to know? John Kennedy never saw his kids grow up. Neither did Bobby. He died with one, Rory, still in Ethel Kennedy's womb. A mother seeks solace in such thinking. It does not work for me, though. Some risks really are unacceptable. In this case, the Bessettes have lost two children. You cannot tell them that you win some and you lose some. You cannot tell them anything.

    But neither can we tell ourselves we know how this tragedy occurred. We do not know if Kennedy was reckless or merely inexperienced. We do not know if he failed his wife and sister-in-law or the plane failed them all. We do not know if he tempted fate or if fate, unaccountably, needed no tempting at all.

    Stop blaming John. It is enough that tragedy once again punished the Kennedys. It needs no help from the rest of us.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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