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  •   JFK Jr.: The Magnetic Son

    By E. J. Dionne Jr.

    Tuesday, July 20, 1999; Page A19

    SNOWSHOE, W. Va.—The bustle of a crafts fair here went uninterrupted. But at the end of a long row of booths selling maple syrup, handmade dolls and homemade candies and salsas, a little knot of people gathered around a television set.

    The words at the bottom of the screen referred to the possible death of JFK. There was no Jr. on the tagline, and I wondered: Why air a retrospective now on the death of a president nearly 36 years ago?

    A friendly lady explained matters before the television did. John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane, she said, was lost near Martha's Vineyard. My stomach tightened with the rest of America's. I didn't want to believe another Kennedy was dead.

    Our national mourning has been explained almost entirely in royal terms. How many times in the past few days was JFK Jr. described as the prince, the son of a slain leader, now also gone at a young age?

    Perhaps that's a tribute to the success of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in invoking the myth of Camelot to shape our collective memory of her husband's too brief tenure. How many of us can still sing the song and shed a tear when we do?

    But JFK Jr. was not royalty. He was not even an elected leader. He had, to the age of 38, studiously avoided the political path pursued by so many of his relatives. He got close to politics with his magazine George, but its approach was curiously apolitical. As Kennedy himself said, it was as much about the culture and personalities of politics as about politics itself.

    But if the magazine was edgy and glitzy, its founder resolutely rejected cynicism and at times sought to recapture the idealism associated with his father.

    Yet as JFK Jr. surely knew, his father was a paradox. He was a hard-edged political realist with a strong sense of irony who nonetheless drew idealism out of millions of his countrymen. His memory, as the son suggested in his 1988 Democratic National Convention speech, kept thousands of former Peace Corps volunteers, civil rights lawyers and poverty workers idealistic for the whole of their lives.

    That, not royalism or mere celebrity, is what kept us glued to our television screens, hoping that this time, a miracle would break the cycle of sadness. Americans have always instinctively understood the paradoxes of the Kennedy legacy, whether they were drawn to it or spurned it. They know there are many Kennedy legacies, some in tension with each other.

    For Catholics, JFK won their clan legitimacy in a predominantly Protestant country where Catholics were never supposed to lead.

    For millions of African Americans, Kennedy was the president whom Martin Luther King Jr. pushed to embrace the cause of civil rights. That Kennedy was a reluctant traveler down the path King blazed, that victories were won under LBJ, take away nothing from Kennedy's eloquent advocacy of equality. Thousands of African Americans who have JFK's picture on their walls know this. Old segregationists who never forgave the Kennedy family know this, too.

    There are other JFKs: the symbol of a time of trust in public life before the rancor of Vietnam, Culture Wars and Watergate; the Cold Warrior who waged the long twilight struggle unapologetically at a moment when we really believed we'd pay any price, bear any burden; and the resolute pragmatist who thought ideology useless. And there is Robert Kennedy's legacy, a passion for the very poorest and for the struggles of working people of all races.

    It's unfair we'd place these burdens on the shoulders of a young man who seemed simply to enjoy living and who acted as unpretentiously as someone of his standing and wealth could.

    That he bore his burden with dignified cheerfulness in public, that he refused honors that could have been his because he didn't believe he yet deserved them -- these can be read as signs that he was working toward embracing a public destiny, or that he was perfectly content to reject the plans others made for him.

    One senses that if any aspect of the father's worldview was carried down by the son, it is that sense of pragmatic irony, of life as both comedy and adventure, simultaneously fragile and exhilarating. A whole nation mourns because the magnetic son who was working out his fate on nobody's timetable but his own has lost the opportunity to prove to any who doubted that he was more than a prince, more than the inheritor of a legacy, more than a little boy who saluted a casket and moved a nation to tears.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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