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  • The Kennedy Family is America's Drama

    John Jennedy Jr.'s family
    Joseph Kennedy II, left, and Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo, center, wait for word at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. (Reuters)
    By David Von Drehle
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, July 18, 1999; Page A1

    If America had a Shakespeare, he would write the Kennedy story. He would understand immediately that here is all the stuff of human life, out-sized and compelling. Ambition, wealth, compassion, power, sex, love. And death.

    He would see that this family's saga is the story of the whole American Century, distilled to archetypes. The striving immigrant. The ruthless financier. The noble idealism. The public's infatuation with youth and glamour, including the glamour of youthful death. The cult of celebrity.

    He would tell the story of Joseph P. Kennedy, that astonishing figure of pure will, who made himself rich and made his family great; the man who created the most memorable American family of the age an age that goes on and on and on simply by wanting to badly enough.

    He would tell the story of the patriarch's first son, groomed for greatness, who died young and at war, and of the second son, who took his older brother's place on the path to power, and of the third son, who died trying to reclaim the throne. There would be stories of bloodshed and human failing, and speeches of breathtaking eloquence, and beautiful young people who are happy one moment and ruined the next, and women beset with unfathomable sorrow, because that, too, is an ancient touchstone of the human heart.

    And now he would begin to write another tragedy, of a young man, rich, handsome and shadowed by his father's death; a young man who seems to have inherited the glory of this family without its curse; a young man, frivolous in his school years but coming gradually and with grace into his own; a young man who, it turns out, was not fated to redeem the family's sadness but to perpetuate it.

    We have no Shakespeare. We have the Kennedys through the lens of fact, not art, no matter how shocking, heartbreaking or Gothic those facts may be.

    See them as they were yesterday. The extended clan is gathered again at Hyannis Port. They've come together for a wedding. The senator is there, Edward Moore Kennedy, the youngest and last of Joseph's sons, the only one destined to live a full life. The bride is his niece, Rory, who was still in the womb when her father, Robert F. Kennedy, was murdered as he campaigned for the White House. Last year, Rory cradled her brother Michael in her arms as he died on a ski slope in Aspen, Colo.

    But the Kennedy story is, like all human life, a path slatted with gloom and sunlight. This was to be one of the sunny days, 275 guests at a wedding, laughter and music on an emerald lawn beside the sea. Then the path took a sudden fall into darkness, and instead of a wedding, they gathered on the steps of RFK's family cottage to pray for a miracle.

    A plane with John F. Kennedy Jr. at the controls, his wife, Carolyn, and sister-in-law Lauren as passengers, had vanished from radar screens in the night. This was a fact, but again, the facts of this family epic are almost too dramatic to be believed. It was an airplane crash in 1944 that first brought tragedy into the lives of the Kennedys.

    Brash Joe Kennedy, son of an Irish immigrant, had married Rose Fitzgerald, a daughter of the Boston Irish aristocracy, in 1914. He was lusty and smart and unscrupulous, possessed of a fierce determination to make himself bigger than the Boston Brahmins who had snubbed him and his people. Step one was to get rich, and he amassed a fortune that would today be worth billions. Step two was to have his status affirmed, which happened when he was made ambassador to the Court of St. James's in 1937.

    Step three was to make a dynasty. He poured his passion and energy into Joe Jr., who was smart and handsome and gifted at politics. The chosen heir was flying a secret bombing mission when his plane exploded in midair.

    Four years later, Kathleen Kennedy the second daughter, the fourth of nine children of Joe and Rose broke her mother's heart by agreeing to marry a British nobleman, a Protestant who would first require a divorce. But before the marriage could take place, she, too, died in a plane crash.

    Another sister, Rosemary, mildly retarded, was subjected by her father to an experimental lobotomy in her early twenties, left permanently incapacitated, then sent to live out the century at a nursing home in Wisconsin.

    This was the family history the Kennedy clan carried to the White House.

    These are facts, however incredible, however moving, however much they seem to come from an overwrought imagination. Joseph P. Kennedy saw his second son elected president his great dream was fulfilled . . . and almost instantly he was paralyzed by a stroke, struck mute at the height of his glory. Robert F. Kennedy, the hard one, the tough one, found his soul on his own road toward the presidency, then was snuffed out, leaving a huge brood of children to grow up rudderless. Many of them have made it daughter Kathleen might become the next governor of Maryland but there were also crises and accidents and the death of Michael as well as of David Kennedy, a heroin overdose.

    Edward Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and a young woman in the passenger seat was drowned. Jean Kennedy, one of the sisters, endured the humiliation of her son William Smith's much-publicized trial on rape charges.

    Kennedys wed celebrities and founded charities; they debauched themselves and behaved recklessly. They have never, not even for a moment, receded from our consciousness.

    We have the Kennedys through the lens of fact, not art, no matter how shocking, heartbreaking or Gothic those facts may be.

    At the very center of it all, of the entire Kennedy legend, the whole myth, will always be a handsome, witty and glorious president and his young, captivatingly beautiful wife. Jacqueline, a friend once said, was "as American as caviar"; and indeed, that was the quality that made them so appealing, Jack and Jackie Kennedy. It was a sense they embodied, a hope they transmitted, of a richer, happier, more expansive and vigorous future.

    That sense nearly died in Dallas. The memory of it passed from brother to brother until it settled on the shoulders of John F. Kennedy Jr.

    It was his destiny. Here, in the words of William Manchester, that master craftsman of facts, is the moment the boy's fate was sealed. It was his third birthday, Nov. 25, 1963, and a casket was going slowly by. The whole world watched him salute his father.

    "The small right hand rose stiffly. Behind him Robert Kennedy's face crinkled in pain, and Bishop Hannan, glancing across the street, saw the spectators there crumple as though struck. Of all Monday's images, nothing approached the force of John's salute. Mrs. Kennedy, standing erect, missed it, and when she was shown the photographs afterward she was astounded. She had expected an unimpressive gesture; in the past his saluting had been both comic and, in her words, 'sort of droopy.'

    "But not now. Somehow the mood and meaning of the day had reached the president's son. His elbow was cocked at precisely the right angle, his hand was touching his shock of hair, his left arm was rigidly at his side, his shoulders were squared and his chin in. His bearing was militant, and to see it in a three-year-old, with his bare legs stiff below his short coat, his knees dimpled and his blunt red shoes side by side to hear the slow swell of the music, and recall how the president had idolized him was almost insupportable. Cardinal Cushing looked down on the small face. He saw the shadow of sadness crossing it and felt a burning sensation in his chest. Eight months later he could scarcely speak of it. 'Oh, God,' he whispered hoarsely. 'I almost died.' "

    What did he intend to do with that destiny?

    At 38, the sense was that John F. Kennedy Jr. was still ripening and finding his way. He could give a fine speech. He was at ease at the center of attention. There was a brightness to his eyes.

    And so another chapter ends, as so many Kennedy stories seem to end, with a haunting, haunted: What if?

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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