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  •   Mass Sentimentality

    By Michael Kelly
    Wednesday, July 21, 1999; Page A21

    The deaths of John Kennedy Jr., his wife, Carolyn, and her sister Lauren Bessette are sad enough. Three attractive and accomplished and relatively young people, with promising lives ahead of them, die in terror and violence; their families are shattered in grief. Why is sad enough not enough? Why do we lard up the sorrow with this great and gross festival of national media blah-blah about Camelot and royalty and The Kennedy Curse and Jack and Jackie and all the rest of it?

    In recent weeks, as in all weeks, The Post has carried many stories about death. Two struck me particularly.

    One was a feature about a woman named Carol Ross Joynt, whose husband contracted pneumonia. When it became apparent that he would die soon, Joynt told the couple's 5-year-old son that his father would not be coming home from the hospital. She took the boy to say goodbye, and she listened, outside the screen, as the son sang to his dying father: "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine . . ."

    The other story was about the killing of Joshua Tyler Deen, 5, smashed by a car gone out of control as he was walking with his mother into a grocery store, where they had stopped to buy a cold drink for the boy. As a store employee labored vainly to resuscitate her only child, Helen Deen screamed, "My son, my son, my son."

    Are either of those deaths (pages C1 and B1, respectively) less tragic, less crushing, than the deaths of the three in the Piper that appear day after day on A1? No, an editor might say, but the C1 and B1 deaths are quotidian tragedies, part of the endless stream of deaths that flows around us every day, and that does not really affect us unless death strikes one of our own. But some deaths, the editor might add, are in a real sense more tragic than others; they affect the nation or the people as a whole, and they deserve exceptional attention, exceptional grief.

    Of course, this is true. The assassination of Lincoln was immensely more sad than any other death in America on April 15, 1865, because Lincoln had done great good and might have been expected to do further good. A death such as Lincoln's is properly treated as a death in the national family, and an occasion of national mourning. We have had other such deaths, a notable one being the assassination of John F. Kennedy's father.

    Important differences exist between the death of President Lincoln and the death of President Kennedy. In the latter's case, greatness was to some degree assumed, largely on the basis of Kennedy's huge personal attraction (his beauty, wit, grace), but its promise was still mostly unfulfilled (and its flaws still hidden) at his death. Still, many millions saw in Kennedy a wonderful hope for a better country and world, and his death caused a deep national sense of loss.

    But is that what have we here, in the death of Kennedy's namesake? Not quite. We have -- in the case of the nation, not the Kennedy family -- something else entirely, the death of a symbol. The media effusion is not about what Kennedy did with his life, or indeed in any real sense who he was. It is about the death of someone whom the celebrity-media culture deems to stand for mass sentiments. That is a type of death that has become familiar, its most striking recent occurrence before Kennedy occurring in the demise of Princess Diana.

    This gets fairly odd. Diana was a symbol of the horror of being a symbol. John Kennedy Jr. was not just a symbol but a symbol of a symbol; in fact, a symbol of a symbol of a symbol. There never was a Camelot; that in itself was a symbol, a conscious (post-mortem) confection that was intended to evoke the sentiments of a musical based on a myth based on symbol.

    This also gets fairly cynical. It is doubtful that very many people actually feel the death of John Kennedy in the manner that his uncle, Edward Kennedy, described: "unspeakable grief." Indeed, the absence of true grief is what makes it possible to wallow in vicarious grief. The media understand and exploit this. People are product. The more symbolic the person, the greater value of the product. (This is why Hillary Clinton on the cover guarantees newsstand sales; she is almost pure symbol.) Everything that happens to symbolic people is product. Especially death; nothing sells like symbolic death.

    Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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