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  •   In Tragedy’s Wake, a Public Outpouring

    Boy salute
    An unidentified child mimics the statue of three-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. placed between the flowers outside the home of Kennedy and his wife Carolyn in New York. (AP)
    By Frank Ahrens and Richard Leiby
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Tuesday, July 20, 1999; Page C1

    A wall-to-wall weekend of media elegies tracking the apparent death of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and sister-in-law Lauren Bessette prepared a nation for the same sudden cascade of public grief that followed the death of Princess Diana nearly two years ago.

    But that broad and spontaneous outpouring has yet to be matched. Indeed, a sizable clot of everyday folks – or at least those who call talk radio shows and post messages on the Internet – have laid blame for the crash on a “reckless” JFK Jr. Though many took to the Web to post fond remembrances of a little boy’s salute to his father’s casket, there were also a substantial number of unsentimental finger-pointers.

    “I’m saddened for the family,” said a caller to radio station KSL in Salt Lake City. “But I don’t understand all the concern for the Kennedys. I personally feel like the Kennedys bring trouble on themselves with the things they do, the flamboyant lifestyles they lead. It’s like they are beyond consequences.”

    When Diana died, the online world almost immediately began railing against the callous paparazzi – the presumed villains. But in some chat rooms yesterday, it was JFK Jr. who was portrayed as the villain.

    “He was an arrogant brat and killed people,” typed America Online user Craig Henne of Eliot, Maine. “Maybe he thought because he was a Kennedy the sun would wait to set.”

    Like others with aviation experience, Henne, a former Air Force mechanic, faulted the novice pilot for flying at night over open ocean – risking spatial disorientation.

    “He was reckless,” Henne, 51, a chat room regular, said in a phone interview. “I read he had a cast on his leg, too – it’s crazy. If you want to risk your own life, that’s one thing, but you don’t take two people with you.”

    Elsewhere on America Online, the nation’s most widely used Internet service provider, tens of thousands offered prayers, poems and condolences to the Kennedy and Bessette families on special message boards.

    “It’s second only to Diana – the message board activity,” spokeswoman Regina Lewis said. After a slow start, the postings-per-minute rate was building late yesterday afternoon: “I’m looking at over 10,000 postings in ‘Prayers for the Kennedy Family’ alone,” she said.

    “What we’re seeing is a natural evolution. You’ve talked to family and friends, watched a lot of news, then digested it – and now you want to say something. That’s when this medium kicks in.”

    Largely absent on the Internet, however, are the many homemade grief sites of the kind that Diana’s death inspired. Postings remembering JFK Jr., Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and Lauren Bessette were found in expected locations – on the Web site of George, the magazine founded by JFK Jr., and on the online version of the Boston Globe, in the Kennedys’ home state of Massachusetts. But even there, among the lamentations, were accusations that Kennedy had acted foolishly by piloting his Piper Saratoga into darkening skies.

    It was much the same on talk radio stations across the country, where the crash seemed to be the sole topic all day. On some shows, the callers blamed Kennedy on their own; on other shows, the hosts fanned the flames – standard operating procedure for many talk personalities, regardless of the topic.

    The Kennedys are “rich people who engage in reckless behavior and end up dying and having tragedy befall them,” said KTRS host Paul Harris in St. Louis, who broadcast in Washington for several years.

    “It was probably a very bad decision for JFK to choose to fly,” said host Al Rantel on KABC in Los Angeles. “I have seen those foggy, hazy nights along the water, and I can tell you it’s scary weather.”

    Even way up north in Fargo, N.D., in between callers who excitedly reported that a Goodyear blimp was buzzing the town, listeners of KFGO expertly second-guessed Kennedy.

    “To take that [airplane] out over the ocean where there is no visual reference at night, you don’t have a chance,” opined one caller, who said he was a private pilot. “I’m sure that he was just overextending himself.”

    In England, where the press grandly eulogized the death of one of their royals two years ago, yesterday’s papers gave no similar kindness to America’s analogue.

    “Insanity,” read a headline on the Mirror. The Daily Mail postulated that Kennedy “had a death wish.”

    But the British press had no corner on the screwball speculation market – that belonged to the Internet. Given the conspiracy-mongering that still surrounds the assassination of President Kennedy, it was inevitable that the fever sink of the Internet would instantly produce dark theories about the disappearance of JFK Jr.’s plane. Some wondered whether the accident was related to the nearby explosion of Flight TWA 800 three years ago.

    “What are the odds, I ask you!” e-mailed a conspiracy fan named Ralph. “I wish it were NOT so easy to look at things conspiratorially . . . but here we go again.”

    “It is ironic it’s on the anniversary of TWA 800 practically,” another man wrote. “Do we have more military maneuvers going on?”

    “Get a grip,” retorted a participant in the alt.conspiracy.jfk forum. “Conspiracy doesn’t even enter my mind . . . that’s foolishness.”

    While some Internet travelers were trafficking in conspiracy, hundreds of others were already pursuing commerce.

    All sorts of Kennedy merchandise was being hawked yesterday on eBay, the online auction site, from an inaugural copy of George magazine ($20.50) to the Internet domain www.kennedyconspiracy .com ($10,000). The newly created Web site www.jfk-jr.com, advertised as “the one and only real deal,” was being offered for a starting bid of $200,000. And www.kennedyaccident.com was a relative bargain at $2,000.

    Locally, Steven Brill – editor of the media magazine Brill’s Content – appeared on WMAL’s afternoon talk show “Stevens and Core,” and attempted to explain why JFK Jr.’s memory was being handled more roughly than Diana’s.

    “I don’t think it’s ultimately fair to him” to compare him to Diana, he said. “After all, he wasn’t someone who married a prince.”

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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