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  • Missing the Camelot Connection

    Thomas Clayton, 15, (l) and Willie Arrington, 18, from Alexandria share what JFK Jr. meant to them. (Susan Biddle The Washington Post)
    By Emily Wax
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, July 22, 1999; Page C1

    As she lounges in a smoke-filled Dupont Circle coffeehouse, Laura Bull, 20, is surprised by media reports that Americans feel personally affected by the death of John F. Kennedy Jr.

    "Personally affected?" she asks as she sips an iced coffee. "Maybe for Americans who are not my age. But I mean, I'm too young for that. I never thought of him until George magazine."

    For a diverse crowd under 25, Kennedy's death isn't tangled in symbols of his father's assassination, and it doesn't bring back all the hopes of a better America that evaporated after Nov. 22, 1963. Nor is it emotionally hinged on sentimental images of a 3-year-old boy stoically saluting his father's casket.

    Born into a different world with different touchstones, their memories of John F. Kennedy Jr. are simply of a wavy-haired celebrity who flunked the bar exam twice, was romantically linked with a succession of famous women (most notably Madonna) and was anointed People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive."

    "It's tragic and I'm very sorry to hear it, but it's not a visceral connection," says Richard Thau, 34, executive director of Third Millennium, a Gen-X advocacy group. "We are just not caught up in this '60s nostalgia. Who are all those media camped out in Hyannis Port? They are all boomers. This is all about the baby boomers who want more time to reconnect with their youth. This is not about us."

    Inside her Georgetown apartment, Martha Lynn, 21, says she and her housemates were wondering why the media were calling the death "an American tragedy."

    "We couldn't understand it," Lynn says as she waits for a bus to her internship at Common Cause, a lobbying group. "We thought that probably comes from the fact that newspeople are old." And also possibly because her generation is too young to have heard of Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel.

    The world in which the fifty-somethings of today came of age was marked by a confidence linked to the Kennedy mystique the vision of an American royal family. That was before the system broke down, before race riots, Woodstock and Vietnam, says Neil Howe, co-author of "Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069."

    His book defines Generation X (or the "Thirteenth Generation") as those born between 1961 and 1981. The next cohort is the "Millennial Generation," born after 1982.

    "The people who are most enamored with Camelot is that older 'silent generation,' born 1925 to 1942, and some boomers," says Howe, who is 47. "These were the same people who were most moved by Jackie's death. If there is anyone who sees the Kennedy family as American royalty, it's the generation that remembers John-John as a little kid. It's not young people today."

    Today's young people typically don't give their hearts over to political or institutional heroes and sacred families, especially to the Kennedy clan.

    "X'ers have grown a bit weary of discussion of the Kennedy family," Howe says. "They are fatigued. These long family stories this cousin this and this in-law that and these long family trees. Who cares? If I was Generation X, I would roll my eyes."

    It is also a group less shocked by death, Howe says. Raised on tabloid bombshells, this generation tends to see less of a Kennedy curse and more a pattern of late-20th-century pandemonium, from O.J. to Princess Diana to Littleton.

    "I think my generation just keeps seeing things that are really screwed up," says James Van Sise, 23, a tattoo artist in Georgetown. "I think Kennedy's death is just another weird circumstance that just seems to happen in this day and age."

    Smoking a cigarette on a bench in Dupont Circle, Van Sise says he usually finds tragedy upsetting. But he wasn't emotionally moved by Kennedy's plane falling from the sky.

    That reaction is why many boomers see Generation X as the "whatever" generation.

    "They are cynical, aloof," says Howe. " 'We've seen that before. Been there. Done that.' It's a combination of finding everything entertainment and at the same time being blase about it."

    There is a difference between the outpouring of grief under-25s felt over the death of Princess Diana and the feelings or lack thereof about JFK Jr., Richard Thau says. Diana was perceived as having problems they identified with eating disorders, depression and being an outsider among her in-laws. She also was thought of as having done something positive with her celebrity. Kennedy, on the other hand, lived the archetypal Gen-X lifestyle (despite being born in 1960): apartment in lower Manhattan, riding the subway to work and Rollerblading (clumsily) on the streets. But he was also thought of as part of an older, privileged era, an Establishment scion who channeled his energies into a glossy magazine rather than charity work.

    "I think young people felt more connected to Princess Diana," Thau says. "People knew what she was up to."

    To many young people, the idea that Kennedy was the son of a family that represented high hopes for leadership in America "means nothing to them," Howe says. "They never shared that. It's ancient history."

    Younger generations including the under-20 "Millennial" crowd are also more savvy to the ways of media manipulation. Some refuse to be sucked into caring about someone just because his story is on television, transmuted into instant, MTV-like videos of his life.

    "His death is sad, but I never saw him in our neighborhood," says Alwssa Carter, 16, of Oxon Hill. "I didn't really know him. I knew who his father was. But," she said, speaking of JFK Jr., "he didn't do anything."

    Over a table laden with pizza and fries at the Pentagon City mall's food court, Carter and her friends say that they see Kennedy as a rich white icon whose life held little meaning for them, and suspect that other minorities feel the same way.

    They know from books and television that his father cared about civil rights. But they associate the younger Kennedy with a world of Hollywood socialites, fancy apartments, nights out with Daryl Hannah.

    Their parents, however, attach him to his father, a man who appeared to care about communities of color. Some told their children they hoped JFK Jr. would run for office and continue his father's work.

    "Soon as my grandmother turned on the TV, she knew and was very upset," says Lawrence Taylor, 15, of Northwest Washington, also hanging out at Fashion Centre. "Someone dies and of course I feel bad. But I didn't really know who he was."

    Others relate to him because he was a celebrity. Instead of remembering the pictures of him playing under his father's desk at the White House, the younger crowd grew up knowing him from headlines like "The Hunk Flunks" in the New York Post after one of his ill-fated bar exams.

    "I always thought, 'Why wasn't he [an actor] like Robert De Niro?' " says Mary Tesfamariam, 21, who was at the mall shopping for shoes and hopes to become a model. "It's sad, because they were both so beautiful, so glamorous," she added, referring to Kennedy's wife, Carolyn.

    Even for 22-year-olds Emily Lam and roommate Aileen Huang (who graduated from Brown University, Kennedy's alma mater), there was sadness at the loss of human life, but not a sense of cataclysmic tragedy.

    "He was just like another star," says Lam. "In my mind, he's connected to these stories from school where he used to prance around the dorms in a towel."

    At the coffeehouse in Dupont Circle, Bull says the irony is that Kennedy wouldn't want to be remembered as his father's son.

    "He tried to be his own person," she says, surrounded by newspapers juxtaposing headlines of his death with pictures of his father. "To older people he will always be a little boy by his father's casket. To the younger people he's just a good-looking guy."

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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