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Kennedy Family Biographer Laurence Leamer

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  • Sunday, July 18, 1999

    Laurence Leamer, who chronicled the Kennedy women in his 1994 book, "The Kennedy Women: The Saga of an American Family," and is working on a new project about the Kennedy men, was live online to talk about the Kennedy family and its legacy on Sunday, July 18. The transcript follows: Good afternoon, Mr. Leamer, and thank you for joining us. Can you talk a little bit about John F. Kennedy Jr.'s role within the Kennedy family and his part in the fascination that Americans have with this family? Do you think his personal legacy will be able to stand by itself, or will he always be part of that Kennedy mystique?

    Laurence Leamer: The ultimate tragedy of the Kennedy family, to my mind, is that we're always talking about lives of promise. We're always talking about people who died too young, and who could have done more in their lives, and who knows what kind of effect they could have had on America?

    Look at President Kennedy – would have there been such a massive involvement in Vietnam? Robert Kennedy – could he have helped heal the terrible divisions of the 60s? And JFK Jr. – he really had just come together as a person. He understood the mesh of politics and popular culture in a way that most Washington insiders did not. He had the considerable courage to be the editor of a political magazine that many political journalists laughed at. He could have had some "serious quarterly" or something, but that's not what he did.

    I've written about the Kennedys for many years, and spend about seven years researching them. And I thought I knew these people, and yet watching some of these clips of JFK Jr., I think, "Did I really underestimate him?" There's all of this nonsense about him being unintelligent, yet he had some stunning insights into the nature of politics. He saw politics as this wonderous exciting adventure. That's the kind of spirit we need in a democracy.

    I just shake my head with all that might have been.

    Washington, D.C.: Having researched and written about the Kennedy family, how difficult do you think it has been for the Kennedy grandchildren to go off and establish lives and identities of their own? Also, there seems to be a great difference between Caroline and John Jr., who have been largely private people and mostly out of trouble, and the many children of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, whose troubles have made many headlines. What is your sense of the different ways the Kennedy grandchildren were raised?

    Laurence Leamer: In one sense it was terribly difficult to have their own separate identities, because it's almost a curse to be a child of someone that famous. Whenever you do something good, people say it's because he or she is a Kennedy, and when you do something bad, people say there go the Kennedys again. But the fact is that they all have their own separate identities. In a sense Kennedys are late achievers who die too young. It took John many years, really, to find what he wanted to do. To take the parts of his heritage that he found valuable and to reinvigorate them, and then to find separate things that were unique to him.

    They're one great family, and then there are several small families within that have their own strong personalities. We often forget about the Shriver family. Bobby and Ethel's kids are the largest in numbers, and the largest in terms of the negative press they've received. But most of that really is behind them, I would say. John and Caroline were kept somewhat apart, but they're still profoundly members of this family.

    Arlington, Va.: In writing your biographies of the Kennedys, what have you seen of the way the family deals with the tragedies that have befallen them. Is there a particular way they view the Kennedy "curse?"

    Laurence Leamer: It's difficult interviewing them, because they don't look back. They don't look back at what's bad, but they also don't look back at what's good. That's a psychological means to survive. I'm sure with this latest tragedy, they will pull together and, rather dramatically, go forward. This intrepid nature of the family, which is so difficult to understand for some people, is of the essence.

    Bucyrus, Ohio: I have heard on the news that a lady close to John F. Kennedy Jr. when he was a child was surprised that he wanted to learn to fly because he was not the daredevil type when he was young. Were you surprised at all when JFK. Jr. took flying lessons?

    Laurence Leamer: Not really. It seems so much in character for a man who always wanted to do his thing his way. This isn't a man who ran from limousine to limousine. He tried to have, if not an ordinary life, then at least a life that attempted to touch what is life to most of us. It's perfectly in character that he would want to fly his own plane rather than have someone else fly it.

    Inkster, Mich.: Do you think the Kennedy grandfather may have done something in the past that is bringing so many bad incidents to the family tree? It seems like the family is being punished for something.

    Laurence Leamer: To me, the ultimate lesson that I take from the Kennedy story is that we make our own lives. They were brought up to read the newspaper, not as the story of events far from them, but as life that they could affect. Most of the tragedies have occurred because they have really attempted to live their own life. JFK should have been a semi-invalid. But in what is clearly an act of immense courage, he refused to be that. There are those who criticize him because his PT boat was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer. I suggest that those people try criticizing Lyndon Johnson, who flew one combat mission as an observer in the Pacific and insisted on being awarded one of the top Navy medals. Or why don't they criticize Ronald Reagan, whose picture appeared on the cover of movie magazines as "Ronnie Goes to War," when Reagan never left Hollywood.

    Washington D.C.: Does John Kennedy Jr.'s taking off from the airport in less than ideal condition illustrate any points you may be making in your upcoming book on the Kennedy men, that they are risk takers who never learned to keep themselves out of harm's way? Would you call this the "fatal flaw" in their genetic makeup?

    Laurence Leamer: I've done some mountain climbing. And the crucial distinction is between doing a very dangerous thing as safely as possible, or doing something moderately dangerous in an extremely risky way. I don't know if JFK Jr.'s plane flight falls in that latter category, but it certainly is something that will be examined in the next days.

    Arlington, Va.: I've heard other historians and Kennedy biographers say that JFK Jr. and Caroline had a relatively normal childhood compared to their cousins. But it would seem that would not be the case since they were even more in the spotlight as the "heirs to Camelot." Your thoughts?

    Laurence Leamer: By "normal," that doesn't mean that they were hanging out at Motel 6. They were as normal as rich kids could be. But speaking as a non-rich kid, it wasn't my kind of normal.

    Washington, D.C.: I was reading the reports yesterday and they mentioned that this was the 30th anniversary of Chappaquidick (sp)? I wasn't alive then, can you tell us whatever came out of that incident. How can Ted Kennedy still be in elected office?

    Laurence Leamer: He most likely would have been president, if not for Chappaquiddick. Some people think he should have gone to jail. I think, as a Kennedy man, he suffered the worst punishment of all in that he was perceived as betraying the legacy of his brothers. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American life. Fitzgerald was a great writer, but he was wrong on that one. America is a country of second acts. Ted Kennedy came out of that, and became one of the great legislators of the 20th century.

    Chantilly, Va.: What is your opinion of the extensive television coverage of the yesterday's accident?

    Laurence Leamer: As a viewer of television, I hate the way we now have this saturation coverage. Speaking personally, I was supposed to go on MSNBC to talk about the situation in Yugoslavia, something about which I know a great deal. I was in New York City, and I was driven out to the studio. I walked in, and it was when the first news of the shooting in Colorado came down. I thought that I would probably come back the next day and talk about it, but for a week that was the only story.

    Webster City, Iowa: How would you view this current tragedy with the Kennedy family with the others that have faced them in the past such as the assassinations, illnesses and brushes with the law? Thank you.

    Laurence Leamer: Frankly, it just renders me speechless. What do you think has been behind the fascination with John F. Kennedy Jr. throughout his life? Is it simply that his father was president? Robert Kennedy's many children seem to have been able to escape the constant media attention throughout their lives, as have Ted Kennedy's, Pat Smith's and Eunice Shriver's.

    Laurence Leamer: The first thing is that this is an incredibly handsome man. My mother is in love with him, my wife is in love with him, my daughter is in love with him. Obviously I'm not as handsome. That's just the beginning, though. He was comfortable with celebrity the way that very few of his cousins are, I think. The camera loved him. He was extremely articulate; he wasn't just a pretty face. That's why the great tragedy of this is that really his life was in the future. There was so much he could and probably would have done.

    Falls Church, Va.: The Kennedy men seem highly mortal, whereas the Kennedy women prevail. Do you think the male Kennedys take inordinate chances with their lives or is this a freak coincidence?

    Laurence Leamer: There's this sexual dichotomy in the family, where the men are supposed to go out and lead these intrepid lives. And the women are supposed to stay home. That is not true with the young generation. It isn't even true in the latter years of the previous generation. Eunice Kennedy Shriver is the founder of Special Olympics. Her sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, founded Very Special Arts and was the ambassador to Ireland.

    Columbia, S.C.: What is the status of Rosemary Kennedy?

    Laurence Leamer: I've visited St. Coletta's in Wisconsin. She lives in a little house there, on the main grounds, taken care of by several nuns. She often visits her sister Eunice in Washington.

    Huntington, N.Y.: Is there any reason to suspect foul play in this accident?

    Laurence Leamer: In some ways it's almost easier to think that there's foul play or a conspiracy than that life can change so inexplicably in a moment.

    Newark, Del.: Being a death involving a Kennedy, my imagination couldn't help but posit a few cockamamie theories. Was this "accident" staged by JFK Jr. to help a cousin get out of a wedding without the embarrassment? Was this not really an accident because some forces of darkness think JFK Jr. was gaining too much policial power? Did he fake his crash to visit his father who is living on that secret island in the Carribean?

    My question is, do you think THIS will become the newest Kennedy mystery if no conclusive evidence is found?

    Laurence Leamer: I suggest you fly immediately to Hollywood and get a job as a screenwriter. But stay away from journalism. This is not going to be a mystery.

    Woodbury, N.J.: To your knowledge,has there ever been another family so tragedy struck?

    Laurence Leamer: The reality is that I'm sure there are many families. But we don't know about them.

    Hyattsville, Md.: Do you think perhaps one reason John Jr. didn't jump into politics was because he maybe kinda believed in the family curse?

    Laurence Leamer: I think he might well have entered politics sooner or later. He understood that mesh between politics and celebrity, and it wouldn't have been much of a jump for him to run for office.

    Sterling, Va.: Since the day he was born, the press has focused on JFK Jr., but not so much on Caroline. What is she up to? Does she have a good relationship with her brother?

    Laurence Leamer: She has no closer relationship in her life than her brother and her marriage. She chose to live a much more private life, and she's been able to do that. You have to realize that John changed, and John grew increasingly comfortable with media and with celebrity.

    Washington D.C.: The Post's Von Drehle hamfistedly wrote today that the Kennedy saga is Shakespearean. (Post story) What do you think? I think it's Greek. Hubris – colossal arrogance – is both the only way to be great, and also a great way to get yourself killed. What do you think?

    Laurence Leamer: The problem is that it doesn't fit into any of these categories.

    Washington D.C.: F. Scott Fitzgerald also wrote, "Show me a hero and I'll show you a tragedy." This appears to describe the Kennedy family. Thoughts?

    Laurence Leamer: A lot of people have written that Joe Jr. died in World War II because he felt he had to be a hero – he either had to equal his brothers or follow further down the road his father had set him upon. The problem with that analysis is that when Joe Jr. raised his hand to volunteer, there were other young men who raised their hands too. If they had died, we wouldn't be analyzing their motivation. In wars, most soldiers don't fire their weapons. It's the intrepid few who take those chances. And thank God for them. By that, I'm not meaning to equate John F. Kennedy Jr.'s piloting a plane with such heroism in war time; I'm just saying that we shouldn't too easily dismiss the heroic qualities.

    Herndon, Va.: A friend of mine was talking about the John Jr. and Carolyn Bessette not too long ago and she believes that like true royalty, the Kennedy's marriages are pretty much arranged for them. That John, Sr. married Jackie because she would make a "proper" wife and JFK Jr. did the same. Your thoughts.

    Laurence Leamer: JFK Sr.'s marriage wasn't quite arranged, but he knew it was time to marry if he wanted to advance to the highest office in the land. That certainly wasn't true of Caroline or JFK Jr.

    Arlington, Va.: It seems like everyone and their mother is claiming to be a Kennedy relative. Is the family really that large or are people just trying to horn in on America's "royalty."

    Laurence Leamer: I don't think they are royalty. I hate that term. I thought this country was about doing away with royalty. They have chosen not to live like these passive inheritors. That's what I take away from it. They're terribly flawed, I know that. But so am I, and so, I suspect, are you. That was the last question for author and historian Laurence Leamer. Thank you, Mr. Leamer, and thanks to everyone who joined us today. Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz will be with us Monday at 1 p.m. EDT to discuss John F. Kennedy Jr. and George magazine.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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