"She was seen to yaw hither and thither at every dark spot, however small, on the sea. . . . By her still halting course and winding, woeful way, you plainly saw that this ship that so wept with spray, still remained without comfort. She was Rachel, weeping for her children, because they were not."

No passage of "Moby-Dick" is more moving than the one in which the whaling ship Rachel searches hopelessly the empty sea for the lost whaleboat carrying the captain's son. Few television images are as affecting as the sight of those planes and ships vainly crisscrossing the waters off Martha's Vineyard in heartbreaking search of John F. Kennedy Jr. and the Bessette sisters.

Most of us no more knew John Kennedy Jr. than we knew the fictional son of Captain Gardiner. But we are nonetheless moved. There is nothing inauthentic about feeling pain at a young life cut short, at the sorrow of the bereaved. But the loss the country felt at John Kennedy Jr.'s death was more than that. It was a feeling of national loss, the kind one feels at the death not just of youth but of royalty.

For all of Americans' democratic pretensions, we have a colonial's fascination with royalty, as seen, for example, in the frenzy every time Princess Diana deigned to visit her American subjects, and quite grotesquely, in the near-hysterical grief that greeted her death.

In democratic theory, we defer only to natural aristocracy -- the aristocracy of merit and achievement. In practice, we are lovers of dynasty. Look around. The two leading Republican presidential candidates are (1) the son and namesake of a former president, and (2) the wife of the last presidential candidate. On the Democratic side, the nomination for the Senate seat from New York has been handed by acclamation to yet another presidential consort.

Their opponents are echoing the futile protest that Edward J. McCormack issued when Edward Moore Kennedy ran for his brother John's Senate seat in 1962: "If his name were Edward Moore, with his qualifications . . . his candidacy would be a joke."

To be sure, our fascination with blue blood is not all new, nor all bad. It helped give us John Quincy Adams and Franklin Roosevelt, to note two noble presidents who made good use of their famous names.

John Kennedy Jr. made judicious and reluctant use of his name. And it is precisely the death with him of that name -- and the redemption, nay restoration, that it promised -- that added so strangely and deeply to the sense of national loss at his death.

Why did the nation follow for hours on end those boats searching "every dark spot, however small, on the sea" for signs of his plane? Not just because he, like Diana, radiated celebrity but because he, like no one else, promised succession. His life represented the possibility of redeeming and making right the now mythical Kennedy presidency.

John Jr. was the legitimate heir -- the only remaining heir -- to the legacy of the murdered father (the last surviving brother having forfeited the mantle 30 years ago almost to the day). John Jr.'s is thus for us a double death, representing the loss of the once and future king.

Can there be any doubt that it was only a matter of time before John Kennedy Jr. would have made the transition from a life associated with politics to a life of high office himself? True, he, unlike many of his cousins, had so far rejected electoral politics. But his cousins had no other choice. Not sharing the indelible name and the direct line of descent, Joe and Patrick and Kathleen have to work their way up from state legislatures, lieutenant governorships and obscure House seats.

But not the one true heir. He does not have to apprentice to greatness. He can wait, then claim it. Four years ago, Larry King asked John Kennedy Jr. whether he would one day run for office. "The old definition of politics," he replied, "is that you bring [yourself to] it at the end of your life, when you really have something to sort of offer. And maybe that's a good thing for me."

It was only a matter of time, a time that now will never come. It is that final closing that weighs so heavily. It is as if young Prince Hal were cut down before his time, never to become Henry V -- and we, never to live that chapter.

For a nation so enthralled with dynasty, the death of John Kennedy Jr. is not just a human tragedy but a political one. It marks an irretrievable ending for a nation that worshipped the father and awaited the son.