Death is for the old. When it strikes the young, the pain and grief are multiplied. All of us, in our private lives, have wept with parents who have lost children, spouses who have lost partners. It never seems right.
Over the years, I can recall writing about many public officials who died much too soon: Rep. Paul Henry, the fine, conscientious Republican from Grand Rapids, Mich., or Rep. Mike Synar, the blithe Democrat and reformer from Muskogee, Okla. Much earlier, there was Ira Kapenstein, a former journalist who helped the late Larry O'Brien convert the Postal Service from a patronage sinkhole into a modern business. The newsroom of The Washington Post still grieves for colleagues such as Ann Devroy and Bill Peterson, also struck down by cancer long before their time.
The mourning for them was deeply felt, but confined to families and friends. What we have witnessed this past week is quite different. The pain and loss that the Kennedy and Bessette families and those in their circles have suffered is all too real. But the treatment of these deaths strikes me as excessive and, in some cases, exploitive.
The Boston Globe last Tuesday carried two short letters to the editor. Kevin Gracey of Quincy said: "This tragedy is so very simple and doesn't involve Camelot or curses or generational icons or Tribeca or George magazine. Those are just convenient hooks to hang a sound bite or a special supplement. The loss is more elemental. By all accounts and appearances, John Kennedy Jr. seemed to be a very decent man and a nice guy -- the kind of person, whether we knew him personally or not, we were glad was on the planet, the kind of person we're desperately sorry to see taken away, at whatever age, let alone so abruptly."
Anthony Pillari of Somerville wrote: "The death of John F. Kennedy Jr., is indeed a tragedy, but it is no sadder than the death of any other citizen. And, frankly, I am confused by all the myth-making that has accompanied his death. Unlike his father, John-John was not an idol to his generation. Let's not make him one simply because he suffered an untimely demise."
Directly opposite these sensible comments was a full page of columns, arranged around a collage of family photos, including the 3-year-old Kennedy saluting his father's coffin. The headlines convey the tone: "A Nation Weeps." "The Beliefs That Survive a Death in the Family." "More Than Dreams Came Crashing Down."
The Globe was not alone. The Sunday San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle devoted its entire main news section to stories on the crash. The weekly newsmagazines scrapped their previous plans and slapped on Kennedy covers. Life magazine ordered up a special issue. "Instant books" went to press. The broadcast and cable networks interviewed seemingly everyone who had ever met any of the victims.
The media reaction demonstrated the power of the celebrity industry, which has become frighteningly proficient at turning people into marketable commodities, whose faces and stories are guaranteed to boost ratings and hype sales. The industry depends on people who are, in the classic phrase, "famous for being famous." The man who died last week was at the center of that industry -- a subject of countless photographs and interviews, and publisher of a magazine that searched out and exploited other such stars.
All of which might be categorized as utterly harmless -- were it not for signs that the distinction between fame and worth is being blurred and nostalgia is clouding our sense of history. On PBS's "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," the most serious public affairs program on television, panelists set out to put the accident in context. Frank Mankiewicz, a Washington public relations executive who had been Robert F. Kennedy's press secretary, said, "The reason people are so upset now is because we're beginning to realize . . . what we've realized subliminally for 35 years -- that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was perhaps the central event of the 20th century in American history."
None of the five prize-winning historians, essayists and journalists, nor Lehrer himself, who is usually quick to ask for evidence, said: "Oh, really?"
Two World Wars, the Great Depression, the New Deal, the civil rights movement, the development of the atomic bomb and the computer and the Internet, the conquest of outer space -- all overshadowed by the murder in Dallas?
The panelists' reaction -- or lack of reaction -- can be ascribed to the sentiment of the moment. But sentiment -- like celebrity -- is a poor substitute for judgment when a nation is defining itself. Read those letters to the editor again.