To understand the round-the-clock coverage of John Kennedy's death, the unending talk about it, and the makeshift memorials, it helps to remember what the country felt about his parents. His father, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, handsome and dashing, came out of Boston insisting on being our first Catholic president--and was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.
His beautiful mother, Jacqueline Bouvier, once dismissed as a social butterfly, stepped forward and held the country together. She arranged a funeral that was majestic and moved through it like a queen. She saw to every detail from the kilted Irish pipers to the eternal flame.
When it was over, she summoned the most famous political scribe of his time, Theodore H. White, and put a name on her husband's time in office, Camelot. The country has been emotionally involved with the Kennedys ever since. They are numerous, good looking and always up to something. They have provided a pageant of smiles, tears and scandals.
When John Kennedy's single-engine plane, with him at the controls, fell off the radar at the Martha's Vineyard airport, the nation once again went to its post by the television to keep vigil with the Kennedys.
In the five days that followed, the dread and dismay were laced with indignation. This was not supposed to happen. This was entirely gratuitous. The crown prince had been exempt from "the curse of the Kennedys"--a phrase coined by Uncle Teddy during the Chappaquiddick crisis. Had not Jackie Kennedy sequestered her children from the turbulence at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, as Bobby Kennedy's fatherless sons wrestled with various demons? She took John and Caroline over the water to Martha's Vineyard.
John had not followed in his father's footsteps. He was his mother's son. She brought him up not to be a Kennedy, but to be himself. He shared her detachment about politics. When asked a while back how, in the light of his father's posthumously revealed promiscuity, Jack Kennedy would have tolerated today's fierce press scrutiny, John Kennedy said coolly he thought his father might have chosen to go into another line of work.
John Kennedy died like his father, violently and too soon. His blond wife, Carolyn Bessette, and his sister-in-law Lauren Bessette died with him. At 38, he left more unfulfilled promise than performance. He was strikingly handsome and unexpectedly nice for one of his looks and station. He was courteous to all, even the paparazzi who dogged him from the age of 3 when he broke the nation's heart by saluting his father's coffin.
The tabs called him "The Hunk" and People magazine said he was "the sexiest man alive." If the grief seems disproportionate to his life, it is easily explained. He was measured by who he was, not what he did.
His mother vetoed his first choice of a career, the theater. He went into the law, but not for long. He founded a magazine he called "George." It was to be a glossy, trendy monthly that treated politics as entertainment.
He courted publicity for "George" by sometimes doing odd things: He posed nude for an illustration to accompany a critique of his Kennedy cousins' behavior. More recently, he visited Mike Tyson, the convicted rapist, in prison; he invited pornographer Larry Flynt to the White House correspondents' dinner. Like his mother, he never explained his actions. He was a free spirit. His father, despite his private excesses, was decorous in his public life, having a politician's perpetual concern about what the neighbors will think. Jack Kennedy was witty, sometimes in the mordant Irish way; his son was whimsical. Politics does not allow for whimsy.
John's love life was of aching, international interest. He courted a string of gorgeous girls and then married one. He married willowy Carolyn Bessette at a secret wedding on an island off Georgia. He was terribly proud of his coup against the press. He released one picture. It was of him kissing his bride's hand. It was drop-dead romantic.
The country spent the last weekend soaking up every detail, watching hour after hour of Jack's funeral, Bobby's funeral, touch football, prayers at Arlington. The context was pure, incredible Kennedy. The clan had gathered at Hyannis Port to celebrate the wedding of Rory Kennedy. A huge tent had been set up on Ethel's lawn. It was the one mercy of the grim weekend. The Kennedys, who derive such solace from each other, were together. The wedding was postponed. The family mourned.
Washington talked of nothing else. Arguments broke out over "the curse of the Kennedys"--was it really the rashness of its members? "Where was God in all this?" one man demanded to know at a subdued Saturday party.
All agreed on one point: It was a shame.