Monday, July 19, 1999

Splashpoint: JFK, Jr's loss at sea

(on the occasion of JFK, Jr’s loss at sea)

Wealthy, pampered, charming, inoffensive, extremely photogenic, the scion of a legendary family, John Kennedy, Jr., decided to put his young wife and sister-in-law on a plane he had only recently purchased and fly them to Martha’s Vineyard on an evening when weather and visibility conditions made that flight inadvisable for a novice pilot unskilled in instrument landings.

And so the millionaire with the very good hair took down, with his bad aeronautical judgment, not only himself but two lovely young women with their whole lives in front of them.

The media, and television in particular, are furiously mourning JFK, Jr., and telling us, the public, that we ought to be doing the same. In fact, news of his death is relayed to us in a hushed yet hysterical tone which assumes that we as a nation are already deeply grieving. News reporters have had the effrontery to tell me that it is as if JFK, Jr., privileged playboy, son of an assassinated politician-playboy, were a member of my own family.

No, CBS, ABC, MSNBC, you are mistaken. JFK, Jr., was neither my son, my brother, nor my cousin. He was not related to me by genetics or marriage. I only knew him as an image on a TV screen, a handsome photo in a thousand magazines. He looked cute, as a three year old, when he saluted his daddy’s funeral procession. But why, CNN, PNN, Fox TV, do you assume I am devastated by his loss?

It is you, the media, whoever you are, who are devastated. John John was your stock in trade. You could always count on his image to sell soap and beer and tires. He leaves a hole in your “life,” not mine. Please stop assuming you know what my emotional reaction is to the so-called news you’re broadcasting. And stop trying to orchestrate what you think my reaction ought to be. And another thing. Not only I am not related to the media icons you feature in your stories, I also do not consider your chummy broadcasters and talkshow hosts and sitcom stars to be my relatives and/or friends and/or houseguests. These people are flickering images on cathode ray tubes. I don’t know them and they don’t know me. If this is what you call family, that’s your problem, not mine. Grieve if you must for their loss, but don’t assume I’m going to be grieving with you.

But I know you won’t grieve too hard. Your memory’s fantastically short, and there will always be other beautiful people, images, icons, to fill the vacancy left by Mr. Hunk. You’ll find them yourselves. Somewhere. Anywhere. Anywhere there’s another pretty face and body which looks great in clothes, which looks like a walking advertisement for a way of life which sells airtime, and fanzines, and shoes, and pants, and hair products, and fitness devices, and cars….

Speaking of faux-families, will you please stop referring to the Kennedys as America’s royal family? What does that make the rest of us? Commoners? You’re damn tootin’ I am. Common as dirt and proud of it. And as far as I’m concerned, everybody else with American citizenship is common, too. It comes with the territory. We Americans are not all equally smart, or athletic, or rich, or goodlooking, or privileged. But we ARE all equally human beings. If we see one of our number acting like he’s stuck on himself, giving himself fancy titles and expecting to be toted about in a sedan chair, we slap him down. Or at least we do if we have any self-respect. It’s the American Way.

You don’t mind if I call you Mr. Media, do you? Mr. Insufferably Sanctimonious Media, Mr. Cynically Mercenary Media, Mr. Unctuous, Smarmy, Sickeningly Insinuating, Witlessly-Cozily-Defecating-in-my-Ear Media, Mr. Second-Coming-of-Uriah-Heap Media? Mr. Media, hark back to two or three other times when, as you like to say, an entire nation grieved. There was the assassination of Honest Abe Lincoln, for one. The man led the nation through the most terrible, the bloodiest, war in its history. It was a war which prevented the nation from being torn asunder forever, and it was a war which abolished human slavery. Photos of Abe’s eroded face, before and after taking office, seem to show that he took on the suffering of the whole nation, North AND South, in the course of leading us through that terrible conflict. And his speeches, such as the Gettysburgh Address and the Second Inaugural Address, confirm that he was a great spokesman and leader, capable of grasping the moral seriousness of the historic events he was overseeing. When we lost Abe, we truly lost our moral compass. THAT was a terrible public loss and martyrdom indeed.

In our own century, the man’s whose moral stature rivals that of Abraham Lincoln was, of course, Martin Luther King. And again, his death was a true martyrdom and unspeakable loss to highminded people everywhere. Yet, by dying just at the point of his highest moral elevation, he froze that moment in time for all of us. Perhaps his highest moral value was achieved by sacrificing his young---he was just a year older than John John---life for what he believed. Truly, MLK’s death was a public and a private loss worthy of deep grieving.

Let us contrast that death with the heavily publicized, more recent deaths, of other icons. There is JFK himself, who straddled a weird middle ground between image-meister and true man of action/moral leader. He was, of course, a zealous playboy with a lousy attendance record in Congress. And there is some question how much of Pulitzer-prize-winning Profiles in Courage JFK wrote and how much of it speechwriter Ted Sorensen wrote. The question: Did JFK write ANY of the book he took credit for?

Yet JFK did have a substance and presence all his own. He was a genuine war hero, even if he did shamelessly exploit his PT109 exploits, and he held a number of important political offices, though he didn’t have time, what with women, ratpacking, and an assassination, to leave much of a lasting legacy as President. He OK’d the Bay of Pigs fiasco, got us more deeply mired in Viet Nam, started the Peace Corps and the Green Berets, and got behind the race to the moon. But most of all, he was a dazzlingly witty, charming, presence in his addresses to the nation. His is the telegenic benchmark to which contemporary American politicians aspire. The popular (why?) Reagan was a waxworks audio-animatron by comparison.

By so deftly straddling the line between substance and style, JFK pointed the way to a time when a public icon could become pure style. And perhaps nobody embodied this quintessentially hollow ideal, just right for a quintessentially hollow age, better than JFK, Jr. Junior studied to be an actor at Brown, and his drama teacher says he was very very good. But what Kennedy could stoop to be a movie star when he was already a superstar on the world stage?

Next, Junior made his way through law school and, after a couple stumbles, the NY bar exam. His career as a Brooklyn assistant d.a. was desultory----6 cases and then retirement. His real career during this period? Worldclass cocksman, man about the Global Village, keeper of the Kennedy flame, stunningly handsome prettyboy who could not take a bad picture, and whose handsome mug was featured everywhere. And his crowning achievement? He didn’t seem all that impressed with himself. He didn’t suffer from terminal Trumpomania. So we were free to like him, no matter how good he had it.

There followed a foray into journalism as founder of George, which sought to view politics through the prism of the cult of celebrity. Presumably, the magazine was Junior’s attempt to publicly reconcile the contradictions of his own life. We do seem to live in age where a pol’s gestures and appearance carry more weight than his policies. So maybe JKF, Jr, was barking up the right tree. But George has proved innocuous and is unlikely to survive, for long, its founder.

About that brief life: Junior represented a startlingly generational refinement of the career path his father had blazed. JFK was the laundered, Ivy League educated son of a rapacious, power hungry, bootlegger, mogul, and magnate. Joe Kennedy, with his virulent anti-Semitism and dark past, could never have run for President himself. But his handsome son was an ideal candidate. And if the son seemed to have more style than substance, well, he was living in an age which adored style. John John took the family banner even farther up the hill of style. JFK, Jr, never actually dirtied himself with the holding of elected office. He was a society sportsman, not a war hero. He wasn’t even that amusing when he spoke in public. He was just, like his mother, remarkably beautiful and well-bred and well-dressed and likable. He had no rough edges because he had no substance. His message was the media. He was a perfect head and body, with a perfect pedigree, for a info-tainment-tainted news media gone soft and celebrity-obsessed and too lazy to chase after hard news.

A man essentially free of real accomplishment and deed, he was a hero for our time. As I said earlier, his most striking deed was really a gesture: That is, at the age of three, he caught the nation’s imagination with his charming, touching, salute goodbye to his dad. Interestingly, there are home movies of Jackie lightheartedly teaching and unwittingly rehearsing a helmeted John John in the niceties of the military salute just weeks before the assassination.

JFK, Jr., has a close media cousin, of course, in Princess Di, another icon devoid of real accomplishment who looked good in clothes (at least some said so, others thought she looked dated and sexless---a modern variation on Queen Elizabeth II), and came to an absurd, untimely, end thanks to reckless navigating in an expensive vehicle. I can only pray that Junior’s death doesn’t give rise to the orgies of flower-strewing and tears that Di’s spawned.

Interesting contrast between JFK, Jr’s, airplane death and his uncle, Joe Jr’s death: Joe Jr. disappeared in an heroic, last flight of the war. JFK, Jr’s, death is attributable to his own bad judgment and inexperience, and was completely avoidable. Joe Jr. would very likely have become President. Can we imagine JFK, Jr, becoming President? Why not? If Ron Reagan can become President, then image, in politics and media alike, predominates over all, and whose image was more potent than John Jr’s? It might have been interesting to see what would have happened to Junior once he landed in the White House. Would he at last have been shocked into trading style for substance? Would the majesty of the office have transformed the charming dilettante into a man of action and great moral substance? Or would the same indifferent intellect and/or hubris which led him to twice flunk the bar and schedule a doomed night flight have caused him to crash land the ship of state?

We will never know, just as we will never know what kind of President John’s uncle, RFK, would have made. RFK’s campaign and assassination were cruelly tantalizing, of course, because he seemed to be growing in moral statue as he accumulated electoral votes and closed in on the Democratic nomination. Some of us like to imagine that RFK might, had he lived, have saved us from ourselves. Instead, we got Nixon....and the ‘70’s.

Given that we are now a people who overwhelmingly chooses style over substance, who, or what, in this age, can possibly save us from ourselves? Aren’t we doomed to elect leaders who represent ever more extreme refinements in the triumph of image over deed? Is there any chance that the constant media bombardment to which we are subjected will somehow shock us into a more authentic, heartfelt existence, instead of pulling us further and further away from ourselves? If all icons are graven images, leading to a fatal disconnect from our own best selves, then how can we dispense with icons even as we are assaulted and surrounded by them? Perhaps the icons will become so empty, so refined and meaningless, that we will no longer be able to take them seriously, to believe in them. And on that day, perhaps we will have no alternative but to return to ourselves, take ourselves seriously, believe in ourselves, and lead ourselves out of the wilderness, the welter, of graven images.

Oh, now that the sermon’s done, a final stray thought straggles in. What if, somewhere in the dark recesses of Junior’s unconscious or conscious minds, he engineered his own demise? What if he sensed that this was as good as it was going to get, and that if he lived much longer, he would start to be burdened, cruelly burdened as has been his Uncle Ted, by society’s massive expectations? Why not go out on a high note, flying fast, dying young, leaving a goodlooking corpse, or better, the memory, in survivors’ minds, of a greatlooking guy who never grew fat and bald and gray? It’s easy to imagine John in the cockpit, kidding around with lovely wife and sister-in-law, eagerly anticipating the wedding of his cousin Rory on the morrow, keeping an eye out for the faint outline of Martha’s Vineyard’s strand in the hazy dusk, thinking: “It doesn’t get any better than this, and it can get a whole lot worse, unless, unless,….. “ And still he cannot see the island, but he knows where it must be, and he dives toward where it should be, losing altitude much more rapidly than he had expected. Still, nothing can go wrong, how can anything more go wrong. He’s already lost his father, his uncles, his mother…. From here on in he deserves to have clear sailing, a smooth landing. Seconds pass, up passes for down, down for up, the horizon line just won’t show itself, but there’s something, dead ahead, which is dark and heaving, and he groks that this is it, this will be it for all of them, he and the two girls will be going to that great Kennedy Compound in the sky, where Jack happily cavorts with a new starlet every night, and Jackie breathily introduces the nation to fine colonial furnishings, and Bobbie mouths off to Jimmy Hoffa, who has miraculously resurrected himself from the concrete under the Meadowlands, and Joe Jr. swaggers about, clearly the Alpha brother, and Joe, Sr., smacks him down, leaving no doubt in his mind who’s the toughest Mick in the house, and Mother Rose dandles toddler JFK on her knee and dreams great dreams for him, and the daughter who died, untimely, in a plane crash calls for everyone to play touch football, and the daughter who was unsuccessfully lobotomized gets her brains back and is charmingly lucid, and Mike, the cousin who skied, fatally, into a tree is all well and chipper and is not touched by scandal, and the other cousin, the one charged with rape, is an innocent boy, leaping onto a sailboat, and David, the cousin who OD’d, is young and healthy and shiny as a new-minted coin and leaps in the boat with him, and Joe, Sr., is upstairs brilliantly selling short just before the Big Crash of ’29, and putting the celebratory blocks to Gloria Swanson, and Jack is dating Gene Tierney, courting Jackie, plotting his Congressional campaign, his Senatorial campaign, his Presidential campaign with Dad and the brothers and it’s all, well, quite lovely, and John knows he made the right move to splash down when he did, and he gives that dazzling blonde wife a hug and tells her she’ll be joined by her family in no time, and she mostly forgives him, and assures her sister Lauren that it won’t be all that long before she’ll be reunited with her twin, and the girls just about find it in their good Catholic hearts to forgive John, 100%, right on the spot, and never look back to how things might have turned out on Earth, with babies, and elections, and whole dizzying lifetimes unled, because he really is a golden boy, and even when he screws up he lands them someplace delicious……..simply delicious.

And far below, the gentle seas south of Martha’s Vineyard roil and heave in the Summer darkness, and flotsam and jetsam begin their slow drift northward to the strand, the starlit, the glamorous, strand.