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Across America, a loss of youth and promise

By Martin F. Nolan, 07/23/99

When Sander Vanocur, the former NBC correspondent, first heard the news, he recalled what John O'Hara, the Irish-American novelist, said on a hot July day in 1937. ''They tell me that George Gershwin is suddenly dead at 38. That's what they tell me, but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to.''

The composer and songwriter died of a brain tumor, a celebrity death which, like many, caused shock, disbelief, and grief among thousands, even millions, who had never met him.

The death of John F. Kennedy Jr. is different because of Americans' attitude about history. However imperfectly, they knew that the young man who perished with his wife and sister-in-law while approaching Martha's Vineyard was ''a part of history.''

The prayers, the sadness, the flowers in TriBeCa all flow to a clan whose rise to glory began on the margins of American society, an underdog dynasty. John F. Kennedy Jr. was born 17 days after his father became the first Roman Catholic president amid the fears of millions that the White House would be an outpost of the Vatican. Today, as his life is celebrated at a Mass at St. Thomas More Church in New York City, anti-Catholicism has almost vanished in America.

The Kennedy saga covers most of the century. John F. ''Honey Fitz'' Fitzgerald was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1894. One of his grandsons, John, became president; two more, Edward and Robert, became senators; and two of his great-grandsons, Joseph and Patrick, also have served in the House. A half-dozen Frelinghuysens from New Jersey have served in Congress, but only four from another Dutch dynasty, the Roosevelts. The grandchildren of Franklin Delano Roosevelt have known little political fame.

The future has always been Kennedy country and the greatest Kennedy success could lie among its women. Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg has been a decision maker on many matters, including her father's library. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, lieutenant governor of Maryland, may have as much charm and savvy as her father, Robert, her uncles and cousins, even her grandfather.

The much-photographed Kennedys have been reviled and revered. In a society anxious about ''family values,'' theirs has been on exuberant display for four decades, along with those of the Bouviers, Skakels, Bennetts, Smiths, Lawfords, and Shrivers. (A large family means many in-laws.)

In a nation of small families, size matters. When Edward Kennedy barely escaped death in the crash of a small plane in 1964, his brother Robert visited him and remarked in that ruefully wry Kennedyesque way, ''I guess the reason my mother and father had so many children was that some of them would survive.''

Edward Kennedy, the ninth of nine, is, at 67, the sole suriving son, the patriarch, and an all-too-accomplished eulogist. The Kennedys' famous fatalism was once expressed by President Kennedy's citation of a French fisherman's prayer: ''Oh God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.'' Yesterday's burial was private and at sea off Cape Cod, that slip of land of which Henry David Thoreau said in 1865: ''A man may stand there and put all America behind him.''

The America John F. Kennedy Jr. leaves behind is one in which the median age is younger than his at his death. The vast majority of his fellow citizens have no contemporary memory of his father's violent death in 1963 nor that of his uncle in 1968. The Kennedys' grief has been vivid in the nation's tribal memory as only a photograph or a video image, but no less vivid for being so.

Stanley Tretick, who died last week at 77, was a photographer for Look magazine. One of his most famous pictures was of President Kennedy's young son climbing through a desk in the Oval Office. ''The Kennedys are great, but you have to do things their way,'' Tretick once said.

The Kennedys stage-managed their own public image in the days before 24-hour cable channels and the vast hordes of paparazzi that their fame and glamour enticed. The Hyannis Port family compound this week has been a logo for media fascination with one family's grief.

The old Latin liturgy once included an Augustinian admonition, ''Vita mutatur non tollitur'' - ''Life is changed, not taken away.'' That belief sustains those of faith; in addition, there's always the Irish wake tradition of stories and memories, happy and sad.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote in ''A Thousand Days'' of how a young assistant secretary of labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, reacted to President Kennedy's death. ''I don't think there's any point in being Irish if you don't know that the world is going to break your heart eventually. I guess that we thought we had a little more time,'' Moynihan said. ''Mary McGrory said to me that we'll never laugh again. And I said, `Heavens, Mary. We'll laugh again. It's just that we'll never be young again.'''

Across America and the world, many people feel a lot less young than they did a week ago.

Martin F. Nolan, former editor of the Globe's editorial pages and onetime chief of the newspaper's Washington bureau, writes regularly for the Globe's opinion page.

This story ran on page A14 of the Boston Globe on 07/23/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.


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