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COMMENTARY

Anguish for son echoes that for father

By David Shribman, Globe Staff, 07/18/99

Even now, no words prompt so much anguish, so much grief, so much disbelief as these: John F. Kennedy may be dead.

Those words flew around the country today in frantic electronic pulses, though this time it was not awaiting the fate of a president who had just been shot, but of a martyred president's son.

This time, the fragmentary reports did not throw the government into convulsion. This time, the tragedy did not come at a time of Cold War peril. This time, the news will not freeze a nation in a frightful memory.

But the news of the possible death of a Kennedy -- indeed, of a young man bearing the very name of the slain president -- has not lost its capacity to shock a nation that has come to believe it is inured to shock.

Because the fearful phrase -- John F. Kennedy is dead -- has a special meaning, triggering special emotions, unlocking special memories, as irrepressible as the cascade of water over remote cliffs: The flag-draped casket. The widow's unfailing courage. The funeral Mass in St. Matthew's Cathedral. The foghorn voice of the late Richard Cardinal Cushing. The skirling of the bagpipers from the Irish Black Watch. The gathering of world leaders from France's DeGaulle to Canada's Pearson.

And the salute, unbearably brave, of the president's son on the day he also turned 3 years old.

This is a different time, of course, the assassination of President Kennedy having heralded an era of violence and senseless death that dulled the senses. But in corners of America -- in New England, in pockets of Washington and, it is not to be denied, in the supermarket checkout lines where the tabloids blare their headlines -- the Kennedy family still holds a special place.

The weekend after the assassination, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy told Boston journalist Theodore H. White that the president used to like to fall asleep to the strains of "Camelot." Of the immediate family that, for one brief shining moment, symbolized idealism and inspiration, only one person remains: Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg.

The son, like the father, bore the name of a storied Boston mayor. The son, like the father, was unimaginably handsome. The son, like the father, lived dangerously, defied the conventions, stoked romantic visions.

Known first as John-John, then as John Kennedy Jr., and finally simply as John Kennedy, he is the president's son -- but he was reared by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

She battled to keep him out of the public eye. She fought to nurture in him grace and etiquette. She taught him how to have a private life and that it was possible to satisfy only the most formal obligations of public duty.

So when Mrs. Onassis died in 1994 the son knew -- he was trained to know -- how to bear grief, how to show dignity, how to express loss and love. It was apparent that steamy afternoon on the Virginia hillside as he stood with his sister and uncle, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the president's brother, and bid farewell to his mother in a relentlessly public moment that, if there were justice in death, should have been intensely private.

Kenneth P. O'Donnell, one of the president's closest aides, wrote a memoir remembered chiefly for its evocative title, taken from an old ballad: Johnny, we hardly knew ye.

O'Donnell's title was ironic. We knew much about the president -- his distaste for the ballet his wife loved, for example; his ability to rally bosses like John Bailey and Richard Daley, his skill at disarming his foes, like the time he told Richard Nixon, proud of his triumph in the 1959 "Kitchen Debate" with Nikita S. Khruschev, that he knew a lot of men who won debates in the kitchen.

And now we know even more about President Kennedy, or think we do, much of it sordid.

But it remains true that, of the son, we hardly know him.

We know, of course, that he was a storied bachelor, that he teased the women, that he seduced the camera, that he plotted a romantic getaway wedding with a breathlessly beautiful woman on a remote island, that he started a magazine called "George."

But we know almost nothing else.

All the rest were guesses. The magazine was light, like the times, bearing a slightly ironic name, carrying stories that said very little, oftentimes written by celebrities about celebrities. The editor is a gadfly, lunching about town, holding shimmery parties, meeting with Larry Flynt, the renegade pornography publisher.

Now he might be part of a tragic litany of aunts and uncles and cousins and parents, all dead before their time.

The witness to all of this is, of course, is Senator Kennedy, who once again must, in the words of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s father, bear the burden.

On days like this, we all bear that burden.

David M. Shribman is chief of the Globe's Washington Bureau.



 


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