An Englishwoman in Washington: Kennedy - a nation mourns (not)
Despite what the conspiracy theorists say, the strangest thing about the death of John F Kennedy junior was not that the 'curse of the Kennedys' struck again. Far more strange was the feeling I got that so many in Washington privately hoped that his death would somehow recreate the public grief and emotional outpouring that followed the death of Princess Diana in Britain.
As the news broke that JFK junior's plane was missing, much of the media and many politicians switched instinctively to a post-Diana modus operandi. Normal TV was suspended. The networks and cable devoted their entire airtime to the unfolding story. TV anchors were called in on their days off. They talked in reverent tones about their sense of shock, loss and disbelief at the day's news. As everybody waited for the plane to be found, we were treated to hours and hours of mesmerising pictures of tiny rescue crafts bobbing up and down in the sea around Martha's Vineyard. By late Saturday morning, when hopes of finding any survivors began to fade, those of us who had followed the Diana coverage nearly two years earlier were suffering from a severe case of déjà vu.
Many commentators openly compared America's unofficial heir-apparent to 'the People's princess'. A 'close friend' of the family revealed that, unnervingly, Kennedy himself had made the same comparison only months earlier. We were told that, like Diana, he had the 'common touch'. Despite his millions he used the New York subway and was never happier than when rollerblading around Central Park. He did good works and had his favourite causes. And of course, most importantly JFK junior had suffered. He too had been a victim. The picture of the tiny three-year old John-John saluting his father's casket is now forever etched into the public memory as a sad reminder of the family's 'cursed' history.
But it wasn't simply these comparisons that evoked the post-Diana mood. In certain circles there was not just an expectation but an almost palpable desire that the country would be overwhelmed with grief and mourning. Almost before they happened, TV reporters told us of flower tributes outside the Kennedy apartment building in New York, at President Kennedy's grave in Arlington National Cemetery, and the John F Kennedy Memorial in Cape Cod.
Politicians demonstrated the same sense of anticipation. Within hours of the plane going missing, senators and congressmen were in TV studios discussing the wider significance of the assumed tragedy. Later President Clinton chose to address the nation in order to give the accident a public significance. The president spoke movingly about the uncertainty of life itself: 'We are reminded again that life and its possibilities are fleeting.' He added, 'we mortals are obliged to be humble and grateful for every day'.
Others did their bit to accommodate the anticipated mood of public grief in the days that followed. America Online (AOL) opened up special internet bulletin boards where people could share their prayers and thoughts on the nation's loss. The John F Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston opened 'royalty-style' condolence books for the same purpose. Not to be outdone by all the TV coverage, the weekly magazines devoted pages and pages to the latest Kennedy tragedy.
Yet the anticipation of a mood of public suffering far outstripped what actually occurred. Of course most people were shocked by the accident and some genuinely felt that they had lost somebody near and dear. No fewer than 20 000 people made the effort to visit the AOL bulletin board and hundreds lined the streets of New York on the day of Kennedy's memorial service.
But the nation was not overwhelmed by public grief. By the time the headline writers at the Washington Post wrote, five days after the accident, of 'A nation grieving' and how 'in the ritual after a public death, we become the United States', the gap between the journalistic fantasy and what was really occurring was obvious. In their dreams the USA was a nation united in grief. In reality large sections of the nation were bored by the coverage and critical of Kennedy's recklessness. Jokes like 'it used to be the case that the Kennedys drowned their women one at a time' were already in wide circulation.
For whatever reason JFK junior did not become a tragic icon. Maybe it was because, as a family friend explained, the 'Kennedys don't do victimhood', or perhaps Kennedy and his family are too wrapped up in the nation's past to fulfil the emotional needs of modern society. Certainly the family acted with unfashionable restraint throughout the affair. In an age when everybody is expected to lay bare all their emotions to public scrutiny, the family did a remarkable job of keeping their grief private. But whatever the reason, the failure of such a reaction fully to materialise does not alter the fact that so many were willing it to happen.
It says much about the vacuity of modern America that so many would have welcomed a desolate period of national mourning. Some were quite explicit about the public value of such an emotional outpouring. One columnist at the Washington Post informed us that 'public death has become one of the binding American experiences, giving strangers something to talk about in a culture in which individuals are increasingly distanced'. A professor of religion added, 'these things mark our history. They are like guideposts. They are moments of collective solidarity in a way that doesn't really happen in other areas of civic life'. It says something about the state of American politics when the world's pre-eminent nation seeks to make the death of a magazine publisher its binding raison d'être.
Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999