John F.Kennedy, Jr. 1960-1999
I was on vacation, browsing in
the tourist shops of Virginia City, Nev., when I first heard John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane
had crashed. A conversation between a mother and son snagged my ear.
"John Kennedy died in a
plane crash last night," the mother said. "So?" her teenage son replied
sarcastically. "Do I care? Was he someone I knew?"
I didn't hear the mother's
reply, but my reaction was quick and uncharitable. "What a jerk," I thought.
"If my sons ever talk like that I'll ... I'll ..." The thought remained
Since the July 16 plane crash,
the media coverage surrounding this tragedy has been overwhelming and unrelenting. I know
this column only adds to the deluge of words that have already been written and spoken
about the loss of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, Lauren Bessette and John Kennedy Jr.
News programs had hours to
fill and no news to fill it. During the long and painful search, we saw extended footage
of the ocean, search-and-rescue ships, black-and-white events from the '60s and distant
shots of Kennedy relatives. I lost count of the number of times the image of a 3-year-old
John Jr. saluting his father's casket flashed across the screen.
Still, I sat glued to the TV. I criticized the media's
callousness in concentrating on JFK Jr. with only passing mention of his wife, Carolyn,
and sister-in-law, Lauren. (Not until 48 hours after the crash did I hear an anchorwoman
comment on the devastating loss of two daughters from one family.)
I argued with broadcasters who
implied the crash was a result of a reckless Kennedy nature. (The crash may have been the
result of poor judgment and inexperience, but owning and piloting a private plane is not
I criticized the media for its
unrelenting coverage while at the same time I lapped it all up, neglecting work and family
tasks as I sat mesmerized by the slowly unfolding events.
And I remained haunted by the
sarcastic teen-ager's question. Why care?
John and his sister, Caroline
I've never believed the
Kennedys were America's "royal family." I didn't spend much time wondering or
thinking of John F. Kennedy Jr. Still, his father is the first president I remember. I was
9 years old when JFK was assassinated. I remember a day home from school watching a
black-and-white funeral. I remember my mother's tears and that famous salute.
My sons wanted to know why I
cared, why I spent so many hours watching the events surrounding the tragedy. I tried to
explain to them the bit of history that is a link to my childhood. I heard a radio
newswoman refer to JFK Jr. as "a child of our nation," and he truly was. Growing
up in the glare of television, his image often was before us.
Still, we didn't know him. No
matter how many details we read or pictures we saw, we didn't know him. He seemed to be a
good person and the consensus appears to be that his mother raised him to be a fine man.
After all this, I have an answer to the question posed by that teen-ager back in Virginia
Why care? Because we must.
Because compassion is unconditional and universal. I'd like to find that sarcastic
teen-ager and explain this to him. I hope his is a minority attitude.
We can criticize the media. We
can criticize the Kennedys. We can question whether JFK Jr. warranted the time and
attention his death has produced. None of that really matters.
I think it is a
good sign that so many mourned the deaths of three people they didn't know. I think if is
a good sign that so many prayed and cried. If people can remain unmoved by such sadness
and tragedy, then we are a nation in desperate need of compassion.