“Whom the gods love die young”
So they say. The gods must truly love the Kennedys, since so many of them have been robbed too soon from this world. Life, as the late JFK used to say, is unfair. This November 22nd marks the 40th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It was “the shot heard around the world”; a moment in history that forever changed the course of whatever else was to come. At noon on that fateful day in Dallas, the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald ended the life of the 46-year-old president, stunning a nation into paralysis. The world mourned and watched with teary eyes as his black-clad widow and children laid his body to rest. His son, celebrating his third birthday on his father’s funeral, saluted JFK as his coffin drove by a heart-wrenching scene that bore itself into the national conscience and initiated what has become the enduring myth of the Kennedys.
As conspiracy theories gained serious ground, questioning not only Oswald’s motives and whether he acted alone, but Oswald’s eventual perplexing death at the hands of Jack Ruby, many questions remained unanswered. The Warren Commission confirmed that Oswald acted alone, an answer that angered many who to this day believe that there was more to the Kennedy assassination than the Warren Commission revealed.
But the era of Camelot was not put to rest at JFK’s death, as the Kennedy’s, often labeled as “America’s Royals”, continued to shine in the spotlight, their private tragedies becoming public ones. The popular notion of the “Kennedy curse” has preoccupied America for some time. According to Edward Klein, author of The Kennedy Curse (St. Martin’s Press, July 2003), “Since John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Kennedys and those associated with them have been dying at the rate of one every two years.”
The rich, good-looking, wealthy political dynasty, peppered with numerous untimely deaths and personal mishaps, has elevated the family to the level of celebrity-hood. Though the Rockefellers, Gettys, and Vanderbilts are equally famous, no American name resonates around the world quite like “Kennedy”. Whether the Kennedys liked it or not, the world claimed them as its own, and even for those who weren’t born when JFK died, the Kennedys command undivided interest. Yet it’s their tragedies, above all, that fascinates and horrify us most, confirming that the persistent “curse” is undefeatable.
Prior to JFK’s death, his brother and sister, Joe, Jr. and Kathleen, had both died in plane-related accidents (in 1944 and 1948 respectively). After JFK’s tragic demise, Robert (“Bobby” or “RFK”) Kennedy (according to biographer C. David Heymann) had reportedly said: “Somebody up there doesn’t like us.” Somebody up there must have agreed, since Bobby Kennedy was shot to death by Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles in 1968. No Kennedy, it seemed, would be spared.
Christopher Lawford, son of Patricia Kennedy and the actor Peter Lawford, once explained that “The Kennedy story is really about karma, about people who broke the rules and were ultimately broken by them.” Others, agreeing with this theory, point to patriarch Joe Kennedy, Sr.‘s ruthlessness. His blind ambition, shady business dealings and political maneuverings including bootlegging, and alleged indirect negotiations with the mob to secure voter support for JFK and amazing accumulation of a vast fortune are the reasons that the rest of the clan now has to pay. Others dismiss the notion of the perpetual dark force hovering around the Kennedy’s door, instead explaining that it’s the Kennedy’s consistent daredevil activities and tempting the fates (such as Michael Kennedy playing football while skiing down a hill, and novice pilot JFK Jr.‘s decision to shrug off weather warnings to fly his plane), that makes them prone to regular misfortune.
After Bobby’s death, Joe Sr.‘s dreams of political greatness for his sons were then transferred to the youngest, Teddy, who, only in his 30s when Bobby died, found himself the protector of JFK and Bobby’s children. But the young Massachusetts senator faced his own personal defeat as a result of the Chappaquidick accident that led to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, who was riding with Teddy when his car crashed into the waters. When Kopechne died, so did Teddy’s chances of ever becoming president. It was in his famous Chappaquidick speech that Teddy alluded to a possible “curse” plaguing the Kennedys:
All kinds of scrambled thoughts all of them confused, some of them irrational, many of them which I cannot recall, and some of which I would not have seriously entertained under normal circumstances went through my mind during this period. They were reflected in the various inexplicable, inconsistent, and inconclusive things I said and did, including such questions as whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys . . .
Yet it’s Teddy who has managed to survive and prosper as an influential liberal member of the Senate who is the most tragic figure of all. How do you consistently bury one family member after another and tolerate the unbearable pain? His astonishing resilience has catapulted the former wild and reckless Teddy into the role of family patriarch, the pillar upon which the Kennedy foundation now stands.
Teddy entertained and looked after his brother’s children, and never wavered as tragedy after tragedy struck, this time aiming at the Kennedy children. His own son battled cancer, and his nephew William Kennedy Smith was charged and later acquitted of rape. In 1984, Bobby’s son, David, died of a drug overdose, and in 1997, another of Bobby’ sons, Michael (who had been the focus of media scrutiny for conducting an affair with his underage babysitter) died in a skiing accident.
The curse, it seemed, lived on, and reappeared in full force when in July 1999, 38-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr., son of the slain president, disappeared into the night when his self-piloted plane, also carrying his wife and sister-in-law, went missing near the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. JFK Jr. had been en route to his cousin’s wedding when he disappeared, and as journalist and author Christopher Hitchens wrote in Salon (July 17, 1999),“A whole new generation of Americans will have their own personal Kennedy to mourn.” And mourn they did.
The devastatingly handsome JFK Jr., heir to Camelot, had captured America’s heart since he was born. He was the enchanting toddler, “John-John”, who had played under his father’s desk in the Oval Office and gallantly saluted him in death. As the boy turned into a man, he became one of the nation’s most eligible bachelors, even garnering the “Sexiest Man Alive” label from People magazine in 1988. His protective mother tried to steer him clear of politics, so he briefly flirted with law before turning his attention to creating a political magazine, George.
He never quite managed to live up to his father’s image, and disappointed many who thought it only appropriate that JFK’s son should follow in his father’s footsteps. Ironically, he did just that by also disappearing from the world much too soon. He had thrown caution to the wind by deciding to fly his plane during questionable weather conditions, just as his father had ridden in an unprotected, open motorcade during that fateful visit to Dallas.
So the Kennedy clan again gathered to mourn their own, wondering what the fickle gods would have in store next. Teddy once again offered a eulogy, and the family returned to the routines of their daily lives, so much of which bears the Kennedy legacy of Democratic ideals and public service.
JFK and RFK were both champions of the underdog, laboring for most of their short-lived professional lives on causes such as Civil Rights, children’s welfare, tax cuts, and the promotion of public service programs such as JFK’s establishment of the Peace Corps and Bobby’s valiant efforts to end apartheid in South Africa. Though JFK’s presidency had its moments of disaster (such as the Bay of Pigs), his record as is his brother Bobby’s is still defined by consistent efforts to help those who are often overlooked. And this legacy has endured, as not only Teddy has relentlessly fought for education reform, minimum-wage legislation, and medical benefits, but many of the younger members of the Kennedy clan have also opted to enter the political realm or labor in the nonprofit arena.
Writing in Time, Hugh Sidey once quoted Joe Kennedy, Sr. as saying: “The only thing that matters is family.” And it’s the strength of family, loyalty, and undying devotion that provides the glue by which the Kennedys stick together and suffer their losses.
This year’s anniversary will again draw together the family, and the world, in remembrance of the JFK assassination. A slew of television programs, magazine stories, news reports and books will pay homage to the former president and inadvertently to the rest of the family, thereby further ingraining the Kennedy myth into the mainstream and revitalizing our fascination with them.
During JFK Jr.‘s disappearance, thousands of mourners gathered outside his New York apartment to share their sorrow. Flowers and notes were piled on the pavement, but there is a particular image that many television stations showed repeatedly that best captured the nation’s sentiments towards the Kennedy’s: a mourner had drawn that famous picture of three-year-old John saluting his father’s coffin, and beneath it had written “Has anyone seen my old friend, John-John?” It was a heart-breaking question that proved yet again that the Kennedys are America’s family, and when they weep, America weeps with them.