It was hard not to be both appalled and fascinated by the media coverage of the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. The omnivorous appetite for copy and spectacle that fuels TV news networks like CNN and MSNBC has pushed the more venerable networks toward similar excess. As a consequence, the tragedy was covered at absurd length. For an entire week the airwaves and headlines were dominated by the futile search for Kennedy’s plane, then its eventual discovery along with the bodies of Kennedy, his wife Carolyn, and her sister Lauren Bessette, the subsequent commitment of ashes to the sea off of Martha’s Vineyard, and finally the memorial services in New York City and Connecticut. Lacking incident and the possibility of dramatic development, the news story turned to the past-to the Kennedy presidency and the thousand days of "Camelot"-and to the shadows the past continues to throw on the present.

Many thought interest in Kennedy’s fate amounted to little more than gossip. But the death under tragic circumstances of an assassinated president’s only son-moreover a son who shared much of his father’s charisma and grace-is news. Nor is there any denying the heartfelt if inchoate grief felt by millions of Americans who saw in this latest and most inexplicable Kennedy loss an eerie echo of the trauma visited on the nation by the murder of a young president.

To be sure, there is something inherently trivializing about television’s remorseless pace and pictorial style, the corrosive way in which it obliterates the line between public and private life. War is reduced to make-believe, politics to personality, a family’s private grief to an object of curiosity and vicarious emotion for millions of strangers. Should the death of an appealing young man whose modest accomplishments he himself never exaggerated be conflated with the very real politics and history of the Kennedy administration? Surely not. John Kennedy, Jr., readily acknowledged that his fame was the result of his father’s fame, and little more. Still, his death cannot help but find a place in our national drama.

Much of President Kennedy’s own appeal and legacy rested on his youth, his good looks, and the remarkable grace and style with which he and his wife Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy conducted themselves. To that extent, his son was a recognizable heir to his parents’ glittering public personae. Even the emphasis on popular culture and entertainment that John Kennedy, Jr., brought to his "political" magazine, George, can be seen as an extension of the world of glamour, money, and power his father moved in with such relish. It was not hard to see the father in the son, nor to see why so many people felt the palpable grasp of the past reaching out upon hearing the news of his death.

Perhaps Catholics have further reasons to pause at time like this. John F. Kennedy, Jr., was born the year his father squeaked out a narrow victory over Richard Nixon. Much has changed since 1960, and perhaps no change has been as striking in American culture and politics as the relentless homogenization of differences, especially religious differences. From our present vantage point, it is hard to appreciate fully what a large part Kennedy’s Catholicism played in that presidential campaign. Blatant anti-Catholic sentiment helped to defeat Al Smith in 1928. Only thirty-two years later, handsome "Jack" Kennedy’s unique blend of urbanity, money, youth, and wit-and then martyrdom-changed that religious and ethnic equation forever.

One is now struck by the fact that the media and the American public did not look at his son’s Catholicism with any particular suspicion-or perhaps even interest. John Cogley, writing in these pages after Kennedy was assassinated, put it this way: "John Fitzgerald Kennedy served his church as brilliantly as he served his country. He did so, not by being the first Catholic president but by being the first American president who was a Catholic" ("Kennedy the Catholic," January 10, 1964). Cogley, who helped Kennedy formulate a politically effective response to questions about the possible conflict between his loyalty to the church and his constitutional duties, went even further in his assessment of Kennedy. "John F. Kennedy probably had more influence on the future of the American church than any Catholic, lay or clerical, in the history of the nation....He was the quintessential modern man....Yet, his catholicity was as much a part of him as his modernity. He wore both of them as unselfconsciously and elegantly as he wore his London clothes."

Obviously that was not a theological assessment in any strict sense. Certainly it can be said that Kennedy often wore his Catholicism all too lightly-both in public and private. Cogley’s confidence in Catholicism’s ability to stand on equal terms with modernity now seems dated. Nevertheless, he was right to emphasize the determination of American Catholics to embrace both their religion and the modern world. In that sense, Kennedy’s election was not the triumph of the Catholic ghetto but its epitaph.

His son’s untimely death reminds us that in America questions that fundamentally shape a father’s life-and once excited the fiercest of passions on all sides-can recede in the course of a generation. In taking the measure of John Kennedy, Jr.’s short time among us, we inevitably take the measure of the forty years since what was for so long thought impossible-a Catholic in the White House-came to pass. In mourning John Kennedy, Jr.’s passing we are reminded of how much changed on election day in 1960. Catholics, it turned out, were more like the rest of America than either they or the rest of America imagined. That remains, it seems fair to say, both a blessing and a challenge.

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Published in the 1999-08-13 issue: View Contents
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