The Media Canonizes Kennedy
Where Have All the Flowers Gone? Ihaven't a clue why, but this July has been the longest month I can remember in a coon's age. As a middle-aged, working adult this isn't quite normal: the seasons and years are supposed to, and usually do, scatter in the wind like those calendar pages in Frank Capra movies. As a child, the summer-after the initial giddiness of being released from another year of school-dragged on and on. The repetition of sandlot ballgames, capturing fireflies in a jar, swinging from the vines in the forest behind our housing development in Huntington, hours upon hours of watching re-runs like I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, My Little Margie and Mr. Ed on the tube and racing around the neighborhood on a battered bicycle, became boring by the beginning of August. Even my mother's bounty of a nickel for every cricket bumped off in the garage lost its thrill. I was usually ready to get back to school.
There were the occasional diversions from the everyday routine: trips with my dad or brothers to Yankee Stadium, family cookouts, excursions to Sunken Meadow or Jones Beach and long car rides to New England. One ritual at about five each night was waiting for the Good Humor truck to drive up our hill. My parents wouldn't bite all the time, but when my mom had a hankering for a toasted almond bar, we'd all be able to choose our own. I usually went with a popsicle, but sometimes had the chocolate cake ice cream, with that rectangle of suspect candy in the middle. I forget the other flavors, but do remember that pops were just a nickel and the ice cream a dime. Also back in those days, my candy of choice was Bonomo's Turkish Taffy (with the catchy jingle, "B-O-N-O-M-O, oh-oh-oh, it's Turkish Taffy"), the banana flavor being my favorite. It was a regional treat, but ubiquitous in the Northeast, whether at movie theaters, five & dime stores or at Halloween. Talk to someone under 35 and chances are they've never heard of it. I was reminded of Turkish Taffy just a few weeks ago, when Victor Bonomo died at age 100. As the Times obit of July 4 read, it was a "brittle candy bar whose wrapper instructed buyers to smack it and crack it into many edible pieces," and beat anything else on the market for me, even Dots, Watermelon Sticks and Hershey chocolate almond bars.
By coincidence, just days after Bonomo died, Aaron S. Lapin, the creator of Reddi-wip, another culinary icon of the frozen-food 50s and 60s, also passed away, at 85. I remember those spray cans of whipped cream stacked in the refrigerator that my mother seldom cleaned; sometimes, I'd spray some of it on a bowl of instant pudding or jello, and the ancient Reddi-wip would come out green. Not Lapin's fault, just my mom's pack-rat sensibilities, which extended even to the kitchen. I'm sure some of my friends tried to huff those cans, but that kind of buzz never really interested me; and when Cool Whip was introduced in the late 60s, those Reddi-wip cans finally disappeared from our house.
But just as my own sons now are tired of day camp and miss their friends who've gone away to country houses, the length of "summer vacation" would always drag on and on. This makes sense: as a nipper, you've got a different perspective on time.
Yet this month of July in 1999 seems endless. My family and I are going to Bermuda soon, and as I make and receive calls at the office, scheduling appointments, I'm usually sure I'll be out of the country on a specific day. But sure enough, there are plenty of time slots to fill. I can't figure it out. It's not the heat. As I've written before, 90-degree days with high humidity are my idea of a perfect climate. And I don't think the JFK Jr. tragedy explains this strange feeling, although the constant media coverage and dirge/carnival atmosphere in Tribeca is nothing short of surreal.
One break in the tedium last week was a visit from my longtime friend Joachim Blunck, in Manhattan for a few days from Los Angeles. JB was the first art director I ever worked with: he helped found Baltimore's City Paper back in '77, and introduced a visual level to that alternative newspaper that was far ahead of the curve. One night, after a flimflam publisher of a dreadful community monthly in the city tried to buy us out, and thus snuff his competition, JB, Alan Hirsch and I told the schmuck to fuck off and then got smashed at the Clark Street Garage, reveling in our youthful hubris. After several pitchers of National Boh, I told JB, "The future of this paper has no limit: you'll be Milton Glaser to my Clay Felker." What can I say, we weren't yet 22.
JB left City Paper in '81 (at a farewell party, lacking the dough for a fancy present, I dug into my archives and gave him a Vol. 1, No. 1 issue of National Lampoon) and went on to work as director of production systems at Murdoch Magazines. He then became a cocreator and producer of The Reporters and A Current Affair, was the executive producer of Good Day New York, moved to L.A. to work for Fox's television division and most recently was the executive producer of The Howie Mandel Show. But we stayed in touch. JB was responsible for the original design of NYPress, including our signature "P," and helped me think of the paper's actual name over lunch one day in December of 1987.
We actually met in September of '73, when I arrived at Johns Hopkins for a week of acclimation before classes began. My roommate Mark and I thought JB, who, as a sophomore, was a captain of the Orientation Committee, was an incredible nerd. He was dressed in bell-bottoms, with a wool Kangol cap in the 100-degree heat, and barked orders at the school's newest recruits. Fuck this, Mark and I thought, and skipped the pep rally to get stoned in Jenny Gilchrist's dorm room.
The night before I left for Baltimore, one of my brothers counseled me that I shouldn't be a wiseguy and think that my college experience would be especially unique. My father had died the year before, and he felt it his duty to pass along some wisdom, remembering his own indiscretions at Brown during the 60s. He said, "You're going to have a great time, and think that you're pulling pranks that no one else has. I've got news for you, it's all been done before. Remember this: a lot of people believe their college experience was the peak of their lives. That's sad. Don't let it happen to you."
I nodded, but didn't pay attention. On the third day at Hopkins, after buying a pack of Kools for 35 cents (a reminder that a generation ago, Baltimore was much more Southern than today and closer, at least in spirit, to tobacco country), Mark and I attended a meet-and-greet with the university's president, Steve Muller, and got dressed up in suits and ties, believing this was a real hoot. No one noticed, but we thought it was pretty fucking cool.
And as our college years proceeded, JB and I were on different sides in the petty political squabbles that define campus life: he was involved in student government and I was an editor at the twice-weekly newspaper. The two factions didn't get along. In 1975, he organized the annual Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium, quite an impressive one, actually, that featured Russell Baker, David Halberstam, Pat Oliphant, Carl Bernstein, a debate between Pat Buchanan and Seymour Hersh and Stan Lee. JB didn't appreciate the News-Letter's irreverent, drug-tinged coverage of his events. When the Student Activities Council tried to withhold funds from the paper later that year, JB was on the side of the First Amendment enemies: only a mass-petition drive saved the paltry $5000 we received from the school.
Anyway, after graduation, we'd grown up some, and both recognized that stupid clique politics shouldn't stand in the way of a new enterprise. Grudgingly, Alan and I accepted that JB was a real find, a guy who could take over production and add a crucial element to the embryonic newspaper. Because he's German, and was in his youth very strident and controlling, a lot of staffers called him "Der Nazi" behind closed doors. One day, on deadline, he reduced a tough-as-nails reporter, who doubled as proofreader, to tears when he said "Sorry, no more corrections, no more paste-up, out of my room!" He mellowed considerably as the years wore on, but never lost his creative vision.
JB offered this anecdote from those long-ago days: "You might recall that I kept delivering my allotment of 7500 papers to locations in Fells Point up till November, '79, even though by then we had a circulation department.
"What generally happened was that, after driving the boards to the printer in West Virginia (supplementing my weekend sleep with a hit or two of speed), and returning at about 2 a.m., I'd get a few hours of sleep, arrive at the office on N. Charles St., clean up and then do my rounds. I always looked kind of beat. The bartenders in Fells Point got to know me quite well. I'd start on the northwest side, drop a stack of papers in a pub, and the bartender, seeing that I looked tired, always offered me a shortie. This happened in every bar. By the time I hit the Cat's Eye, I was trashed, and the bartender there would give me another beer.
"Obviously, first thing in the morning on Wednesday I'd be back in the office, hungover, and by noon we'd be stoned. I think that I eventually snapped, and you and Alan packed me off on a vacation. I never delivered papers again."
We had a delightful meal last Wednesday night at Honmura An, my favorite Japanese restaurant in the city (not as celebrity-saturated at Nobu), one that Mrs. M and I frequent often. While catching up on current events, trading snapshots of our kids and indulging in stories from Baltimore, we ate very well: Japanese rare roast beef, asparagus salad with a rich sesame, sauce, smoked salmon with sweet onion and dill, fried chicken meatballs, bowls of udon noodles with monstrous tempura shrimp, steamed seafood dumplings and sashimi. JB and Mrs. M ordered a sea urchin special that looked to me like the aftermath of a bum's Wild Irish Rose dinner. But they ate every bite, along with the raw shrimp on the side.
I told JB that Jim Brady, the well-traveled writer (his latest book is The House That Ate The Hamptons) whose columns appear nearly everywhere, had mocked me a few days earlier in Crain's New York Business. But it was a friendly, Ghostbusters slime, in retaliation for my comments a few weeks ago about his wearing a button-down shirt with a double-breasted suit at the 40th anniversary party for the Four Seasons restaurant. I simply can't let a sartorial faux pas such as that go without mention. Brady's not strong on the facts, but his piece was pretty funny. He wrote: "We were then joined by... Russ Smith, who is editor and publisher of a strange but wonderful weekly broadsheet called New York Press, which has fine color photo reproduction, Crayola cartoons and splendidly opinionated columns, which go on for pages. Mr. Smith, conservatively dressed (for a Menshevik), is a Harvard man, which always kills me, and so when he began asking 'innocent' questions, I fell swiftly into his cunning trap and gave an exceedingly long account of Coco Chanel's funeral in 1971." I can only imagine he was taking a dig at me with that Harvard slur, and a biting one it is: the city's media elite is littered with that school's graduates, almost all of them sucking up to each other and networking in an early-90s sort of style. But Brady's a good sport, a guy who's been around the block and a Democrat who, I'll wager 20 beans, won't be fooled by Hillary Clinton, but will instead pull the lever for demagogue Rudy Giuliani. Those two candidates are so odious that I'm in a quandary myself; but the prospect of picking up a GOP senate seat surely tips any smart voter in the Mayor's favor.
The rest of the week proceeded in slow motion: we dropped the kids off at camp, had sandwiches from the spectacular Columbine for dinner (or else chicken taquitos from Tribeca's Gloria's), read MUGGER III a bunch of books at bedtime and marveled at Junior's fascination with the first Austin Powers movie. On Saturday, I caved in to the boys and took them to Toys R Not Us at Union Square, bought Lego, Star Wars action figures and a bunch of slimy rubber worms and centipedes from the vending machines. Mrs. M has no patience for those gloppy creatures, and so they're confined to the kids' bathroom, where they've constructed a fantasy world of their own. We also dropped by 333 for a couple of hours, making a pit stop at the Healthy Choice deli for chips and soda-the water was turned off again-and while the kids played, Andrey Slivka and I tried to mop up the mess John Strausbaugh and Lisa Kearns had left before going to Italy.
A Slow News Week Taking note of the continuing, and shameless, nonstop media coverage of the Kennedy-Bessette tragedy is unavoidable if you're a sentient being, especially in New York City. A number of disparate observations struck me during the last week, sedated though I was by the crass commercialism on eBay, the JFK Jr. shills-for-hire on tv (historian Douglas Brinkley, brilliantly dubbed "the William Ginsburg of the Kennedy death circus" by Slate's David Plotz, is only the most obvious example, perhaps followed by George contributor Al D'Amato) and endless loops of Jack and Bobby Kennedy's funerals and Uncle Ted's eulogies. It's not as if this footage is unfamiliar: every time there's an anniversary of a Kennedy death (but not of the deaths of Bobby's sons David and Michael), the same scenes are broadcast on almost every television station. And if I hear or read one more time the comment from Ed Koch that he'd sent Kennedy a note after the latter failed his bar exam, telling him it was no big deal, after all he flunked the exam too and became mayor, I'll don a Rudy Giuliani mask and tap Koch on the shoulder at his favorite Village restaurant.
I have no idea why so many newspaper columnists had to write five or more pieces on the catastrophe: it's not as if they added a single new insight. Locally, I found Newsday's Ellis Henican over the top when he declared last Sunday that the media deserved praise for its intrusive coverage: "I am not at all ashamed of my business this week." Henican's co-perpetrator, Jimmy Breslin, perhaps with the help of Jesse Jackson, upped the ante on the same day: "On North Moore Street, hour after hour, for days and nights, there were these silent throngs appearing out of the hot sun and darkness, people of so many colors and oblivious of it, that they put a thrill, and so much hope into the night. There has no been no sight like it since 1968." What "thrill" and "hope" of '68 was Breslin daydreaming about? The assassinations? Vietnam? Chicago's Democratic Convention? The riots in several major cities? The Tet offensive?
As for all the "hope" at the carnival on N. Moore St., it's actually fairly revolting. We have a new tourist destination in Tribeca; aside from the ever-present tv crews there are double-decker buses parking on the corner and people slurping ice cream cones while they wait on line to get a gawk at the shrine. One visitor, a Russian who now lives in Texas, asked a local, "Which way is N. Moore St.? And where is 5th Ave.? Also, is Washington, DC nearby?" As Michael Wolff writes in the Aug. 2 New York, "[I]f you had gone down and hung around the TriBeCa stoop when they were alive, you'd have been arrested as a stalker." (Wolff's piece "Kennedy With Tears" was better than most, but ended with his signature twist that leaves you wondering "Say what?" His last two paragraphs: "The Kennedy-family business isn't politics; it's death, and the fantasies that death allows. We are ennobled by the grief we share with the Kennedys, and by the better, more interesting lives we've all lost without their sons.
"Apparently, we need this."
In contrast, The New Yorker's John Seabrook, in the Aug. 2 issue, romanticized Kennedy's Tribeca residency. You know what? John actually ate at the diner Socrates! He petted dogs on the street! He rode his bike to work like an "urban knight"! And he joined community members to oppose a multiplex movie theater across the street from his apartment, "helping to preserve the integrity" of the neighborhood. Frankly, I was for the project. Tribeca's expanding at such a clip, with new restaurants opening monthly and with no objections, that I felt he just didn't care for the multiplex's proximity to his loft.
The Post's Andrea Peyser, inadvertently injecting some levity into her sloppy, sentimental writing, came up with this whopper on July 24. "His spirit belonged in the wind. Yet the official memorial took place uptown, in the pricey reaches of the East Side that John Kennedy long ago abandoned for downtown funk." I haven't heard the word "funk," unless ironically, in years; but what kind of fool is Peyser to describe Tribeca, the most affluent part of town other than the Upper East Side, as funky? I applaud the Post's practice of employing a lean editorial staff-The New York Times in particular would benefit if it trimmed its workforce by half-but certainly there's an editor who realizes that Peyser, while she shouldn't be drummed out of the business, really belongs at a magazine like Tiger Beat.
But it was the Post's Steve Dunleavy who took top honors for whoring a celebrity story. On July 23, he wrote: "Life goes on, yet you wonder why the Kennedys have been handed so much premature death. It doesn't seem fair. And it isn't." And the next day: "Well John-John we did know you because you let us know you and that makes you a real New Yorker. We kidnapped you and thank God you went along for the ride." Right, so Dunleavy could milk two weeks of easy gibberish passed off as prose and collect a paycheck.
But examine Dunleavy's slipshod collection of columns (and I say that even though I agree with many of his political opinions: it's just that he's a shitty writer) from the past 12 months and you'll find a different view of the Kennedys. For example, on July 27, 1998, in a piece about Bill Clinton's subpoena to appear before Ken Starr, he wrote: "The master of the media game was a wise old owl called Joe Kennedy who knew edition times of newspapers as well as most editors. He would tell his sons, and believe me they took notice of him: 'Break bad news on a Friday, because the edition times are earlier and the newspapers are smaller.' I have seen the Kennedys, for the last 30 years' worth of scandals, do exactly that. I even co-authored a book with my colleague Peter Brennan about just how the wild, wild Kennedy boys played all of us reporters like violins."
And then on November 24, 1998, in an article about District Attorney Robert Morgenthau: "With the exception of Morgenthau's habit of hiring members of the Kennedy family who are academically challenged, he has proven to be a steady and decent prosecutor."
The Post's "Page Six," choosing to ignore Dunleavy's rank hypocrisy, nonetheless nailed Daily News columnist Mike Barnicle for the same sin. And the lazy Barnicle has been shameless: ubiquitous on the tube, up in Massachusetts, trying to buy his way back into the media elite with dewy-eyed reporting on the tragedy. On August 14, 1997, Barnicle trashed JFK Jr. in The Boston Globe, calling him "dim-witted," with an "empty head," and said: "Thinning bloodlines present more of a threat to Irish-Americans than thinning hairlines or waist sizes larger in circumference than the Mir spacecraft. And JFK Jr.'s monthly missive in his spectacular glossy 'Woodrow,' is another indication that the Irish are in danger of getting so Wasped-out that they could eventually lose all ability to marry outrage and anger to wit and insight and get paid for it." In his Sunday column, Barnicle, still bitter about his justified firing from the Globe last year, blaming "small publications" for the dismissal rather than his blatant plagiarism, wrote that Kennedy was a gentleman about the '97 column, and "proved to be far more forgiving than I would have been under similar circumstances."
At the other extreme, The New Republic commissioned the tiresome Neal Gabler for a highbrow article, imaginatively headlined "The People's Prince," for its Aug. 9 issue. After reading the following tripe, maybe you'll think it's best to stick to the tabs: "For JFK Jr., the extremes were indeed extreme-the promise of his life and the tragedy of his death. Unlike most celebrities, he was born of gods-the son of an improbable marriage between the Apollo and Aphrodite of American politics and the grandson of the Zeus and Hera of twentieth-century America, Joseph and Rose Kennedy. Hubris, the bane of the classical hero and the occupational hazard of the modern celebrity, was in his blood, though in the case of the Kennedys the sense of ease and entitlement, the feeling that there were absolutely no limits to their dreams, presented itself less often as overbearing arrogance than as confident charm."
Yes, Neal, Teddy Kennedy's blaming a family curse for his reckless actions at Chappaquiddick 30 years ago was indeed charming.
Here's something I don't quite understand. It's agreed that JFK Jr. was dealt a royal flush in life's lottery; that he chose not to play that hand especially well is not for others to judge, but it does make you wonder. For all the talk about the Kennedy family's intense loyalty-which for the most part is on the mark-the slain President's son doesn't fall into that category. How else to explain his obscene cozying up to Larry Flynt just a few months ago at the White House Correspondent's Dinner in Washington, DC? He embraced a man who, years ago, published nude photos of his mother, the woman who's rightfully praised as a shrewd lioness who consciously attempted to keep her two children out of the media's glare, and frowned upon their consorting with the wilder Kennedy cousins. If it was your mother whom Flynt had exploited in his trashy Hustler, would you suck up to him years later?
Similarly, as I wrote a month or so ago, I don't understand why Kennedy accepted ads from the NRA in his magazine George. It wouldn't make business sense to turn down the cash, especially for a floundering publication on the verge of extinction, but you'd think that a man whose father was murdered by a gun-wielding assassin would have such a visceral emotional reaction against the NRA that he'd refuse the ads. It just shows me that young Kennedy was a little bit off.
Another common thread to the coverage in the past week was that JFK Jr. wasn't fully formed, that he had all this potential just waiting to explode. That's wishful thinking on the part of Kennedy loyalists like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and contemporaries who wanted him to make his career in politics. The man was 38; surely too young to die, but it's not like he was a kid in college who didn't know what he wanted to be when he grew up. Had Kennedy reached the age of, say, 50 and still not entered politics, sycophants like Douglas Brinkley would no doubt still be saying he was biding his time.
On Chris Matthews' Hardball last week I saw Mort Zuckerman and Jerry Nachman, expressing their sorrow and respect for Kennedy, and they related stories of how he'd gently chide them for their respective tabloids' relentless coverage of every move he made. But if he was really troubled by the paparazzi, why would he play Frisbee in Central Park without a shirt on? Obviously, he liked to show off his fine physique and enjoyed the attention. Also strange was the near-nude photo he published of himself in George that accompanied his editor's letter chastising his cousins as "poster boys for bad behavior." That sort of decision simply doesn't square with the Kennedy family's reputation for unswerving Irish loyalty.
Perhaps the most galling sentiment heard on television shows was that JFK's assassination was the key event in American history this century. That's perhaps true for a portion of the populace, the Boomer generation specifically. I don't exclude myself from this group. I remember exactly where I was when the President was shot-on a school bus coming home when the normally jolly bus driver Paul told the mass of third-and-fourth graders to shut up and pray for Mr. Kennedy. And when I got home from Sunday school two days later, I witnessed, along with my mother, the live killing of Lee Harvey Oswald. To an eight-year-old boy, it was both thrilling and frightening.
But certainly to the World War II generation, who saw friends and relatives die with numbing regularity and who'd lived through the Great Depression, JFK's murder, while politically charged and shocking, paled in comparison. And as for those who were born after 1963, many of whom are on the cusp of middle age, they're simply bored when their elders indulge in nostalgia with all that "Where were you when..." questioning. As The Washington Post's David Broder wrote last Sunday, the Civil Rights movement and the development of the atomic bomb, computers and the Internet-in addition to the two world wars and the Depression-are all more significant.
The Daily News' Jim Dwyer is an admirable city columnist; I don't often agree with his politics, but his prose is steady and well-reported. But even he fell prey to the Camelot dust that was scattered about the land in the past week. Writing on July 22, he made what I consider a preposterous statement: "[JFK Jr.] was the only infant to live in the White House this century; his father was the most famous murder victim in United States history; at a moment when many Americans first owned television, he was the first little kid they saw on the screen. And he was impossible to forget."
Dwyer's not a stupid man, and surely if he reread his piece he'd realize how filled with holes it was. Obviously, Abraham Lincoln, who presided over a civil war, ended slavery, and delivered a short speech, the Gettysburg Address, which was more powerful than anything Ted Sorensen wrote for John F. Kennedy, was "the most famous murder victim in United States history." And revisionists can't have it both ways: it's largely acknowledged that Kennedy won the 1960 election because of the televised debates. In fact, it could be argued that Little Ricky on the sitcom I Love Lucy was the first kid that a majority of Americans saw on tv. And though John Jr.'s heartbreaking salute to his father at the funeral in '63-it makes little difference that Jackie Kennedy rehearsed him for the moment-was poignant, in the aftermath of the assassination it was possible to "forget" the three-year-old, and most Americans did as they went about their daily lives. It was only later, when John Jr. was an adult and became a celebrity in his own right, that he regained the spotlight he'd held so briefly in the early 60s.
I'm against any sort of affirmative action; it's a destructive entitlement dreamed up by liberal (often wealthy) politicians seeking minority votes. Just one example of the havoc it can wreak is the city of Baltimore, where Mayor Kurt Schmoke has made a hash of its economy and inner-city neighborhoods, with the result of a mass exodus to the suburbs, in contrast to other urban centers to which people are moving back. Schmoke, a man of ordinary intelligence and extraordinary athletic ability, was whisked through Yale, Oxford and Harvard and then to a prestigious law firm. He was elected state's attorney in 1982, defeating a popular redneck from South Baltimore, and then became the city's first elected black mayor in 1987. Running for a third term in '95 against a popular white liberal, Schmoke, his record undistinguished, ran an unapologetic race-based campaign.
But affirmative action has always existed; it's just taken different forms, like the Old Boy Network, the clubbiness that allows children of privilege, like the Kennedys, into schools they'd be rejected from had they been born with different names. Likewise, it's rampant in the media and in politics. Yet for the life of me, I can't figure out why a lightweight like Albert R. Hunt is allowed to continue at The Wall Street Journal. Probably more than any other Beltway media insider, Hunt can be counted upon to champion the Democrats' agenda, and with a far more strident tone than his peers. His July 22 column on John Kennedy Jr., entitled "America's Family," was filled with the symbolism and the nostalgia for a long-ago era that make Hunt a fixture at DC cocktail parties, but did little to edify his readers. Most WSJ subscribers I know just skip his column; I imagine most of the paper's staff does as well.
What irked me about this particular Hunt travesty was his familiarity and cliches. Sargent Shriver is "Sarge"; William Kennedy Smith is "Willie"; he speaks of "the poetry of the Kennedys" and their "bedrock Irish Catholic faith." He ticks off the successes of the Kennedy cousins, singling out Maria Shriver for being a "prominent television journalist," Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Lt. Gov. of Maryland and, most laughably, Patrick Kennedy, the Rhode Island Congressman who's the chairman of the Democratic House Campaign Committee. He neglects to mention that the I.Q.-challenged Patrick is quite openly manipulated by Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. Perhaps the most amazing sentence in this embarrassing exercise in hagiography, one that makes Schlesinger look like Rush Limbaugh, is: "Unlike some other wealthy families, the Kennedys spend little time at polo or yacht clubs." This is ludicrous: more important to the family's mystique than any legislation that's been passed by a Kennedy, certainly more important than any article published in George, is the image of the Kennedys at play in Hyannis Port, playing touch football and sailing.
Hunt wouldn't include this particular anecdote about President Kennedy, public champion of civil rights, but Peter Collier, in the Aug. 9 National Review, did: "In one famous moment, when his brother was brooding in the Oval Office, Jack told a friend who noticed it, 'Oh, don't worry about Bobby: He's probably all choked up over Martin Luther King and the Negroes today.'"
On the other end of the spectrum, the churlish John Podhoretz wrote a scathing attack on patriarch Joseph Kennedy that ran in the early editions of last Wednesday's Post, before being yanked by editor Ken Chandler. It was inappropriate, certainly at that date, and was a not particularly clever take on an imaginary Faustian deal Papa Joe Kennedy made with the devil, which resulted in all the family's future fortune and tragedy. The telling paragraph, however, goes to Podhoretz's anger at what he perceives as the family's anti-Semitism. That anger probably motivated the column. He writes, in the voice of Satan: "I can't tell you how it filled me with pride just to know you back when you were America's ambassador to England, saying all those nice things about Hitler, doing everything you could to prevent Jewish emigration from Nazi Germany. Thousands of Jews died because of you. That was quite a demonic performance!" Podhoretz takes a swipe at Teddy Kennedy, too: "That Chappaquiddick business? He called on me to save him from a manslaughter charge. He'll be keeping you company when his time is up." But everything about Podhoretz is shaped by the Holocaust, and he used John Kennedy Jr.'s death to mount that soapbox again.
Then there's President Clinton, the First Emoter. I suppose he could've been more unctuous during the past week's events-he was almost restrained-yet he couldn't resist lying about being the first president to have John and Caroline Kennedy back to the White House for a visit. As many pointed out seconds after he made that smiling, warm statement, the Kennedy children were feted by Presidents Nixon and Reagan.
When Clinton weighs in on moral and spiritual matters such as the Kennedy/Bessette plane crash (or Littleton, Oklahoma City or Kosovo), it's not just instantly hollow and horrendously insulting. It's also tiresomely apparent that this man has forfeited his right to be the country's healer/griever. He isn't qualified. This man is an exposed liar, chronically insincere, a congenital phony. Is there anyone who isn't aware of the lip-biting, method-acting technique? Is there anyone who doubts Clinton's inner glee at the First Healer star turn an opportunity such as this presents? I wish there was a congressman who had the balls to make a speech in the House of Representatives proposing legislation that prevented impeached, disgraced presidents from expressing sorrow on behalf of the American people.
In Saturday's Boston Globe, John Ellis went against the grain of his fellow pundits, especially in that region, and wrote about the tv ratings race-not to mention the extra millions made by magazines with commemorative issues, the dirty secret that someone like Hunt would never admit. He was particularly on target with this passage: "Last Saturday morning, Barbara Walters abandoned the Hamptons and came clucking back to ABC headquarters in New York, talking on her cell phone down the Long Island Expressway about her 'personal friendship' with John F. Kennedy and what his death meant to the country.'
"There was a time, during President Kennedy's era, when Barbara Walters was just the host of a morning chat show. No one cared what she thought. No one would have thought to ask. But over the years, through some terrible, Hogarthian transformation, she has somehow become Babwa Wawa, the insufferably overbearing mother hen, smothering us with her claustrophobic self-importance and faux concern."
Finally, a friend in a different time zone sent me this message, disputing the notion that "obitutainment" is a latter-20th century phenomenon. He wrote: "People have feared and been fascinated by death forever. Private death, public death. It's the great theme. It's universal. Death is cathartic and thrilling. The death of a famous person is morbidly entertaining. In gentler times people would go to public hangings. Now that's entertainment.
"I don't think people today are any more 'addicted' to this sort of thing than they were in years and centuries past. But how news of a famous person's death reaches us keeps changing. Booth shot Lincoln and word spread faster than in previous generations because of the telegraph. Newspapers printed special editions. Ford's Theater became, and still is, a tourist attraction. JFK was assassinated and a lot of people watched tv for three days. The book depository in Dallas is now a strange museum. JFK Jr. goes down in a plane and you inform me by e-mail before I see the morning paper or turn on the television. Some people spent the week looking at old pictures of John-John on CNN. This is obsessive behavior, but then it always has been."
Trailing the Bad Guys Briefly, a few words about state and national politics. One result of John Kennedy Jr.'s death, I predict, will be Hillary Clinton deciding not to run for Senate in New York after all. She can dream up a handful of explanations: her work as First Lady, the importance of electing Al Gore, family obligations, blah blah blah. But with her poll ratings slipping, and with the death of Kennedy-which only exposes Clinton as a crass opportunist, a third-rate substitute for the charismatic candidate that New York Democrats yearn for-I'll bet she takes the money and stashes it away for some other use. Her replacement? No, not Nita Lowey; she can't win. It'll be Bobby Kennedy Jr., and he'll defeat Rudy Giuliani in a close election. Kennedy has previously opted out of the race, citing his five young children, but his father had even more kids when he was attorney general, and then a senator and presidential candidate. Besides, with JFK Jr. gone, the media will demand Bobby's candidacy.
Hillary's diminishing desirability was powerfully expressed by Democrat Bartle Bull in the July 21 New York Post. He writes: "New York Democrats face an ugly decision. Do we support her, thereby disregarding a lifetime of dishonesty, and accept policy and party as substitutes for integrity? Or do we support Mayor Giuliani, a person of integrity and intelligence and energy, one of the best mayors in our lifetime, but rather unpleasant and overbearing, and a man often unable to discern when to be tough and when to be accommodating? As a lifelong active liberal Democrat, I find the choice not difficult. In all our campaigns, we were trying to work for decent and intelligent government. Neither Clinton can give us that. It is not in their character; and their hands are too dirty."
There were two delightful stories in last Sunday's New York Times. First, a front-page report by Don Van Natta Jr. describing how the Democratic Party, spooked by Gov. George W. Bush's popularity and fundraising prowess, is seeking "to raise an unprecedented amount of the unregulated party donations known as soft money, perhaps as much as $200 million by November 2000." This news is not good for Vice President Gore, who, along with President Clinton, has continually called for campaign finance reform. But what's another example of raw hypocrisy to the free-fall Gore campaign? In Monday's New York Post, Ellen Miller, who heads Public Campaign, "a grass-roots group pushing campaign-finance reform," said: "Hypocrisy knows no bounds. It's no surprise. But the boldness of it is." Miller predicted the money chase will "backfire on all the candidates," but I doubt Bush is too worried. Last time I checked, he hadn't accepted money from Buddhist nuns or agents of the Chinese government.
As of my deadline, the Times editorialists hadn't yet commented on this contradiction. I can't wait.
Inside Sunday's first section, Richard Berke, in a story that had to be assigned, given his obvious political bias, wrote about the resurrection of President Bush, who is now more popular than when he was defeated by Clinton in 1992. Berke quotes Robert Teeter, a key operative in Bush's unsuccessful reelection effort: "People just automatically say 'If this guy [Gov. Bush] is George and Barbara Bush's son, we don't have any question about those personal qualities that we were fooled on by Clinton.' That's where his family heritage really works for him." In another quick turnaround, Berke ascribes President Bush's high polling numbers to the fact that people confuse him with his son; as recently as three months ago, the Texas governor's popularity was dismissed by people who insisted that respondents were just mixing him up with his father.
Syndicated columnist Bob Novak wrote last week that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge is out as Bush's veep choice. It was a thin argument: he bases this tip on a Bush aide's visit with a "prominent Roman Catholic archbishop," who assured the adviser that Ridge's pro-choice stand on abortion just wouldn't do. I don't believe it. One, Novak has always had a soft spot for Michigan's Gov. John Engler, a popular politician who presides over a key swing state. Two, it's likely that the hard-right faction of the Republican Party, pissed that Bush isn't taking any orders, sent Novak out on a Paul Revere to spread their gospel. Engler, unlike Ridge, didn't serve in the Vietnam War, a huge problem for Bush, whose stint in the Texas Air National Guard has caused a silly amount of attention in the mainstream press. Novak writes: "Might not a warrior on the ticket counteract criticism of Bush's wartime service with the Texas Air National Guard? Not if he is pro-choice. This is still the pro-life party, and abortion trumps military service-particularly if the abortion rights defender is a Catholic."
Al From Baltimore Reports July 25: After reading Al Hunt in Thursday's Journal, I'm convinced that he and his ilk are partially responsible for the degradation of our culture and for things like the massacre at Littleton that flow from that cultural emptiness.
To make heroes of JFK Jr. and the rest of today's Kennedy Clan is craziness. Hunt's contention that some people are merely celebrities because they're well-known and that others are famous because of what they accomplish makes no sense. All that the latter-day Kennedys have accomplished flows from their name and the accomplishments of two Kennedys, JFK and RFK. John Jr. would not have started George without his name. He wouldn't have been People's sexiest man alive if he wasn't JFK Jr. Patrick Kennedy wouldn't be in Congress and contemplating moving into the Senate were it not for his birthright.
And Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, by all accounts a fine woman and Maryland's lt. governor, was plucked from relative political obscurity (she lost a race for Congress in '86-too liberal) purely because she was a Kennedy and because of the money and political clout that attends the family.
And let's be frank. Current family Patriarch Ted has lived off the family reputation for so long, promoting a politically irrelevant agenda of social welfare and dependency that has been so hurtful to so many people for so long. All the while he's basked in the residual glow reflected from his brothers' accomplishments while posing as the Tribune of the Little Guy. And partying hearty at the same time.
If Ted Kennedy is remembered as one of the half dozen most influential senators of the century as Hunt predicts, it will simply be because he was his brothers' brother, and capitalized on it. Not because he missed the turn away from socialism and holds onto discredited ideas to this day.
All of which is to say that Hunt and his media collaborators do a tremendous disservice to the culture when they elevate celebrity to the status of royalty over and above real achievement. Our political life becomes just another tv soap opera. For the media elite, the Kennedys are well-known characters with great Q ratings. Who wants to go to the trouble of introducing a whole new cast of characters?
Think about Newt Gingrich. He became cast as the heavy. He was an ambitious, articulate politician who became the J.R. Ewing of the political saga. While the Kennedys were promoting primarily their own political careers and usefully relevant side projects (cleaning up a river, becoming environmental lawyers), Gingrich led a powerful political movement.
July 26: How does all of this tie into Littleton? Rob Long had a brilliant piece in The National Review where he made this point: the only thing it takes to wantonly take another human life is to be completely indifferent to the suffering of other people. It doesn't even take a gun, although a gun can make it easier. And if we do in fact have more people like this, it's because our society anesthetizes us to the everyday world around us-family, friends, schools. The anesthetic is countless hours of video games, online activity, movies and 20-plus hours a week of television. John Jr. is just another dead guy on tv. But this time we're told to cry instead of laugh. When we grieve so out of proportion to our relationship to someone or to what he did for us, we trivialize the real sadness and sorrow that eventually touch everyone, and we make that emotion less real.
As tragic and terrible as the Littleton shootings were, did the "national mourning" promoted by the media really do anything other than to get people to watch more tv? The media, in writing the conclusion to The Camelot Hour, only served to divert us from the smaller, more important work of looking after our families, friends and communities.
As a nation, we're all better off if we let the Kennedys grieve for the Kennedys, and I, for example, try to figure out how nine-year-old Sam can better cope with getting caught in a rundown between home and third (yesterday at a family softball game) or how to keep Annie away from AOL for a day or two. It seems a smaller thing than grieving for John John, when it fact, it's much, much bigger.
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