President Kennedy's son has led a life remarkable for its distance from political office, remarkable, in fact, for its difference from his father's. So for a man who strived to be known not as his father's son, but as a "normal guy," it's ironic that it's finally in his presumed end where he reminds us most of his father. Because in the reaction to this weekend's tragedy, we can still hear the echoes of the same gasp we heard nearly forty years ago, when his father was assassinated. Once again, we're reminded of an old wound that never quite healed.
Even if you were not yet born in 1963, you have not escaped the seismic force of JFK's assassination. Whatever your age, after all, you now live in a country that experienced the murder not only of a president, but of hope, and the dream of a new world. You live in a country where such a thing could have happened, and did. Not just once, but two more times: with Robert Kennedy and with Martin Luther King Jr.
Because of that earlier nightmare, we as a country became slightly sadder. Slightly more cynical. And slightly more wary, the way you get when you become accustomed to too many sucker punches, too many events unbelievable in the scope of their tragedy: the bombing of an Oklahoma office building, the brutal murder of O.J. Simpson's ex-wife, the explosion of a plane over the same waters where JFK Jr.'s plane went down. All of them followed by the same jarring disruption of order, the same supsension of sense and reality, the same excrutiatingly detailed TV coverage.
But it's a disaster that happened away from our shores that is most parallel to this weekend's: the death of Princess Diana.
In Diana's death, like John Kennedy Jr.'s, we experienced the sudden and shocking loss of royalty. For John F. Kennedy Jr. was our prince: the golden son of a royal dynasty, who, like Diana, struggled mightily for some normalcy, despite the weight of his name and the long dynastic shadow of his family. And despite the fact we crowned him without his consent.
Although he was such a reluctant prince, he was graceful in his reluctance. Which probably explains a good part of his appeal.
Yet at the same time we could not get enough glimpses of him, we also honored him for his struggle to be common, to swim outside of the fishbowl of media scrutiny.
Maybe because we all knew - probably he better than anyone - that he could never really be common. Not only because of our elevation of him, but because the shadows cast by his family are clouded in uncommon disaster. We all can repeat the familiar litany of the tragedies that have struck the Kennedy family - assassinations, car crashes, skiing accidents, young, tragic and needless deaths. This weekend, we wondered yet again how the Kennedys could possibly withstand another tragedy.
The disappearance and probable death of JFK Jr. has a final terrible symmetry. Not just because we have found ourselves gathered once again in the great communal room created by television - a medium which truly blossomed during the Kennedy administration. But because once again, a new generation will be defined, in part, by a single question:
Where were you when you heard about JFK?