Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias Stored in my mother's cedar chest are her fine linens, some beloved keepsakes, and copies of Life and Look magazines from that dreadful November of 1963.

Occasionally, when I think about it during a visit to the farm, I'll pry open the lid of the chest and carefully page through the magazines. They are filled with large photographs of President John F. Kennedy's arrival in Dallas. There are also pictures made from the famous Zapruder film that actually show him being assassinated.

And most heart-wrenching of all are the photos of the funeral party walking up Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation's capital, and of John F. Kennedy Jr., who had just turned three, saluting the caisson carrying his father's casket.

It's a scene that has been etched into the nation's conscience so deeply that time can do little to erode it.

Perhaps that explains the grief being felt by many Americans this week as they watch the Kennedy family deal with yet another tragedy.

But will the events of the past week compel my mother to save the latest news magazines as reminders of this latest loss to the Kennedy clan?

Probably not.

The circumstances are different with the death of President Kennedy's namesake, his wife and his sister-in law. Instead of experiencing the death of a political leader, we're experiencing the death of a symbol.

Michael Kelly, the editor of the National Journal, notes that the recent media effusion is not about what Kennedy did with his life, or indeed in any real sense who he was. It is about the death of someone whom the celebrity-media culture deems to stand for mass sentiments. That is a type of death that has become familiar, its most striking recent occurrence before Kennedy occurring in the demise of Princess Diana.

This gets fairly odd. Diana was a symbol of the horror of being a symbol. John Kennedy Jr. was not just a symbol but a symbol of a symbol; in fact, a symbol of a symbol of a symbol.

There never was a Camelot; that in itself was a symbol, a conscious (post-mortem) confection that was intended to evoke the sentiments of a musical based on a myth based on symbol.

This also gets fairly cynical. It is doubtful that very many people actually feel the death of John Kennedy in the manner that his uncle, Edward Kennedy, described: "unspeakable grief."

Indeed, the absence of true grief is what makes it possible to wallow in vicarious grief. The media understand and exploit this. People are product. The more symbolic the person, the greater value of the product. The deaths of John Kennedy Jr., his wife, Carolyn, and her sister Lauren Bessette are sad enough without being exploited. Three attractive and accomplished and relatively young people, with promising lives ahead of them, die in terror and violence.

But why can't we let it go? Why can't we leave the Kennedys alone as they cope with this latest family tragedy?

"Here was a royal fellowship of death," Shakespeare has Henry V declare after hearing the toll of French high-born slain in the battle of Agincourt. The same thought must have occurred often in thoroughly republican America following the disappearance of Kennedy's plane off Martha's Vineyard.

We have no royalty here, of course, but we do have the trappings of its modern version � the gossip magazines, bothersome photographers, family legacies and obligations � and by far the greatest part of them are visited on the Kennedy family, with its melodramatic history of striving and accomplishment, personal tragedy and untimely death.

John F. Kennedy Jr. appeared to bear the Diana-like attention to his every action with about as much good grace and humor as could be asked of him.

Now his accident will be relentlessly scrutinized, his judgment in making his last flight questioned, his youth, glamour and fine looks remembered, his family's many sadnesses clucked over.

I read this week that one of Kennedy's friends recalled that when Washington College in Maryland wished to confer an honorary doctorate on him a while back, Kennedy declined. He'd be glad to make a speech, he said, but he didn't think himself worthy of the degree. I suspect that there was a lot of Kennedy in that simple declaration, and it would be nice if his memory could be distilled in such a moment.

Such a memory is worth keeping in a cabinet, next to those of his father.

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