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Monday, July 26, 1999 Published at 10:13 GMT 11:13 UK

World: Americas

Last of the Kennedys

A makeshift memorial grows outside JFK Jnr's residence

Charles Wheeler, a former BBC Washington correspondent who reported on the assassination of Robert Kennedy, reflects on the latest tragedy to hit the Kennedy family

Kennedy Tragedy
Last weekend, reports came through that a light plane was missing near Martha's Vineyard, a small island off the east coast of the United States.

It was Wednesday before the bodies of John F Kennedy Junior, a 38-year-old lawyer-turned-magazine publisher, his wife Carolyn and his sister-in-law Lauren Bessette were recovered from the sea.

Charles Wheeler explains what another Kennedy tragedy means to America
On Thursday, their ashes were scattered on the waves as thousands gathered in New York's St Patrick's Cathedral to pay their last respects.

On Friday, a private memorial service in Manhattan was attended by members of the Kennedy family and President Clinton and his wife Hillary.

Sentimental show

The air crash and its aftermath have been dominating the media in the United States.

Watching from a distance, it seemed to me that this was the week in which the American media - American television especially - succumbed to tabloid journalism at its sentimental worst.

[ image: Wheeler: End of the Kennedy dynasty?]
Wheeler: End of the Kennedy dynasty?
JFK Jnr's death was a tragedy for a family that has had a run of desperately bad luck for the last 35 years.

But it is not the national disaster the media has been trying to manufacture.

America has not lost the president, like John Kennedy, or potential president, like his brother Bobby.

Two families have lost children and the other family, the Bessettes, lost two, Carolyn - John's wife - and her sister Lauren.

Diana parallel

"He was America's prince," said Time Magazine across eight pages of pictures in the special commemorative issue: an icon of both magic and grief who flew his own course to the lost horizon.

[ image: Wheeler covered the 1968 shooting of Robert Kennedy]
Wheeler covered the 1968 shooting of Robert Kennedy
The nation's best-known newsreaders scored a television first by weeping to camera.

Another television celebrity drew parallels with the death of Princess Diana, expecting - even hoping perhaps - to touch off a wave of grief across America that would keep viewers glued to their screens for a month.

But Diana, whatever you may think of her, was in life a genuinely tragic figure. Kennedy was not.

Kennedy, in spite of being orphaned by the death of a father he was too young to remember, was the very opposite of tragic.

Every account agrees that he was a very nice man: courteous, considerate and unassuming.

But he was also a bit of a failure and a bit of a playboy. It was the combination of both that proved to be fatal when he chose the wrong time and the wrong route and got lost in the dark on his flight to that notoriously difficult airport at Martha's Vineyard.

Carolyn blamed

It was towards the middle of the week, after reporters had talked to pilots, and the word "irresponsible" was gaining ground that a story appeared in print saying it was really the fault of the two women who died.

[ image: The order of service for the Kennedy memorial mass]
The order of service for the Kennedy memorial mass
Reports suggested that it was Mr Kennedy's wife Carolyn who had insisted that they drop off her sister, Lauren, at Martha's Vineyard before flying on to the Kennedy family estate at Hyannisport, and that it was Lauren's late arrival for take-off in New Jersey that forced JFK Jnr to make the night flight and the two landings he dreaded.

The source of this story was not named, not for another couple of days, when it turned out to be an intimate of the Kennedy clan who, bidden or unbidden, was applying a touch of positive spin to the family reputation.

Chappaquiddick memories

That little sidelight took some of us back to another episode: Chappaquiddick in the summer of 1969, when Senator Edward Kennedy, the last of the three brothers, drove a car off a bridge, failing to save his female companion Mary Jo Kopechne from drowning, and waited eight hours before reporting the accident to the police.

Next morning, half a dozen Kennedy intimates, among them men still famous today, rushed to the family estate to give support and advice.

None of them has ever disclosed what was said or what alternative explanations they discussed.

Indeed, there has never been an explanation.

It was the cover-up that voters remembered when Senator Kennedy 10 years later ran for president.

Abuse of privilege

In a long, pre-arranged television interview he was invited repeatedly to say something about the tragedy that would satisfy the doubts of voters who felt that as a candidate for America's highest office he really ought to say what exactly happened that night.

Mr Kennedy clammed up, saying everything was on the record, which it was not and still is not.

But it was not so much the accident or the reports of drinking, or even the death of poor Mary Jo that people resented.

It was two things. First, it was the Kennedy family's misuse of its status and privilege to avoid any kind of accounting.

And second, it was Mr Kennedy's evident assumption that his presidency was somehow pre-ordained.

Death of a myth

Edward Kennedy has soldiered on as a senior senator, but he has not left much of a mark.

Chappaquiddick did more than put the brakes on his career, it killed a myth.

It broke a link in the chain that might have kept a Kennedy dynasty alive.

What is left is the name, the memories and a younger generation of Kennedys, among whom, several of the men have not been able to cope with their inherited glamour.

The younger Kennedy women have done better. There are still three or four Kennedys in politics, but they are on the margins, in the northeast, close to Washington, Manhattan and Boston, on home ground.

The country at large is barely aware of them. For most Americans, and nearly all the under-50s, the Kennedys are history, for better or for worse.

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