Monday, July 26, 1999 Published at 10:13 GMT 11:13 UK
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
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.
On Friday, a private memorial service in Manhattan was attended by members of the Kennedy family and President Clinton and his wife Hillary.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.