Dredging up the old myths

JFK lied to the American public, which made him an unworthy President, just like Bill Clinton
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The Independent Culture
"IT DOESN'T matter what you are. It only matters what people think you are." Joe Kennedy, bootlegger.

It is not much of a family motto, but this was the favourite saying of John Kennedy Junior's paternal grandfather, the lying, cheating adulterer whose illegal activities during Prohibition laid the foundations of the Kennedy fortune, and whose philosophy of life laid the foundations of the Kennedy myth.

What, other than the most empty of myths, could be built from such a cynical directive, one that advises that personal morality is irrelevant, that instead the important thing is to nurture an ability to hide your corruption behind an elaborate edifice of bright, shining lies?

Joe Kennedy could not have known that his sons would learn his lesson so well, and that one of them would create around himself the ultimate in empty American myths, that of perfect-knight-as-President. He could not have known that the sordid facts that gradually emerged after the awful killing of his most famous son would test the family motto, or that late-20th-century American history would find it, in part at least, to be true.

Times have changed since John Fitzgerald Kennedy led America in the early Sixties. Back then it was possible for a US president to keep his sexual peccadilloes completely secret. Bill Clinton, who has himself milked the Kennedy myth in order to gain power, was unable to keep a lid on his own infidelities. But while this speaks volumes about the degree to which the media now reports on the private lives of public figures, it also says much about how unwilling we all are to let the facts get in the way of a good myth.

It has become a truism that the United States of America (and for that, as usual, read the Western World) lost its innocence on the day that John F Kennedy was assassinated. The idea behind this feeling was that even the man who embodied decency and hope for everyone could be wiped out by the forces of evil. While it has since emerged that this man was far from being an embodiment of goodness, the eternal flame still burns in his memory, in much the same way as revelations about Bill Clinton's personal life have done nothing to derail his own presidency.

The late John Kennedy Junior, though, did not approve of the Monica Lewinsky affair, and berated Clinton in the pages of his glossy political magazine, George. He did not have much sympathy, either, for his cousins Joe and Michael, whom he described as "poster boys for bad behaviour". It is safe to assume that John Kennedy Junior did not admire the patriarchal bon mot that has guided the rest of his family, either. So the fact that his sudden, early death has placed him back at the centre of the Kennedy myth, which his grandfather created, is a cause for sadness in itself.

John Kennedy Junior had set himself against that myth, but now he has been swallowed up by it. It doesn't matter what he was any more; it only matters what people thought he could have been. A few days ago he was the editor of a magazine that nobody really rated much; today he is the Kennedy who could have restored America's faith in the myth, had it not been for the curse that dogs his family. He would, we are now told, have run for public office, and inevitably have become the perfect King of Camelot that America yearns for.

While no one is yet speculating on whether John Kennedy Junior really would have been able to take up the mantle, and become a political leader who was the person he presented himself to be - a man devoted to public service as well as to wife and family - plenty of other things are being dredged up.

As I write, the bodies of John Kennedy Junior and those of his wife and sister-in-law have not been found. They may never be recovered, but surely we could have waited a little longer before trotting out pages of warmed- over gossip about the Kennedy dynasty, particularly about John Kennedy Junior's love life.

Isn't it a little early to read anything much into the fact that while the father had an affair with Marilyn Monroe, the son had an affair with Madonna, who has been known to dress up like Marilyn Monroe (and then told the world that he wasn't a very exciting lover)? Or is it some measure of our sophistication that while it took many years for the Monroe gossip to become acknowledged fact, the entire history of John Junior's sexual life can be reproduced around the world within 24 hours of his death?

Is this what loss of innocence amounts to? An obsession with sexual gossip, which floats around in the ether - meaningless, irrelevant, unshackled from value judgement - simply entertaining, even in the face of tragedy? John Junior, by all accounts, was himself obsessed with sexual gossip, and his magazine was an odd amalgam of politics and glamour.

In his death he has become his own magazine's perfect story, but it is hard to believe that the next issue will be illustrated with pictures of Daryl Hannah, Julia Roberts and all the other famous women with whom he had been linked. For it is here, in the sexual scandals of the Kennedys, that myth and reality become blurred in a manner that is unacceptable. And it is this compound myth - whereby we have all simply fed the truth into the lies, and decided that it is possible for a perfect president also to be a liar and a cheat - that should be laid to rest alongside poor John Kennedy Junior and his wife.

Several commentators, after the initial outpouring of the same old story, have pointed out what should have been obvious all along: the Kennedys are not cursed. They are, instead, reckless thrill-seekers. Jackie Onassis clearly knew this, which is why she made her son promise not to fly. Like any sensible mother she knew her boy, and knew he did not have the temperament for it. Curses don't make people kill presidents or presidential candidates. Curses don't make people drink and drive, crash cars, play risky games on skis or take heroin. The myth of the Kennedy curse should die with John.

So should all the other myths, particularly the big bad myth that Joe Kennedy propagated so long ago. What you are does matter. It matters more than anything. John F Kennedy lied and misrepresented himself to the American public, and that makes him an unworthy president, just as Bill Clinton - now leading the nation in grief - is an unworthy President. If the death of his father marked the end of innocence, maybe it is not too much to hope for the death of his son to promote a re-evaluation that may help us recapture some innocence.

I'd like permission to be innocent enough to assume that public figures are as they present themselves to be. I'd like to be innocent enough to assume that if it comes to light that they are not, then this is a breach of confidence that is punishable. I'd like to be innocent enough to assume that we shall be able to let the Kennedy's real legacy - the one that was handed down to us by Grandad Joe and that now dominates public life in the West - die along with this last young man in the line, the one who did not admire this gift from his forebears, and who lived his short life without subscribing to it.