Leading Article: There is still some meaning in the Kennedy myth

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The Independent Culture
BY THEIR deaths shall we know ourselves. As with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the response to the loss of John Kennedy Junior tells us a great deal more about the mass psychology of the living than it does about the deceased. For all the instant obituary eulogies about how the son of John F Kennedy might have gone into politics to take up his father's liberal Democratic torch, it should be recognised that for him, at the age of 38, that moment had probably passed. John Junior's achievement was to have carved out a constructive life for himself in the shadow of his great, myth-laden clan: he edited an intelligent political magazine and managed to avoid the self-destruction through drugs or alcohol that seems to be the fate of so many of those born with famous names and especially his particular name.

The significance of his death, then, lies in the vast emotional response to it, a testimonial to the power of the Kennedy myth. We all know, now, that it is a myth. We know that the dynasty was founded by a bully who made his fortune as a bootlegger, who regularly bought his children out of trouble. We know that, had he lived, John F Kennedy would not have been particularly well-regarded as a US president. His personal morals were worse than Bill Clinton's; his record was undermined by reckless adventurism in Vietnam and Cuba, and by the failure of his civil rights programme at home.

Yet the yearning for youthful, moral leadership which he embodied in 1960 has endured for nearly 40 years. The mourning for "America's favourite son" speaks volumes for the monarchical tendencies of the most strongly republican and meritocratic country in the world. All the old, unfashionable arguments for a royal family in Britain apply here: the need for a charismatic leader to act as social glue, to lend a sense of identity to a fragile and divided country. The themes are Shakespearian, the means - the politics of television and fundraising - are unmistakably modern.

Like the Diana myth, though, the Kennedy story is not solely the property of one country. JFK stood as a symbol of the world leader who was basically a "good man", who would use power as a force for moral progress. Diana's death was supposed to usher in a new age of emotional literacy in this somewhat repressed country - but it has not even taught the practical lesson of wearing a seat-belt in the back of a car.

It would be a fitting legacy if John Junior's death reminded America and the world of the high ideal of public service and liberal values that run through the Kennedy rhetoric. It is the Kennedy greatness to call us to a higher moral purpose, and the Kennedy tragedy that none of the family could fulfil that promise.