Why do we still believe in Camelot?

The glory of the House of Kennedy is in the past; it is time to let the myth rest in peace
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YOU NEVER forget your first Kennedy. Like meeting a member of the Royal Family or the hottest Hollywood superstar, a glimpse of a Kennedy is something you tell all your friends and family about. You dine out on it later: what they looked like, what they said. You use words such as "charm" and "charisma", and perhaps "curse". But meeting a Kennedy goes far beyond touching a great Hollywood celebrity or shaking hands at Buckingham Palace. It is not about mere fame or glamour or ceremonial. It means coming face to face with one of the most legendary families in the most powerful nation on earth.

It also means plunging into a historical debate over the legacy of JFK and the real meaning of his court at Camelot. You argue about the Kennedys because, on the subject of America's best dysfunctional family, no one can remain neutral.

The death of John Kennedy Junior confirms that the Kennedy family continues to be this century's biggest-ever "What if?" question.

What if his father, President Kennedy, had lived? One view is that JFK would have saved the world from the disaster of Vietnam, and therefore spared us Nixon, Watergate, and America's corrosive cynicism towards politicians. The other view is that JFK was himself a phoney, always a hairsbreadth away from scandal and disaster, and that we would have woken up to his hypocrisy sooner rather than later.

In this view, rather than sparing us Vietnam, JFK was to blame for the quagmire. In his book The Dark Side of Camelot, Seymour Hersh argues that JFK has to shoulder ultimate responsibility for the murder of President Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963. This was the point at which Vietnam turned from being a South East Asian conflict to an American crisis.

"Vietnam," Hersh writes of JFK, "was his war, even after his death."

But the "What if?" questions persist, because the House of Kennedy is America's House of Agamemnon. It is America's very own Greek myth dogged by tragedy, hubris and Nemesis - Nemesis representing divine vengeance in humiliating those who have been most favoured by the gods.

So "What if" JFK had lived? Would we now remember how he faced down the Russians over the Cuban missile crisis? Or would we instead recall only the JFK who once told an aide, "You know, I get a migraine headache if I don't get a strange piece of ass every day"? And what of his successors?

Was JFK Junior ever going to rescue the American dream by running for the presidency? Or was he the last part of the fading Kennedy myth, collapsing under the awfulness of the reality?

My first Kennedy was 12 years ago, in a departure lounge at Washington National Airport. An enormously corpulent figure lumbered easily through the crowds like a red-faced Michelin man in a flapping grey suit. My companion spotted him first and nudged me in the ribs.

"Teddy Kennedy," he hissed. "It's Teddy Kennedy!" And then, as if I might not understand it really was the Senator from Massachusetts, JFK's last surviving brother, my companion nudged me again. "Chappaquiddick!" he whispered. "Mary Jo Kopechne!"

It was a quintessential Kennedy moment. First, the delight at being in the same room as American royalty, then a reminder of the scandals. Never one without the other. Every head in the airport turned in the same direction, a concourse full of nudges and whispers, confirmation that this was indeed one of the clan. Senator Kennedy was even celebrated on a bumper sticker at the time. He had been fighting against America's nuclear power industry after an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor. "Remember," the bumper stickers warned, "more people died at Chappaquiddick than at Three Mile Island."

I was profoundly disappointed at the thought that this roly-poly man was part of the Kennedy clan, because that meant he was also part of the myth, and the myth of Camelot moves us still.

It is the belief that the best and the brightest had been gathered together in Washington by a President whose life was then cut short by an assassin. The assassin represented the forces of American darkness - the military- industrial complex, war, racism, fanaticism, a cover-up - while the myth of JFK represented the light of tolerance, alleviating poverty, detente, internationalism, the Peace Corps.

Like thousands of tourists in pursuit of the myth, the first time I travelled to Washington I immediately made a pilgrimage to the Kennedy flame in Arlington National cemetery and then to the Kennedy Centre on the banks of the Potomac. I even visited Dallas and paced out in the baking heat the scene of the assassination, from the knoll where the supposed second gunman might have stood on the route of the presidential cavalcade in 1963. You can also visit the Dallas Conspiracy Museum which will baffle you with theories as to who really killed JFK - the Russians, the Cubans, the Mob, the CIA, the Far Right, or all of the above. The Kennedy assassination has become a Rorschach test for our age of anxiety and conspiracy. Choose your villain, choose your enemy.

Much of American politics ever since has been an attempt to reclaim the Kennedy mantle. Teddy Kennedy tried, but failed when the reality of his scandal overwhelmed the myth. In the 1992 presidential elections, Democratic candidates vied to announce that they were running for the White House in the Nashua, New Hampshire courthouse where JFK had announced his own presidential bid in 1960.

Early on the morning of his inauguration, Bill Clinton's first act was to go to Arlington to lay a red rose at the Kennedy flame. To don the Kennedy mantle has become the nearest the world's greatest republic has to the divine right of kings and, like all acts of religion, it is a matter of faith rather than reason. No matter what we learn of the dark side of Camelot, the brightness never diminishes.

When Jackie Kennedy died, every newspaper noted her marriage to Aristotle Onassis. Yet no one remembers Jackie as the ageing wife of a Greek millionaire. Every American recalls only the young and beautiful widow of their devastatingly handsome President. Jackie died, for ever young. JFK died, for ever young. Now their son JFK Junior has died and he, too, remains for ever young, and for ever part of the "What if?" of the Kennedy clan.

What really lives on is the best of the Kennedys, their ability to inspire. JFK announced that there would be an American on the Moon before the Sixties were out. There was. Exactly 30 years ago this week anyone in the world who had access to a television set stayed awake to watch those first steps for a man, those giant leaps for mankind.

Or there is Eunice Kennedy Shriver, largely unknown in Britain, the JFK sister who helped create that most wonderful institution, the Special Olympics for the mentally handicapped. There are still Kennedys in public office. One is in Rhode Island, another in Maryland; both are hard-working public servants. There is also a Congressman from Massachusetts who makes occasional forays into Irish-American politics.

But it was John F Kennedy Junior who, in his father's words, carried the torch into a new generation. There were those who assumed that his political magazine George was a hobby, filling in time until the glorious day when we should wake up and discover that another Kennedy was running for the White House, another JFK who would rescue America from the slime of politics. The truth is far more prosaic. The only Kennedy who really mattered died 36 years ago in Dallas. The What if? questions are pointless. There are no more worthy torchbearers. The glory of the House of Kennedy, like that of the House of Agamemnon, is in the past. It is time to let the myth Rest In Peace.

The writer is a presenter on BBC News 24