The Kennedy Crash: Shocked Nation - The most potent name in the US is missing, presumed now lost for ever

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The Independent Online
LIFE IN the America of politics, money, the media and the baby- boom generation was on indefinite hold yesterday, in anticipation of the truth that no one wanted to accept. The male line of JFK had ended; there would be no JFK III.

For more than 24 hours, the main news channels - networks and cable alike - had prodded, cajoled and shamed their contributors into speaking of John F Kennedy Jnr in the present tense.

By midday yesterday, though, with the US Coast Guard noting, almost in passing, that the period of "survivability" in the Atlantic waters had been exceeded, even the boundless optimism so unique to Americans was in retreat. The present tense was progressively yielding to the past, and no one was inclined to "correct" the error any more.

That the loss of JFK Jnr was a signal political event for America was clear from the start: from the delay in announcing that his small Piper plane was missing (six hours after its non-arrival was reported by the family) to the scale of the search, to the saturation coverage in the media, not just by the 24-hour cable channels, whose business is news, but to the networks, whose normal weekend fare is pre-recorded talk shows and films. Many a weekend of swimming and barbecues was interrupted as the luminaries of US broadcasting, the Tom Brokaws, Dan Rathers, Peter Jenningses and Larry Kings were summoned into work.

Not that they needed much summoning: these are the men of the JFK generation. The disappearance and likely death of JFK's only son is in a way the end of their story, too; the story that has framed their professional lives.

Their early tributes yesterday set the tone for what is likely to be a period of high-class mourning by America's liberal elite: for the Kennedy family, for their own gilded youth, and - with a tinge of self-centred arrogance - for America.

The Kennedy historian, Arthur Schlesinger, said in a special issue of Time magazine that JFK Jnr had been "liberated" when he took up flying and was a responsible pilot. But he also mourned what might have been. "JFK Jnr," he wrote, "cared too much about the state of the nation, especially about the increasing disparities of wealth and opportunity in American life, to live out his life as a spectator. He was destined, I came to feel, for political leadership."

In a detailed account of events leading up to John Kennedy Jnr's death, the magazine described him as "America's prince, an icon of both magic and grief" and expressed relief that his mother had not lived to see this day. "This woman who had taught the country how to mourn in grace, we could not have borne to watch her bury her son." There was heartfelt sympathy, too, for Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, John's sister, who is now the lone survivor of the JFK line.

Elders and contemporaries of JFK Jnr recalled the affecting pictures of "the boy we called John-John", saluting at his father's funeral at the age of three. It is an episode that John himself averred that he could not remember. But it was this innocent patriotism and family loyalty, as much as anything else, that had endeared John Kennedy to all Americans old enough to watch the funeral on television, and etched the hope that he would become the same, but different, sort of Kennedy in later life.

President Clinton, who consciously modelled himself on what he regarded as the best of the late President Kennedy (and found himself also emulating the worst) was kept constantly informed, Americans were told. Clearly concerned not to give a family tragedy - however keenly felt - the aura of a national crisis, he remained at the presidential retreat of Camp David rather than returning to Washington. But the White House said Mr Clinton had spoken by telephone to the head of the Coast Guard, Rear Admiral Richard Larrabee, who was directing the search operation around midnight on Saturday "to thank him for the work they have done ... and encourage him to go at it full bore in the morning".

The President's reticence was not matched, however, by other members of the US political establishment, who weighed in from both sides of the political fence to acclaim the presumed victim.

"John Kennedy Jnr," said Vice-President Al Gore, "has carried his legend with enormous grace ... America could use his grace and endurance right now." Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, and a Mormon, commended the Catholic Kennedys as "a family of great faith".

Most newspapers and magazines were also in posthumous tribute mode. "More tears," said the banner headline of the tabloid New York Post. "Even now," said The Boston Globe, "no words prompt so much anguish, so much grief, so much disbelief, as these: John F Kennedy is dead. Those words flew around the country ... in frantic electronic pulses, though this time it was not news of a president, but of his son."

While the tone of reminiscence nationwide has been predominantly elegiac and respectful, there have been exceptions, representing a populist strand of anti-Kennedy sentiment that accompanied the whole "Camelot" legend from the start. Such comments could be heard on the street and flourished on the Internet; their authors resent the family's money, object to the saturation television coverage, deplore the taxpayers' money spent on the search and even welcome a world with one fewer Kennedy.

Nearly all the tributes, however, were laudatory. One running theme was how different JFK Jnr and his sister, Caroline, were from the rest of the Kennedy clan, thanks - many commentators ventured - to the upbringing they had received at the hands of their mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

JFK Jnr, friends recalled, was gentle, and had impeccable manners, and always wanted to achieve something on his own account. He would not rely on the family name or money to make his way.

And yet, in his last action, it it tempting to see an element of the reckless bravado that has characterised so many male members of the Kennedy clan. Risks with drugs, drink, sex and fast cars have punctuated the family history from the bootlegging patriarch, Joe Kennedy, who made the family fortune during Prohibition, through the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick, to the most recently deceased, Michael Kennedy - son of the late senator and presidential hopeful, Robert - who crashed into a tree while playing a boisterous game of "ski-football" on New Year's Eve 1997.

John Kennedy Jnr had broken his ankle in a paragliding accident in May. When he set off, with his wife and her sister, to attend his cousin's wedding at Hyannisport on Cape Cod, he was just out of the heavy plaster cast, but still in a lighter splint, and still on crutches. A fellow pilot at the Essex County airfield in New Jersey saw his crutches put on board.

His aircraft, the turbo-charged Piper Saratoga was described by one flying buff as the "sports utility vehicle" of private planes - the American term for the giant four-wheel-drive cars that are much derided by saloon-car drivers as the bullies of the road. He had bought it only in April, and held his pilot's licence only 14 months. He was qualified, by virtue of additional lessons, to fly the Piper, but not "on instruments" - ie only when visibility was good enough to fly by sight.

The plane, it emerged additionally yesterday from the Coast Guard, was not equipped with life-jackets, life-raft, or an emergency beacon that would function under water. But then most of his trips - like those of very many American private flyers - would be over land, where such equipment is not a requirement.

According to the Federal Aviation Authority, which advises pilots on conditions, the weather on Friday night was sufficiently good to fly by sight and without a flight plan. However, one experienced pilot, Kyle Bailey, interviewed at the Essex County airfield the next day, said he had decided against flying the previous evening because of the haze, which could be treacherous, especially at dusk.

While the cause of the crash is far from being established, and could still be accounted to a catastrophic malfunction of the plane, the early theories focus on John Kennedy's limited experience in the cockpit of his Piper, the density of the haze and the tendency of the horizon between sea and sky to merge at dusk, disorienting less experienced pilots, and the loss of dexterity due to his ankle injury.

Why, it is being asked, given these limitations, did he decide to fly that night?

One theory is that he was doing his sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette, a favour: she needed to be in Martha's Vineyard that evening, and he wanted to oblige. He and his wife could spend the night on the island and fly on to Hyannisport for the family wedding next day. By all accounts, that combination of chivalry and bravado would have been typical.