By all accounts he was a likeable young man who tried hard to make a career in magazine publishing and handled his inherited fame with self- deprecating humour and grace. Outside his own social circle, that is about all most Americans knew of him until his early death.
He never quite ruled out a life in politics. But his ambition, in so far as he seems to have had one, was to succeed in something else. The law didn't suit him. His magazine, George, an uneasy cross between Cosmopolitan and The New Republic, was losing money and the French owners were rumoured to be on the verge of closing it.
As for the suggestion that he might one day be president, this relatively unassuming young man of modest attainments would probably have laughed.
So is it any longer sensible to speak of a "Kennedy dynasty" and of the Kennedy family as America's "royals"? Surely not. The myth died a slow death between the summer of 1969, when the last of the three political brothers, Senator Edward Kennedy, ran a car off the bridge at Chappaquiddick and failed to save his companion, Mary Jo Kopechne, from drowning, and October 1979, when Ted Kennedy, assuming the episode to be past history, decided to challenge Jimmy Carter for the presidency. Anticipating he would run, the CBS television network had asked the senator for two lengthy interviews, to be conducted by its chief congressional correspondent, Roger Mudd. Kennedy agreed.
Mudd's interviews were searching, not hostile. Repeatedly he invited Kennedy, now that he was about to ask voters to consider him as presidential candidate, to say something that would satisfy public doubts about what really happened that night. Why, for example, had Kennedy waited eight hours before calling the police? Kennedy was having none of it. He insisted that all the facts were on the record - which, of course, they were not. But the killer question was a simple one. "Why do you want to be president?" Mudd asked. To the astonishment of millions of viewers, Kennedy, the most accomplished public speaker in American politics, had no answer. He waffled. It was as though he'd never thought about it, as though he thought his presidency preordained.
The search for John Fitzgerald Kennedy's plane coincided with the 30th anniversary of Chappaquiddick, reminding Americans of the Kennedy family's addiction to living dangerously. In 1984 one of the late Robert Kennedy's sons, David, died of a heroin overdose. More recently his brother, Michael, aged 39, was killed playing touch-football while skiing.
And now their cousin is killed at 38, an inexperienced pilot, flying on a dark night on his way to a Kennedy family wedding, via a notoriously difficult airport at Martha's Vineyard.
It is all deeply sad. Not least for Rory Kennedy, Robert's youngest child, born after his murder, whose wedding it was to be. A documentary-film producer, Rory is one of the few Kennedy cousins to have kept out of the media spotlight.
Perhaps they should all now be left to get on with their lives.
Charles Wheeler has been covering US affairs since the 1960sReuse content