How unfortunate that John F. Kennedy, Jr. was born to a celebrated family within a culture whose only functioning mental attribute is its terribly selective memory.
With the death of JFK Jr., his wife Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy and her sister Lauren, the American public and the rest of the world is in mourning (at least according to the headline "Death of a celebrity in the global village touches us all" in the Sydney, Australia Morning Herald). But who, exactly, is being mourned?
Sadly, it doesn't take long to determine that few are mourning either woman. Neither had been a part of American popular culture long enough to be "valued" by the masses. Proof that Carolyn and Lauren are taking a backseat can be found on the covers of Newsweek and Time, both of which feature full-page photos of Kennedy alone. His wife's picture can be found, however, on the cover of Maclean's, also the only major news magazine that includes her name on the cover.
It is, without a doubt, the man once known as John-John who is the subject of America's tears. Three incarnations of Kennedy seem to be continually cropping up in everyone's thoughts, none of which are the genuine article.
Many Americans appear to be mourning a three-year-old boy. When the elder JFK was assassinated, his son was seen saluting at the side of the road as the funeral procession passed. The image of that toddler has been broadcast innumerable times since the Piper Saratoga went missing. Not surprisingly, Kennedy claimed he couldn't remember the funeral, but that image became ingrained on popular culture's selective memory. Many individuals still see Kennedy as the innocent in short pants. Probably not the way he would have liked to be remembered.
A second JFK Jr. who is being remembered is the politician that never was. Born into "Camelot," it seemed Kennedy's destiny to pick up his father's dropped sword. Had Kennedy wanted the key to the Oval Office, it would have been his, but he opted for other paths. His last direct involvement with politics came in 1988 when he spoke at the Democratic National Conference. Still, it was hoped that JFK Jr. would restore the Kennedy kingdom. His law degree furthered that hope. For many, the hope was only lost last week when Kennedy himself was lost.
The third, and perhaps least fair, of the ways that Kennedy is being remembered is as a clone of his father. No matter what JFK Jr. did, he was unable to escape his father. When Buzz Aldrin addressed a crowd at Kennedy Space Centre the day after the crash, he talked about what a great man JFK Sr. was. An African-American woman, when asked on the street how she felt about Kennedy's disappearance, talked about the efforts the elder Kennedy had made in the cause of desegregation. There is no dishonor in being linked to one's father, especially one so great, but there comes a point when a man must be recognized for his own merits.
JFK Jr. was not without merit. Perhaps the most notable of those merits was his resolution not to let his ancestry determine his destiny. Although Kennedy received his law degree, as many of his family members had, he chose Brown University rather than the traditional family school, Harvard. While many Kennedys follow the tradition that JFK Jr.'s great-grandfather John Francis Fitzgerald started by going into politics, Kennedy found his true calling as Co-founder, President and Editor-in-Chief of George. While Kennedy had no formal training as a journalist, he grew up under constant media scrutiny, which is perhaps the best education for that field. Combined with his essentially inborn knowledge of politics and slightly irreverent sense of humor, Kennedy's knowledge of media culture made for a magazine ahead of its time. George combines political punditry with acerbic humor and a feeling for popular culture like that found in Details or Icon.
While the magazine may have been Kennedy's finest accomplishment, he will, as an unfortunate circumstance of our society, be remembered for his bloodlines, and as a man who he wasn't rather than for who he really was: a journalist, a man who shunned the spotlight, and a man who appeared to have the red carpet of destiny laid before him, but still went his own way.