Politics & Policy

John Kennedy: Get Over It


In response to a column I wrote on Friday about getting rid of PBS, one of the more thoughtful of my liberal readers wrote in to say how “ignorant” I was about the topic. I wrote back saying that having worked in the orbit of PBS for the bulk of my professional life, I felt fairly confident in what I had written.

He responded that on “a day in which America has lost its prince your pettiness is a reflection of the right wing’s total lack of reality.”

Well, if that was a sign of my total lack of reality, they better send the white jackets and butterfly nets after me now.

The madness over the death of this man is what seems petty to me. Petty actually has two meanings. One is “ungenerous” especially in “trifling matters.” The second is marked by a narrowness of mind, ideas, and views.

The death of anybody is no trifling matter. But the coverage of this event has been stunningly narrow-minded. It is as if the same script had been distributed to everyone in the media. Already MSNBC is married to the notion that John-John was heading to the Senate and eventually the presidency. On the Today show this morning, an editor from People magazine explained how he had “done so much” with his life that being the Sexiest Man Alive was only one of his many accomplishments. According to the petty herd, he was a “prince,” a hero in an age without heroes, a man living up to the expectations of his president father.

Was John Kennedy charming? Undoubtedly. Was he good looking? Indisputably. Did he handle himself above the standard we have come to expect from Kennedys? Not exactly the equivalent of climbing the Matterhorn, but, yes, he accomplished that too. Was he a good son? A good friend? A charismatic fellow? A clever man? Did he handle the press well? Yes, yes, yes, and yes to a dozen other questions we can ask about people who have died young and who were liked by many.

Fine. But this man was no hero. He was no prince. And his death is a tragedy of strictly human proportions. Say this to a television producer or fluffy-magazine editor and you will get the same response you would get from someone at Sports Illustrated if you said the Superbowl was just a game. We live in a media culture that needs JFK Jr.’s death to be as cosmic and significant as possible.

The historian Douglas Brinkley, a friend of John Kennedy’s, whose first impulse upon hearing about his friend’s death seems to have been a mad rush to the press gallery, has been quoted far and wide about the death of his boss and comrade. Today, though, he writes a piece in the New York Times that is so profoundly absurd it bears special recognition because it distills the absurdity of the elite media reaction into a concise 500 or so words (he also managed to wipe the tears from his eyes long enough to write another heartfelt piece for Newsweek).

The death of John Kennedy and his wife has struck a “crippling blow” for Americans in their thirties, Brinkley writes in the Times. “It’s as if suddenly, an entire generation’s optimism is deflated, and all that is left is the limp reality of growing old.” “With his earnest demeanor, handsome countenance, and admirable devotion to being a socially responsible citizen, he was my generation’s photogenic redeemer.”

Rarely have so many stupid, untrue, and frightening ideas been crammed into one sentence.

Understandably, Brinkley devotes quite a bit of time to Kennedy’s only impressive professional accomplishment, George magazine (for those looking to his career as a district attorney for the meat of JFK Jr.’s heroic story, stop). Brinkley paints George magazine as some sort of populist manifesto. You see, according to Brinkley, John thought the market for his magazine was the “Pittsburgh steelworker,” the “Peoria housewife,” the “Fort Worth cowboy.”

I have written disparagingly of George magazine in the past (prompted by a silly squib about me). There is no reason to go down the list of George’s failings. It was a magazine dying under the weight of its own hypocrisy and silliness. Perhaps it will now receive the quiet death it so richly deserves. But one should be clear. The idea that George magazine was written for Pittsburgh steelworkers couldn’t be more dumb. George magazine is by, for, and about the Washington, New York, and LA chattering classes. It is a magazine that represents the very worst sort of celebrity journalism — the sort of journalism that is making such a big deal of Kennedy’s death now. To say it was “serious,” or “devoted to making the world a better place” seems more like ham-fisted revisionism than speaking well of the dead.

John Kennedy was by most accounts a decent guy. According to Brinkley, Kennedy was offered an honorary degree from Washington College in Maryland, largely for his charitable work. He agreed to speak at the graduation ceremony but only on the condition that he not receive the degree. He told Brinkley, “Ah, come on, you know I don’t deserve it.” Good for him.

One likes to think that that is precisely what he’s saying right now.


Congratulations to Chris Matthews! He is the king of the political talk shows.

After a head-to-head battle between Matthews and Tony Snow of Fox News Sunday, Matthews pulled out in the finals as the undisputed champion.


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