Drawn by the scent of blood in the water, the media have swarmed the crash site of John F. Kennedy Jr. While pedestrian reporters investigate the disaster, pundits debate the more entertaining question: Why does this keep happening to the Kennedys? Some say the whole family is “reckless.” Others argue that the Kennedys are admirably bold and that it’s unseemly to criticize them. Each camp oversimplifies the truth. There are two Kennedy traditions: courage, gravity, and martyrdom on one side; recklessness, frivolity, and mayhem on the other.
The “recklessness” spin, fueled by talk radio and the Internet, says the Kennedys seek “adventure,” “live close to the edge,” are “wild” and “addicted to risk,” and have a “dangerous streak.” This spin laughably equates all dangerous behavior. “Taking physical risks is a Kennedy family tradition,” says Newsweek. “During World War II, the oldest son, Joe Jr., … died on a virtual suicide mission. … Jack Kennedy chose PT boats, rickety crafts whose crews boasted that ‘they were expendable.’ Bobby Kennedy’s children always seemed to be falling out of trees.”
To prove that young John Kennedy was reckless, these spinners paste together weak bits of evidence. As a boy, he used to evade his Secret Service agents. He once took a survival course. Another time, he went to Africa and was charged by a rhinoceros. “He learned through all these experiences to make light of danger,” asserts Newsweek. Later, he enjoyed rock climbing, paragliding, scuba diving, kayaking, and Rollerblading. He asked permission to rappel down Mount Rushmore. He launched a magazine–demonstrating, according to Reuters, that “like other members of his legendary family, Kennedy had a taste for danger and took risks.” He invited Larry Flynt to a black-tie dinner. He even lived “in an edgy warehouse district.”
The “courage” spin puts an equally simplistic gloss of nobility on the family’s escapades. As questions about recklessness bounced around the Sunday talk shows, Kennedy pal Douglas Brinkley argued that “John Jr. and the Kennedy family [are] ‘in the arena,’ and they’re living a vigorous life.” “They’re bold,” agreed Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. “They have always had courage. They’ve always wanted to live to the fullest.” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen admonished critics, “It is an active family, an achieving family, and so its members have taken some chances.” The New York Times boasted that “the Kennedys have always been risk-takers, in play, politics and war. At its best, there is a certain nobility to the Kennedys’ refusal to let life intimidate them.”
But not all the family’s risk-taking has been “bold” or “wild.” Some Kennedys have been far more reckless than others. Was John Kennedy’s death reckless? Let’s consider the criteria.
1. Who caused the tragedy? Most of the coverage depicts John as the victim of a family “curse.” The Kennedys are “stalked by tragedy,” suffering “bad luck” or a “near-biblical blight” that has been inflicted, according to Mario Cuomo, by “gods.” Not only were Jack and Bobby assassinated, but “the younger generation of Kennedys has been haunted by bad news as well,” says the Post–“as if fate were picking them off,” laments Time.
This passive language obscures an important distinction. Whereas Jack and Bobby were murdered, the “younger generation,” far from being “haunted” or “picked off,” caused its own grief. Joe overturned a jeep, leaving his brother’s girlfriend paralyzed. Bobby Jr. introduced mescaline to his 13-year-old brother David, who eventually died of a drug overdose. Michael slept with his kids’ teen-age baby sitter and later skied into a tree. William Kennedy Smith, their cousin, went out on the town with Uncle Teddy, brought home a woman, and ended up being tried unsuccessfully for rape.
Which of these traditions does John Kennedy belong to? The Times argued that like Jack and Bobby, John was “cut down far too early.” Again, passive language distorts the facts. John was at the controls when his vehicle crashed–just like Cousin Joe and Uncle Teddy.
2. Who’s the victim? On Meet the Press, Tim Russert played the 30-year-old video clip in which Ted Kennedy tried to explain to the nation why, having driven his car off a bridge after a party on Chappaquiddick Island–and having swum to safety while his young campaign aide, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned in the car–he had failed to report the accident to police. In the clip, Kennedy raised the question “whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys, whether there was some justifiable reason for me to doubt what had happened and to delay my report.”
Russert offered the clip as an omen of the “curse” that would strike John Kennedy 30 years later. Russert’s guest, columnist Mike Barnicle, heaped praise and sympathy on Ted Kennedy for having “borne so many” family tragedies. Nobody pointed out that at Chappaquiddick, unlike Dallas and Los Angeles, the person most responsible for the tragedy was a Kennedy, whereas the victim was not–and that Ted Kennedy’s invocation of the family “curse” was a clever way of papering over these differences. Thanks to this blurring of the victim-perpetrator distinction, Ted’s nephew Joe was able to get elected to Congress despite his own car accident, which likewise devastated his passenger, four years after Chappaquiddick.
Which tradition does John Kennedy belong to? Most pundits, recalling Jack’s and Bobby’s assassinations, have cast his family as the ultimate victim of his crash. “Stop blaming John. It is enough that tragedy once again punished the Kennedys,” wrote Cohen. But attention is gradually shifting to the Bessette family, whose daughters were passengers on John’s plane. The Chappaquiddick analogies can’t be far behind.
3. For what purpose was the risk taken? To illustrate the Kennedys’ penchant for “adventure,” “recklessness,” and “disaster,” the Post compares John’s crash to the death of Joe Kennedy Jr., in a World War II bombing mission and to Michael Kennedy’s fatal “crash” into a tree while playing football on skis. Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter likens John’s flying to his father’s piloting of a PT boat in the war: “They both grabbed life by the lapels.” These comparisons obscure the difference between risking one’s life in war, as Jack and Joe did, and risking it playing football. Which tradition does John belong to? He was flying to a wedding–a more commendable pursuit than the one that killed Michael, but nothing like the war that killed Uncle Joe.
4. What precautions were taken? Critics point out that John Kennedy was an inexperienced pilot, took off after sunset, wasn’t licensed to fly in the poor visibility he encountered Friday, flew the more dangerous route over water, and never contacted air traffic controllers for assistance. His defenders point out that he was trained at a top-flight facility and usually brought along a flight instructor but that Friday’s weather reports offered no warning of poor visibility. Barnicle, like Cohen, argued that to accuse Kennedy of “poor judgment is way out of bounds,” because “he could just as well have been killed in a subway accident.”
By enumerating Kennedy’s usual precautions, his defenders show that he was more careful than many of his cousins. But against that background–and comments from other pilots who say they decided the weather was too dangerous for flying–his decisions last Friday appear all the more unwise. John Kennedy would be alive today if he had taken his usual precautions–and certainly if he had taken a train instead.
5. Was the protagonist morally reckless? Recklessness theorists associate John Kennedy’s “lack of judgment” with his cousins’ debauchery. According to the Post, the family’s “fearless adventurism has sometimes played out in scandal: for example, the drug problems of Robert Jr., Patrick and David … or Michael’s notorious involvement with his teenage babysitter.” Time says of John, “If he was less reckless than his cousins, it was not saying much; there were friends who turned down the invitation to take to the skies with him.” The magazine quotes one family member who said, “The Kennedy story is really about karma, about people who broke the rules and were ultimately broken by them.”
This critique confuses different dimensions of “judgment” and “breaking the rules.” To err in assessing the weather is human; to pork the baby sitter is depraved. John Kennedy knew the difference: In 1997, he observed in George that his cousin Michael had “surrendered his judgment.” Recklessness theorists such as Newsweek–which casually associated John’s “succession of stunning girlfriends” as a bachelor with his father’s “sexual snacking” as a married man–show far worse judgment than John ever did.
Barnicle and other Kennedy defenders, however, gloss over the same moral differences when they demand that the nation stand with Uncle Teddy and mourn the loss of “another Kennedy” instead of “assessing judgment.” Judgment is precisely what should be assessed. John Kennedy should never have taken off last Friday. The risk was unnecessary, and two people who entrusted him with their lives are dead because he screwed up. But let’s not confuse one catastrophic misjudgment with a pattern of decadence. John Kennedy’s death was far less noble than the tragedies suffered by the best men in his family–and far less blameworthy than the tragedies wrought by the worst.