International Papers

It’s in the Genes

The world press ran out of new things to say about Kennedy tragedies many years ago, and all the old clichés were revived Monday in the massive coverage of the tragic loss of John F. Kennedy Jr. in a plane crash Friday–the “curse” on the family, its love of adventure, the “end of a dynasty,” etc. But the Jerusalem Post peddled a new theory. The Kennedys are not “star-crossed, cursed, or unlucky,” it said in a front-page report. “They undoubtedly bear the novelty-seeking and risk-taking gene discovered in Israel that makes members impulsive, adventurous, and tend to take chances with drugs, sex, speed, and other potentially dangerous activities.” The paper was quoting Dr. Richard Ebstein, a molecular geneticist at Jerusalem’s Herzog Memorial Hospital, who headed the team that discovered the gene. “If I were a Kennedy, I would consult the best psychological experts in the US to discuss what normal personalities are and how to control their risk-taking urge,” he told the paper. Ebstein discovered “the D-4 receptor and serotonin transporter promoter gene” in 1996, the paper said. “He more recently found that it increases the bearer’s risk of getting addicted to hard drugs (although several genes are probably involved), can cause adults to seek sensation, and makes newborns as young as two weeks more alert and curious about the outside world.”

There was widespread reluctance in Kennedy-obsessed European newspapers to write off the future of the family dynasty. Corriere della Sera of Milan pegged John Jr.’s cousin Kathleen Kennedy Townsend on its front page as the heir to his “sceptre.” “It would be good if Camelot, the mythical realm of King Arthur, were to end in the hands of a woman above suspicion,” it said. “It would be poetic if the first American woman president were to be called not Hillary but Kathleen.” Corriere also carried an interview with Gay Talese, “the troubadour of today’s America and yesterday’s Italy,” dismissing the idea of a Kennedy curse. “I think, on the contrary, that there burns inside them a feeling of invincibility, an obsession with challenge, an arrogance of power that drive them to take risks all the time,” he was quoted as saying. Asked if he thought John Jr. had been different from the others, Talese replied: “Different in the sense that he wasn’t a sexual predator, like his father, uncle and grandfather, nor addicted to drugs or alcohol, like other members of his family. … But otherwise he was a Kennedy–sure of himself and convinced of his immortality.”

La Repubblica of Rome, on the other hand, said John Jr.’s problem was that he knew he wasn’t a Kennedy at heart and that he had crashed his plane because he wanted to be one. “He didn’t manage to live like a Kennedy, but fate allowed him at least to leave this world as one,” it concluded. (But what does La Repubblica know about it? Another characteristic of the Kennedys is that they invite reckless psychological examination.) La Repubblica led its front page with a headline saying that John Jr. shouldn’t have flown at night because he wasn’t certified to do so. In Britain, the tabloid Express announced in huge letters that he had “had a death wish.” In Paris, Le Figaro’s headline was “The Accursed Kings” (“Les Rois Maudits“), and its front-page editorial compared John Jr. to the late Princess of Wales. “Like Lady Di,” it said, “fate struck because, according to one of those Elizabethan poets of whom President Kennedy always kept a quotation in reserve [not Elizabethan actually: James Shirley, 1596-1666], ‘There is no armor against fate;/ Death lays his icy hand on kings.’ “

In an editorial, the Times of London said John Jr.’s fate recalled another myth–that of Oedipus, who fulfilled a prophecy by killing his father and marrying his mother without knowing who they were. The Oedipus story survives, the paper said, “because it embodies the deep human sense that free will is a fragile thing, and no inheritance, however noble, frees one from the mark of sin. … The fate of John Kennedy Jr reinforces in every mind that melancholy truth.” The Independent of London also made the Princess Diana comparison, saying that her myth, like that of the Kennedys, was not solely the property of one country. “It would be a fitting legacy if John Junior’s death reminded America and the world of the high ideal of public service and liberal values than run through the Kennedy rhetoric,” it said in an editorial. “It is the Kennedy greatness to call us to a higher moral purpose, and the Kennedy tragedy that none of the family could fulfil that promise.”

The Guardian of London commented in its editorial Monday that if John Jr.’s death “helps slow down the US trend toward a new kind of dynastic democracy, then some good will have come from this grim news.” The paper also quoted Col. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, as reported by the BBC, on its front page. While expressing his “deepest regret” about the tragedy, Qaddafi said he was “even more sad” that the United States has been unable to locate his plane. “America claims to know how to find a mustard seed, either on earth or in space, thanks to its extraordinary capabilities,” he said. “Or perhaps the US is negligent and not serious in searching for its citizens from the Kennedy dynasty?”