There are easier ways to grow up. Life, especially a child’s life, is not meant to be spent under the public microscope, where every action is scrutinized, analyzed and, too often, criticized. But that is the life John F. Kennedy Jr. lived from the day he was born.
A difficult existence, to be sure, but one he pulled off with remarkable aplomb,
Indeed, as the tributes began pouring just hours after the plane he was piloting crashed off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard Friday night — killing him, his wife, Carolyn Bissette, and her sister, Lauren — the grip he held on the hearts, minds and imaginations of all Americans became all too poignantly apparent. The public’s reaction was not unlike that which followed the death of John Lennon. Both transcended in the intensity of sorrow that displayed for most celebrities who pass away, suggesting that something more profound, something truly important had been lost. Outside the Kennedys’ Tribeca home, just as it was outside the Dakota, thousands of mourners stood vigil this week. They prayed and left keepsakes, bouquets and handwritten notes. Such symbols of affection and esteem are not reserved for ordinary people.
But, ironically, what America loved most about JFK Jr. was in fact his ordinariness — or at least the way he lived such a seemingly normal, unaffected life. True, as the tabloids constantly reminded us, he was better looking than we were. And he was far wealthier as well. Still, he seemed like one of us. We grew up with him, after all, from the 3-year-old bravely saluting his father’s coffin to the upstart publisher intent on tweaking Washington’s pretensions. He walked among us. He waited his turn in line. He said hello. It was not unusual to catch a glimpse of him playing softball or Frisbee in Central Park or riding his bike through the streets of Lower Manhattan. In the days that followed his disappearance, friends, co-worker and even casual acquaintances spoke warmly about his down-to-earth nature, about how rooted he seemed.
Much of the credit for the kind of man JFK Jr. became must, of course, go to his famously protective mother, who tried so hard to shield him from the public’s often harsh gaze. And yet before her death five years ago, he seemed more a caricature than a fully formed person, offering only glimpses of his talent, ambition and self-effacing good humor. We got the full picture only after he himself decided to lift the cloak of privacy and start his political magazine, George. And now he’s gone — another Kennedy lost.
As Americans — as citizens of the world — we mourn the loss of a man cut down in the prime of his life. We mourn the deaths of his wife and her sister, two women of talent and potential. And we send our heartfelt sympathies to two families, one of which has suffered too many devastating losses.
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