Seeing the century through values and ambitions of Kennedys
July 22, 1999
By Sr. Political Analyst William Schneider
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The death of John F. Kennedy Jr. has turned many minds to other Kennedys who have gone before. Each generation of the family demonstrated the values and ambitions of Americans at that time.
Like the immigrant generation that came to America early in this century, patriarch Joseph Kennedy was determined to take on the Establishment and beat them at their own game. And he did.
The grandson of Irish immigrants went to London as a U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom.
He realized his dream of seeing a son become president, the first -- and so far, only -- Catholic president of the United States.
And when Joseph Kennedy finally had done it all, he was cut down by a stroke that left him speechless when two of his sons were slain by assassins.
John F. Kennedy led the veterans' generation -- the men who fought a war and came home to transform a nation. They settled the suburban frontier and raised a bumper crop of children.
JFK gave voice to his generation's high ambitions: To get the country moving again.
"The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace," Kennedy said in his inaugural address.
But before he could accomplish all his plans, his life was cut short by an assassin's bullet.
Though not himself a baby boomer, John's brother, Robert, won the trust and admiration of the baby boom generation. His father had beaten the Establishment, and his brother had become the Establishment.
But like the best and the brightest baby boomers, RFK confronted the Establishment from within.
"I think that all of us have an obligation, we have a responsibility," said Robert Kennedy in 1964. "If we don't do it, nobody's going to do it. If educated people don't do it, nobody's going to do it."
As attorney general, Robert Kennedy defied racism. As a senator, he took up the cause of the poor and dispossessed. And as a presidential contender, he stood up to his own party's Establishment, challenging the sitting Democratic president.
Robert Kennedy's ideals were the baby boomers' ideals.
"We have the capacity to make this the best generation in the history of mankind, or make it the last," he said in 1964.
And for many baby boomers, Robert Kennedy's assassination was the murder of those ideals.
John F. Kennedy Jr. was Generation X's Kennedy. He became a magazine publisher, a Kennedy for the Information Age, and for a generation that was turned off by politics.
"My family ... sort of grew up around politics ... that it was a fascinating way to spend one's career," JFK Jr. told CNN's Larry King in September of 1995.
"And I've always been kind of interested in how you could get that idea out to more people, because as I grew older it became clear that not that many people share that view.''
John Jr. knew how to reach that audience -- with glitz and glamour, celebrity and buzz.
"People had always said, 'you can't do a fun magazine about politics, which combines the serious as well as the playful, which is about personalities.' Because that's what public life is about," JFK Jr. said.
At the heart of his venture was a serious purpose -- to show a cynical generation that politics could be cool -- and to bring them into public life. And maybe, eventually, himself, too. He was a Kennedy, after all.
"The old definition of politics is that you bring it, at the end of your life, when you really have something to sort of offer," said JFK Jr. "And maybe that's a good thing for me."
It might have been. We'll never know.
Four Kennedys, four tragedies. But also, men who embodied the values and aspirations of their times. Four generations, and four stories of America in our century.
NTSB: JFK Jr.'s plane shows no in-flight break-up or fire
Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, MA, Cape Cod's Daily Newspaper
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