Colonial Coattails: The Death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and
by Thomas J. Overstreet, Jr.
In a small way, I think we're all monarchists at heart--as long as we
pick the monarchy and can change it at whim. It's when we lose control
that we start to panic.The recent death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. started
me thinking about who the Associated Press and A&E have called "an American
prince." Why does this need to have someone to idolize exist? Where does
it come from?
Most of us, if we trace back far enough in our family trees, came from
countries ruled by a king and queen. For centuries, those dreams of the
glamorous royalty lingered in our collective unconscious. Little girls
often grew up dreaming about being a princess. Prince William, especially
after Princess Diana's death, has become a common pin-up in middle school
lockers everywhere, right alongside the Backstreet Boys and 'N-Sync.
Surely capitalism and dreams of wealth and status are only a part of
the equation. Perhaps instead it's slightly masochistic: we all want to
be ruled in some way. We want to be told what to do: it makes life easier.
This desire to remain passive conflicts with what we also crave--freedom.
At least for us Americans, we cannot simply yield the power our ancestors
Without kings and queens, we have instead found other people to idolize
and, without being explicit, they tell us what to do. Instead of the threat
of incarceration or death, if we refuse to follow these mandates, we’re
simply unpopular--a fate, according to some teens, worse than or equal
to death. Millions of women adopted the "Rachel" haircut because
Jennifer Aniston had it. A desire to "be like Mike" led to a sports marketing
craze: for a while, I could not find a single neighborhood pickup game
without someone in a Jordan jersey. Is this that radically different than
Peter the Great coming back from France and commanding the men to shave
their beards? Well, our adherence to celebrity suggestions is, as we Americans
like it, largely voluntary. But the fact that we volunteer to follow someone
else is significant.
If there's one thing Americans can relate to, it's personal stories of
their celebrities. National Enquirer is not an invention of today's society,
but a continuation of Walter Winchell and Hollywood Confidential.
John F. Kennedy’s assassination was one of the first to be broadcast on
television--remember Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald on live television--and
combined the immediacy of life with visual cues. For the first time, by
seeing Mrs. Kennedy in her blood-stained wool dress, by seeing her hold
her children--alone now--at the funeral procession, and by seeing the
assassination itself thanks to Zapruder's infamous 8mm film, America instantly
felt related to a whole family the way usually only monarchies work. Without
that unmistakable human tragic level, pathos, I do not know if
we would have so fallen in love with the Kennedys.
The worldwide coverage of JFK, Jr.'s disappearance surprised me. I figured
the Kennedys were now simply an American pastime. But perhaps the Kennedy
mythology has been exported just like Levis, Coca-Cola, and Baywatch.
The media frenzy reminded me of Princess Diana's death. JFK, Jr. was not
a prince of America: I doubt he would ever have been a political leader.
He did little to change the way we view establishments, unlike Princess
Diana, who brought her casual air and anti-stoicism to the monarchy. JFK,
Jr. ran a glossy magazine with supermodels dressed up as historical heroes
and asked stimulating questions, like what would comedian Chevy Chase
do if he were president. At least Princess Diana tried to get rid of land
mines and help the sick. (Of course, all of this becomes silly when we
consider our real lives. A family of six may die in a fire and they’re
never memorialized on television because they weren’t wealthy and Ivy
I maintain that our fascination with the Kennedys is tied to Britain’s
fascination with the House of Windsor. Both countries share a fascination
for the private lives of their rulers, but America has created a monarchy
of sorts to make up for the lack of consistent rule. Who actually holds
the power (officially or otherwise) in Britain is rarely as interesting
as Prince So-and-so who might be gay, or the Princess and Duchess of Eating
Disorders. Luckily, our lives have been made easier with the Clinton administration.
Before that, we had to rely on Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra rumors to
entertain us while Ronald Reagan usually remained (drooling) in his chair
undisturbed. We have this need to affirm that our leaders, emotional and
political, are real people, just like us, who occasionally throw up on
Japanese prime ministers and fall asleep at the opera.
Between England's mockery of a royal family and America's creation of
a dynasty out of a bootlegging fortune, perhaps we aren't that different.
We need these images, these people endowed with fame, wealth, and beauty,
to give us hope for the future. JFK, Jr. and Princess Diana were the fountains
of youth in their respective dynasties. When these cult heroes die, we
don't know how to act. It is as if someone has shut the door on tomorrow.