Exploiting Tragedy to Polish Up Camelot

In the last minutes of NBC's coverage of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s burial at sea Thursday, Tom Brokaw offered his personal thoughts on why this death means so much. "I came of age with John F. Kennedy. I was 20 years old the year that he was elected. It was a sea change in American life, in our politics, in our culture, in the way that we looked at life. Here was this large, very dynamic family, of extraordinary wealth but with an ability also to connect with the populist classes of America."

He continued: "I think many people in my generation believe that they would define our lives in terms of accomplishment and achievement and triumph." Brokaw said even the family somehow saw JFK Jr. as a cut above the rest, and "As I have been close witness to all the parts of the Kennedy family life over the years, this is the one I least expected, I must say."

For a media that discovered the Nielsen magic of celebrity deaths with Princess Diana in 1997, JFK Jr.'s missing plane already signaled an impending weeks-long feeding frenzy. But for a media also dominated by baby-boomers who were close witnesses or aspiring witnesses to the Kennedy family, the death of JFK Jr. also caused another episode of tragedy-induced amnesia. Their Kennedy family history accentuated the positive and eliminated the negative:

On July 19, Brokaw led the parade: "The life of the Kennedys is one of the great American sagas. Poor immigrants, the Kennedys and the Fitzgeralds came here in the mid-1800s escaping the potato famine of their native Irish soil. And from that humble arrival in Boston they built over the generations a dynasty of great wealth, political power and cultural impact unparalleled in their time. And, they paid a terrible price." Brokaw didn't have time to ruin the picture with explaining how the Kennedys got wealthy (bootlegging liquor during Prohibition).

That night, Newsweek's Howard Fineman exclaimed on CNBC's Hardball: "I would say to conservatives out there, to Republicans, to anybody watching, whether they loved Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater or Franklin Roosevelt, whatever. What this family represents is the idea of heroism in politics." Fineman didn't discuss vote-buying or wiretapping Martin Luther King or Chappaquiddick.

In Time, essayist Roger Rosenblatt boldly declared the Kennedys "have forged and sustained a civilization before our eyes."

On Tuesday, CNN 's Chris Black displayed a generational bond on Late Edition Primetime: "The Kennedy legacy really endures. Senator Kennedy has been in the United States Senate for 36 years, and the baby boom generation, my generation, has a Lieutenant Governor in Maryland, Con- gressman Patrick Kennedy from Rhode Island, Joe Kennedy is not in Congress now, but everyone in Massachusetts will tell you that he'll probably be Governor of Massachusetts some day. So the legacy of values and a significant achievement has endured."

Later in that show, CNN's Jeff Greenfield added: "I think the massive national guilt that was felt about the fact that the President of the United States was murdered in broad daylight, kind of turned the Kennedys into this family that was taken into the national bosom." Or at least taken into the media's bosom. - Tim Graham