"A Death in the American Family": Myth, Memory, and National Values in the Media Mourning of John F. Kennedy Jr

Article excerpt

This article provides narrative and rhetorical analysis-considering structure, language, and emphases in content and presentation-of journalistic coverage of the 1999 death and funeral of John F. Kennedy Jr. It contends that, because of JFK Jr.'s particular symbolic role in the Kennedy story,journalists explained his significance in terms of cultural and mythic themes, including family and nation, tragedy and hope, and sacrifice and redemption. The evidence comes primarily from newsmagazines, which have played a key role in the construction of "the Kennedy myth" for forty years.

Introduction

For more than half a century, the Kennedy family has been prominent and symbolically powerful in American politics. The Kennedys also have become part of the nation's cultural mythology. Their political power already was established when the charismatic, young John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960 with a promise of social change and national progress. His photogenic wife and toddlers added to his appeal as a symbol of hope for America's future. Yet it was not until 1963, when the president was assassinated, that the Kennedy family gained a cultural status extending beyond politics. The lasting power of that myth-initially constructed in news media, and for decades sustained by them-was confirmed in 1999, when John F. Kennedy Jr. was killed in an airplane crash. This article examines the coverage of JFK Jr.'s death as a case study in the mythic dimensions and purposes of journalism, and as a defining moment in a larger American story that retains cultural currency today.

As Zelizer notes, journalists explained the tragedy of President Kennedy's assassination in terms of not just "news," but also broader themes such as the country's character and future.1 Foremost among journalistic organizations involved in that coverage was Life magazine, then a weekly photojournalism periodical that obtained exclusive rights to the only visual recording of the president's assassination (the film shot by amateur cameraman Abraham Zapruder). Life extensively covered the president's funeral in an issue opening with an editor's letter that referred to television-news coverage and that imagined a long-term, continuing narrative of the assassination:

Those who have longest to live-the tens of millions of children who suddenly saw the make-believe world of their familiar TV screens dissolve to the realities of death and fear and grief-will be marked the longest. And when they grow up, they may find in their own children's textbooks a different interpretation of these events than the one now burned on their young minds. For historians will sift the records again for fresh "insights," giving the story a different twist for each generation. Some ... may find in it the outlines of the most durable of ancient myths, the tribal sacrifice of a king or a prince to appease unseen powers and insure the return of spring.2

That same issue of Life included Theodore White's now-famous interview with Jackie Kennedy in which she first compared her husband's administration to Camelot3; in similar rhetoric, Newsweek opened its coverage by reprinting part of Walt Whitman's poem [about the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln] "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."4

The group of newsmagazines that helped to create the Kennedy myth has maintained it. During the summer of 2001, a Time magazine cover featured a black-and-white photograph of Jack and Jackie Kennedy on a sailboat, with inset photos of Kennedy children now in public life. The sole coverline read, "Camelot Lives!" Inside the issue, these surviving Kennedys were shown in classic black-and-white portraits reminiscent of their dead parents, with gold borders and backgrounds on each page.5 Though not profiled, JFK Jr. was elliptically present in this ten-- page article. For the last third of the twentieth century, he had lived at the symbolic center of the "Camelot" myth, keeping it alive through his own public and frequently photographed life. …