The idea had been to start the weekend with a short glance at the British Open, but once the TV was turned on, on it stayed. On through the remotes from the beautiful Cape, with its lighthouses and summer "cottages" and picket fences. On through the sepia-toned Camelot photos and slo-mo footage of that beautiful wife, that beautiful face.
On from coast to coast, in a nation that until now had seemed at last to be growing inured to the hourly triumphs and tragedies of the rich and the famous. But the sad matter of John F. Kennedy Jr. seemed different, in a way people couldn't quite articulate. Something bad had happened, yes, to someone notable. But also, something felt threatened, some last shred of something public and cherished. Something like possibility. Like grace.
What was it? The commentators struggled to describe it, that rare gift of good humor and effortless panache. He was handsome. He had both a common touch and regal bearing. He was a child of privilege who rode the subway and laughed at his foibles; he was a descendant of immigrants who had risen through the generations to refinement, who had the right manners, the right clothing, the right wife.
But there was more to it. What was it? For what were his accomplishments, really, beyond a glossy magazine whose content ranged from OK to decent and the fact that he'd eventually passed the bar exam? Why did this face, this life, seem so poignantly linked to all our visions of possibility and grace and class?
The end of this century has not been kind to America's sense of itself as classy and graceful, as a nation with its own version of a beneficent aristocracy. As the world has become smaller, faster, increasingly equal, certain illusions have eroded. Democracy, for all its noble ideals, has also been stamped with the frailties of common people; it's democracy with the smallest and most mass-market of d's.
Technology has given us more information about ourselves and each other now than at any time in history, but familiarity has had a price: For all our celebrities--and they are legion--we can scarcely name one who genuinely embodies the nation's best dreams of itself. Who in this tabloid nation can wield the charisma or promise anymore of, say, Princess Grace or DiMaggio or Sinatra? Well, some would say, John-John. The boats searched for a man and two women, and the public prayed for the son of JFK and their last, best dream of themselves.
To live in Los Angeles is to have a close-up understanding of the strange space between image and reality. There's the swashbuckler on the big screen and then there's the human being in the Italian loafers at the next table. They are at once the same, and utterly different entities.
And most people realize this, even far beyond the L.A. city limits. Most people know that Harrison Ford is not Indiana Jones. But what if the guy on the pedestal is not just a celebrity, but a kind of public connection to a better self, a seemingly nobler national persona? You couldn't help but marvel, as the camera panned the blank blue waves off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, at the stake we'd come to feel in this human being who, if you thought about it, had basically lived a nice, upper-class life punctuated with occasionally adventurous behavior. You couldn't help but wonder how hard it would be to simultaneously be yourself in your life while fulfilling the obligation to be John-John.
Or maybe it wasn't so hard. Certainly the duty was done with good humor. Certainly there was an unconscious sense of what was really required. Americans didn't care whether he reached personal greatness. What they wanted from him was something less tangible. His job was to be an icon. The icon walked the dog. The icon fought with his girlfriend. The icon took cappuccino in TriBeCa down the street from his loft.
So the boats searched and the families huddled and the nation watched, for reasons that continue to tease and elude. The planet is shrinking. Mankind is closer than ever to the possibility of equality. And still we cling to the notion that, if worse came to worst, we could fall back on someone who by virtue of class would know what he was doing, who would save us from our inept, all-too-equal selves.
As the weekend dragged on, the TV commentators struggled to understand their feelings. At least he hadn't died like his father and uncle. At least it hadn't been some maniac with a gun. At least he had been his own master, had maintained his joie de vivre in the face of an entire nation's myth-making. Unspoken was the myth-making that perhaps came with being his father's son.
But at a dinner party in Los Angeles on Saturday night, as the boats searched and the commentators struggled, there was little solace in the manner in which America's last icon had apparently been lost. "How could he have been so reckless?" a banker's wife demanded, though she'd never met him. Meaning: What will we do, who will we be, if all our icons are gone?