Why do we still find the Kennedy family relevant?

JFK Fascination

I’ve been seeing a lot of Kennedy stuff on the news recently — RFK Jr. married Cheryl Hines (RIP Suburburgatory) this weekend with a bunch of mostly-famous people around, the Michael Skakel case is still in the news, and there was that whole Katy Perry-linked break-in at the Kennedy Compound a few weeks back.

Here’s the question I have: why exactly are the Kennedys still relevant to the United States and beyond?

I understand on face that JFK was a young, generally-attractive President with a nearly picture-perfect wife, and he died before his time. I understand RFK could have been President as well, and again, died before his time. JFK Jr., of course, also died before his time. And then Ted Kennedy, while by some measure a disaster and a drunk, was also one of the most effective U.S. Senators of all-time.

So I do understand the fascination with that generation — namely, the three brothers of JFK, RFK and Teddy. But at this point, why are we still so fascinated with them? Is it because of the seeming tragedy linked to Camelot? Is it because they were the closest thing America had to royalty (before the Kardashians, of course)? Is it because we want to see them secretly succeed or fail at any turn?

I feel like the Kennedys represent a central American (and perhaps global) question: what are the factors in others that we’re really, truly, tangibly interested in? I literally just saw Good Morning America this morning, and three consecutive stories had something to do with the Kennedy family. Is it really, truly, tangibly that relevant of a group of people anymore?

Here’s one logical theory on why we’re all still collectively obsessed with the Kennedys:

“My sense is that it is largely a story of interrupted promise,” said Russell Riley, co-chairman of the Presidential Oral History Program at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.

“The elevation of Kennedy in the public mind is inextricably linked with the tragedy of his death. So much would have been possible had he lived.”

Americans have also romanticized the “nostalgia and mythology” of the early 1960s, a time before the war in Vietnam escalated and college campuses erupted in protests and violence, Miller said.

“In no place is there a bigger cottage industry than in what Kennedy would have done if he were still alive,” he added.

Here’s maybe a more direct way of saying that:

None of this sustains the Kennedy fascination. It’s too wonky and nuanced. The fixation has other sources. For starters, it’s history as soap opera. Vigorous president gunned down in his prime. Beautiful wife. Young children. But this appeal is superficial. Its real power is that for many Americans — baby boomers, members of the World War II generation — Kennedy’s life and death represent a larger personal and historic metaphor.

Mad Men, you may recall, did a whole sequence on the Kennedy assassination. Peggy was having a nooner at the time!

There’s a whole thing about how 3/4 of current Americans weren’t even born when Kennedy was assassinated, so it’s potentially possible that our fascination with the family / brand (because at heart, they are a brand) might be on its final couple of laps. That said, there are four new Kennedys on the scene who could make some noise, including Caroline’s son (so JFK’s grandson), who looks quite a bit like his grandfather.

What do you think: is the fascination with the Kennedys rooted in our collective fascination with beauty, tragedy, and historical mile markers? Or is it something else entirely?

Ted Bauer

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