A fatal mix of religion and machismo

So those dreadful nihilistic "shrines" of the nineties - not teddy-bears for Diana but flowers for John-John this time - are still building up outside JFK Jr's apartment in lower Manhattan, at the Kennedy Centre Library in Boston and at Hyannis Port.

Strangers appear on television to pay their obeisance, weeping for someone whose media image was all they knew, wallowing in that mysterious self-reflecting grief-by-proxy that has clearly now become a by-product of the 24-hour news channel shallowness of this decade. Vicarious grief-by-telly, perhaps we should call it: all of the emotions, yet magically devoid of the personal pain.

First, though, that flight. Three summers ago I flew (as a passenger) on an almost identical journey in good weather on a small propeller plane, yet it bucked and weaved in turbulence I've rarely experienced before or since.

The stretch of land and water around Long Island Sound, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket and Cape Cod, indeed, is much more treacherous than people realise. Below, there are dozens of small islands that can confuse even an experienced pilot in daylight, let alone a highly inexperienced, injured one, flying on a foggy night.

So let us immediately lay to rest conspiracy theories and stop asking useless questions about whether JFK Jr was acting recklessly: of course he was, and he paid with his life and two other people's as a result.

And on, briefly, to the supposedly glamorous magazine George that Kennedy started with such a fanfare in 1995. It was almost certainly about to go under: JFK Jr was frantically looking for new investors at the time of his death, with advertising having fallen by 20 per cent this year and news-stand sales down by more than a quarter. The magazine had never made anything but huge losses. It was his effort to make his name, but it was doomed to almost certain failure. So let us add no more to the Camelot myth.

But why is that myth so potent?

The first obvious reason is that there have been so many Kennedys this century alone: the 1914 marriage between Joe Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald begat nine children (four of whom died violent deaths, with one still living but retarded). They then begat 30 grandchildren (three of whom have died in their 20s or 30s), who so far have begat no fewer than 54 great-grandchildren.

By my reckoning - which does not take into account still-births and other tragedies endured by the family - that marriage 85 years ago has, on average, produced at least one new family member every year (with 87 Kennedys still with us).

If my description of such Kennedy propagation sounds biblical, it is not accidental; the fusion of conflicting ideals in that 1914 marriage helps explain the 20th-century story of the Kennedys, for underlying all the scandals has always been a strong religious strain.

Joe Kennedy gained by far the most by the marriage - he was an inveterate fornicator, bootlegger, speculator and crook ("It takes one to catch one," FDR explained when he appointed him to his Securities and Exchange Commission), as well as a notoriously pro-Nazi ambassador to the UK. His long-suffering wife (she finally died in 1995, aged 104) was the daughter of a celebrated former Boston mayor and a genuinely devout Catholic who strove to imbue in her family the words of Luke 12:48: "For unto whom much is given, of him shall much be required."

So while the Kennedy men have continued frantically to pursue ultimately painful and almost unbelievable recklessness in their lives - desperately grasping for some elusive macho triumphalism that old Joe deemed to be part of maleness - so they have also been profoundly affected by that matriarchal Catholicism.

The chances are that, if you popped in to the Senate at random at any time since his Chappaquiddick disaster of 1969, Ted Kennedy, while showing the world that all-too human face of Kennedyesque frailties, would be there on the floor - doing his duty. In the week immediately before his nephew was killed, indeed, Ted Kennedy was working furiously hard to achieve overdue healthcare reform.

That fusion of conflicting ideals set in motion 85 years ago is, therefore, what leads to so many apparently inexplicable tragedies still today.

What other family would have left 12-year-old David Kennedy alone in a Los Angeles hotel room in 1968 where he watched, live, the assassination of his father Robert? He remained there, forgotten, for hours afterwards.

David may have grown up fast and then fulfilled Joe's cherished vision of being a tough Kennedy guy, but that terrible experience doubtless helps explain why he died alone in a squalid hotel room of a heroin overdose when still in his 20s.

Kennedy men are expected to be reckless and blindly macho in what is meant, in the pre-ordained script, to be a gloriously ruthless march down life's winning path - but they can also never forget they shoulder the burden of Luke 12:48.

Those godless Soviet-style shrines now proliferating here, therefore, miss the point. JFK Jr died because, notwithstanding the absence of his father, he had been brought up to be a Kennedy - which means to be someone beset by contradictions.

It was the old Kennedy macho pressures on him to be reckless and irresponsible that led him to rev up his Piper Saratoga with such terribly predictable results; and yet it was no less a part of his familial inheritance that had already made him a thoroughly decent fellow, who will now be widely missed.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 26 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, I took tea with Pinochet