Family Feud


This article was originally published by FrontPage Magazine, on August 18, 1997.

It took a Republican to create an opening to China. It took a Democrat to begin to dismantle welfare “as we know it.” And it took a Kennedy to tell other members of America’s royal family how screwed up they’ve become.

The highly publicized whack that editor-in-chief John F. Kennedy Jr. administered to his cousins in the current issue of George magazine has been a long time coming. For too long, they have lived in their own little world with its own rules, chief among them the guiding principle that there are no rules. While the rest of us looked on with mounting disgust, the aptly labeled “poster boys for bad behavior” were turning a political icon into a national embarrassment.

That JFK Jr. took the moral high road while posing in the buff and gazing at an apple in suspended animation suggests that he may be a little less sure about what constitutes “good” behavior. Filled with self-deprecating irony, the editorial seemed more concerned with abstract temptation than with personal family values.

Still, it was a palpable hit, so much so that his cousin Joe Kennedy, currently running for governor of Massachusetts, fired back wildly. “Ask not what you can do for your cousin,” Joe sneered, in a remarkably tasteless parody of his uncle’s most famous line, “ask what you can do for your magazine.” Such call and response underlines the sleeping issue that has now awoken. It is the until-now suppressed struggle between the children of Jackie O and the children of RFK for control of the Kennedy imagery and identity, and ultimately the Kennedy heritage.

Apart from their last names, John Jr. has very little in common with the roughnecks of Hickory Hill. The Prince Across the Water, he was trained to inherit a mantle far different from the one other Kennedys were fashioning from the unfinished cloth that JFK bequeathed to them. In the early ’70s, when Bobby Kennedy’s adolescent wastrels were making names for themselves as the “Hyannisport Terrors,” John and Caroline were yanked from the compound by their mother and carted across the sea to the Island of Scorpios, where they would be protected from the dark forces that possessed their cousins.

To the proud heir in exile, the antics and cheap ambitions of his relatives became intolerable. The never-ending sexual scandals and the ham-fisted embrace of left-wing causes stood in such contrast to the old-world discretion and carefully nuanced political pragmatism of his father. JFK, the last liberal hero, was in fact a budget-cutting cold warrior who would not have been caught dead supporting the IRA — let alone bringing one of its gunslingers, as Courtney, Bobby Kennedy’s daughter, did by marriage, into the Kennedy clan.

But it is not as a Hotspur, a political sovereign-in-waiting, that John Jr. has launched his crusade. It is as a journalist, which cousin Joe, in his twisted way, accurately noted. But even if the editorial was a ploy to sell magazines, it does not counter the fact that John broke ranks to do it — for the Kennedy family, a traumatic and unprecedented event. Besides, selling magazines is a primary responsibility of an editor. And if what he has to say strikes close to home, well, isn’t telling the truth a journalist’s primary responsibility?