On his third birthday, John F. Kennedy Jr. stood holding his
mother's hand as the caisson pulled by six gray horses rolled by,
bearing the body of his father. It was a cold day, and John was
wearing shorts and a cloth coat. His mother, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, whispered to her son, and John saluted his father. This was not a little boy making a stab at a military greeting, but a young actor performing a soldier's salute. Practically everyone in America who viewed the funeral of President John F. Kennedy on television or saw the picture in the newspapers felt a poignant identity with the fatherless child. It was an indelible image, forever frozen in that moment.
After they buried the president on November 25, 1963, the Kennedys returned to the White House to celebrate John's birthday. The party was a masquerade of joyousness within the somber patterns of this day. It was both a retreat into the safe harbor of family and an assertion that they would go on as they always had. Seated at the table with John were many of the
same energetic children who the summer before had clambered onto the president's electric cart at the Kennedy summer estate on Cape Cod. Robert Francis Kennedy and his wife, Ethel Skakel Kennedy, were there with their seven children. Alongside them were Patricia Kennedy Lawford and Peter Lawford's daughter, Sydney Maleia.
Several of these children were old enough to know that a terrible event had occurred. Bobby's eight-year-old son David was a boy of immense sensitivity. When he had been picked up by one of his father's aides from parochial school only minutes after his uncle's death, he presumably had no way to know what had transpired in Dallas, but somehow he had figured it out. "Jack's hurt," he said, after dialing numbers on his toy phone. "Why did somebody shoot him?"
Senator Edward Moore Kennedy had been presiding over the Senate when he learned that his brother had been shot in Dallas. His first reaction was to worry about the safety of his wife, Joan Bennett Kennedy. He had driven back to his home in Georgetown, running traffic lights and honking other vehicles out of his way. He then flew up to Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, to tell his father, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, that the president had been assassinated, but he broke into sobs before entering the room and his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, gave Joe the news.
Ted returned immediately to Washington, where this evening he stood at the birthday party next to his brother Bobby. Ted managed to keep up a facade of good cheer in front of the children, but his surviving brother wore a gray mask of mourning. Bobby had been the president's alter ego and protector. He could finish his brother's sentences and complete a task that Jack signaled with no more than a nod or a gesture. He had loved his brother so intensely and served him so well that within the administration it was hard to tell where one man ended and the other began.
Now Jack was dead. That was grief enough to buckle the knees of most men, but that was only the beginning of Bobby's agonies. He was the attorney general of the United States, and John F. Kennedy had died on his watch. Bobby may have feared that his responsibility went even further, that the man or men who murdered the president -- be they CIA agents, Cuban
exiles, mobsters, or a strange lone man enraged at the attack on Castro's Cuba -- had been egged on by a policy that the attorney general himself had instituted.
When Jack died, Bobby's immediate reaction was to try to discover who might have killed his brother, first looking within his own government. Then he protected the president's secrets by locking up his papers and files. Bobby's grief was sharpened further by the fact that Vice President Lyndon Johnson was now president. Bobby considered Johnson a vulgar usurper who, he believed, would turn away from his brother's principles and ideals.
One of Bobby's first acts after his brother's assassination was to write a letter to his eldest son, reminding eleven-year-old Joseph Patrick Kennedy II of the obligations of his name. "You are the oldest of all the male grandchildren," he wrote. "You have a special and particular responsibility now which I know you will fulfill. Remember all the things that Jack started -- be kind to others that are less fortunate than we -- and love our country."
Young Joe was the oldest of all the Kennedy grandchildren, and if it was not burden enough to be faced with the violent death of his beloved uncle, he now was being given another, even heavier load to lift.
Bobby sent the letter to Joe, but the message was meant for all his sons and nephews. More than anything else, Jack willed to his brothers, son, and nephews a treasure chest of promise, golden nuggets of what might have been and what might yet be. Just as the forty-six-year-old leader would be forever young, his administration would be forever unfulfilled. Historians would endlessly debate the qualities of distinction he had shown in the Oval Office, but he would stand high in the minds of his fellow citizens, remembered by most Americans as one of the greatest of presidents.
As they attempted to fulfill the mandate that Jack had left them, Bobby and Ted had an immense capital of goodwill and feeling unlike anything an American political family had known before. Americans had worn the black crepe of mourning for Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, but they did not seek to elevate their heirs or to see their presidencies as part of an ongoing family endeavor in which a brother or a son might rightfully assume that same mantle of high power.