Kennedy one of many types of heroes

After Tuesday’s discovery of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s body, many have been questioning the reasons for his vast admiration.
The ubiquity of the press coverage of Kennedy’s life, both nationally and worldwide, is partially responsible for his fame, but that coverage is driven by consumer demand. People, especially Americans, need heroes.
Americans admire different people for different reasons, though. Some are admired for their personal accomplishments, some for the characteristics they exhibit. Some are admired as part of a national or regional culture, others on a local or personal level.
There are many sports heroes who have been admired for their physical abilities. There are people who have attained hero status as a result of intellectual achievements or by pioneering new traditions. Artists and musicians have been admired for their skills or the contributions and innovations they’ve made. Others still have been admired for emotional characteristics, like steadfastness, compassion and integrity.
Americans even have heroes with characteristics that contradict one another. A result of our ethnic diversity, different perspectives have yielded different values. People considered heroes by a national consensus are diametrically opposed to other heroes, but all receive admiration.
Men and women who became heroes during World Wars I and II have been replaced in the last half of the 20th century with stars from the various professional sports. Displays of physical prowess have moved from the battle field to the ball field. Unfortunately, bravery and sacrifice became supplanted by self-centered attitudes and the ability to hoard outrageous amounts of money.
Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth are our most famous baseball heroes, but they couldn’t be more different. The Babe was flamboyant and unabashedly arrogant, not only boasting of particular feats but predicting them. By consuming prodigious amounts of alcohol and women, he ignored consequence. He was admired just as much for his achievements on the field as for his free exercise of will.
DiMaggio, however, considered himself a role model for children and always behaved with dignity and pride. His elegance and class belied his humble and modest background. Because he always tried to live up to the idealistic image placed on him during the Great Depression and World War II, his modesty and lack of arrogance never let him behave even slightly silly.
Another American icon, Bill Gates, became famous after the tremendous success of Microsoft, although his admiration has resulted not from his achievements but from his success. His recently revised worth of $100 billion is so impressive that many admire him, though knowing nothing about who he is personally. Gates has given only small amounts of his money to charities, usually as a public relations ploy in response to criticism. His money is admired, not his character.
George Soros, the Hungarian-born international financier, on the other hand, has devoted most of his $15 billion to his Open Society program. While not widely known, Soros is admired both for his money and generosity.
Gov. Ventura and President Clinton are admired by overlapping demographic groups, but are drastically different from one another. Although they have complementary characteristics, their differences are profound.
Clinton is admired for his intelligence and refined demeanor. He graduated from Yale Law School via an Arkansas trailer park. He was a dedicated Rhodes Scholar who perfected his political acuity through scandal. He is adept at evading personal inquiries, and many consider his true identity to be elusive.
Ventura, however, is simple and straightforward. Regardless of his objectivity or consideration, he is admired for his dedication and perseverance. He is admired in a similar fashion as Ruth; his arrogance and bravado are exhibited more often than his ability to govern.
John F. Kennedy Jr. was not admired for his accomplishments. Although he was a successful businessman and publisher, his success did not merit his fame. Although George is certainly a respectable and even innovative magazine, and Kennedy was a moderately effective assistant district attorney, these accomplishments were not worthy of his idolized status.
Kennedy’s fame wasn’t necessarily a result of his personal characteristics, either. It certainly helped that he was very attractive, generous, intelligent and personable, but many other people share his combination of traits without his fame.
Kennedy was not an object of mere admiration, however. He was idealized by a public that needs an ideal. He was not admired because of his accomplishments or the sum of his personal characteristics, but his circumstances. People wanted to be like him, because he was the incarnation of an ideal life.
Simultaneously living in tragedy and success, his experiences were broad, but he was always ebullient. He was able to exercise his will within a family devoted to public service.
Kennedy was the first child to grow up in the constant exposure of the television age. His father won the election because of his success on TV and with the media, traits that John Jr. rapidly acquired. Americans fervently chronicled his development through his youth and manhood, and admired his exciting life.
Americans lived and died vicariously through members of the Kennedy family. The Kennedys were admired even more when their circumstances became tragic. They provided the nation with ideals, which families need as much as individuals do.
The Kennedy dynasty is now without most of its original members, and its influence will likely wane. John F. Kennedy Jr. was admired because he was the promise to fulfill the abbreviated potential of his father and uncle. His death creates a vacancy for a hero Americans can idolize.
Dan Maruska’s column appears on alternate Fridays. He welcomes comments to [email protected]