The Apollo 11 moon landing remains the most dramatic public monument to Kennedy vision and courage. It was John, after all, who made going there a national quest and who set rockets in motion to make it happen. All the Kennedys might've basked in the moment.
Fate had rather more artful ideas. Even as Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins navigated their way toward the moon, a quarter-million miles distant, JFK's younger brother Edward took a short drive toward a dark drink of water with a young woman not his wife. Mary Jo Kopechne drowned. The event robbed the moon of Kennedy luster, and Edward of any real chance at the presidency.
Such ironies strike with TNT force, leaving scars and lines on aging faces.
Take this one. Richard Nixon made that most famous of long-distance phone calls to the moon, hijacking JFK's glory. It's understandable. Nixon had lost the 1960 presidential election to JFK by perhaps the narrowest margin in history. In the pithy words of commentator William Safire, "Nixon looked down on the Kennedys with utmost envy." In 1969, Nixon's revenge was complete, as he basked in the glow of a moon program he was even then strangling.
Lesser ironies strike obliquely.
Here's one: Lyndon Baines Johnson would have made that famous phone call to the moon had fortune been kinder. It was Johnson, some would claim, who fathered the space program. His enabling legislation while a senator in the 1950s, made NASA possible. Unfortunately, Johnson's thunder was silenced--his reign curtailed--by the guns and bombs of Vietnam and a challenge from Robert Kennedy, another name redolent of tragedy. So it was Nixon's call.
Safire, a Nixon speechwriter in 1969, prepared a somber message for his boss to deliver in case things went tragic for Apollo. This speech would have made special mention of widows of astronauts who might have died on the moon. Instead, the moon ship JFK famously uttered into existence traveled millions of miles with scarcely a hitch. Rather, it was Teddy's midnight ramble of a few miles that turned to tragedy--a tragedy etched into lines of his aging face. Few ironies have been greater than those surrounding the moon landings and Kennedy tragedy, for they magnify all the others.
Ten years ago, during the thirtieth anniversary of that first trip to the moon--even as JFK's name was again being hailed for sending us there--another Kennedy landed in a dark drink of water. John Kennedy, Jr., who saluted his father's casket so memorably--courageously it seemed--and who was heir apparent to the Kennedy legacy, robbed the world of his own potential by flying a high-performance aircraft into the sea. He was an heir indeed. To death and heartbreak. After a respectful hiatus, during which the Kennedys tastefully buried their own at sea, a debate was joined. Was John Jr.'s decision to fly into a cloud-shrouded night an act of Kennedy bravado or was it life-affirming courage in the face of danger? Either way, it was at least akin to the optimism and bravado that marked the careers of John, Bobby and Teddy--optimism and bravado that took us to the moon, initiated the Peace Corps, turned back the Russians, helped roll back segregation, uplifted the poor and downtrodden and so much more. History and Greek tragedy show that vivid virtues, which shine so bold in certain settings, darken to fatal flaws in others. So it ever was with the Kennedys.
In Teddy, as in John and Bobby, however, the darkness never quite eclipsed the brilliance.