In a land that wanted no part of royalty, the Kennedys became something close to it. But their power and glamour are tightly bound with recurrent tragedy so lacerating it can make a nation cry.
"You know, we get up to one of those plateaus in which it looks like the family is healed and come together, and then suddenly it just strikes again: Death walks out onto this stage," Hugh Sidey, veteran correspondent for Time magazine, told CBS News Washington Correspondent Eric Engberg.
When their plane disappeared, Kennedy, his wife and her sister were on their way to Massachusetts for the latest Kennedy family wedding. His cousin Rory Kennedy was to be married Saturday. She is the youngest daughter of Robert F. and Ethel Kennedy, born after his 1968 assassination.
The family quickly cancelled Rory's wedding and a fund-raiser for Kennedy's uncle, U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, that was to be held on the island of Martha's Vineyard on Sunday night.
The wedding ceremony reportedly was replaced by a Mass on Saturday as the family prayed and hoped against hope for those aboard the plane. Three priests were inside the famous Kennedy family compound in Hyannisport, where some 275 family members and friends had gathered for the wedding, CBS News' Hattie Kauffman reported.
"There seems to be a black cloud, or a curse, on this family," said Tina Primavera, a visitor on Cape Cod, as she walked outside the compound. "Just too many bad things seem to happen to them."
The founding father of the family, Joseph P. Kennedy, dreamed that one of his sons would be president. It was not the studious Jack he had in mind but his oldest son, Joe. Then, Joe was killed in World War II, and Jack was drafted for a political career, accompanied by his two brothers, Robert and Edward. Some saw a dynasty in the making. The Kennedys made everyone feel young.
Until the November day in 1963 when many Americans stopped feeling young forever. Few who saw it ever forgot the brave little boy beside the casket.
Five years later, as the late president's brother, Robert Kennedy, campaigned for the presidency in California, he, too, was murdered. On June 5, 1968, the former attorney general and senator, was shot in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. At this hotel, Oscars had been bestowed, John Barrymore had staged drunken sprees and Bing Crosby started his singing career.
On that balmy June night the candidate spoke to adoring followers in the Embassy Ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel, accepting his election in the California primary as Democratic nominee for U.S. president. Robert Kennedy and his close supporters exited to the rear of the bandstand and entered the kitchen pantry. Sirhan Sirhan stepped out of the shadows. "Pop! Pop! Pop!" It sounded like balloons exploding. "My God, he's been shot!" someone shouted.
His remaining brother, Edward, probably destroyed hi chance to be president by driving a car in which a young woman drowned. Just 30 years ago and not too far from JFK Jr.'s accident off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, Ted Kennedy's Oldsmobile plunged off a bridge on nearby Chappaquiddick Island. That night, July 18, 1969, Ted swam to safety, leaving in the car Mary Jo Kopechne, who drowned. He then waited 10 hours to report the accident.
On the day of the accident, Ted Kennedy, 37, had sailed in a Vineyard yacht race. Afterward a Kennedy cousin had thrown a party at a small house on Chappaquiddick, attended by Kopechne and five other women who had worked on Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign.
Ted Kennedy said he and Kopechne had been trying to catch the ferry to the Vineyard, but took a wrong turn onto the dirt road that led to the Dike Bridge sometime between 11:30 p.m. and 1 a.m. The senator has expressed sadness over the incident, calling his actions that night "irrational and indefensible and inexcusable and inexplicable."
The next generation of Kennedys has sometimes seemed to relish skating near the edge.
A nephew, William Kennedy Smith, was acquitted of sexual assault, but only after a trial that embarrassed the family.
The most recent tragedy involving the Kennedy clan happened just two years ago, Dec. 31, 1997. Robert's son Michael was first tarnished by a sex scandal, then killed almost instantly after colliding with a tree on an Aspen, Colo., ski slope. He suffered massive damage to his skull and vertebrae. The accident happened while Kennedy and about 20 others were playing football on skis.
For the Kennedys, Aspen Mountain was as good as a football field, until the game turned deadly. CBS News learned from a close member of Michael Kennedy's skiing party that 30 people has been playing the Kennedy brand of ski football--family, friends, adults and children.
During the last run of the day, Michael yelled out, "I'm going to throw it to Michael," his teen-age son. Those were his last words. Kennedy's ski caught an edge and he veered off to the left, slamming into this tree. Family members raced to emergency phones but were unable to get through on the first two. Kennedy's sister, Rory, was performing CPR. The third phone worked and the ski patrol arrived in four minutes.
A source told CBS, this ski football game had been a tradition for 30 years. Michael learned it first from his father, Robert Kennedy. They'd played it with a ball, a bottle of water, even an orange. A couple years back, Michael's brother, Max Kennedy, badly injured his knee in the same game, and he was there this time, too, along with Michael's three children. All the children saw the accident that killed their father.
His brother Joseph was forced to leave politics by a tell-all book by his ex-wife.
Some Kennedys, like Kathleen Townsend, lieutenant governor of Maryland, appear destined for stardom.
But it is the tragdies, each new one evoking memories of the last, that has made the Kennedy myth and makes us think back to the words that John Kennedy spoke while in the White House: "Life," he said, "is unfair."
Copyright 1999 CBS. All rights reserved.
CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff