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Exploiting JFK Jr.’s Death

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Advocates of activist, overbearing government claim to be against exploitation. But they did not hesitate to exploit John F. Kennedy Jr. in death.

Do you believe for a moment that the death of the son or daughter of any other ex-president (or even an ex-president himself!) would have set off the shameful media frenzy we witnessed after the airplane accident involving Kennedy, his wife, and sister-in-law? Would pundits, TV historians, and former courtiers have poured out the sort of embarrassing blather that became routine for a solid week? Would Dan Rather have cried on the air?

It wasn’t JFK Jr.’s fault, and my comments are in no way critical of his life. In fact most of the reaction to the plane crash had little to do with his life. It was about something else entirely. The chain of association is this: JFK Jr. was the son of President John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy is the faded symbol of Nice Big Government. This is all about government, not the Kennedys.

Some background: The cause of activist government has encountered problems in recent years. Failure is everywhere: from the collapse of socialism to the bankruptcy of European welfare states to the public’s reaction to Hillarycare to President Clinton’s toying with an intern in the Oval Office. This has made the weary champions of government long for the good old days, when politics and government intervention were fun and public service (what a self-serving term!) was considered noble. The Kennedy years were the height of that era. Kennedy was a “Cold War liberal,” distinguishable from the later dovish McGovern wing of the Democratic party. A “Cold War liberal” was someone who favored government intervention in both domestic and foreign policy. The Vietnam war was the signature-the New Deal and New Frontier applied to Southeast Asia. Comprehensive intervention thrilled the hearts of the self-proclaimed “enlightened” intellectuals, including key media figures. Kennedy, with good looks, lovely wife, and cute kids, made it seem so wholesome, so American. It was anything but.

When Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country and do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,” few seemed to notice how contrary to the American spirit those words were. It was a classic false alternative. Is there no other choice than mooching off the taxpayers and serving the country? (They are in truth the same thing.) Do the words “pursuit of happiness” ring a bell? America was about neither serving nor being served. It was about making one’s own way, finding one’s own fulfillment, pursuing one’s own happiness. In doing so, one would also benefit others; that’s how a free society works. The idea of serving the country-translation: government-would have appalled the individualists who founded this country.

Such rhetoric was more at home in the European despotisms of the 1930s. Mussolini talked about the individual’s duty to serve his country. So did Hitler. Every dictator does.

After Kennedy told us to ask what we could do for the country, he set in motion a policy that led 58,000 young men to die “for their country” in a remote jungle. That’s what such talk gets you.

The guardians of Camelot would like us to forget that unpleasant detail and to once again associate government with a young, handsome First Family frolicking on the South Lawn. It’s all style. They can’t talk about substance, because the substance of activist government is, as George Washington said, “not reason; it is not eloquence-it is force.” The Kennedy myth has been calculated to shroud that truth. The devices perfected by People and George magazines were first assembled by President Kennedy and his mythmakers.

What is called “public service” is more accurately called paternalism and power lust. Most of what public servants do is spend other people’s money-magnanimously, to be sure, but other’s people’s money just the same. Taking people’s money and telling them how to live is not noble. Not even when done with a swagger and smile.

It is sad that JFK Jr., who went into business not politics, has been used in this cynical cause.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.