Also Seen: JFK as Greek Hero?

Over at the New Yorker, Daniel Mendelsohn has penned a piece comparing JFK (and family) to various Greek heroes … here’s a bit from the middle, the ideas of which have probably crossed your mind every now and then:

[…]

The family-curse theme, especially, is one we like to invoke in thinking about the Kennedys. The motif is nowhere stronger than in the “Oresteia” itself, the text that Robert Kennedy quoted that April evening forty-five years ago. When the Chorus speaks of suffering and pain, it looks as if they’re referring to current events: the queen Clytemnestra’s plot to murder her husband, Agamemnon, in revenge for his decision to sacrifice their virgin daughter Iphigenia to win from the gods favorable winds for his fleet to sail to Troy. But this act, it turns out, is merely a grim continuation of a cycle of carnage that goes back generations, as the Chorus knows only too well: to Agamemnon’s father, Atreus, who murdered his brother’s children; to Atreus’s father, Pelops, who won his bride by violence and betrayal, and was cursed by the man he betrayed; to Pelops’ father, Tantalus, a king so favored by the gods that he used to dine with them, until he murdered his own son and fed his flesh to his divine hosts to test whether they were, in fact, all-knowing.

In many tragedies—certainly in the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles—the gods are indeed all-knowing, are pulling the strings unbeknownst to the mortals whose lives they control: works like the “Oresteia” or the “Oedipus” (whose hero learns, to his horror, that he cannot escape the “plot” the gods have written for him) seem to confirm an invisible but palpable order in things. We, too, often seek to discern a kind of order—to find a plot—in the hodgepodge of events we call history. When people talk about the harrowing catalogue of sorrow and violent death in the Kennedy family—not only the uncannily twinned assassinations but the wartime mid-air explosion that killed J.F.K.’s older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr.; the two airplane crashes, his sister Kathleen and his son, J.F.K., Jr.; the lobotomy and institutionalization of a sister; Chappaquiddick; the murder scandal involving a nephew of Ethel Kennedy; the drug addictions and early deaths of some of R.F.K.’s children—they often mention, in the same breath, the alleged crimes of the family patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy. (The bootlegging, the election-fixing, the Mob connections, Gloria Swanson.) In referring to a “Kennedy Curse,” they are, essentially, thinking “tragically”: thinking the way Aeschylus thought, assuming that there is a dark pattern in the way things happen, a connection between the sins of the fathers and the sufferings of the children and their children afterward.
[…]