Don Williams
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Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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The many ironies of The Kennedys' Greek tragedy reveal vivid virtues to be fatal flaws
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   07/30/1999)

Lets bring perspective to our perspective, shall we? Its been skewed of late.

Two weeks ago, as our nostalgic nation was time traveling back 30 years for another look at the first moon landing, we got blind-sided by the untimely death of an icon, and so took a side trip through the on-going Greek tragedy known as The Kennedys.

Obviously were conflicted when it comes to Kennedys, a family that attracts ironies like the moon attracts craters. Ironies pile up and overlap in ways that would be unbelievable in a novel. Yet they form patterns that show just how thin is the line between courage and arrogance--those twin attributes of famous Kennedy men. Think back. Such ironies were on display July 20, 1969, the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. It should have been the ultimate monument to John F. Kennedys vision and courage. It was Kennedy, after all, who made going to the moon a national quest. He whose words set rockets in motion to make it happen.

Unfortunately, Fate had rather more artful ideas. Some 36 hours before Armstrong landed on the moon, JFKs younger brother Edward landed in a dark drink of water with a young woman not his wife. She was drowned. The event robbed the moon of its pure Kennedy luster, and robbed Edward of any real chance at the presidency.

Such direct ironies strike with TNT force.

Take this one. Richard Nixon made that most distant of long-distance phone calls to the moon, hijacking JFKs glory with self-serving remarks. It's understandable. Nixon looked down on the Kennedys with utmost envy, in the pithy words of commentator William Safire. Nixon lost the 1960 presidential election to JFK by the narrowest margin in history, it is said. In 1969, Nixons revenge was complete, as he basked in the glow of a moon program he even then was strangling by cutting off its money supply.

Lesser ironies strike tangentially.

Lyndon Baines Johnson would have made that 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, Johnsons thunder was silenced--his reign curtailed--by the guns and bombs of Vietnam.

So it was Nixons call.

Safire, a Nixon speechwriter in 1969, prepared a rather somber message for his boss to deliver in case things went tragic for Apollo, it was recently revealed. This speech would have been for the widows of astronauts who might have died on the moon. Instead, the moonship JFK famously uttered into existence traveled millions of miles with scarcely a hitch. Rather, it was Teddy Kennedys midnight ramble of a few miles that turned to tragedy--a tragedy which resonates still in the lines on his aging face. Few ironies have been greater than those of the past two weeks, however, for they compound and magnify all the others.

During the thirtieth anniversary of that first trip to the moon--even as JFKs name was again being hailed for sending us there--yet another Kennedy landed in a dark drink of water. John Kennedy, Jr., who saluted his fathers passing casket so memorably--courageously it seemed--and who was heir apparent to the Kennedy legacy, robbed the world of his own potential. Yet he was an heir indeed. An heir to death and heartbreak. After a respectful hiatus, during which the Kennedys tastefully buried their own at sea--to their undying credit--a debate has been joined.

Was John Jr.s decision to fly into a cloud-shrouded night an act of Kennedy bravado or was it arrogance?

His meager experience, his two passengers, and his ailing leg--injured in a para-sailing accident--all weigh in against his decision to fly. He never should have taken the helm of that high-performance plane, with its unforgiving engine. Not on that night.

Thats the opinion of experts.

But you decide. Was it arrogance, or was it life-affirming courage in the face of danger? Either way, it was at least akin to the optimism and bravado that took us to the moon, initiated the Peace Corps, turned back the Russians during the Cuban Missile Crisis and helped roll back segregation. 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 Kennedys.

So it remains.