WITH all the media coverage occasioned by the thirtieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death, Joe McGinniss's biography of Edward Kennedy, The Last Brother, rather got lost. The brief controversy over McGinniss's methods, in turn, obscured a larger milestone: along with the flood of docudramas about the first brother, The Last Brother was yet another step in the transformation of the Kennedys from largely conventional political figures into pop-culture deities from the world of entertainment—the cultural equivalents, perhaps, of Elvis Presley or the Jacksons. It should be no surprise that popular biography has reflected this conversion, or that the change parallels the way politics has come to be viewed in the years since the Kennedys hit the scene. Neither is it a coincidence that the Kennedy family, through its infatuation with Hollywood, was instrumental in the conversion. "All history is gossip," President Kennedy used to say, which may or may not have been accurate then, but— owing to the changes he and his family helped accelerate—is somewhat more accurate today. "So the rumors are true?" asks a character in The Player, a 1992 film about Hollywood. "Rumors are always true. You know that," another answers. John Kennedy, Joe McGinniss, and millions of Americans wouldn't have put it any other way.
Of course, traditional political biographies are still being published about the Kennedys: witness President Kennedy: Profile of Power, Richard Reeves's recent account of the JFK presidency. But just as the current political doings of the Kennedys are frequently dwarfed in the popular press by news of the latest party, drinking scandal, or date for John Junior, so in recent times have traditional books about the Kennedys been overshadowed by such gossipy volumes as the McGinniss work; Richard Burke's tell-all about Edward Kennedy, The Senator; Peter Collier and David Horowitz's The Kennedys: An American Drama; and even (though they're less gossipy) Nigel Hamilton's JFK: Reckless Youth and Thomas Reeves's A Question of Character. Because of the current cultural obsession with inner life, biography now tends to stray into the personal more than it once did. Still, the Kennedy family isn't written about the way that Harry Truman, or Ronald Reagan, or Martin Luther King Jr. is. The Kennedys are different from you and me and them, and not simply because they have more money.