Surely everyone knows by now that just after sunset on July 16th, a small plane piloted by John F. Kennedy, Jr., spun into the waters off the Massachusetts coast, killing him, his wife Carolyn, and her sister Lauren.

In the hours and days following the tragedy, networks and news organizations spoke and wrote everything they knew--and some things they didn't know--about the sad events of that night, the short lives of the three victims, and nearly every other imaginable fact or facet of the story. You would think, after such extensive coverage, that everything that could be said about the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. has been said.

ABC's Garrick Utley intoned over and over, "It's sad. It's just very sad." NBC's Tom Brokaw said that many people in his generation "define [their] lives" and accomplishments by the Kennedy family. President Clinton stated- falsely, it turns out--that he was glad to have hosted JFK Jr.'s first return to the White House since his father's assassination. Reporters, commentators, public figures, one after the other, hailed the late magazine editor as an icon, a symbol, a hero.

But all the posthumous praise and adoration heaped on Mr. Kennedy makes me even sadder. I'm sad for the family and friends of John, Carolyn, and Lauren. But I'm also sad because it has become painfully clear that we can no longer distinguish between celebrity and heroism.

By almost all accounts, JFK Jr. was a decent human being. It seems not only surprising but extraordinary that he--and his sister, by the way--could become such apparently polite, sensible, and more or less normal adults in the midst of the kind of advantage and celebrity that has ruined or handicapped so many others.

But decency--what used to be called common decency--has now become so uncommon that it is apparently enough to make a prosecutor, magazine editor, and son of a slain president into a hero. A hero. . . Not because he demonstrated exceptional courage. Not because he made some selfless sacrifice. Not because of some remarkable discovery or towering achievement. But because he was decent. . . and famous.

It is a measure of our own poverty that we are so morally confused these days that we can no longer recognize, in the words of the ancient writer, "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable . . . excellent or praiseworthy". . . much less what is heroic. That's how far we've come. Or, perhaps I should say, how low we've sunk.

This commentary was awarded the "Best Broadcast Writing" award from the Ohio Associated Press and also appeared in the May 2, 2003 edition of the Hamilton Journal-News.

Copyright © 2003, Bob Hostetler