The mystique of ‘cursed dynasties’

Another Kennedy tragedy puts the spotlight back on famous families who have often dealt with untimely deaths.

John F Kennedy and his brother Robert - both successful politicians - were assassinated in the 1960s [GALLO/GETTY]
John F Kennedy and his brother Robert - both successful politicians - were assassinated in the 1960s [GALLO/GETTY]

When the lifeless body of Mary Kennedy, the estranged wife of Robert F Kennedy Jr, was found at her New York home last week, it gave fresh life to a decades-long speculation that the Kennedy’s – one of America’s most recognisable families – are cursed.

Mary’s untimely death – media reports say she committed suicide – is far from the first tragedy to afflict the family.

The most famous member of the family to meet a premature unnatural death was US President John F Kennedy, whom Harvey Lee Oswald shot to death on November 22, 1963 as Kennedy’s motorcade drove through Dallas, Texas.

In eight Gallup polls conducted in the past 12 years, Americans have consistently ranked him as one of the all-time great US presidents alongside Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln.

His brother, Senator Robert F Kennedy, was also shot and killed in 1968 while campaigning for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Two other siblings, Kathleen and Joseph, perished in fatal plane crashes.

Younger generations of the Kennedy family have likewise experienced a slew of tragedies, including drug overdose, infant death, a lethal skiing accident, and another fatal plane crash.

“America’s royal family”, as they are sometimes known, is not the only family to suffer from misfortune: Pakistan’s Bhuttos and India’s Nehru-Gandhis are also world-famous political dynasties whose family history are seemingly cursed.

Debunking the Kennedy myth

The idea of the “Kennedy curse” was coined by media outlets after late US senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy drove his car off a bridge in Chappaquiddick Island in 1969. Kennedy lived, but his passenger in the car, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned.

John F Kennedy’s family, from left: Edward, Jeanne, Robert, Patricia, Eunice, Kathleen, Rosemary, John, Rose and Joseph Sr. Joseph Jr is not pictured. [GALLO/GETTY]

Later, Kennedy gave a televised speech in which he stated that the accident made him wonder “whether some awful curse [does] actually hang over all the Kennedys”.

Some historians believe Kennedy’s allusion to a curse was a misguided attempt to exculpate himself from responsibility for Kopechne’s death.

“Mary Kopechne died because of his actions, not because of any twist of fate. It happened because he was driving late at night under the influence of alcohol,” author Thomas Maier who has written extensively about the Kennedy family told Al Jazeera.

Edward Kennedy did not report the incident to the police, and the accident is often regarded as having ruined his future chances to be elected president.

“The curse is an absurd and deeply offensive myth that has been perpetuated by media and people trying to explain away circumstances,” said Maier. “In fact, the deaths were always [except in the case of John and Robert’s assassinations] caused by the actions that deliberately endangered their lives.”

Maier added that the staying power of the Kennedy’s curse stems from the way in which the family embodied the American Dream.

“The Kennedy story is deeply rooted in the story of America itself,” he said. “They embody the great American belief that an immigrant can come to America and through hard work and sense of family work their way to the top of society”.

That legacy, Maier believes, was solidified by John F Kennedy’s charisma and fate.

“John Kennedy’s rhetoric, his appearance, his youth, and the tragic situation in which he died indelibly left its imprint on the American psyche and left people groping for answers,” he said. “That is part of the reason that he, and his family, remain powerful figures in the American imagination.”

‘Martyrs for democracy’

Halfway across the world, the Bhutto family – sometimes known as the Kennedys of Pakistan – are also one of the most well-known political dynasties whose image has been branded by their unfortunate fate.

Their curse began with the death of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the prime minister who was imprisoned and hanged in 1977 at the orders of General Zia-ul-Haq following a military coup.

Zulfiqar’s sons Murtaza and Shahnawaz were both assassinated under mysterious circumstances.

  Left to right: Murtaza Bhutto, his mother Nusrat Bhutto, Begum Almas Daultana, and Benazir in 1972 [GALLO/GETTY]

Murtaza, who formed the armed group al-Zulfiqar while self-exiled in Afghanistan to combat the military dictatorship under Zia, was supposedly shot dead in 1996 by police outside of his home – although a number of people question the police’s involvement. His brother Shahnawaz was found poisoned in his apartment in Nice, France, 11 years earlier.

More recently Benazir, who served two terms as prime minister and succeeded her father at the head of the democratic socialist Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), died from a combination bomb and gun attack while leaving an election rally in 2007.

Duane Baughman, who directed a documentary on Benazir entitled Bhutto, told Al Jazeera that the Bhuttos captured the public imagination through “their good fortune, their wealth, their exceptional good looks” and the perception that they were martyred for democracy.

“Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s first democratically elected prime minister, won on the strength of the [PPP], which promised a poor country ‘food, shelter, and clothing’ as well as the creation of a middle class,” he explained. “When you try to change the course of your nation’s history and you are killed, you become a martyr; there will undoubtedly be a huge outpouring of sympathy.”

Zarrar Khuhro, the editor of the Express-Tribune daily’s magazine section, agreed, and said that their violent deaths turned both Zulfiqar and Benazir into saints.

In Zulfiqar’s case, Khuhro said, “the way in which he was killed… had the effect in many ways of putting his political legacy above reproach, much like [President] Kennedy”.

“The man did actually achieve a great deal, but he was also autocratic… he also had many faults.”

The power of the name

Khuhro also explained that perhaps the family’s most important legacy was the influence that the Bhutto name has had on current Pakistani politics.

Unlike other political parties, “the PPP, despite the best efforts of Zia-ul-Haq, the establishment, and subsequent military dictators and civilian political opponents, never broke up”, he told Al Jazeera. “To a large extent, that’s really due to the Bhutto legacy, name and mystique.”

He added that current Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari continues to make use of the iconic power of the Bhuttos to further the party’s political goals.  

“[The PPP] trots out Benazir’s legacy whenever they’re in trouble, but how many times are you going to play that card? You’re not going to have a Bhutto die for you every four, five years – God forbid.”

 Indira Gandhi with Rajiv and Sanjay in 1967 [GALLO/GETTY]

Khuhro stressed that the Bhuttos also shared a number of similarities with neighbouring India’s storied Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

The Nehru-Gandhis (who are not related to Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi) have suffered from similarly bad luck.

In 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister after it gained independence – was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. Because her son Sanjay, widely expected to be her political successor, had died prematurely in a plane crash in 1980, her other son Rajiv became prime minister after her death. He was assassinated seven years later by members of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist military organisation.

The family has arguably been the most important political force in India: a member of the dynasty has been in charge of the country for 40 out of the last 64 years.

Like the Bhuttos, politicians in India continue to capitalise on the Nehru-Gandhi mystique. Sonia, Rajiv’s widow, heads the ruling Congress party despite her Italian origin. Her son, Rahul, is an important party functionary and touted by many as a future prime minister.

No surprises here, since the Gandhi surname does cast a spell on many, just as the Kennedys and Bhuttos do.

Follow Sophie Sportiche on Twitter: @slsport

Source: Al Jazeera

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