There are plenty of people around with names like Adams, Johnson, Harrison, Jefferson, Jackson, Washington and any number of others that, by coincidence, are shared with people elected to the office of U.S. president.

It stands to reason that in a country where people end up in high office not because they're born to it, but rather elected, a fair number of people who end up in the governmental top job would have fairly common last names.


So after the Potato Famine of 1847 and the exodus from the Emerald Isle to America, it stands to reason there would be a lot of people with Irish surnames among the Hibernian diaspora in the U.S. Turns out there are plenty of Gallaghers, Doughertys, Burkes, Fitzsimonses and Kennedys.

A few years back when I was living in Abingdon, I recall being one of at least three James Kennedys living in the 21009 ZIP code.

Kennedy is a common name, one of many common names of U.S. presidents, yet there's something about it that seems to oblige people to ask with a fair degree of regularity a question that often comes out in three words: "Are you related?"

When I was younger, I thought this was simply a function of nearness to shocking events in U.S. history. Attending grade school in the early 1970s less than a decade after the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, I had fellow students not only ask if I was related, but presume one or another of the slain brothers to be my dad (who is alive and well even as I write this).

It hasn't much faded, though. My 13-year-old son, Nick, and I were driving somewhere the other day when he asked, unrelated to anything else we had been talking about: "Why does everyone always ask if we're related to President Kennedy?"

For the record, any relationship my Kennedys have with the family of bootleggers and political leaders is so far back in antiquity that it might as well be through Adam and Eve. The same is probably true of plenty of other Kennedys, who I'm sure are also asked about their relationship to the Camelot clan. My Kennedys settled in Pennsylvania's anthracite region and mined coal. Those of Camelot famously settled in Boston and made a fortune during Prohibition.

Now my wife's maiden name is Adams, and she's actually traced her family back to the father and son presidents of the early years of the Republic, as well as to William Howard Taft. She and my children are all distant cousins of three presidents.

But the only lineage any of us is ever asked about with any degree of regularity, even now 50 years after John F. Kennedy's presidency was cut short at about 1,000 days, is the Kennedy family tie.

It's hard to say what the fascination is. Watching TV during what might as well borrow a marketing turn of phrase from Shark Week and be called Assassination Week, I was astonished at the range of Kennedy fare available for viewing.

The one that struck me as particularly indicative of the odd level of interest in this particular branch of the Kennedy clan is a documentary based on Kennedy family home movies.

It's hard to imagine anyone being able to sell a documentary based on, say, the home movies of Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon. The Kennedy home movies, though, are promoted almost as though they were the highlight of this year's Shark Week, the definitive documentary about a terrifying cross between shark-nado and shark-zilla.

Go figure.

I've heard a variety of explanations of why there's such a fascination with a president who didn't serve a full term and was elected by a very narrow margin.

He was young, and had young children living in the White House. He was the first president to really be on TV with any degree of regularity, and he looked good on TV. Thanks to a quick wit, he also sounded good on TV.


There's also a theory that says he set out a challenging vision for the nation that harnessed the pioneer spirit and directed it at the moon in a rather unifying way.

That such a visionary was cut down before the vision could be achieved is a kind of tragedy played out throughout history and highlighted in literature. Perhaps most famously, Moses led his people to the Promised Land but was not permitted to enter it.

How might history have been different without the assassination in Dallas? It's a question as pointless as any other of history's great what-if questions because the answer to all of them is we'll never know.

What if, for example, Kaiser Wilhelm II's father, Frederick III, had not been stricken with throat cancer and died at 57 in 1888 after only 99 days on the throne? Frederick III, married to Queen Victoria's daughter, Vicky, is regarded in history as a capable governor in touch with the national and international politics of his day who was grounded in reality having commanded forces in battle. His son, Wilhelm II, is regarded as having been somewhat emotionally unstable, out of touch with reality and having a boyish fascination with the military that he allowed to run Germany before and during World War I.

Would there have been a World War I with a level-headed Frederick holding German military leaders in check in the first decade of the 1900s? Would there then have been a Russian Revolution? A World War II? A Cold War?

Just as there's no way of knowing how much of an American hero Jack Kennedy would have been had he not been killed, there's no way of knowing if things would have been better, worse or the same.

In the 50 years since his 1,000-day presidency ended, though, even as his many personal flaws have come to light, he has become an inspirational figure.

So I imagine my family and I will continue to be asked if we're related for the foreseeable future.