The Kennedy Legacy

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Posts tagged John F. Kennedy Jr

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JFK Jr: Rollerblade-guy
"He loved to travel across this city by subway, bicycle and Rollerblade. He lived as if he were unrecognizable — although he was known by everyone he encountered. He always introduced himself rather than take anything for granted. He drove his own car and flew his own plane, which is how he wanted it. He was king of his domain."                                                           - Ted Kennedy about John Jr

JFK Jr: Rollerblade-guy

"He loved to travel across this city by subway, bicycle and Rollerblade. He lived as if he were unrecognizable — although he was known by everyone he encountered. He always introduced himself rather than take anything for granted. He drove his own car and flew his own plane, which is how he wanted it. He was king of his domain."
                                                           - Ted Kennedy about John Jr

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Remembering John John

By Nina Burleigh, New York Observer

Besides being the month of Thanksgiving, November is the month of the Dead Kennedy. It’s a time of remembering a day of blood and brains on a pink dress in Dallas, a portal into a black hole in the last half-century’s history.

For those of us born in and after the 1960s, who can’t literally recall the day of the assassination, the real figure from November 1963 haunting our childhood imaginations was a boy, our age, standing in short pants and saluting his father’s coffin.

John Kennedy Jr., who would be 53 years old now, was our Kennedy. The beautiful man known as John John, who grew up cavorting on the Cape and Skorpios with Jackie O, discoing in New York with Mick and Bianca and Andy, was a symbol of sex and privilege, his elitism so gracefully carried. 


I met him on a few occasions when I wrote for his magazine George. His pet project was idealistic, and a bit ahead of its time. The magazine was first of all an extension of the Kennedy brand: substance, celebrity and just enough whimsy to appeal to those who had flipped the channel from the nightly news to MTV.

In person he was an easygoing thoroughbred, perfectly mannered, all varnished normalcy. Sitting beside him at lunch in a Washington bistro, you knew that he knew exactly which fork to use first, but he wasn’t going to make you feel bad for not unfolding the napkin properly, either.

Turning up at New York parties in the 1990s, he and his blond wife were luminous creatures, towering over everybody else, tall, sylphic and fair. Olympians.

In the 13 years since he died, I remember Kennedy whenever I exit the Franklin Street subway station by Bubby’s, the corner restaurant where the paps so often staked him out, across from the Tribeca loft he shared with his lovely, restless and unhappy bride until the day they died.

This month, though, I found myself thinking about him while driving west from the city at Thanksgiving, beneath the contrails of small jets and planes crisscrossing sky over Essex County Airport, the location from which he took off on a summer day in 1999.

Before the 2000 election and 9/11, that plane crash in the fog over the Cape was one of the tragic millennial plot twists. I’m not saying Kennedy would have been president or changed the course of history. But he was our generation’s Kennedy, possessed of that rare quality from another era called charm, who might have helped recharge the progressive politics that were his birthright. Maybe, just maybe, he would have shown the brutes in Washington how to be civil in an uncivilized age.


Our Kennedy was, like the rest of us, a self-indulgent underachiever, a little lost. He loved his Frisbee, and he flunked the bar exam a couple times. But his greatest underachievement was his untimely death. What he might have been—perhaps a senator or governor—we will never know.

JFK JR.’S DAD ENDURED A SECOND, reputational death with revelations about CIA plots and his seedy private life, the revolving door of women in and out of the White House, feeding the now-named sex addiction. The younger Kennedy didn’t want to see that. I wrote a book about one of the mistresses and I never wrote for his magazine or saw him again.

He protected his dad’s legend, surely, but the rest of us came to expect, if not to revel in, the failures of his storied clan, from the peccadilloes of Bobby and Teddy, to the lost souls of the next generation, the heroin addictions, the rape charges, the car crashes, and most recently, the divorce ending in suicide of Bobby Junior’s wife in Katonah.

As children of the 1960s, we grew up knowing better than to put our faith in great men and higher institutions—starting with Nixon’s resignation, the Church committee naming the dirty deeds done in service of our free enterprise around the world, the coups and assassinations, drug experiments, the dirty wars.

Born at the end of the Baby Boom, we were cowed into learned helplessness by black ops and nuclear Armageddon and by easy drugs and cheap gas, too young to protest, too high to care. We partied because tomorrow might never come, pretty sure we were the final generation before nuclear Armageddon. We had no clue that a different sort of Armageddon was underway, slow, painless and invisible, until the streets of Detroit turned into apocalyptic movie sets and our ponds stopped freezing in winter.

In their book, That Used to Be Us, Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum lay out the statistical decline that’s occurred on our generation’s watch.

Thirty years ago, 10 percent of California’s general revenue fund went to higher education and 3 percent to prisons. Today nearly 11 percent goes to prisons and 8 percent to higher education.

The shameless abandonment of all communitarian impulse that lay behind the Reagan era wealth shift happened on our watch: the top 1 percent now holds 40 percent of the wealth. Twenty-five years ago, the top 12 percent held 33 percent of the wealth.

The truest measure of our generation’s decline is in the kids of a gutted middle class. The descendants of Greatest Generation are fat, diabetic, meth-addicted sloths who couldn’t make it through basic training if they were so inclined. “Seventy-five percent of young Americans, between the ages of 17 to 24,” Messrs. Friedman and Mandelbaum wrote, “are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record or are physically unfit.”

The authors blame outside forces: globalization, the revolution in information technology, the nation’s chronic deficits and its pattern of energy consumption.

But we know better. We know that the decline started inside of us. Like Kennedy—our best and brightest—our own squandered potential comes from the don’t-give-a-shit decades of our extended youth, from the classes we cut in college to smoke dope and play Ultimate, from the planet we heated with the fumes from so many cross country road trips, and from the island of plastic in the Pacific we would make with our limitless intake of bottled water and supersized soda.

Frank DiGiacomo, in a July 1999 obit for John Jr he wrote, tried to describe what Junior’s death meant for his peers. Mr. DiGiacomo didn’t know that it was one dispiriting tragedy preceding so much worse—the imminent disastrous election of 2000 and the falling of the World Trade towers.

But he sensed something dark coming, as we all did.

“We’re all older now,” Mr. DiGiacomo wrote. “And somehow, New York’s 21st century seems a little colder and more distant knowing that John Kennedy—who was supposed to be in our future, who may be irreplaceable in our lives—is contained forever, back here with our youth, in his father’s century, the 20th.”


John John died just as he was getting his act together at age 38—belatedly, like the rest of us, getting less diffident, gaining hope, finding a purpose. He would have been gray around the temples by now and, who knows, maybe living up to his birthright and promise as another desperately needed, persuasive voice for progressive ideals in Albany or D.C.

We, his peers, forge into middle age and these troubled times that none of us foresaw or, it must be admitted, would or could have tried to prevent.

RIP to our misspent youth, and to the very symbol of its lost promise, the boy saluting death, forever.

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America’s Favorite Son


By Michael Gross

Originally published in the March 20, 1989 issue of New York Magazine

It was madness, even by Bloomingdale’s standards. The customers that late-November lunchtime were possessed by an urgency that transcended mere pre-Christmas shopping lust. Suddenly, TV lights came on and cameras started snapping like piranhas as the day’s hottest item, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr., the son of America’s thirty-fifth president, stepped onto a platform. Women screamed.

“It was mass hysteria,” one store worker says. “Poor man. I don’t think he had any idea.” Kennedy looked amazed and none too happy. “Oh, dear,” he said as he joined cousins Ted Kennedy Jr. and Willie Smith, Willie’s mother, Jean Kennedy Smith, and Lauren Bacall on the store’s loge level.

Very Special Arts, a Kennedy charity, was behind this sale of boxed Christmas ornaments produced by the retarded in Third World countries. But the TV crews and the screaming women and the pushing paparazzi didn’t care about that. They didn’t care about Betty Bacall, either, or the other Kennedy cousins — all associate trustees of the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation who had funded the program. Says the Bloomingdale’s employee, “They wanted John.”

Kennedy took the microphone. “I hope you’ll all buy a few boxes,” he said. “I’m here to sell boxes, and that’s what I want to get to do.” Of course, by doing that-or, more precisely, by autographing boxes for a few minutes-he got the ornaments mentioned on seven local news shows and Entertainment Tonight. Jill Rapaport, a perky Channel 2 News reporter, even got a brief interview. “It’s really the boxes they should be coming for, not us,” Kennedy told her. Then he got boxed in himself as Rapaport asked how it felt to be one of the world’s most eligible bachelors. “C’mon,” Kennedy pleaded, eyes and hands turning upward. “1 dunno.” He glanced away from the microphone hopelessly. Finally, visibly embarrassed, he said, “It feels okay.” Cut to Rapaport happy-talking in the studio later. “Kinda cute, huh?” she said to the camera.

Although Bloomingdale’s sold almost $50,000 worth of ornaments that day, John Kennedy, 28, considered the appearance disappointing. “We didn’t want it to turn out the way it did,” says Kathy Walther, a Very Special Arts executive. “It was very obnoxious from the second he walked in. John hoped it would be more substantive.”

Unfortunately, substance isn’t ‘the first thing that comes to mind when most people think about John F. Kennedy Jr. First, of course, comes the awful, indelible memory of the little boy in a blue coat and short pants, saluting his father’s bronze coffin.

That image alternates with others not so sober: Kennedy pumped-up and shirtless as People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive.” Kennedy linked in the columns with an enviable parade-Brooke Shields, Madonna, Daryl Hannah, Molly Ringwald, Princess Stephanie of Monaco.

Those images melded at his political coming-out party, last summer’s Democratic Convention-where John F. Kennedy Jr., tabloid celebrity, was transformed into the living embodiment of a nation’s not-quite-impossible dream: that it will wake up one morning with another JFK in the White House. Uncle Ted Kennedy passed the torch himself when he had John introduce him to the delegates, and though the nephew’s speech didn’t rattle the rafters, there was a surge of emotion in the hall. This was the first time John had ever acted the part of “a Kennedy” on a national stage. And the moment suggested that he could become the ultimate postmodern politician-a blank canvas for fantasies of national destiny.

The boy in the blue coat is grown up now, and, whether he likes it or not, people still have their eyes on him. He doesn’t like it at all, and friends insist that his life is a quest for anonymity and normality. He may never find privacy (“He’s never known life any different,” says a friend), but he’s won the battle to be normal. Aggressively normal. “Disgustingly normal,” says a friend.

He is also understandably reluctant to give anything away, having already given so much. Kennedy “is trying to have an open life,” says Faith Stevelman, who met him on their second day of law school, in 1986. “He sure turned out to be completely different than I expected. The press makes him out to be a narcissistic celebrity brat, but he’s not. People want to see him that way, because of his father, because of his name, because he’s handsome, but-praise to him-he has a life that’s much more real than that. He likes being in the world.”

He doesn’t like publicity, though. “It curtails his freedom,” Stevelman says.

So, aside from lending his name to good causes, he’s done nothing to attract attention to himself. He’s given only one print interview in his life, to the New York Times, and it wasn’t particularly revealing. Not speaking to reporters “has always been a habit,” says his aunt Lee Radziwill. “We’re not going to start now.”

One former family intimate describes the Kennedy attitude as “a conspiracy of silence, mandated from above. But when they want to get the message out, they do.” John Kennedy declined to be interviewed for this story. But there’s a message his friends want to get out, so many of them cooperated, as did former coworkers and bosses and a few Kennedy-family members.

They are setting the stage for what a Kennedy Foundation executive describes as “John emerging into the public sphere.” After having worked for New York City, a nonprofit developer, the Reagan Justice Department, and apolitically connected Los Angeles law firm, the man who is perhaps the most famous presidential child of the century is about to become one of about 400 assistant district attorneys in the office of Manhattan prosecutor Robert Morgenthau.

Like a favored candidate’s spin doctors before a big debate, Kennedy’s friends are trying to lower expectations. “The most extraordinary thing about him is that he’s extraordinarily ordinary,” says one.

Public appearances to the contrary, friends seem convinced, and want to convince others, that John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr. — JFK II — doesn’t really exist. “He wants to be perceived as his own man,” says Peter Allen, a friend since grade school. Says Stevelman heatedly, “He’s not John F. Kennedy Jr. He is himself. It’s `Hi, I’m John.’ ” Just John.


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Over a quarter century ago, my father stood here before you to accept the nomination for the presidency of the United States. So many of you came into public service because of him. In a very real sense, because of you, he is still with us still. And for that I’m grateful to all of you
John F. Kennedy, Jr. at the Democratic National Convention, Atlanta, 1988

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