Remembering John F. Kennedy Jr. (1960-1999)

by Jack McLean

Published in Gulf Islands Driftwood (1999)

He showed a certain vulnerability in the media scrum, a childlike reticence in response to the telling question, a slight hesitation as he made his way through the gauntlet of intruding cameras and the pressing crowd, the microphone shoved in the face. As a school boy, JFK Jr. was sheltered from intrusive eyes by a vigilant mother who valued her own privacy. In his formative years, he tried to live his life as close to the norm as possible for someone of his standing. As an adult, he chose to avoid the limelight and guarded the intimacy of his private world with a dignity that also satisfied the demands created by the magic and the burden of the Kennedy name. Still he knew the embarrassment of intrusion, the private life put up for public scrutiny by the demands of an all-powerful and relentless media to satisfy a public ever avid to feed on the lives of the rich and famous.

Educated in New York private schools and Brown University in Rhode Island, JFK Jr. and his sister Caroline were protected from the moral laxity associated with the lifestyle of the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport. Jacqueline Bouvier’s foresight kept her children from becoming embroiled in the successive scandals and tragedies that darkened the lives of John’s New England cousins whom he once boldly criticised in an article in his magazine George as “poster boys for bad behaviour.” In the end, however, fate would rule that John Kennedy, the son, would not succeed in avoiding the Kennedy legacy for tragedy that had taken the life of his father and several members of his extended family.

It has been said that when the young American colonies rebelled against the monarchy of George 111 to proclaim the great republic of the West, they in no way divested themselves of their fascination with royalty. Whatever the logic or the reality of the situation, the Kennedys symbolized royalty in the American psyche, although John’s untimely death may just have killed off any lingering vestiges of the Kennedy mystique.

Connected to this present tragedy, I see in the romantic preoccupation with dynastics and royals something that transcends the human propensity to gossip and compare, the envy and the avarice, the vicarious living of the privileged life. I sense that we are yearning to find a greater intangible, one that partially escapes us — the search for true nobility. Perhaps we look to find the noble in us all when we scrutinize the lives of the titled and the privileged. And whether I am right or wrong in this observation, there can be no harm in cherishing nobility more than scandal.

A powerful dynamic is created when nobility of heart and conduct is joined to nobility of birth. We came to understand this all too poignantly with the unimaginable outpouring of grief that occurred following the untimely death of Princess Diana. This dynamic force of example exerts an even stronger influence in the world when we sense that those who enjoy a life of privilege have greater regard for worthy causes and substantive issues than they do for the false gods of fame and fortune.

Largely due to his mother’s vigilance and maternal care, John and his sister Caroline gave new meaning to the now somewhat dated phrase “well-bred.” For ill-bred is what we too often witness in the behaviour of the “celebrity” who has become the New Age idol. John’s winsome modesty, the good looks and charm, his natural affection and self-effacement all endeared JFK Jr. to those who grew to love him, a “joy” to his friends, as a teary-eyed Christianne Amanpour confessed to her CNN interviewer.

Although he deliberately shunned the political life that claimed the life of his father and his uncle Robert, still John F. Kennedy Jr. conducted himself in a manner that befits a president’s son. He knew that he carried a historical legacy in his own person. But although he was surely conscious of this fact, John F. Kennedy Jr. wore this cloak lightly. A president’s son, he was also the boy next door.

As this chapter of the story of America’s first family passes into history and the attention of the nation turns to the other stories of the day, I must confess that I have found two welcome consolations in reliving yet again the nightmare of another Kennedy drama. Like Princess Diana, John F. Kennedy Jr. was cut down in the summer of his life and will never grow old. The second consolation I found in one of the film clip retrospectives of John’s life. There we see a happy boy, running into the arms of a smiling mother who waits to greet him. My ardent hope is that this same scene has been lived again in a world that we can only dimly perceive.

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