Friday, August 28, 2009

Flashback Friday: John F. Kennedy, Jr.

I forgot to do a ten year anniversary reflection on the tragic death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. back in July. The passing of his Uncle Ted reminded me of the Flashback Friday post I wanted to do for one of my favourite personalities, since I didn't have a blog a decade ago to pay proper respect. Now is a good time as any to honour a man who was probably my personal hero. He lived the kind of life I could only dream of living.

Some people might have been jealous of his good fortune, but I viewed him probably the same way that the ancient Greeks viewed their designated gods. I simply cannot think of any other human in my lifetime who had all the blessings of the great genetic pool his parents contributed to, with the luck to be born in such an iconic American family, and the enviable sexual charisma that allowed him to have the widest choice of women for girlfriends and eventually a wife. He truly was the Adonis of our current age. And like the ancient Greek gods and demi-gods (Herakles, comes to mind), he should have paid some attention to the story of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun with waxed wings, which melted and caused a plummet to his death.

Ten years ago, I was in college, attending Summer term so I could finish my courses on time in order to move to D.C. for my internship at the start of 2000 and remain there for my career. I had gone to a study session with some classmates in my Physical Science course. I've never been good at science. In fact, I was required to take three science courses for my degree. I would receive a D in Atmosphere & Weather and another D in Physical Science. But it was my failing grade in Biology that I required to retake in order to receive my degree, which took me forever to complete. The biology course cost me my dream graduation date for the year 2000.

Anyhow, during the study session, one of the girls had mentioned the tragedy of John F. Kennedy and "Caroline" dying. I was stunned because it was the first that I heard about it. Of course, you can't drop news like that on me and expect me to concentrate on my studies. Especially when it involves my beloved Kennedys. The girl didn't know all the details, such as whether it was "Caroline" (his sister) or "Carolyn" (his wife). I thought it would be especially tragic if both of John and Jacqueline Kennedy's children died in the same accident. The girl didn't know, so I couldn't wait for the study session to finish so I could rush home and plant myself on the couch in front of the television, which I did and remained all weekend, watching the cable news coverage.

Such news was not the way I wanted to begin my final semester at BYU. My first semester at BYU began with the shocking news that Princess Diana had died in a tragic car accident in Paris. And like the Kennedy death, I learned about Diana's accident from another person (my sister) first before I saw it on the news. In fact, my sister had gone on and on about some death that I thought she was talking about one of her friends. She was so torn up about it. When she realized I had no idea that Princess Diana died, my mom panicked. She thought it was weird that I didn't know. My mom actually thought the Mormons had kept me from a television, that it really was some kind of insular cult that didn't allow people access to outside news! I just told my mom that I was busy with all the new student orientation activities that I didn't have time to watch television.

So, while my sister was devastated by Diana's death, I actually felt more devastated by Kennedy's death. I suspected that he might run for political office someday and I wanted to be a part of that campaign. I felt a bond with the guy...because he was left-handed, he constantly defied the expectations other people put upon him, he seemed like a genuine friend to anyone who approached him sincerely (without wanting something from him), he wasn't afraid to display a range of emotions in public (such as his infamous public spat with his girlfriend in Central Park in which a ring was taken back and arguments over who owned the dog ensued), and he created the best magazine ever (I have every single issue). Simply put, John F. Kennedy, Jr. represented the kind of person I wish I could be...cool, confident, athletic, great family, a wealth of experiences, humility, and the easy ability to attract friends and girlfriends. He dated a lineup of celebrities (Sarah Jessica Parker, Madonna, Darryl Hannah), models (a Brazilian named Xuxa, I believe her name was), and other classy beauties (Christine Haag, Carolyn Bessette). It is blessed to have a choice. America truly lost its Prince that tragic day, 16 July 1999.

Like the Jim Carrey film The Truman Show, John F. Kennedy is one of few people who has been famous from the moment of his birth, just three weeks after his father's election as the 35th president of the United States. The photo above shows his glamourous parents and his baby picture with his mother, Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy. He had an older sister, Caroline. But he carried the namesake. In later years, Jackie was reported to have said that had she known the amount of attention John would receive all his life, they would have never named him after his father.

Who the hell is she kidding, though? The entire Kennedy family has Juniors. The Patriarch Joseph Patrick Kennedy named his first born son, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. Because Joe Jr. died in a plane crash during World War II, he never got to experience marriage and family. Third brother Robert Francis Kennedy named his first son Joseph Patrick Kennedy II, after his older brother. Then he named his second son Robert Francis Kennedy, Jr. The interesting thing is, RFK Jr. looks a lot like his father, so he was the right person to bear his father's name. As an aside, Martin Luther King, Jr. named his eldest son Martin Luther King III, but as it turns out, second son Dexter Scott King looks more like his father than the namesake son does.

The fourth brother and the last of Joseph and Rose Kennedy's children, Edward M. Kennedy named his eldest son...you guessed it!...Edward M. Kennedy, Jr. So, was there really any choice in the name of the first son of the just elected president? Their second son, who was born in 1963 and died shortly after birth was named Patrick Bouvier Kennedy. Its a shame that he did not get to live to adulthood. I used to wonder if John Jr. would name his own son the third, but books that came out after his death have revealed that he had planned to name his son Flynn. Its a shame that they never got to have children. It might have changed the equation, taming John's daredevil streak (apparently, his wife was not fond of his flying. His mother had forbade him to fly because of a long-held premonition that he would one day die in a plane crash. Its no wonder why he only took up flying after his mother passed away in 1994).

The above photo is probably the second most famous photo of John Jr. (after the photo of the famous salute he rendered at his father's funeral procession). John unfortunately acquired the press nickname of "John John", which turns out to be a reporter's misunderstanding of President Kennedy calling his son twice: "John. John." No family member ever called him "John John." In the famous interview with Oprah Winfrey in 1996, he said that he remembered his father teasingly call him "Sam." And he would argue back, "My name is not Sam! It's John." He would also be called "Copter head." He loved helicopters.

Could that have anything to do with it? Watching his father fly away and back on Marine One. When I visited best friend Nathan in San Diego last year, it was fun to watch as he held his two year old son on his lap and played videos of airplanes on YouTube. I was fascinated by how a two year old could love airplanes so much. I am one who believes that a child's natural interest in something or aversion to something is a big hint of possible past life interests or dislikes. Its worth it for parents to make note of interesting and peculiar interests their children have, because you never know what it might spark someday.

John grew up in the shadow of a famous father he never had a chance to know. No one can ever know the kind of burden he felt on his shoulders for his entire life. Not just being the only son of a slain president, but also bearing his name and even surpassing his own father in the looks department (John Sr. married well!). By the age of 27, People Magazine had proclaimed him "The Sexiest Man Alive!" in their annual issue geared towards its majority female readership. That same year, he electrified delegates at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta with a speech in which he paid tribute to his father. Talk of a future political career only increased from that moment on.
John showed his independence early on when he decided to attend Brown University in Rhode Island rather than his father's alma mater at Harvard University. Despite his reputation as a lightweight (its obvious now that he had ADD), he would've gotten into Harvard easily, but he supposedly chose Brown because it had a curriculum where you could create your own major and out of all the Ivy League schools, it was perhaps the least rigorous.

Though he majored in History, his true passion (besides the ladies) was drama. In fact, he supposedly wanted to be an actor, but his mother considered that to be a bit low class. She was a guiding influence on him and steered him always towards a potential political future, despite his natural desire to act. Its the one thing I fault Jacqueline Kennedy for. She should have let him follow his passion, for he might have been a huge cinema star (he might have even filled the spot now occupied by Tom Cruise--both are about the same age and have a similar look and charisma). She deprived the world of a potential Hollywood star. Some speculate that it was because she never liked the way Marilyn Monroe got her hooks into the Kennedy brothers (John and Robert were equally fascinated by this 60s-era star).

When John briefly dated Madonna, Jacqueline quickly put the stops on that because she rightfully saw Madonna as a social climber not worth getting involved with. Madonna has long held a Marilyn Monroe fascination (evidenced by her appearance at the 1987 American Music Awards as well as her "Material Girl" video in 1985 and her Oscar performance in 1991 of a couple songs from the movie Dick Tracy). Madonna definitely wanted to get into John's pants and live out her JFK-Marilyn Monroe fantasy. She supposedly was disappointed in the fling, though, because he wasn't "aggressive enough" for her.

John did date Daryl Hannah for nearly five years and was reportedly close to marrying her, though his mother also objected to that relationship on two grounds: the Hollywood thing (a big no-no) and Daryl's unstable personality (she was also involved with the abusive Jackson Browne). John would play the hero and rescue her anytime she got abused, but eventually she would return to Jackson Browne.

Also in the late 1980s, John attended New York University to get his Law degree. When he failed his bar exam, the press had a field day with the copy title: "The Hunk Flunks!" When he failed the exam a second time, he said, "Obviously, I'm not quite the legal scholar." At least he took it in stride. He passed on the third try and worked for the New York District Attorney's office, which proved a distraction for the ladies who worked there. He often got marriage proposals and other assorted items in the mail, which co-workers loved to kid him about. It was definitely not easy being John.

Eventually, he got bored with it and thought of starting up a political magazine. This only came about after his mother passed away in 1994 because she most likely would have not allowed him to quit his D.A. job (it was supposed to lead to a political career). Her passing, though a great loss for the country and the Kennedy family, liberated him to pursue his heart's desires: creating a magazine and flying.

In 1995, George Magazine was launched. In the press conference, he teased the press by saying that he hoped his new venture would lead him straight to "the presidency...of a successful publishing empire" (if I remember the quote right). The press kind of pooh-poohed his idea of a magazine about politics that mixed celebrity, lifestyle, and popular culture. Before then, political magazines were pretty wordy, dry magazines with low circulation and only read by the political wonks and campaign staff. John's idea was to make politics interesting for the general public, a sort of political version of GQ or Esquire magazine.

The first issue featured model Cindy Crawford (the most popular model among sailors when I was in the Navy) dressed up as George Washington, for whom the magazine was named. Each successive cover for a time featured a celebrity dressed in colonial garb, such as Robert DeNiro, Charles Barkley, Barbara Streisand (as Betsy Ross), and Howard Stern. To advertise his magazine, he even made an awesome cameo appearance on Murphy Brown (a show that wasn't afraid to get political, especially most famously with Dan Quayle) in which he presented a copy of George Magazine with Murphy Brown (played by Candice Bergin) on the cover and stormed off when she wasn't impressed.

A cover that got a lot of attention is the one featured above, with Drew Barrymore dressed as Marilyn Monroe to serenade President Bill Clinton on his 50th Birthday in 1997. The lady I had a falling out with earlier this year told me back then that she couldn't believe John would make such a cover and that his mother would have been appalled. For me, though, it only showed how cool John was. He didn't get offended and wasn't so serious about his father that he couldn't poke a little fun. I loved that cover. It really revealed John to his avid magazine readers. I'm sure even his father would've have loved that cover.

He also got some press in another issue in 1997 when he posed nude (though obscured by darkness) under an apple and wrote about temptation, in which he scolded his cousins Joseph and Michael Kennedy (Robert's kids) for their scandals that year (Joseph wanted to annul his marriage instead of a divorce, which would've bastardized his children; Michael was caught in a sex scandal involving a teenage babysitter for his children). Joseph was Congressman at the time and gearing up for a run for Governor and he quipped, "Ask not what you can do for your cousin, but what you can do for your magazine." Again, I thought John's editor's note revealed an honest and refreshing person who was not afraid to confront his family's demons and talk openly about their reckless behaviours.

To this day George magazine is my all time favourite magazine. I have every single issue and each time one came in the mail, I would spend that moment reading it from cover to cover. There were excellent articles that featured up and coming politicians to watch out for (such as Indiana Governor Evan Bayh). During the late 90s, I was such an avid fan that I told people that I would marry the woman who loved George as much as me. In 2000, at church, after I met Jenet one Sunday, she offered me a ride after church to a couple's house for lunch. When I approached her car, in the back seat was the latest copy of George and I had mentioned it. Jenet responded by saying, "I love George magazine!" Ah, I found my love! She was the first lady I had met who loved it as much as me, but it wasn't meant to be.

The magazine ran at a revenue loss and was in danger of being cancelled in 1999. John negotiated a new contract that was supposed to save the magazine, but about a year after his death, the owners decided to cancel it, which was fine by me. The magazine lost his touch and I noticed a more conservative bias to it, which I did not like. I thought it was good of the company to attempt to keep it going in his memory, but it was really his baby and if that is the only legacy he left our world, its fine enough. Some might criticize him for being an underachiever or undisciplined, or a hedonist, but I think he lived life by his rules. He was born into a wealthy family, so he didn't really need a career. After his death, news reported all the charities he helped, not just with money, but actual mentoring of low income, high risk youth. He never talked about his charitable activities, which reflects how classy the guy was. After all, Jesus mentioned to his disciples that we should do things "in secret" not to be seen by other men (like the Pharisees do) because only God and the people we help need to know the good that we do.

The biggest event, though, for John in the summer of 1996 was his secret wedding to Carolyn Bessette in a former slave chapel on Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia. This is where he surprised people again. It was expected that John would have a lavish public wedding in New York or Boston or Hyannis Port, but that wasn't his style. The press only learned of his marriage after the fact. Cumberland Island is quite remote (one can't drive onto the island like the other islands in the chain). You can only get there by boat or plane or helicopter. With his marriage, women's hearts all over America broke to pieces. The World's Most Eligible Bachelor was off the market. The wedding was only attended by his close family (none of the Kennedy cousins) and hers, with Uncle Ted, sister Caroline, and his cousin on his mother's side serving as best man (Tony Radziwell). The chapel wasn't large enough for many people. In my years of living in Georgia, I had hoped to visit that island and see the slave's chapel for myself.

It was the wedding of cousin Rory (the 11th child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, the only one born after her father's death in 1968) that caused what should have been a happy family reunion into another family tragedy. Two years earlier, they had suffered the loss of Michael, who died while skiing when he hit a tree (playing football on skis!). Yes, this was the same Michael who had an affair with the family babysitter.

John flew out to the wedding site in Hyannis Port, with a planned stop at Martha's Vineyard to drop off Carolyn's sister Lauren. John was rather inexperienced pilot and was supposedly caught by the haze in which one cannot tell the line on the horizon between sky and sea, thus getting the plane into what was called a "death spiral." It was a horrible way for them to go. Three lives were lost, with the Bessette family losing two daughters at once.

In the ten years since, conspiracy theories have come up about it, which I find ludicrous. I've read a few speculations and don't find them credible. I guess the rationale is that John was supposedly planning to run for the open Senate seat in 2000 because he was "offended" that a carpet-bagger like Hillary was going to run, but someone wanted him "bumped off" (some conspiracy theorists even blame George W. Bush, which I find laughably absurd. He's guilty of many things, but not the death of JFK Jr!). I don't buy that, though. While John did hint at possibly running someday, I'm not sure that he felt ready in 2000. He still seemed commited to his magazine, because just weeks before his death, he had met with the owners of the magazine to renegotiate a deal. His wife also seemed weary about a public life and might have needed some coaxing. And finally, John was incredibly self-aware, so he knew if he didn't feel intellectually ready, he would not run until he acquired whatever knowledge or experience he needed to do the job properly. He ran on his own schedule. He didn't rush into marriage, despite several lengthy relationships. He waited several years between college and grad school. When he died, he was only 38 years old (I turn that age at the end of the year). He was not a man in a rush for anything, so had he lived, I believe that he would not have run for the Senate in 2000. The media would've have loved that primary fight, though...so I think it reflects the media's obsession, not necessarily reality (just like the media wanted 2008 to be Hillary versus Giuliani, which they were denied in the 2000 Senate race).

This is another favourite photo of Mr. and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, Jr. with President Bill Clinton talking about the famous portrait of President Kennedy in the White House. According to an article I read at the time the Kennedys visited the White House, Clinton was supposedly seen giving Carolyn the glance over. The man had no shame! But I bet he was jealous of JFK Jr, who had his pick of beautiful ladies while Clinton could only manage women like Monica, Gennifer, Kathleen and Paula (not a desireable one among them).

This is another favourite photo. I wish that this would have been the cover of the final issue of George Magazine, though. Each cover had a hard to find image of George on it. Some were obvious while others were more subtle. JFK Jr. did grace the cover of the final issue, but it was not this perfect photo (with an obvious image of George looking over his shoulder).

I know a lot of people judge John as not having accomplished much in his 38 years. However, he truly lived a blessed life. He embodied The Truman Show, as his life from birth to death was lived in the range of cameras and the press. Sure, he was able to trick the media at times (such as his secret wedding), but most of the time, he just handled the press with an easy charm. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about John is that he had incredible humility and lack of pretension. When meeting people for the first time, he always introduced himself, "Hi, I'm John Kennedy." He never assumed that people knew who he was. In contrast, you often hear about newly emerging Hollywood stars or children of celebrities telling commoners, "Do you know who I am?"

There is nothing wrong with living a blessed life. With all of the tragedies his family had endured, as well as growing up without his father to guide him, I'm sure that pain was something he carried with him until that day ten years ago when he finally got to reunite with his parents in the spiritual realm. Though our world is a little bit sadder without his presence and we will never have the opportunity to see what his life might have achieved, there is nothing wrong with the choices he made in life. He is an iconic figure, the kind that ancient Greeks wrote poetic epics about. He was a living god among us mere mortals. He had every blessing but length of years. In short, he lived life to the fullest and we shall always have his magazines as a testament to the times we lived in. In fact, I think his magazine led the way to making politics a little more accessable. In the aftermath, we have seen The West Wing and the popularity of John McCain in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008, a kind of popularity that almost transcends the politics of old into the kind of popular politics John's magazine represented. It is our duty to make politics a valuable part of our lives, as it was for his life.

God bless you, always and forever, Mr. Kennedy.

3 comments:

Betty said...

Good post. It brought back a lot of memories for me. As John Jr. was your hero, his father was mine. JFK's presidential campaign was my first experience with politics. Even though I wasn't old enough to vote, I threw myself into the campaign, putting bumper stickers on windshields (with the drivers' permission, of course, lol) and manning the Democrat's booth at the student union.

I loved "George", too. I simply couldn't believe it when John Jr. died.

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Peter Shelton Alves said...

I am Brazilian and I live in João Pessoa, a Brazilian model who had dating with John Kennedy Jr., actually has a nickname "Xuxa" and is known by this name here in Brazil. His name is "Maria das Graças Meneghel", is a model, singer and presenter of popular TV programs infantins in Brazil (Globo Television Network) since the 80s. Xuxa also dated the footballer Pele and Ayrton Senna, who died competitive Formula 1. In the early 90's, Xuxa presented TV programs in Argentina (which was transmitted to all of Latin America), Spain and the USA, between 1991 and 1995. In 1992, he had a quick "affair" with John John, but nothing more, she even said to have deep admiration for him in an interview in 1996. On Youtube there is a story on the case between the two: John Kennedy Jr. Xuxa type in the search engine's site.