I met the man, once, in August, 1996. He was throwing a huge party at the Art Institute for his new political magazine, George. Quite the glittering East Coast event for lumpy midwestern Chicago. Norman Mailer was there—that was a thrill, to meet him. Both Mikes were in attendance, Jordan and Royko. All sorts of stars—Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi, Billy Baldwin. That's where I first met Esquire's Bill Zehme, who would become a good friend.
Kennedy was late in arriving, of course, and I remember the packed room surged in his direction. I instinctively fled the other way, to avoid the jam, but a young woman of my acquaintance hooked her arm in mine and spun me around, ordering me to introduce her to Kennedy.
So I did.
I walked up, introduced myself, we shook hands, and I asked him something banal about his impressions of Chicago. Somebody snapped a photo, which I can still see in my mind's eye. One the right, John F. Kennedy Jr. in profile, chiseled, handsome—handsomer than his father, even, by far. And me, also in profile well, let's say, less handsome, a profile like a potato with a nose. The contrast was jarring, at least to me.
I gave the photograph to the young woman, who was also in the picture, and whose name I can't recall.
Anyway, if I can track down the obituary I'll post it here. Until then, here's a column I wrote about the search for his missing plane:
Treating our stars well makes us look good too
Originally published in the Chicago Sun Times, July 25, 1999
During the endless time-filling and tap-dancing performed by network news shows as the search for John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane dragged on, there was a moment that says something about who we are.
I only caught it in passing, from one of the TVs bolted to the ceiling over the city desk. On the screen, a reporter was grilling a government official about the search. Would all this effort be expended, she wanted to know, for a non-celebrity? If Joe Average's small plane went down, would all these resources be mobilized?
The dream reply would have been for the official to stare down the reporter and come back with: "Would you be here for a non-celebrity?" Sadly, the tedious, real-world answer was some evasive observation that any plane would be searched for.
The question, of course, carried a submerged criticism that the official instantly recognized and dodged. As much as Americans roll like puppies at the feet of their celebrities, as much as we hang on their every action and vicariously relish the perks and luxuries of their lives, when it comes to government privilege, we yank the adoration away and start tallying the cost.
Just let Hillary Rodham Clinton fly to New York for a little campaigning. Or let the wife of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush try to slip her undeclared Paris shopping purchases through customs. Or let a search armada be rolled out for JFK Jr.'s plane.
Suddenly, practical questions emerge. Who's paying for all this? Nobody questioned the economy of sending a military transport on a mission of mercy to drop medicine to that doctor at the South Pole, even though the government was paying the tab. The name of the doctor wasn't known. Had it been Candice Bergen at the South Pole needing the medicine, the public would not have been so inclined to charity. It would have sniffed elite favoritism and not liked the smell.
Perhaps it has something to do with the ingrained American suspicion of kings. The public wants to be the one dispensing favors, not the government. We don't want automatic privileges. If members of the Kennedy family were able to send mail for 32 cents instead of 33, people would howl. (Remember what brought down Dan Rostenkowski? Abusing postage). Even Michael Jordan getting his driver's license delivered to his home ended up in the paper, with an official explaining that it is done to keep the secretary of state's office from pandemonium.
While this is a positive instinct, generally, the reporter's question was still naive. Celebrities get good treatment, not really because they demand it, but rather because doing so reflects well on us. Mick Jagger would be ushered through the mob at Gibsons, not because they're courting his business, but because it just would not do to let him camp out at the bar for an hour, crushed in a corner, morosely waving his empty glass at the distracted bartender.
Similarly, I don't believe the effort to find Kennedy was due to his Uncle Ted getting on the red phone and threatening to pull back Pentagon funding. Remember that 200 neighbors will show up to comb the fields for a missing 5-year-old, not because his family is famous, but because they know him or his parents and know that it is terrible to have a loved one vanish. This weekend's tragedy, though overlit by celebrity, is similar.