Thursday, July 17, 2014

Remembering John F. Kennedy Jr.

      Has it really been 15 years since John F. Kennedy Jr. died? I remember it well because July 17, 1999 was a Saturday, and the newspaper called me in to write his obituary even as the frantic search was still going on. Poring over the clips, I realized that he was born in the period between the time when his father was elected president, and when he was inaugurated—the only child ever born to an American president-elect. Every coo and gurgle was breathlessly reported. My opening sentence was, "He entered the world already famous." When I saw the other, purely laudatory obits, I was proud that mine passingly mentioned the struggles that even Kennedy had, the "Hunk flunks" headlines as he tried to pass his bar exams. I've always believed that obituaries should recount a person's life, not just blanket him in weepy praise. I'd reprint the obit, but our always-harried library staff doesn't seem to have transferred it to Nexis.
     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.


  1. He was killed by Nixon, the same person who killed OJ's wife. Jail Nixon now!

  2. Oh for the love of god. Anonymous indeed.

    1. I think he was joking. Nixon died in 1994. Unless you're joking too. It's a cold medium. Nuance is lost ... a shame malice isn't lost too...

  3. Your photos usually jump out of the page. This one, of the Recorder's Office and the shoe shine stand next to it, is really smudgy. What's up?

    Non maliciously,


    1. You are correct. It's the only photograph I took of the plaque in situ, and figured I'd use it as a smaller ID -- originally I thought I'd do a "Where IS this?" with it, but decided it would be too easy. I'll go over at lunchtime and shoot a better one.

    2. Until I do, I've put up a photo easier on the eyes.

    3. Please include that $15,000 rug in the photo.

  4. They just want you to think Nixon died. He is alive and killing people at the behest of the government. He was involved in the 9/11 Reichstag Fire false flag attack.

  5. Once again you've made me reconsider one of my ingrown opinions. I'm sure I'll still feel disdain toward the special handling and perks handed out to the privileged, but perhaps it'll be less pointed in certain situations. Thanks Neil.

  6. I saw JFK Jr once when I was walking in Central Park with my husband (and Howard Stern happened to be walking right in front of us). I looked up and the most beautiful man I have ever seen was jogging toward us, so my eyes were stuck on him as he drew closer. Then I realized it was John-John all grown up. He noticed me staring with my mouth hanging open and looked at me down his perfect nose without changing his expression as he passed by. Central Park is such an interesting place!

  7. I remember this date as I was at pre-wedding group counseling for a marriage that lasted 13 months - the JFK Jr. news dominated the day - which is the likely cause of the divorce. That, and the fact that the MIL was (is?) a monster.

  8. That day I was wondering, like most others, where Bob Greene was. I learned to read from his column

  9. When I heard the awful news that Saturday morning, I remember having this profound feeling of sadness and disbelief. of another tragedy in the lives of the Kennedy family. And I remember thinking to myself that two of the most beautiful people I'd ever set eyes on (John, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette) were simply gone.

  10. Did you ever talk to Mark Brown about Rostenkowski? He did a lot more than take a few stamps. I am spending too much trying to kill this misinformation. I do note that this column is 15 years old but that is the gospel that is out there. And it is wrong. R's abuse was over $800k real money.

  11. Great photo of the Aqua building.

  12. [Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times knows what he is doing.]

    Dave in Hawaii.


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