A good man, very fair, very witty, very loyal

While the world waits, Christopher Hitchens reflects on the life and career of John F. Kennedy Jr.

By Christopher Hitchens
July 17, 1999 10:36PM (UTC)
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At a cocktail party in the George Hotel in Washington about a year
ago, I was talking to John Kennedy, and half-turned to point at
somebody. As I did so, I found that all the beauties in the room had
suddenly fused into a single group at my elbow, and were frantically
signaling for an introduction. Many of them were the sort of woman who
go to great lengths not to be impressed by celebrity. I try myself not
to be overwhelmed by it, either. But there is no arguing with charisma,
or with extreme physical grace and even if I weren't writing on a day
like this I'd be compelled to admit that he had both, in heaping
measure.

Not many of the surviving Kennedy clan possess these features. The venue
of the party was chosen because of the title of his glossy magazine,
which in turn was named for George Washington. In this magazine, young
John had recently written an editorial critical of his family members,
with their endless dreary scandals about booze and drugs and nanny
abuse. "Poster boys for bad behavior," he called them, proving that he
would never be famous as a writer. (He was much better in person than on
the page. Asked by Barbara Walters what he would do if he became
president, he said that his first act would be to call his uncle Teddy
and gloat. His second act would be to cut taxes.)

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It's conventional to refer to the Kennedys as America's royal family,
and they are indeed almost dysfunctional enough to deserve the title.
What distinguished John Jr. -- as people took to calling him -- was
more the noblesse oblige than the pseudo-nobility. He did not act
with a sense of entitlement, or assume that he was owed a seat in the
Massachusetts delegation to congress. Nor did he inflict himself on
everybody with packaged opinions. The tone of George magazine was
decidedly liberal, but for its Washington editor he chose Tony Blankley,
the portly and jovial Englishman who had been chief spokesman for
former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Superstitions gather around fetish objects, and people who are normally
quite rational can be heard referring unironically to the "curse" that
surrounds the Kennedy name. (To take just two examples, his uncle Teddy
was nearly killed in a plane crash in the 1960s, and off the island of
Martha's Vineyard, where John Jr. was bound when he was lost, is the
notorious resort of Chappaquiddick. By a macabre coincidence, this
weekend is the 30th anniversary of the sordid and watery end of
poor Mary Jo Kopechne.) Thus it was always with a slight crossing of
fingers that people spoke of John Jr.'s charmed life. Like charisma,
the word "charm" is overused to the point of tedium, but he did possess
charm, and exerted it effortlessly. He could have had anything or anyone
he wanted, but there has never been a story about his doing anything
tawdry. No nasty breakup, no starlet with a black eye, no heroin, no
bystander sacrificed to greedy celebrity or narcissism. "He was a good
man, quite simply," I was told by his friend Inigo Thomas, who also
worked at George. "Given the context in which he lived, a really
extremely good man. Very fair, very witty and very loyal." In
journalism, which was the nearest he came to a chosen profession, he
admired the self-starters and the mavericks -- Hunter Thompson being a
favorite.

Richard Reeves, one of the more critical historians of the Kennedy
dynasty, said that he's sometimes doubted whether it's really true that
the gods punish those to whom they have first given everything, but that
he doesn't doubt it any more. I suppose that the image which endures the
longest is the one which the young man had the least conscious influence
in producing. It is that of the little boy saluting at his father's
coffin, as his beautiful mother wears her widow's weeds and the entire
world bites its lip and strives not to weep. Since then, the funeral has
been the measure and benchmark of the Kennedy family reunion. (When his
plane went down, John Jr. was en route to the wedding of his cousin
Rory, who was in her mother's womb when her father Robert was
assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968. The family chapel at the Kennedy
compound in Hyannis, which was to have been used for a nuptial, will now
be used for a memorial again. And a whole new generation of Americans
will have their own personal Kennedy to mourn.)

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On a small plane to Martha's Vineyard the weekend before last, I met the
newlywed Christiane Amanpour of CNN (an old friend of John Jr.'s
since his Rhode Island college days) and Jamie Rubin, chief spokesman for
Madeleine Albright. They were off to stay with John and Carolyn and to
recover from the rigors of Kosovo. I mentioned the encounter to one or
two people, including some pretty hardened local hostesses. "You mean
he's on the island?" one of them -- more than used to celebrity
-- exclaimed. I can only begin to imagine what people will have said
when they heard these latest tidings, but it is not impossible that they
will start by saying where they were, and what they were doing, when
they received the latest proof of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's most
frequent presidential sayings, which is that life itself is unfair.


Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

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