The beautiful and the damned

Much has been given to the Kennedys, and much has been taken away

Published July 17, 1999 11:19AM (EDT)

Tragedy began shadowing John F. Kennedy Jr. before he was born.

Jacqueline Kennedy suffered severe complications during the premature
labor, and on her way to the hospital she frantically asked the ambulance
attendant, "Will I lose my baby?" Though it was a difficult delivery,
things turned out OK for the 6-pound 3-ounce baby, born on Nov.
25, 1960, just weeks after his father was elected 35th president of the
United States.

"Do you want your son to be president?" President Kennedy was asked as he
stood outside the incubator at Georgetown Hospital.

"I hadn't thought about it," Kennedy said. "I just want him to be all

He was, but the next Kennedy son wasn't so lucky. John Jr.'s brother,
died on Aug. 9, 1963, just two days after his birth.

President Kennedy didn't get to spend as much time with his son as he
wanted, and he once worried aloud to an aide: "John sees so little of his
father. How can he ever know me?"

But their brief relationship was marked by laughter. "John-John and JFK
quite simply break each other up," former Washington Post editor Benjamin
Bradlee wrote in his book "Conversations with Kennedy." "Kennedy likes to
laugh and likes to make people laugh, and his son is the perfect foil for

The young boy was also entranced by the helicopters that landed on the
White House lawn. And in an unsettling anecdote related by Ralph Martin in
"A Hero for Our Time," President Kennedy once gave his son a toy plane and
told him he would buy him a real plane when he grew up.

"Promise, daddy?" Kennedy said to his father.

"I promise," President Kennedy answered, holding his son tightly. Both
Kennedy children were mesmerized by aircraft; according to aide Ted
Sorenson, Caroline Kennedy's first word was "plane."

John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963; his son turned 3
on the day his father was buried. With tears in their eyes, his mother and
his uncles Ted and Bobby, sang "Happy Birthday" to the toddler. Despite his
extraordinary adult accomplishments, the world will probably always
remember him best for his heartbreaking salute, at his mother's side, as
his father's horse-drawn coffin passed by.

Almost a year after President Kennedy's funeral, Boston Cardinal Richard
Cushing, who led mourners in the Lord's Prayer at the funeral Mass, still
couldn't talk about the salute. "Oh, God, I almost died," he told a

After the president's death, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis worked hard to
keep her son and daughter grounded despite the wealth, privilege and
intense media glare that marked their lives. She also made a point of
limiting their contact with the Kennedy brood at Hickory Hill, Hyannis
Port and Palm Beach.

Still, every possible tidbit of Kennedy's life was served up to a ravenous
public. From the age of 2, when Look magazine featured a photo spread on
him, the young prince was an object of fascination and hope -- all the more
so after his father was martyred. As a child, Kennedy was curious as to why
the world held him in such rapt attention. In William Manchester's "The
Death of a President," Kennedy -- still only a toddler of 3 -- approaches a
newspaper photographer who'd taken his picture while he drank from a water

"What are you doing?" he asked the photographer. "What are you taking my
picture for -- my daddy's dead."

The obsession continued. An excursion through New York's Central Park at the
age of 9,
the theft of his bicycle and tennis racket at the age of 13, an Outward
Bound trip at the age of 16, uncertainty about which college to attend
after high school graduation, not passing the New York bar until the third
try -- no matter how innocuous (or inaccurate) the detail, it was shared
with the world.

Mostly the attention was fawning. In the 1983 "Growing Up Kennedy: The
Third Wave Comes of Age," by Harrison Rainie and John Quinn, the
22-year-old Kennedy was described as "astonishingly good looking, reminding
at least one gawker of the Greek athletes sculpted by Praxiteles." Another
book, "Kennedy: The Third Generation," said that Kennedy "has become a
tall, darkly handsome young man with the startling Bouvier looks of his
mother's family and a poetic air that has been described as Byronic."

After flirting with the idea of becoming an actor -- a notion that
displeased his mother to no end, almost as much as the thought that he'd
enter politics -- Kennedy graduated from Brown University in 1983 and soon
entered law school. He joined the Manhattan District Attorney's office and
won all six of his cases.

He had no love for the law, however, and in 1995 he launched George
magazine, a political-style glossy billing itself as "not just politics as
usual." Though the intelligentsia scoffed at George's marriage of show biz
and politics, its debut marked the largest single magazine launch, and
has since settled to a circulation of more than 400,000. But the
magazine's future was uncertain. Just last month there were reports that
the magazine had lost roughly 20 percent of its ad revenue, and Kennedy was
reported to be unhappy with his relationship with the Paris-based Hachette
Filipacci Media, which partnered with Kennedy to publish George.

George is a melange of policy, political profiles and Hollywood stardust.
Kennedy described his publishing experiment as an attempt to bring women
and young people into the electoral fold. Cover photographs have included
actors like Robert De Niro, John Travolta and Tom Hanks, and eye candy
like Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford. Contributors have included
Norman Mailer, former Sen. Al D'Amato, R-New York, and former Clinton
advisor Paul Begala. Kennedy himself has conducted a number of the
interviews, with former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, Cuba's Fidel
Castro, conservative philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife and radio
Don Imus. He thumbed his nose at the staid political media world in many ways, not least by inviting Larry Flynt to be his guest at this year's White House Correspondents' Dinner.

In a March interview with Brill's Content, Kennedy remarked that "This
enterprise has consumed almost six years of my life. It came at
considerable, personal kind of risk. There [were] a lot of people that
would have loved to see this be a farce, and it hasn't been." Kennedy defended
the magazine's mix of politics and Hollywood.

"It would really be unsatisfying to me to have some somber politician on
the cover, and we gather dust in the back of some newsstand somewhere. I
mean, if I sell 180,000 copies of a political magazine -- man, I am happy.
And so I could do something else, with some drawing of [South Carolina
Republican Sen.] Strom Thurmond and sell 20[,000], and maybe I'm serious
and consequential in Washington. But if the people that I'm trying to reach
are passing me by, then that's a failure."

Kennedy was known as a risk-taker, and not only for trying to launch a
political magazine. He was known for his love of physical adventure: he
kayaked in rapids, rappelled down mountains, inline-skated through Central
Park and was a fan of extreme sports. He broke his leg in a parasailing accident this summer, and according to some reports the injury might have interfered with his flying, since his Piper aircraft was partly controlled by foot.

He got his pilot's license 15 months ago. By some accounts, he waited until after his worrying
mother died to pursue his lifelong passion.

In a story in the Palm Beach Post, observers of his flight
training at the Flight Safety Academy in Vero Beach, Fla., said that
Kennedy "could probably be called a natural" at flying. But last Labor
Day, New York tabloids reported that Kennedy family members refused to
accompany JFK Jr. in his refurbished 20-year-old Cessna, out of
concerns for their safety. According to the New York Post, William Kennedy
Smith said "John may
have pushed his limitations getting his pilot's license, but he hasn't
overcome them yet. He's yet to persuade any of his relatives to fly
with him."

And in May 1998, Kennedy told USA Today, "The only person I've been able to
get to go up with me, who looks forward to it as much as I do, is my wife.
The second it was legal she came up with me."

In 1996, in an ultra-secret ceremony, Kennedy married Carolyn Bessette, a
30-year-old public relations specialist at Calvin Klein. Until then, he may
have been the most eligible bachelor in the history of the Western world
into his 30s. Named People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" in 1988, Kennedy
was linked in gossip columns to actress Daryl Hannah, Madonna and others.
Bessette, the daughter of a Connecticut doctor, regularly made Women's Wear
Daily and other fashion magazines for her singular style. Tabloids reported
occasional spats between the papparazzi-plagued couple, but friends said
the marriage was solid.

Clearly, tragedy has spared no generation of Kennedys. Joseph P. Kennedy
Jr. died in a plane crash during World War II at the age of 29. The husband
of Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy was killed in World War II; Kick herself died in
a plane crash in 1948 at the age of 28. Since 1941, Rosemary Kennedy has
been institutionalized due to a failed lobotomy. President Kennedy was 46
when he was killed in Dallas. One year later, Sen. Edward Kennedy was in
a plane crash that took the lives of two men and broke Kennedy's back and
punctured his lung.

"How much more do [my parents] have to take?" Robert Kennedy asked after
Ted Kennedy's plane crash, according to C. David Heymann in "RFK: A Candid
Biography of Robert Kennedy."

"Somebody up there doesn't like us," he added.

In June 1968, an assassin's bullet felled Robert Kennedy in a Los Angeles
hotel. He was 42.

Then there are the many Kennedy scandals that are no less tragic, though
more complex. Sen. Ted Kennedy saw his presidential hopes plunge with his
car -- and a 28-year-old victim named Mary Joe Kopechne -- in an accident on
Chappaquiddick Island in July 1969, 30 years ago Sunday.

In 1972, Joseph Kennedy's car overturned on Nantucket in an accident that
left a woman paralyzed. Robert Kennedy's oldest son, a future congressman,
admitted guilt and was convicted of negligent driving. His brother, Robert
Jr., was found in possession of heroin in 1983, and another brother, David,
fought a long and public battle with drugs, eventually losing the fight
when he died in 1984 of an overdose.

In 1991, nephew William Kennedy Smith was accused -- and later acquitted --
of rape charges. Ted Kennedy's son, Patrick, now a congressman, has battled
cocaine. Robert Kennedy's son Michael -- dragged through tabloid muck for
an alleged affair with a baby sitter -- died in a skiing accident in 1997 at
the age of 39.

John Kennedy Jr. took his cousins to task in the pages of George, referring
to Joe and Michael as "poster boys for bad behavior."

In February 1998, not long after Michael Kennedy's skiing accident,
Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the oldest of the third
generation of Kennedy's, spoke with Larry King about the black cloud of
doom hanging over her family.

"One of the great things about my family is we try to -- we know that life
is tough," she said. "I mean, there is pain. And we all know that It's not
fair, and -- what the challenge in life is, how you deal with it. Do you
complain, or do you say, you know, we have been blessed as a family, as you
well know, we have been very fortunate."

"And unfortunate," King said.

"But it's good to also focus on the fortunate," she replied.

Indeed, the Kennedys constantly reaffirm their need to look for the good.
At the October 1979 dedication of the library named for his father,
Kennedy, then a freshman at Brown, read a poem by Stephen Spender, called
"I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great."

"What is precious is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs ...
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit."

When his plane disappeared, Kennedy was on his way to the wedding of cousin
Rory Kennedy, a woman who will always be known as the daughter of Robert
Kennedy who was born five months after his assassination. Now another
tragic clause has been added to her biography.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

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