Grace Under the Glare

We keep saying goodbye to big pieces of the century, and this last is just too sad and unjust. What would have become of that unfinished life? What would have come of that promise?

Let me tell you what it was like to see him. I was in a restaurant last Thursday in Manhattan with a small group of friends who were catching up and arguing politics. Suddenly some invisible shift happened, some peripheral force entered the room—a tall man in sunglasses hobbling toward a back table. He moved briskly, as if he hoped no one would notice.

“There’s J.F.K. Jr.,” said one of the women at the table.

We watched, and I looked around to watch the people watching. The place had gone quieter, and a man stopped, fork in midair, as he passed.

I thought, What a star, a natural star. I thought I was looking at the kind of beauty that movie stars want and are supposed to have but don’t. A face just old enough to be interesting and young enough to be perfect, with the kind of manly features that make you think of the handsome man in a 1950s magazine ad. Thick, shiny black hair, a slim muscular body on which his dark suit draped in soft folds. Afterward, I wondered if it was something like what Scott Fitzgerald saw when he remembered the college football stars of his young manhood, those young men who just then, on the gridiron and in their youth, were having the best moment of their lives.

He was on crutches because he’d recently broken or sprained his ankle. And as we all walked away, a friend of his said to me, “Maurice worries about him flying that plane.” Maurice Templesman, Jackie Onassis’ longtime friend. “He’s afraid John is too…” She couldn’t think of the word, but it was something like distracted, scattered.

And now it’s Saturday morning, and I’m thinking of the crutches and the hobbling and wondering if he was, as is reported, piloting the plane, and if he could maneuver the rudder pedals. If he could do what he thought he could do because he knew how to do it, and was confident, and wasn’t concerned.

You’d think he would be, coming from the family he comes from. You’d think he’d be always concerned about safety and luck and fate. But maybe when you were J.F.K. Jr., so surrounded by tragedy, with a life so shaped by it, maybe you thought, “We’ve had our share. We’ve had more than our share. I’m going to get in a plane and fly.” You can come from a place of such bad luck that you think your luck will always hold.

His father lived a life of meaning and drama, a heroic life that spanned less than 50 years and yet encompassed war and political tumult and the great ideological struggles of the day. J.F.K. Jr.’s life spanned 39 years—only seven fewer than his father’s—and encompassed no such dramas as war and wrenching political struggle. His dramas were personal, not historic, but then so much more was expected of him. Wouldn’t he live a giant life too? What kind of man will King Arthur’s son be?

He knew about the expectations, and one supposes they were the central trauma of his life. He seemed to hobble through the search for a while—actor, lawyer, person in politics. And then: editor. Of a magazine on politics. But one that treated politics as entertainment. As if he were detaching himself from the heaviness of political struggles, and the tragedies they can bring.

Now it will be a mystery, what he would have become with a good long life. His friends say he was modest, deeply courteous—very much his mother’s son—and intelligent, and funny. People liked him, he had good stuff in there, not only beauty and good genes. The few times I saw him refer to politics in an interview, he did it with what seemed a natural humility. He didn’t seem to think he ought to be harrumphing from the floor of the House about what we’re doing wrong as a people, or right. If you didn’t know him, you wondered whether life had been too strange and soft to mold him into a harder person, one who could move into the world with force and meaning, marshaling all the things he had to make a difference. But that takes time. You wonder what he would have done if he had got it.

He was born with the burden of fame, but he handled it with patience and humor, and more. Ben Bradlee wrote a book about President Kennedy after he died, and it was called That Special Grace. J.F.K. Jr. had it too, though history didn’t give him wars and great movements in which to show it.

But he showed it anyway. Not so long ago, the day his mother was buried, after the prayers and the graveside service at Arlington, when everyone was starting to leave, young John Kennedy stepped up to the casket of his mother and the gravestone of his father. He leaned forward and stretched toward them and put his hand upon each with a touch that was more like a kiss. It was an act of great physical grace, and love, and maybe it was done in part on behalf of a country that felt as he did—a generous gesture like the one 30 years before when a little boy made a salute.