A Good Man

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.)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 on 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 break-up, 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.)On a small plane to Martha's Vineyard the weekend before last, I met the newlywed Christiane Ammanpur 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.REQUIRED TAG: This article originally appeared on Salon, an online magazine at www.salonmagazine.com.

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