Skip to main content

Remembering the essence of John F. Kennedy Jr.

By Gary Ginsberg
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John F. Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash 15 years ago this week
  • Gary Ginsberg, who was with Kennedy at George magazine, recalls a telling moment
  • After an interview with George Wallace, Kennedy and Ginsberg were invited for a dinner
  • Ginsberg: The way Kennedy reacted to surprise turnout showed how he dealt with fame

Editor's note: On July 16, 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr., the only son of President John F. Kennedy, was killed when a plane he was piloting to attend a cousin's wedding crashed into the ocean off Martha's Vineyard. He was 38. Kennedy's wife, Carolyn, and her sister, Lauren, also were killed.

The attorney and philanthropist stirred the worlds of politics and publishing in the 1990s when he founded George magazine. Gary Ginsberg met Kennedy when they were students at Brown University and worked with him as a senior editor and counsel at George. Now an executive vice president of Time Warner, CNN's parent company, he recalls a telling episode in Kennedy's life.

(CNN) -- Sometimes a single moment in time captures the essence of an individual. That became clear to me in late June 1995. We were at the end of a grueling three days in Alabama interviewing George Wallace, the state's former segregationist governor and nemesis of President Kennedy, for John's maiden interview in his new magazine, George.

The enfeebled governor was barely coherent during the 10 hours we sat with him, and we were panicked there would be a gaping hole in our inaugural issue.

Worse, John himself was sick with a thyroid condition that left him lethargic, cranky and frighteningly thin. Adding to the anxiety of the moment, he was carrying around an engagement ring in the hope his girlfriend, Carolyn, would accept when he proposed to her that weekend.

Imagine our appreciation when two amiable Alabamans with close ties to the governor offered us a quiet dinner at a roadside restaurant. But as we approached the restaurant, I suddenly noticed there were perhaps a hundred cars parked alongside the road -- the restaurant parking lot itself was overflowing.

John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife Carolyn Bissette leave the White House Correspondent\'s dinner in May, 1999.\n
John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife Carolyn Bissette leave the White House Correspondent's dinner in May, 1999.

I looked over at John, and he at me, and we both realized in that same instant: we'd been played. This would be no quiet dinner for four, but the show-and-tell of an American icon.

"I'm not doing it," he said to me angrily as we sat in the back of the car, mulling our options. "I'm going back to the hotel."

But one thing John had in more abundance than anyone I knew was grace. And he wouldn't let down the 200 or so people who had gathered in the restaurant or embarrass our hosts, who had covertly planned this minirally.

So John put on his tie, set aside his fury and gamely walked across the dirt driveway and gave himself up to the adoring crowd.

For the next two hours, as only John could, he charmed everyone, signing dozens of pictures of his father, standing for dozens more and patiently listening to the endless stories people related of their ties to his extended family.

What I realized that night, and what has stayed with me these past 15 years since his passing, is this: No one of my generation was born with more privilege or promise than John, yet no one wore it more comfortably.

When we walked out of the restaurant, John smiled at me and without the slightest irony said, "That was really fun." And he meant it.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 8:12 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT