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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.

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