On the Edge With JFK, Jr.

Since I knew John as a frat brother, please allow me some words in his defense

By Dave Kopel of the Independence Institute

7/19/00 10:20 a.m., National Review Online.

The recent anniversary of John Kennedy, Jr.'s death sparked another round of pontification on how he should have lived his life. These commentators point to two principal alleged flaws in JFK, Jr.: his failure to run for political office, and his "recklessness" — which some even claim to be a manifestation of a death wish. Since I knew John as a fraternity brother in college, please allow me some words in his defense.

The day after the plane crash, the Drudge Report broke the story that, before Hillary Clinton suddenly discovered her life-long passionate affection for the people of New York, Kennedy had been quietly exploring running for the Senate seat that would be opened by Pat Moynihan's retirement. Regret that Kennedy never got the chance to run in 2000 or later was reasonable; had he been elected to the Senate, he would have been far less erudite than Pat Moynihan — but in a body filled with dim-bulbs like Patty Murray and shrill loudmouths like Barbara Boxer, Kennedy would have elevated the dignity of the Senate.

Moreover, Kennedy's maturity and tolerance would have elevated him into the first rank of senators. Unlike the majority of current Democratic senators, Kennedy had no taste for the politics of personal destruction. In his magazine George, and in his personal life, he understood that people who disagreed with him about political issues were simply people who disagreed with him — not evil "extremists."

But for some pundits, wistful "might-have-beens" quickly gave way to "should-have-beens." Kennedy allegedly should have already been in political office. By age 38, John F. Kennedy, Sr., had been elected three times to the U.S. House, then to the Senate, and was well on his way to the Presidency. Congress and the state legislatures are full of men in their twenties and early thirties. Had Kennedy Jr. run for the House of Representatives from some New York City district, he would have won as easily as his father had scooped up the Congressional seat from Boston.

Actually, the younger Kennedy's choice not to run reflects the best part of his character. Almost everyone who knew John — in college, or later — was impressed by his lack of arrogance. It would have been easy for John, like Prince Hal, to surround himself with a collection of sycophants. And if he had been the most arrogant person at Brown University, or NYU Law School, or anywhere else, he easily could have gotten away with it. In a fraternity where there were plenty of people who specialized in witty but mean-spirited insult, John was never known to say a harsh word about anyone.

I think that his decision not to fall into politics reflected the same humility on a public level for which he was so respected on a personal level.

Some people go into politics because they're not sure what else to do. John F. Kennedy, Sr., was among this group, ending up in Congress mostly because his father insisted. And Rep. Kennedy's early Congressional career was notably undistinguished. In the later part of the 1950s, he did find a sense of direction, but his first terms accomplished little more than preventing someone else — perhaps someone better qualified — from representing Massachusetts.

William Jefferson Clinton was elected Attorney General of Arkansas at age 30, and has spent the rest of his life infecting Arkansas and the United States with a manchild's quest for identity; his character remains undeveloped — except in its intense longing for public adulation.

Until founding George magazine in 1994, John Kennedy, Jr., was still waiting to find a long-term direction for himself. His earlier projects were usually successful — such as creating a guest speakers series on South Africa at Brown, his acting ventures, or his stint at the Manhattan District Attorney's office. But none of these put Kennedy on a path he wanted to follow for the long haul.

To his credit, Kennedy didn't use politics to discover himself, and he didn't get himself a seat in Congress just because he couldn't think of anything else to do. He didn't seek personal approval from mass audiences, in part because he (unlike Bill Clinton, for example) had a sure sense of himself not to need it. And he spent his time finding his own direction, rather than getting into the business of imposing direction on others.

American government would be a lot better if more people followed John Kennedy's example: if they delayed elective office until they had had some time to accumulate some wisdom to go with their glibness; if they waited to run things for other people until they had accomplished something excellent on their own. Kennedy's creation and stewardship of George would easily pass the excellence test, although the magazine's quality and balance have declined markedly in the last year. George is the largest circulation political magazine in the United States; while the magazine does not turn a profit, most political magazines couldn't survive only on sales and advertising.

His critics had not only held him liable for not already being a Congressman. He was criticized for alleged pathological-Kennedy-risk-taking, culminating in the fatal plane flight.

I don't think that John took risks for the sake of risk, or to prove his macho-ness to other people, or even to himself. Rather, he simply liked doing certain things — like skiing, flying, and mountain climbing — and didn't stop himself because of the potential danger.

He grew up, remember, in a world in which his father and his uncle had both been murdered. His mother had moved the family to Greece in 1969 in part because of her very realistic fears for her children's safety. As a teenager, he was constantly protected by Secret Service guards. It would have been understandable for him to become extremely reclusive and to shelter himself from strangers.

Instead, he got rid of the Secret Service as soon as he was legally able, at the age of 18. This was by far the riskiest choice he ever made. At college, his dorm room door was usually unlocked, even when he was gone.

He seemed to have made a decision to go forward with life, and not to let his life be confined by various potential dangers. In doing so, he was being true to his own nature. Was he wrong for this approach in general?

I think not. The decision to take off from the New Jersey airport on July 16, 1999 was a terrible mistake, obviously. But the criticism of John Kennedy as a risk-taker is not just about his last flight — it's about his whole allegedly risky lifestyle.

I first got to know John when he was a college freshman and I was a sophomore. John's good friend Billy Way (from Phillips Andover and then at Brown) and I spent part of the January inter-term vacation together in Ft. Lauderdale. Bill looked a lot like John, and, like most of John's friends, was a great athlete. That spring Bill and John and a bunch of other people in their crowd joined my fraternity, Phi Psi. (No, they didn't join just so they could live with me.)

Anyway, the next year Bill and I and some other frat people went skiing at Mt. Snow in Vermont. Bill and I were both beginning skiers, and rode the lift together. We found ourselves, unexpectedly, at the top of a steep intermediate hill. (No big deal to an advanced skier, but pretty awesome for people with only a few days of skiing experience.) Bill, who very much shared the Kennedy attitude towards risk, pushed off down the slope, turned faster and faster, till, near the bottom, he flipped up in the air, heels-over-head, and plunged head-first into the snow. It's the only true head-plant (not a mere face-plant) I've ever witnessed while skiing, and I've never before or since seen a beginning skier go so fast, or fall so spectacularly. Being much more risk-averse than Bill or the Kennedys, I worked my way down the slope slowly and carefully, sidestepping at some points. By the time I got down, Bill was long gone.

After college, both Bill and John moved to Manhattan, and remained good friends. In 1998, Bill was run over by a car while he was crossing a street, and killed. So Bill's "go for the gusto" attitude didn't cost him anything; he died not from any risk he took, but from a danger that is just about unavoidable. And his life would have been a lot poorer if he had been as risk-averse as I am, and held back from pushing-the-envelope.

For most people, me included, life isn't ruined by risk aversion, by opting out of edge-of-the-envelope skiing or small planes, since those things don't seem particularly fun in the first place. But Bill and John did get a lot of joy out of cutting-edge physical challenges. The deaths of vigorous young men like John Kennedy and Bill Way remind us that since any day could be one's last, every day is precious. What makes John Kennedy's memory worthy of respect is not how high he was born, but how he lived his life to the fullest according to his own inner lights.

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