Skip to main content

Remembering the essence of John F. Kennedy Jr.

By Gary Ginsberg
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
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
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2103 GMT (0503 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2125 GMT (0525 HKT)
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT