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 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT