Words reflect the man

July 19, 1999|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,SUN STAFF

Two years ago, John F. Kennedy Jr. sat down to reflect on celebrity, death and the existence of God.

It wasn't the first time we were offered an intimate glimpse of the 38-year-old presidential namesake. From the time he was a toddler, his life's landmarks have been publicly shared: his salute at his father's funeral; his exuberant exit from a church following his 1996 wedding to Carolyn Bessette; his gentle touch of his mother's tombstone.

We were also privy to his mundane moments: his shirtless Frisbee games; his Central Park spat with Bessette; his strolls with his dog, Friday.

What set apart his recent musings, however, was the forum in which they were displayed. True, they were sandwiched between the pages of a glossy magazine, but this time, JFK Jr. was in control. He could hone and excise and polish and, in the process, shape his own image -- a luxury denied him in the past.

Every month, Kennedy wrote an editor's letter in the opening pages of George, the magazine he co-founded in 1995. He spoke on weighty issues like wife-burning in India as well as tantalizing ones like politicians' sex lives. At times, he also talked about himself.

These were the private bits he wanted us to see.

In a November 1997 column, he discussed the deaths of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana. "As I write this, it has seemed like a month of funerals," the two-page editor's letter began. "... Their deaths affected the world so differently. How many people remember every detail of Diana's death but virtually nothing of Mother Teresa's?"

True, he wrote, the tragedy befalling Diana was heightened by her youth. She was 36, just two years younger than Kennedy. Yet that wasn't the only reason why people stayed glued to television screens for days following her accident -- a phenomenon now repeating itself.

"Diana was wealthy and beautiful and had an abundance of options, yet she chose to give of herself through charitable work. ... We diminish the choice [Mother Teresa] made, perhaps because she did not seem as human as Diana, as tempted by other options," he wrote.

Kennedy might have been describing himself.

He, too, wrestled with all-too-human foibles. In a column that gained notoriety for his description of two cousins as "poster boys for bad behavior," the newly married Kennedy admitted he had also faced "desire." (The column was accompanied by a shadowy photograph of him, naked, behind a symbolic apple.)

Though Kennedy also donated time and money to charity -- and used his magazine to financially reward companies that gave -- he struggled with spirituality. Almost as an aside, he closed the November 1997 column with a sentence that is perhaps the most telling and poignant he has penned: "The three days I spent in [Mother Teresa's] presence was the strongest evidence this struggling Catholic has ever had that God exists."

His writings also revealed insight into a question on the minds of many: Would he have run for political office?

When interviewed, he dodged the inevitable query. "I don't have any immediate desire to," he told Brill's Content in March. "... That's what I have in my blood. But ... I just got married. I like my privacy."

His columns, though, hit an even more pessimistic note. He described the presidency as "the hardest job in the world." And he scoffed at the notion that lawmakers are role models. "What mother wants her child to grow up and become a politician?" he wrote.

Today's sex scandal-soaked political climate seemed to disturb him: "As far as I can tell, there is no good reason to hold public officials to a stricter standard of personal conduct than we do" actors and other celebrities, he wrote in February.

He appeared to reiterate that mind-set in another column entitled "General George's Rules for Right Living." Of the 110 rules adopted by the first president, Kennedy chose just 11 to reprint. Among them: "Be not curious to know the affairs of others; neither approach those that speak in private."

Of course, Kennedy himself was rarely afforded such a wide berth. A reason he took up flying, historian and family friend Arthur Schlesinger Jr. writes in the new issue of Time magazine, was to avoid the relentless interruptions of fellow passengers on planes. They always wanted to share memories with him.

After all, JFK Jr.'s life was a scrapbook, open for the public to pick and choose favorite images. His shifting personas -- tragedy-stricken child, skating playboy, heir to a political dynasty -- will yield to our individual memories in the days to come.

He had an interesting take on that, too.

Just five months ago, he wrote, "Celebrities are people whose personal lives are at least as newsworthy as their professional lives. In becoming so anointed, they have won some measure (large or small) of immortality, and we admire them for achieving that ultimate human ambition."

Research assistance for this article was provided by the Crofton and Severna Park branches of the Anne Arundel County Public Library.

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