Clinton reflects on JFK Jr. visit to White House

President gave adult visitor a glimpse into child's life

July 22, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It had been nearly 35 years since John F. Kennedy Jr. romped through the private quarters of the White House, 35 years since Camelot's violent end.

But when President Clinton granted the younger Kennedy a sentimental tour of the residence area at the White House in March 1998, the memories came rushing back.

"I think that he really wanted to kind of come to terms with all of it," Clinton said wistfully yesterday, sharing his personal reflec- tions of a young man he had met often and grown to know.

"It was quite a night."

As divers were beginning their efforts to retrieve the bodies of Kennedy; his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy; and his sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette, Clinton met with reporters in an hourlong news conference that lingered on the fate of JFK Jr.

Clinton had been informed just five minutes before the conference that the two women's bodies had been located.

The president acknowledged that the long federal search for a small plane carrying three private citizens had been extraordinary.

But, he said, when Coast Guard Rear Adm. Richard Larrabee assured him Monday that the bodies could be found, Clinton told him he would support and defend the search.

"Because of the role of the Kennedy family in our national lives, and because of the enormous losses that they have sustained in our lifetimes, I thought it was appropriate to give them a few more days," Clinton said of the searchers.

"If anyone believes that was wrong, the Coast Guard is not at fault. I am."

After days of behind-the-scenes involvement in the search, the president made his personal feelings plain yesterday.

It was Clinton who, in 1994, brought Kennedy back to the Oval Office of the White House for the first time in nearly a decade, showing him the desk at which Kennedy's father had once sat, and under which he playfully peered in a famous photo from the Camelot days.

Kennedy had been serving on the National School-To-Work Advisory Council, run by the departments of Labor and Education, and was at the White House to deliver a report.

On March 5, 1998, Kennedy returned again, this time to celebrate the release of an HBO series, "From Earth to the Moon."

That evening, Clinton gave Kennedy, with his wife, his first glimpse of the family quarters since his childhood.

"I'm not sure he'd really felt he wanted to come back to the White House before he did," Clinton said.

"But especially in light of everything that's happened, I'm glad he had the chance to come back here one more time and see the residence, and know where he was when he was a little boy.

"I'm glad he did that. I'm grateful that happened."

The president and first lady will fly to New York tomorrow to attend the Kennedy memorial service.

Pub Date: 7/22/99

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