He Was America's Prince

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NANCY GIBBSJohn Kennedy Jr. loved to fly. After he got his pilot's license last year he would ask people if they wanted to come along, could he give them a lift somewhere. But most of us don't need to go where he did--to a place where he could get away, off camera, out of the bubble, on his own. Most often he headed up to the house his mother had left him on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., a place so special, so private, the houses far back from the road, the beaches so peaceful. Until last Saturday afternoon, when the luggage, a woman's compact, a headrest, began washing up on that shore, turning a wedding day into a wake.

This family, the subject of a thousand books and untold memories, has soaked our imaginations for a half-century. We have attended their inaugurations and weddings and football games and too many of their funerals. We knew they were not like us, but we watched them all the more. We saw them in black and white, blessed and cursed, the image of the merry young father climbing off the helicopter, wrapping his arms around the tiny boy who ran across the lawn to him, cuddling his son in the rowboat, walking on the beach, tumbling in the grass. The pictures of President Kennedy and his son brought home to us one life ended too soon, the hollowing out of a country's soul when it lost its President, but most cruelly they reminded us of the boy who lost his dad before he got to know him. All he could do was salute.

We saw those pictures again all weekend, but now the dark shadow has lengthened with the passing of 35 years to claim the son as well. A boy born on Thanksgiving Day to a man just elected President lost his father three days before his third birthday. John Jr. and his sister Caroline grew up in our hearts instead, protected by a mother who feared that death still stalked the family. After Bobby was killed, Jackie said, If they're killing Kennedys, then my children are targets.

As it turned out, fate and folly took over where the assassins left off. There were Robert Kennedy's sons David, dead of an overdose, and Michael, who skied into the trees playing football down the slopes of Aspen. If Robert and Ethel's children seemed scarred by misfortune, Jackie Kennedy seemed to have achieved her great goal of raising, in tragedy's backyard, two healthy, decent kids who were aware of both the gifts and the duties that were their birthright.

In the pain of last Saturday it was possible to be grateful that Jackie had died first, this woman who had taught the country how to mourn in grace. We could not have borne to watch her bury her son.

John Kennedy Jr. was swaddled in headlines, the first baby ever born to a President-elect. It was news when he came out of the incubator, when he first went on formula, when he got a haircut or lost a tooth. The family never called him John-John; a reporter heard his father chasing after the fleeing toddler, shouting John, John, and thought it was a pet name. And so it became our name for him, not theirs, which was fitting, since like the rest of the family, he has always been partly a myth of our own making, a mirror, a mirage.

If you believe his friends, the most famous son in the world wanted nothing more than to be a normal guy, to put people at ease. Born to a father who understood politics as a performance art, he hoped at one time to become an actor, but wound up as an editor of a magazine that promised to treat politics as entertainment, which could be seen as a strange gesture toward the arena in which his father and uncle had died.

In their shadow he lived life in full; he kayaked and parasailed and Rollerbladed through Central Park, traveled to India to study health care and dated Madonna and Daryl Hannah, flunked the bar exam twice and couldn't go for pizza without the tabs coming along. If he was less reckless than his cousins, it was not saying much; there were friends who turned down the invitation to take to the skies with him. Pilot Kyle Bailey watched the plane take off Friday night. I didn't lose any sleep over it, he says. I figured he must know what he was doing. But Bailey didn't like the weather. He decided to wait and fly in the morning.

Saturday was supposed to be Rory's day. Ethel's youngest daughter had earned the perfect weather, a bright breeze and feathery clouds and sunshine splashed across the water. Ethel Kennedy was pregnant with Rory when her husband was murdered in 1968; Rory's uncle Ted attended her delivery and played surrogate father to her and her brothers and sisters. It was Rory who cradled her brother Michael as he lay dying on a mountain after skiing into a fir tree, his three children praying at his side. Rory, a documentary filmmaker, had seen suffering in her family, and she had shared in their successes, and so last weekend they were gathering to share in hers as she prepared to marry New York City writer Mark Bailey.

Friday night was the bridal dinner, for family and members of the wedding party. Rory and her mom had gone sailing the day before; the weather was lovely, the dinner was perfect.

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John Jr., his wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and her sister Lauren, a New York City investment banker, arrived in separate cars at New Jersey's Essex County Airport. John had told friends the day before that he was flying straight to Hyannis; the decision to stop in Martha's Vineyard to drop Lauren off may have come at the last minute. But the weather was clear, and the FAA does not require pilots to file a flight plan when visual flight rules are in place.

John was apparently not rated for instrument flying, which meant that the night had better stay very clear. Flying a small plane over water at night can be a scary business; the horizon bleeds into the water, so you can be in a shallow turn and not even know it, not be able to get your bearings from the lights on the shore.

The sun set in New York around 8:25; the plane took off at 8:38, a Piper Saratoga large enough for six people but carrying only three. It turned north, then east, as the temperature began to dip and the haze thickened around the islands and fingers of Massachusetts. The flight was supposed to take a little more than an hour.

The last radar signal came at 9:39, just south of Aquinnah. When they had not turned up by 2:00 a.m., a family friend reported them missing, and the search began about an hour later. The FAA began checking airports along the route. At 7:30, once the sun was up, the Coast Guard and Air National Guard combed the waters from Long Island Sound to Cape Cod Bay.

Saturday morning dawned bright and clear, the tent on the lawn looked like fluffs of whipped cream, the flags snapped at full staff, the caterers and florists prepared for the 275 guests due for the 6 p.m. ceremony. But by 8:30 a.m. the family was on the phone, calling the wedding guests, telling them not to come. And as it has so many times before, the Kennedy compound became the gathering place for friends and relatives haunted by fear and grief. They held Mass on the porch, with about 50 family members and three priests praying for the safety of the loved ones, as well as for Rory and Mark.

Guests at the Sheraton Tara could just sit and wait, hang out in the bar, look around emptily and hug one another for a long time. Neighbors tied yellow ribbons around the trees and telephone poles near the compound. We were thinking today would be the fun part of living next door to the Kennedys, said neighbor Carolyn Quinn. Late in the afternoon the caterers left, their uniforms still on hangers in cleaner bags.

Around the country the news spread and the vigil commenced. President Clinton was kept informed of the search's progress and began calling family members. Neighbors began leaving candles and flowers outside the TriBeCa building where John and Carolyn lived. The crowd at Yankee Stadium, where John had spent Thursday evening, had a moment of silence before the game. Churches held special Masses and prayer services, including one in Connecticut for members of the Bessette family, who were contemplating the loss of two of their three daughters.

Staff members at George magazine poured into the office, just to be together. It's incredibly somber and sad here, said one. We're watching this stuff on TV and it's all so surreal. Kennedy's corner office remained closed and locked. From his office windows, he had a distant view of the Statue of Liberty; on the walls were pictures of his wife and his father and mother, as well as political bumper stickers and a few photos of Kennedy himself when he was younger.

A whole generation born after President Kennedy died never had to answer that question, Where were you... The unfinished presidency haunted the country for years; in polls for decades after, people ranked Kennedy as the greatest of Presidents, leading historians to wonder whether people gave him credit for doing all the things he never had the chance to do. And to the extent that the man and the myth lived on, it lived through the family, and above all through the son who bore the name and the charm and the burden.

People seemed to admire John simply for the poise with which he moved through the crowd of echoes and expectations that followed him everywhere. It's very good to be the son of a legend, Larry King observed to his guest one night. It's complicated, John replied, and it makes for a rich and complicated life--as though he knew that he mattered less for anything he did than for what he meant to us.

With reporting by James Carney/Washington and John F. Dickerson/Hyannis Port

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