A memory of JFK Jr. offers respite from today’s stress-filled politics
For those looking for a piece brutally bashing one political party or the other, you have come to the wrong place — which, for me, has become the overriding point. The nonstop, vicious, ad hominem attacks from the fringes of both political parties, and lately, from the supposed “center,” have become a corrosive acid destroying the foundation of our nation.
In one way or another, I have been in or around the political business for 40 years. The rhetorical hate now being spewed is not only depressing and frightening, on a number of levels, but quite dangerous.
Every mind needs to decompress, from time to time, from the daily stresses of life. To say those stresses, of late, have been on steroids would be an understatement. That decompression time for me came this week when I stumbled upon a YouTube clip of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” on May 14, 1998.
I don’t pretend that I knew JFK Jr. well. I did not. When I was director of communications for former Sen. Bob Dole, I exchanged a few phone calls with him and then met with him in person for a couple of hours when he invited Dole to his George magazine offices for an off-the-record coffee with him and his staff.
While watching the clip of Leno interviewing John, the memories of my interaction with him came flooding back. I remember JFK Jr. as the personification of class, civility and kindness.
When Dole and I arrived at the magazine’s 41st floor offices that morning in May 1999 — just two months before John’s death — we were a bit early and most of the lights in the office had not been turned on. To our surprise (but surely not the surprise of anyone who truly knew him) John was there to greet us himself in the darkened hallway. As he stepped toward us, he did something very kind and special, which few people ever did when meeting Dole: He extended his left hand to shake Dole’s hand.
John knew the senator lost the use of his right arm and hand in combat during World War II, and he didn’t miss a beat as he considerately and compassionately shook Dole’s hand. It was a simple gesture of awareness and kindness, which Dole told me later meant a great deal to him.
After bringing us to his office, John personally got each of us a cup of coffee. We talked for a few minutes about current events and then the protocol for the off-the-record conversation about to take place in a large conference room down the hall with his staff. Before we left his office, he pointed with pride to a framed piece of true American history: the signatures of every president from George Washington to — at that time — Bill Clinton. John explained with a smile that it was one of his most treasured possessions because it was a gift from his beloved mother, Jacqueline Kennedy.
In the conference room, like any good staffer, I made a bee line for a chair against the wall. Just as I took out my notebook, John walked over and insisted that I sit at the table between him and the senator. I declined, but he politely refused to take “no” for an answer.
As I sat down in the seat he had designated, my right shirt cuff moved up a bit to reveal the old, beat-up runner’s watch — with a plastic wristband — that I had worn that day because the battery on my “good” watch went bad. I had been advised in the strongest possible terms not to wear this crusty watch in the presence of the “most elegant man in the world.” I quickly pulled down my cuff to cover the watch. During the next 45 minutes or so, John would lean over to me to whisper thoughts or comments on questions his staff was asking Dole. Then, I suddenly was aware of his stare. I looked over to see him looking directly at my wrist.
“Nice watch,” he said with a laugh, after catching my eye.
With the YouTube clip of the Leno show, which elicited these memories, I found more than 7,000 comments by viewers. Almost every person commented on the intelligence, charm, civility, confidence, kindness and humor of John F. Kennedy Jr. Such enduring respect and admiration reminded me of his massive potential taken from us too soon.
Would JFK Jr. have run for public office? We will never know, but I will always be convinced the nation — and the world — would have been in a better place if he had the chance to continue to exert his influence.
At the end of the clip, Leno reflects a year later on John’s passing, teary-eyed: “There are people you just want to see grow old. … He was a very, very nice man.”
More than nice, JFK Jr. embodied all that could still be great about politics. I advise anyone feeling down about our current times to watch the clip, take a deep breath and remember that, surely, there still are a few people left in politics who believe in doing the right things with intelligence, compassion, empathy, civility and humor.
Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration.