An unvarnished portrait of the Kennedy scion who seemed to command all his parents’ charisma—and who met a tragic, early end.
History Channel scholar-in-residence Gillon (History/Univ. of Oklahoma; Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism, 2018, etc.) writes as both professional historian and friend—not close friend, he allows, but close enough to have had plenty of face time—of John F. Kennedy Jr. (1960-1999), who “understood what he represented to millions of people, and he was willing to assume that burden.” That self-awareness took some time to develop. By the author’s account, the usual adolescent rebellion blended with unusual privilege, and John Jr. was somewhat slow in attaining adulthood in a whirl of partying and slacking off. (Still, he was much better behaved than Bobby Kennedy’s offspring, who “were overly wild.”) In the end, breaking with the family’s Harvard tradition and going to Brown, John Jr. emerged as a person of substance, someone who was able to weave the stories of his father’s and relatives’ iconic lives into “a coherent narrative” and to figure out how to make a place for himself in that line. He did so with the magazine George, launched in 1995, which, Gillon ventures, was ahead of its time in many ways, pointing to the emergence of politicians as not just politicians, but also as figures in pop culture. Bill Clinton provided plenty of gossip, but while the timing of the magazine was right in some ways, it was soon supplanted by political talk shows that “turned talking heads into media stars." Gillon writes with a practitioner’s appreciation for historical narrative, but he doesn’t hesitate to pitch a little dirt here and there, as when he writes of family feuds, marital discord, and other things publicists like to keep out of view.
Poignant reading on the 20th anniversary of Kennedy’s death and of broad interest to students of American political dynasties.