Lost at Sea
Summer weekends. Time to escape the New York City area for the Jersey Shore, the Catskills, or Montauk. The Upper Crust of society venture to their get-away “cottages” in The Hamptons. Then there are the highest of high society who give no concern to traffic jams or crowds on the beach as they retreat to their well-stocked, well-hidden, palatial and ultra-private compounds on Martha’s Vineyard. They arrive by their private planes on their own schedules for a sun-drenched weekend of fun and frolic.
Until it all goes sideways. Friday night, July 16, 1999, John F. Kennedy, Jr. sits at the controls of his personal plane at a small New Jersey airfield as he pilots off to Martha’s Vineyard together with his wife, Carolyn, and his sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette. JFK, Jr.’s plane crashes into the Atlantic Ocean seven miles off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. Five days later, the aircraft and its three passengers are located at the bottom of the sea.
Lost with John John and his family was a sense of hope for the future of America. In the 1990s, America was transitioning from political leaders defined by World War II and the Cold War to a new and younger generation. Bill Clinton was in the White House as the youngest U.S. President since John F. Kennedy. The future looked bright for young politicians such as newly minted U.S. Representative and future Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, 38 year old Indiana Governor Evan Bayh, and University of Stanford Provost, Condoleeza Rice who was in her thirties. The brightest star among these young constellations remained John F. Kennedy, Jr. He had the name and pedigree. He had the looks. He became engaged in causes. He had the Kennedy political machine at his disposal. He avoided all the messiness the other Kennedy family members appeared to attract. JFK, Jr., was well-positioned to follow in his father’s footsteps as a Senator and even beyond.
Perhaps John John would have failed miserably as a politician. Maybe he lacked the ambition to take the reins of leadership. I doubt it.
What may have been different if the plane made it all the way to Martha’s Vineyard without incident on that summer night? Would America have been introduced to little known first term U.S. Senator Barack Obama as the keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention? If Senator Obama’s fortunes were altered, would then Senator Joe Biden eventually become Vice President and then positioned to run for President? Were the political fortunes of so many others altered with JFK, Jr.’s fateful flight?
So many of us have emblazoned in our minds the image of 3 year old John John saluting his father’s coffin during the funeral procession. We also recall the handsome young up-and-coming 38 year old Kennedy on the cusp of embarking on a life of public service from 1999. Just imagine if we could interject into the current American political climate the gravitas and maturity of a 61 year old JFK, Jr. Regardless where you might stand on his politics, the presence of this older JFK, Jr. would have to result in the temperature in the room coming down by at least a few degrees. Opportunities lost.