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Trials of a Rising Son

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Failing the bar exam for the second time in seven months has to be embarrassing for any law school graduate with friends to face and a boss to explain it to the morning after the results are out. But when the Junior in your name comes after John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the problem is compounded by a noisome public spectacle. Imagine waking up to headlines shrilling THE HUNK FLUNKS on the front pages of all three New York City tabloids. And that’s how May Day started for this particular 29-year-old Manhattan assistant district attorney.

That first painful jolt over his morning coffee could hardly have been eased by the details inside: Of John’s colleagues, the 64 members of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s staff who first took the bar exam last July, just seven failed. Of those, all but three got over the top the second time around. It must have been small comfort to Kennedy that a 52 percent majority of the 2,589 test takers flunked with him this time, especially since his score of 649 was a mere 11 points short of passing. Anyone coming within 10 points is allowed to appeal. But the easygoing, affable JFK Jr., dubbed “the least competitive Kennedy” by Harrison Rainie and John Quinn in their 1983 book, Growing Up Kennedy, wasn’t sulking or skulking around. On the contrary, he was a profile in unflappability as he gamely confronted reporters who surrounded him outside his office. “Hopefully, I’ll pass it in July,” he said, flashing his trademark killer smile and vowing to keep taking the exam “until I’m 95,” if necessary. Then, with a shrug of those brawny shoulders, he conceded with beguiling modesty: “I’m clearly not a major legal genius.”

Afterward, amid reports that he would take four weeks off from work to cram nonstop for the next exam in July—and following a published sermonette from gossip columnist Liz Smith that he had been spending too much time with his head in the clouds, parachuting at New Jersey’s Sky Manor airport—the hunk who flunked took the weekend off.

Indeed, this “pretty well adjusted kid,” as a friend calls him, simply refused to agonize over his setback. Leaving the district attorney’s office at around 5:45 P.M. on a recent Friday, he unchained his black mountain bike—on which he rides to work most days—and hauled it inside the building. He later turned up at Wall Street’s Downtown Athletic Club, where he sweated away his tensions well into the evening. Next morning, he donned khaki shorts, sneakers and a rumpled shirt and exited his West Side brownstone for the local D’Agostino supermarket to pick up breakfast. He scanned the Post’s gossip page, then filled his basket with two corn muffins, an Entenmann’s Danish ring, two mangoes, a carton of buttermilk, half a dozen eggs and a box of Just Right cereal. On the way home he stopped for a New York Times, lugging the two grocery bags to his $1,500-a-month apartment. Later that afternoon, he strapped on a pair of roller-blades and skated vigorously and anonymously around Central Park.

That evening, JFK Jr. picked up his longtime girlfriend, actress Christina Haag (Archie’s fiancée, Pam, in the recent NBC movie, Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again), who’d turned 30 the previous day, and took her to a 10 P.M. showing of the new Alec Baldwin movie, Miami Blues. Apparently it was not his idea of Oscar material, for on Sunday morning, over eggs Benedict with Christina at Bazzini’s restaurant, he took a sip of his cranberry and orange juice cocktail and declared, loud enough for others to hear, “That movie yesterday sucked. It was worthless.”

On typical weekends the couple can be spotted walking the streets of the neighborhood, stopping along the way to kiss and nuzzle. They recently popped in at a boutique called Shoofly to buy a baby hat, probably a gift for his sister, Caroline, who on May 5 delivered a 7 lb., 10 oz. daughter, Tatiana Celia Kennedy Schlossberg. John appears to be an avid shopper. He was seen snapping up a pair of $179 Persol Italian sunglasses at Royal Opticians. Back home, he changed into gym shorts and a bottom-of-the-laundry-bag sweatshirt and headed to the park again on his roller-blades.

And so it goes in a life that is remarkably like that of young men who do not have to labor under the burdensome sobriquet of “the Sexiest Man Alive” (as PEOPLE called him on a 1988 cover). “John is a guy’s guy,” says a friend, explaining that his well-known buddy puts a premium on fun and fitness. Pumping up almost daily at one of the three Manhattan fitness clubs he belongs to, and turning up many nights at the latest downtown clubs, JFK Jr. burns energy like a locomotive. Some friends say it is this abundant vigor, an asset in his very busy private life, that tends to distract him from his studies. “What really struck me was his restlessness,” says a newly minted New York City corporate lawyer who took a bar-review course with him last summer. “He couldn’t sit still for more than 10 minutes at a time. The classroom had a door that opened onto a little deck, and every day he’d get up and open the door three or four times for really no reason.” With this summer promising boffo family festivities—including cousin Kerry Kennedy’s wedding next month in Hyannis to Andrew Cuomo, son of New York Governor Mario, and grandmother Rose Kennedy’s 100th birthday July 22—settling down with a stack of law books is no doubt an unenticing duty.

But if torts aren’t nearly as much fun as roller-blades, the law is “part of the family Zeitgeist,” says author Rainie. “I get the impression that for this generation of his family, it’s better to be doing good than not doing good. It’s a burden to justify their lives and their privilege.”

Not to mention the bonus of following in the path of the 35th President and his brothers. At 29, John’s father was already a Massachusetts Congressman, and Uncle Bobby was chief counsel for a Senate subcommittee. At 30, Uncle Teddy won his U.S. Senate seat. Last May, sister Caroline passed the bar on her first try, albeit at the comparatively advanced age of 31. Law-practicing cousins Bobby Jr.. Kathleen, Michael and Kerry Kennedy, Chris Lawford and Steve Smith are also members of the bar in good standing.

To many observers, JFK Jr. seems more his mother’s son than his father’s. Although he clearly has the Kennedy zest for rough-and-tumble games, John has so far passed through life at a stately pace, minding his manners, avoiding unpleasant encounters with the press and the police and growing up, in the words of authors Rainie and Quinn, “disgustingly normal.” Not that he hasn’t racked up a list of public-service accomplishments. As chairman of the associate trustees of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, begun by his grandparents to aid the disabled, this year he helped develop a Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Studies program in New York City to train people working with the handicapped. He is also involved in the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, which recognizes extraordinary contributions by public officials.

In the $30,000-per-year job he has held since last August—had he passed the bar, he would have received an automatic $1,000 raise—he has been part of the special prosecution’s bureau assigned to fraud and white collar crime. In the most visible case he has worked on, Operation Greenback, John’s team cracked down on a group of money-laundering travel agents. He shares a small office with another assistant district attorney, and a single secretary handles calls for John and 15 fellow employees. “He’s a team player,” says one of his supervisors. “He’s someone who wants to keep busy and have a variety of cases. He recently had a case requiring a lot of nights and weekends here, and he really did a good job.”

To date, he has kept busy doing legal research and investigation rather than litigation. He has never tried a case and cannot do so until he passes the bar. If he flunks a third time, he’ll lose his job. But co-workers believe that possibility is remote. Boss Morgenthau calls him “a hard worker and a great kid. His performance has been excellent, and he’s very professional. I think he has the makings of being a good lawyer. There’s nothing unique about failing the bar twice. Some people don’t take exams well.”

From all appearances, John Jr. intends to pursue the law as a career. But some say his true gift is for another calling—one that, alas, breaks the Kennedy mold. Flirting with the theater since his college days at Brown, he has won exceptionally good notices in his few small roles. “He is the finest young actor I have seen in 12 years,” said Nye Heron, who ran the small New York theater where Kennedy made his professional acting debut opposite Christina Haag in a 1988 production of Brian Friel’s Winners. “John was excellent, no question about it.” Now he has a singing, guitar-strumming cameo in a new movie, an independent feature produced in 1988 by a Brown University friend, Randy Poster. Called A Matter of Degrees, it is a love story starring Judith Hoag, Arye Gross, and featuring Haag. The film, scheduled to open in Europe, has no U.S. distributor and does not mark the beginning of a new profession for JFK Jr. Young Kennedy is “not serious about an acting career,” says a friend, Jeff Gradinger. Though John reportedly dated Daryl Hannah, he has, for the most part, tried to distance himself discreetly from show business, and word is that his mother vetoed a longer run in Winners. “The acting drove Jackie crazy,” says Rainie. ” ‘It was exposing him in ways that she’d tried to protect him from.” Meanwhile, close friends contend that as far as the Kennedys are concerned, one actor in the family—Maria Shriver’s husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger—is enough.

So young JFK’s friends—along with his female admirers coast to coast—are rooting for him in his legal career. “He’s one of the smartest guys I know,” says Gradinger. “He’s a hard worker. I’m totally bummed out about his bar exam.” Time to start hitting those books, John. Only 71 more study days left.

—Elizabeth Sporkin, Victoria Balfour, Khoi Nguyen and Toby Kahn in New York