By Helen Thomas/UPI White House Bureau Chief
August 01, 1999 12:00 PM

I remember John F. Kennedy Jr. from the day he was born on Nov. 25, 1960, until his 3rd birthday, when he stood at the bottom of the steps of St. Matthew’s Cathedral and saluted his father’s coffin. The poignancy of that moment, captured in memorable photographs, affected Americans more than all the pictures of the royalty and world leaders who attended the funeral services for John F. Kennedy and gathered to march in a procession with the beautiful, black-veiled Jacqueline Kennedy.

On Thanksgiving Day, 1960, I was staking out the Kennedy home on N Street, watching the comings and goings of the members of the soon-to-be new Administration. The cluster of reporters and photographers stood on the sidelines as President-elect Kennedy said goodbye to his very pregnant wife and their daughter Caroline, almost 3. Exhausted from the arduous presidential campaign, Kennedy was departing for a vacation in Palm Beach, Fla., leaving behind an upset-looking Jackie, who was apparently sad over being deserted at such a time.

We reporters dispersed after Kennedy headed for the airport, only to be urgently summoned by our offices several hours later to hurry to Georgetown University Hospital, where Mrs. Kennedy had been rushed. The lobby was pure pandemonium as reporters and cameramen converged to await the birth of the Kennedys’ son. JFK was alerted as soon as his plane, The Caroline, touched down in Palm Beach. He then boarded the faster chartered press plane for the trip back to Washington, D.C. Kennedy arrived after John-John was born. Afterward, he went to the hospital twice a day to visit his wife and son.

I remember buttonholing him one day as he was leaving the hospital and asking him if he would like his son to grow up to be President. He paused and then said thoughtfully, “I just want him to be healthy.”

One day while Jackie was still recuperating in the hospital, my editor temporarily assigned me back to N Street to cover Kennedy’s departure for the White House, where he was going to meet with outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower for the first time since the election and undoubtedly to be briefed on some of the nation’s top secrets. When Kennedy emerged from his home, he took one look at me and quipped, “You’ve deserted my child.”

John-John, as he was nicknamed by the press, was a great joy to the President, who adored his children. Each afternoon, a Secret Service agent would bring the little boy to the Oval Office, where he would dance for his daddy, sometimes with his sister Caroline, and hide under his desk.

Much as she tried, the First Lady could not completely shield John-John and his sister from the public. Privacy remained the hallmark of their upbringing under their mother’s watchful eye. Mrs. Kennedy protested when a magazine printed photographs of the children playing in the Oval Office. But in the ambivalence of celebrities, she would order several copies of the photographs.

When John’s brother Patrick Bouvier Kennedy died a few days after birth in August 1963, Kennedy took John-John to the hospital at Otis Air Force Base, where Jackie was recuperating from another cesarean and grieving over the death of her second son. On leaving the hospital, Kennedy climbed into the front seat of a chauffeur-driven limousine, and his son got into the back. As they pulled away, cameramen came to the window of the car and began snapping away, to John-John’s delight. He exclaimed, “I think they’re taking my picture.” Kennedy cracked up with laughter.

On Veterans Day, 1963, 11 days before he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet, Kennedy motored to Arlington National Cemetery to pay tribute to the nation’s war dead. He left his son behind in the care of an agent near the limousine and went into the amphitheater. While sitting on the platform waiting for his turn to speak, suddenly he told an aide, “Go get John. He’ll be lonely out there.” Actually, John-John was having a fine time imitating the Honor Guard and learning to salute.

Helen Thomas has been reporting on the White House since 1960.

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