By Daniel Okrent
August 02, 1999 12:00 PM

I heard about it while vacationing on Cape Cod, in the heart of Kennedy Country, but it could have been anywhere. The man behind the deli counter said, “Kennedy Jr.’s plane is missing over by the Vineyard,” and strangers standing in line were suddenly, wrenchingly connected. We had this doomed family in common, but we also shared, all of us, a piece of this particular man.

There’s really no parallel to the role John F. Kennedy Jr. played in our public drama. Princess Diana lived more than half her life, until she was first linked to Charles, in sublime anonymity; even Kennedy’s own mother was in her 30s before most of America had heard of her. But from the moment of John Jr.’s birth, his life was our life, a daily unfolding series even the most ardent Kennedy hater couldn’t help but watch.

We were there for his birth—by C-section, slightly premature—and, as Martha Sherrill wrote in The Washington Post a few years ago, for every life event that followed: his first tantrum, his first dress-up suit (“white broadcloth with lace-covered buttons and a ruffled collar and cuffs”), his first church service, and on and endlessly on. If the suit was somewhat different from those that most little boys were wearing, all the rest was familiar, even mundane.

In a way, this was a real-life Truman Show, the main character for the most part proceeding through the ordinary stations of living while the rest of the world looked on, sometimes in horror or sorrow, but usually with the benign interest of uncles and aunts watching a favored nephew grow toward manhood. Or, of parents. Nearly everyone old enough to have been sentient when President Kennedy was assassinated had expectations for the little boy who had lifted his hand in heartbreaking salute to the passing coffin. And even if you didn’t have expectations, or were too young to have seen the baby pictures dissolve gracefully into scenes from his high school graduation and from Brown and law school and marriage—even then, you wanted the reward that any well-told narrative promises: You wanted to know how it would all come out.

In the past few years, the story finally seemed to be taking a firmer shape. The star of this Truman Show wasn’t Jim Carrey’s goofy naïf but a creature of vast charms and gifts, usually able to toss a knowing half smile or an ironic shrug to the millions in his audience when the camera got too close, or when the turns of the plot—particularly the romantic ones—got too intimate. Never was this commendable facility clearer than at the launch press conference for Kennedy’s magazine. Before the first question was asked, he grinned and put forth this list of answers: “Yes. No. Honestly, we’re just really good friends. None of your business. It’s a possibility. Somewhere down the road, maybe. She’s my cousin from Rhode Island. Never in New Jersey.”

It was a disarming performance on a golden day. For whatever you think of his magazine, Kennedy, with the creation of George, finally became himself, finally broke free of his starring role in a serial not of his own making. For now he had something that was his, not a legacy imposed upon him by history, or by his family, or by the Kennedy acolytes who dreamed of the day he would bring back the pale, fading glories of Camelot. He had at last created an utterly public and at the same time utterly personal body of work, nothing generic like a failed bar exam or an anonymous job in the district attorney’s office, but something certain by its very nature to invite fair criticism—the kind you get for what you have done, and not for the circumstances of your birth.

Peculiarly, the occasionally peevish defenses he offered for the magazine’s more egregious missteps humanized him: If pricked, he bled, and sometimes lost his temper too. Equally humanizing were the advertising sales calls he was compelled to make, in essence performing for people much more interested in his pedigree and his appearance than in his product. Same with the near-nude picture of himself that he published around the time that the initial buzz for George had faded to a barely detectable murmur. By the very act of submitting to all those nagging little demands that are daily made on the rest of us—the minor compromises, the dreary self-justifications—he became more real than he had ever been before.

It was surely not a coincidence that John Kennedy’s settling into a real life—not a soap opera life—occurred in a period framed by the most authentic of life events, his mother’s death and his marriage to Carolyn Bessette. When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died in 1994, Kennedy was no longer buffered from the glare by the one person upon whom the light of publicity shone more brightly than it did on him. When he married two years later, he was not merely saying, “This is the woman I love.” He was also saying, “This is who I am.”

And for those of us who had been watching all along, first peering over the edge of his crib and now at last sitting in the audience of the public life he had chosen as his own, we could finally cease wondering what would become of him. Now we were free to exhale, stop asking the aunt-and-uncle/mom-and-dad questions, feel pretty confident that he had turned out all right. Everything, it seemed, would be just fine.

Daniel Okrent is an editor-at-large at Time Inc.