To the world, John F. Kennedy Jr. was the son of the slain president who grew up and became an impossibly handsome, charming and articulate man with a world of possibility ahead.
But to his friends, he was just “John,” the lovable, loyal, goofy pal who threw rocks at their window when he lost his keys, wasn’t as athletically gifted as he seemed – and who carried his name and legacy with an innate sense of grace.
It all came to a tragic end 17 years ago, when John’s plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off of Martha’s Vineyard, killing him at age 38, along with his wife Carolyn Bessette and her sister, Lauren.
Not wanting him to be forgotten, some of his closest friends shared their memories in this week’s PEOPLE on the occasion of a new SPIKE TV documentary I Am JFK JR., which airs August 1 and opens in select movie theaters this week.
“John was well placed to do so much good,” says Sasha Chermayeff. “I was sure he was going to do great things and he wasn’t wasting a lot of time. It wasn’t just his close friends – he gave the world a feeling that there was a lot of hope.”
Among the poignant and often surprising revelations in this week’s cover story, John’s pals reveal he was seriously considering entering politics. His loyal assistant at George, RoseMarie Terenzio, recounts a surprising conversation she had with her boss after New York Senator Al D’Amato – a Republican – told John he should run for mayor of New York City.
At the time, John laughed it off. But afterward, she asked him if he d ever consider it.
“He said ‘Well, Rosie, how many mayors do you know that become President?’ ” recounts Terenzio. “I was so shocked I didn’t say anything. Then he smirked as if to say ‘That’s not the road you go down – we’ll see what happens.’ ”
But well before considering any run for the White House, several friends say he was looking into running for governor of New York in 2003.
According to Gary Ginsberg, a close friend who was with John the night before he died, “That last night he was very focused on two things: finding a buyer for George and his political future.”
Ginsberg knew John from Brown University and went on to help him start George magazine.
He adds: “I guess no coincidence since the two were linked together. By July 1999 I think he could take great comfort that he had started and led a successful business, had fulfilled his mission to cover politics in a colorful, non-ideological way that would make it appealing for people who had never bought a political magazine before, and was now in a position to do something new.
“He had been thinking about running for the N.Y. Senate seat – he even had meetings about it that spring – but by July had concluded he would focus his attention on running for governor of N.Y. in 2003.
“By temperament and interest, John, I think, realized he was far more suited to being a governor than a legislator. He knew from running George that he could be an inspiring, strong chief executive of a state, setting the tone for government and successfully running a complex operation.
WATCH: Would JFK Jr. Have Run for President?
“That idea became very appealing to him at some point that summer. Had the stars aligned over the next couple of years, I’m pretty convinced that’s what he would have pursued.”
Now that so much time has passed, his friends find it bittersweet to share their memories of the friend they loved and lost.
“There’s like a whole level of sadness that gets brought up when I remember him,” says his college roommate Chris Oberbeck, who remained a close friend. “On another level, we were blessed to have known him. Today, with time, I think it’s more of a celebration and more of a look back that ‘wow this guy was really great’ and it’s very nice to share it.”