"At first, he ran from his father's legacy and he ended up running in circles," Steven M. Gillon says of President John F. Kennedy's son. "At the end of his life, he wanted to embrace his father's legacy"

By Liz McNeil
July 13, 2020 02:55 PM
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It's been 21 years since the plane John F. Kennedy Jr. was piloting, carrying wife Carolyn Bessette and her sister Lauren Bessette, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off of Martha's Vineyard — cutting short three lives so full of promise.

Had President John F. Kennedy's son lived, friend and historian Steven M. Gillon believes John would have made it to the White House just like his dad.

"John would have been president of the United States and I think the tone of our politics would have been completely different," says Gillon, a professor of American history at the University of Oklahoma whose biography of John, The Reluctant Prince, is now out in paperback. "John would be a force for healing and bringing people together."

"John thought he could inspire people — so I think about it often, how much better off our country would have been had John not made the foolish decision to take his plane up on the hot humid July evening," Gillon says.

He and John met when Gillon was John's teaching assistant at Brown University, and the two struck up a friendship lasting more than 20 years.

"John spent his whole life trying to figure out who he was and what his relationship was going to be to his father's legacy and for most of his life, he ran away from it," Gillon says. "And he ran away from it, because he wanted to find out who he really was, separate from the unique burden of his family."

Gillon continues: "The other layer to the tragedy is that, by 1999, he figured out who he is. And what he discovered is yes, he wants to go into politics. He wants to be his father's son. But he dies just at the moment when he discovers who he is. The one thing John will always share with his father is this sense of what might have been."

John F. Kennedy Jr.
Barry King/WireImage
From left: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and son John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1986
Charles Krupa/AP

From the moment in 1963 when young John saluted his father's casket, "all the unfulfilled hopes and expectations transferred to him," says Gillon.

But John wrestled with those expectations for many years.

"At first he needed to find himself," Gillon says. "At first, he ran from his father's legacy and he ended up running in circles. At the end of his life, he wanted to embrace his father's legacy."

Gillon recalls that "John said, 'What people need is hope, realistic hope and they need to know that tomorrow is going to be better than today.' That's what his dad did as well as anyone since Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John understood that."

"John wasn't book smart," Gillon adds, "but he had the best instincts of anyone I ever met. He could read a person, read a room — the instincts you have to have as a politician."

"The other thing about John: You cannot discount his impact on people, what happened when he walked into a room," says Gillon. "John inspired memories. For an older generation, he represented the unfulfilled possibilities of his father. For a younger generation, he represented a new style of leadership. I don't think you can discount the emotional connection that John had with the American public. He understood that power.  For most of his life, he tried to avoid it but if it came to the point where he was running for office, he knew how to use it."

In his biography of John, Gillon recounts a haunting comment John once made to one of his closest friends, Rob Littell: "They were watching the inauguration of Bill Clinton and he said 'I want to go home.' For him, going home was the White House. And by 1999, he's actively talking to people, finding the opening — what office he's going to run for and actively strategizing how he's going to make his next steps into politics."

Indeed, friends say that before his death John had begun exploring the idea of running for New York governor.

From left: John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette in 1999
Justin Ide/Newsmakers

"The John who would have been elected president would have been different than the John that founded George magazine," says Gillon.

"I'm perfectly aware of his limitations," Gillon adds. "John wasn't ready at the age of 38 to be president, and he wouldn't have been at 42, the age his father was elected. But he would have been, if he had continued the same process that he had shown over the past 15 years of his life."

The world will never know what would have been.

"With John's death came the end of Camelot," says Gillon, referring to the halo of his father's approximately 1,000 days in the White House, before the 1963 Kennedy assassination.

"A lot of the family mystique revolved around his father, the emotional connection that the public had to John's father," Gillon says. "John was his father's son. John was the only one who could have carried his family legacy into the future. All the expectations for that were placed on him."

"John's father is frozen in time," says Gillon, "and now John is too. We can't see how he would have evolved."

Or what might have been,

"John had the potential to unite a nation that has become so divided," his friend says. "It would have been a huge undertaking and a reasonable person would say no one person could have done that, even someone whose name was John F. Kennedy Jr.. But those of us who knew him think that he could have made a difference."