JFK Jr. – Not with a bang but a whimper

JFK, Jr. on the cover of the farewell issue of his "George" magazine.
July 16th, 2019     Opinion

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

“The Hollow Men”

    T. S. Eliot

John F. Kennedy, Jr. (JFK Jr.) died twenty years ago today, aged 38, when he flew his airplane into the ocean off the Massachusetts coast. His estranged wife and her sister died with him.

Kennedy’s flying experience was meager. He was piloting a Piper Saratoga, a high performance single-engine plane that could carry five passengers. He had learned to fly in a 182 Cessna, a high-wing plane, sometimes considered more forgiving for novice aviators. He had acquired the low-wing, faster Saratoga about three months before the crash.

At the time of the crash the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) estimated Kennedy had flown the Saratoga only 36 hours. However, a flight instructor had been aboard all but three of those hours. He had received his private pilot certificate about 15 months earlier. Therefore, he was legal to fly with passengers aboard. He was not instrument rated.

Kennedy had broken his ankle in a paraglider crash three weeks earlier. The cast had only been removed the prior day, and he was hobbling on one foot. It could have been difficult for him to depress the plane’s rudder pedals. He was at least two hours late taking off from the Essex County, New Jersey, Airport at 7:30 p.m. Thus, it was dark by the time he approached his destination at Martha’s Vineyard.

What went wrong? Over water at night, under hazy conditions it can be difficult to see the horizon. Investigators blamed it on pilot error. Kennedy had failed to maintain control of the aircraft and may have had “spatial disorientation.” NTSB investigators said the airplane entered the Atlantic nose down at an estimated speed of more than 270 mph. The cruise speed on the Saratoga is 160 mph and rated top speed is 190 mph. So, if the NTSB calculated it correctly, the plane was in a power dive when it entered the waves.

JFK Jr. was, by all accounts, a decent human being. Spoiled, possibly. Rich, certainly. Extraordinarily good-looking, but not at all a bad guy.

His father had been killed three days before his third birthday. He was an intelligent, but indifferent student. It took him three tries to pass the New York bar exam after getting a law degree from NYU. He kept at it until he passed, and was admitted to the bar.

He started a successful magazine called “George.”

New Albany MS JFK jr Joseph P. Kennedy Sr

Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. 1938.

He and his wife were living separately when they died. They had reportedly been arguing violently for quite some time.

Thus ended, 20 years ago today, the life of a fundamentally decent young man. It also was the last in a dramatic series of tragedies which thwarted the ambitions of a political dynasty envisioned by his grandfather Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.

Joe P. had made millions in stock market speculation, bootlegging, real estate, and various legitimate industries, including movie making. He was a strong supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who made him the ambassador to Great Britain. However, FDR came to despise him. While ambassador to war-threatened England, Joe’s outspoken pro-Nazi sentiments embarrassed the President and the United States.  He was forced to resign.

Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. was a notorious philanderer and sexual predator. He even tried to seduce the friends of his daughters when they visited his home.

He had his daughter Rosemary lobotomized when she was 23 years old. Rosemary was said to be mildly retarded. Some have alleged that Rosemary’s main problem was that she was a fun-loving girl. Easily the prettiest of the Kennedy daughters, she had exhibited a healthy interest in young men. Joe couldn’t control her and he feared she would be an embarrassment.

The lobotomy did not go well. Rosemary died 63 years later, at age 86, in an institution in Wisconsin. Joe would not allow her name to be mentioned in his house. She never again lived near her family. However, it should be noted that, after old Joe P. died, his family had the humanity to again include Rosemary in family gatherings. Also, they visited her sometimes in Wisconsin.

Joe P.’s oldest son, Joe, Jr., was his first choice for President of the United States. Young Joe was killed in World War II. He was a Navy pilot fighting the Nazis the old man had sought to embrace.

Kathleen, his second daughter married a man she met while working for the Red Cross. He died on active duty four months later. In May 1948, at 28 years of age, Kathleen, perished in an airplane crash in France.

Second son, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated at age 46. Third son, Robert F. Kennedy, a U.S. Senator and former Attorney-General, was also assassinated at age 42, while running for the Presidency.

Author Ron Kessler wrote what is perhaps the best known biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. The name of it is “Sins of the Father.”

Joe Kennedy’s sons and daughters made meaningful, perhaps substantial, contributions to the United States of America in war and in peace and in good works. They have generally been on the side of the angels on the big issues. The same can generally be said of many of his grandchildren.

John F. Kennedy, Jr. one of the good ones, not a great man, but an honorable one, would have been 58 years old now.

Those with further interest in John F. Kennedy Jr. might like to read these articles:

From Vanity Fair Magazine:

From Aviation Safety Magazine:


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