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  • Remarkable Risk-Takers: A Clan Chooses the Edge

    John F. Kennedy Jr., AP
    John F. Kennedy Jr. stands with Chris Howard, right, after piloting in a motor-powered paraglider in 1997 in Argos, Ind. (AP)
    By Michael Grunwald
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, July 19, 1999; Page A1

    John F. Kennedy Jr. did not only fly single-engine planes, he also owned a motor-powered paraglider that looks like a contraption out of a Willy Wonka movie. He loved to kayak in rough waters and scuba dive in deep seas. On a recent trip to South Dakota, he even asked park officials if he could rappel down Mount Rushmore. They said no, too dangerous.

    On Friday night, Kennedy took another risk, flying into a moonless haze even though he was a novice pilot, even though his Piper Saratoga was a fairly intricate plane, even though he had a broken foot that made it harder to operate the pedals, even though his wife and other relatives had pressured him to drop his aviation hobby. Now it seems clear that his last risk killed him, along with his wife and sister-in-law, reigniting a familiar post-tragedy debate about the Kennedy family penchant for danger.

    Just a year and a half ago, the lost Kennedy was Michael, who crashed into a tree while tossing around a makeshift football with family members on an Aspen, Colo., ski slope. Over a half-century ago, it was Joseph Jr., whose plane exploded during a dangerous World War II volunteer mission. This is a clan famously steeped in macho "vigor," and for all the mystical chatter about a curse, some of the family's friends and chroniclers seriously believe that adventure and disaster may be as integral to the Kennedy makeup as wavy hair and a brilliant smile.

    "I wouldn't say reckless, but I would say daring," said longtime family friend Frank Mankiewicz. "The Kennedys learn very early in life that you don't quit, that you play hard, that you live close to the edge. They take risks, and that's what's made them so remarkable."

    A zest for danger has always been part of the Kennedy legend: the late president's PT boat heroism, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy scaling a mountain that had never been climbed, even their sister Kathleen's death in a 1948 plane crash, after she was warned not to risk the trip. In the younger generation of Kennedys, that fearless adventurism has sometimes played out in scandal: for example, the drug problems of Robert Jr., Patrick and David, who died of an overdose in 1984, or Michael's notorious involvement with his teenage babysitter.

    The family patriarch, Joseph Sr., is often held responsible for the Kennedy daring; he certainly believed in a model of masculinity etched in athleticism and risk-taking. But Kennedy-watchers say John Jr. actually was cut from a somewhat different mold, perhaps because he was raised by a stoic mother determined to steer him away from the traditional excesses of the family's men. He played in the famous Kennedy touch football games, but it was less of a blood sport for him. He was always a glamorous man about town and mainstay of gossip columns, but he usually came off as a gentleman.

    Yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press," historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told his mother's story about John crying on the ski slopes as a little boy. His uncle Bobby came over and said: "Kennedys don't cry." To which John replied: "This Kennedy cries."

    "The fact is, if you compare him to a bunch of his cousins, John wasn't reckless at all," said Harrison Lee Rainie, author of "Growing Up Kennedy" and an editor at U.S. News & World Report. "He was less competitive, less spit-in-the-eye-of-the-devil. He liked rock-climbing and kayaking, but I don't think he bought into that whole Kennedy notion of tempting fate."

    John had a famously magnetic physical presence and was inevitably photographed by paparazzi rollerblading through Central Park or emerging from the surf at Hyannis Port. But some Kennedy chroniclers believe that John's risk-taking was mostly professional, not physical. The Washington intelligentsia snorted when he launched George magazine, with its middlebrow mix of politics and entertainment, but he bet his reputation on the venture. Then he used his new platform in surprisingly edgy ways. He published a "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" cover featuring Drew Barrymore dressed as Marilyn Monroe, a clear reference to the time his father's alleged paramour sang happy birthday to him. He brought pornographer Larry Flynt to the White House Correspondents Association dinner. And he wrote a column blasting his cousins Joe and Michael as "poster children for bad behavior," a column he illustrated with a shadowy photograph of himself in the nude.

    George was not an unqualified success; in fact, Kennedy was searching for investors to save it from extinction just last week. But it does have a circulation of more than 400,000, and it has lasted longer than most Beltway pundits predicted.

    "The Kennedy men all learn that living a life of physical courage is part of being a man, and there was probably some of that in John," said author Laurence Leamer, who has written a book about the Kennedy women and is working on another about the Kennedy men. "But if you want to talk about taking risks, look at George. I don't like it at all, but that took guts."

    Still, the crash has focused attention back on more tangible risks, and Kennedy always chafed at doing things the safe way. As a boy, he regularly evaded his Secret Service detail; the agents nicknamed him "Lark." And as an adult, he reveled in extreme sports as well as the red-and-white six-cylinder plane that plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean Friday night. For two years, the tabloids had detailed his family's disenchantment with the "daredevil flights" of the "danger-loving hunk," but he refused to give up the hobby.

    "John could be absent-minded, so the family was concerned that when he got into a plane, which requires a lot of methodical attention to detail, he might not be as methodical as one would need to be," one family associate said yesterday from Hyannis Port.

    The crash made Kennedy family fearlessness fodder for the Sunday talk shows. "I think that when you look at this tragic accident, for somebody who has flown a plane for one year and hasn't soloed much, to attempt a night flight over an ocean is an unacceptable risk and shows a lack of judgment," New York Times columnist William Safire said on "Meet the Press" yesterday.

    "I have tremendous respect for Bill Safire, but I think stating that what happened yesterday was poor judgment is way out of bounds," shot back Kennedy friend Mike Barnicle, the deposed Boston Globe columnist. "He could just as well have been killed in a subway accident in New York City as out on Vineyard Sound."

    Kennedy had only logged about 100 hours as a licensed pilot, and he had not qualified for a license to fly with instruments only. He had spent most of those hours in a simpler Cessna 182; he only bought the more powerful Piper in April. And while he usually flew with an instructor when visibility was poor, he decided not to on Friday night, even though fellow pilot Kyle Bailey said he decided against a Vineyard flight that night because of the hazy conditions.

    "With the haze, in the dark, you lose sight of the horizon, you don't have landmarks," Bailey said. "You can't differentiate land from water."

    Then again, aviation officials issued no warnings against travel that night. And while investigators have not made any conclusions about what brought down Kennedy's plane, they believe the crash killed him, his wife and sister-in-law. Flying is always a calculated risk, but some Kennedy-watchers say that the tragedy of John appears to be just that a tragedy, not the result of some inherent flaw in the family genetic code or the family outlook.

    "John obviously liked to take risks, but he did have his license, and nobody told him not to fly that night," Rainie said. "This wasn't like playing football on an icy ski slope."

    In a 1995 interview with Larry King after the George launch, Kennedy said he did fear for his own health, a rare admission of mortality for a Kennedy. But he obviously wasn't losing much sleep over it. "It's kind of it's just not something that you keep in the forefront of your mind much," he said.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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