President Clinton and the first lady used different forums yesterday to recall John F. Kennedy Jr.'s return visits to the White House.
At a news conference in the East Wing, the president said Kennedy had not been back to the White House after his father was killed until 1994, when he came as a member of an advisory committee on education issues. (That claim was refuted yesterday by CNBC'S Christopher Matthews, who said Kennedy told him that he visited the White House in 1971.) Kennedy and his wife, Carolyn, were also at the White House in March 1998 to attend an event celebrating an HBO series on the Apollo space program.
In her syndicated weekly newspaper column, Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote of the same event, one that was all the more poignant given the week's 30th anniversary of the moon landing.
The first lady quoted extensively from JFK Jr.'s speech at the HBO event: "In hindsight, the choice looked obvious, but at the time, it was, in a very real sense, President Kennedy's alone, made against the opposition of conservatives who thought the priority should be warheads. . . .
"Today there is an American flag on a windless plain on the moon, because the challenge to explore space stirred something deep and indelible in the American character."
Hillary Clinton said in her column she would "never forget" Kennedy's final White House visit. "The John Kennedy I met at the White House was elegant and eloquent--a man who had lost so much as a child, but who went on to live a life filled with love, adventure, accomplishment and, as he said, 'relative normalcy.' "
At his news conference, President Clinton recalled how he asked Kennedy and his wife afterward if they would like to go upstairs.
"And so I took him upstairs and showed him the residence, which he'd not seen since he was a tiny boy. And I showed him some of . . . the memorabilia that I had from his father's service.
"I have a picture of his father speaking to the Irish parliament and a number of other things, which he thought were--it was very interesting . . . We had a very nice evening. And I sent him the pictures from it.
"And then, in return, he sent me a signed copy of his favorite picture of his father, which is now upstairs. It's John Kennedy campaigning in Virginia, in Charlottesville, in 1960. It's quite a lovely picture, interesting picture. But it was a nice night." In a difficult week, it seemed a story worth telling, too.
The president recalled John F. Kennedy Jr. as "a very deliberate person, as many people have noticed, about . . . when he would be publicly exposed and all of that. He had his mother's care for having a private life. . . .
"I'm glad he had the chance to come back here one more time and see the residence."
CAPTION: John F. Kennedy Jr., Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and President Clinton at the White House in 1998.