What Was Lost When John F. Kennedy Jr. Died

0727_john_f_kennedy_jr
John F. Kennedy Jr. sits in a rowboat with his father, President John F. Kennedy, on Bailey's Beach in Newport, Rhode Island September 15, 1963. Robert Knudsen/Office of the Naval Aide to the President/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library/Handout/Reuters

As Democrats prepared for a scorching Philadelphia night during which delegates were to formally give Hillary Clinton the 2016 presidential nomination, a small audience sat in a chilled room and considered what might have been.

Spike TV’s elegiac documentary I AM JFK JR.: The Lost Contender? is a time capsule of the pre-9/11 era, when Americans still retained a small capacity for political hero worship. It had its premiere at a gathering hosted by Politico that was haunted from the opening shots by the beauty and lost promise of John F. Kennedy Jr., whose death in July 1999 eliminated the last star-quality progressive political contender.

He would have turned 56 this year, making him a few years older than Obama but half a generation younger than Donald Trump and Clinton.

Because we know the ending, the opening shot is heartbreaking: President-elect John F. Kennedy and wife Jackie caught on camera in November 1960, “My wife and I prepare for a new administration and uh, for a new baby,” Kennedy says. Then there’s John-John in short pants, crawling under the Oval Office desk, followed by Kodachrome shots of kids frolicking on the White House lawn, sailing, and then the boy saluting the casket.

CNN’s Chris Cuomo, a friend of JFK Jr., narrates, along with other friends including Christiane Amanpour. Robert DeNiro (who met Kennedy in a Tribeca gym) and Cindy Crawford (who met him when he put her on the cover of his magazine, George, dressed as George Washington) and Mike Tyson are among the celebs who make cameo appearances.

“He was the closest thing we had to a crown prince,” Cuomo says.

The elegy is a time capsule of the decades before 9/11, from jet setting on Skorpios to the Reagan era and on to the Bill Clinton impeachment.

There was nothing normal about the life of JFK Jr. There he is as a teenager beside the Dalai Lama, faux-boxing Muhammad Ali, backstage with the Stones, and then impossibly handsome as a grown man in a suit, People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive”  in the 1990s, talking to Charlie Rose and Tom Brokaw and Oprah about his new magazine.

And he seems normal. “How he retained his soul after hundreds of thousands of photos was remarkable,” says Democratic consultant Paul Begala, also in the film.

Just what a cool customer he was is brought home by this scene: A few years before he died, he faced the paparazzi and press  on Fifth Avenue just hours after his mother’s death dry-eyed, speaking unemotionally and in perfect boarding school diction for himself and his sister, asking politely for a few days to be left alone. How’d he do that?

“I just learned from my family, you don't wallow in death, you hold it inside,” Cuomo, who played flag football with him later that afternoon in Central Park, quotes him as saying.

At a panel discussion after the screening of the film, Begala was asked about a parallel universe: one where the crown prince of Democratic Party politics hadn’t perished in the Atlantic fog on a summer night 17 years ago: “Is this the year he would have run for president?”

The Clinton surrogate hedged. “I do think he would have run for office,” he said. “I feel quite sure he would have run in New York. He was thinking about it in 2000 when Hillary wound up running.”

The film will be aired on Spike TV on August 1 at 9 p.m. ET.