Coming Of Age

Imagine, if you possibly can, what it's like to be John F. Kennedy Jr. You're 34 years old, not married, still looking for a career. Your mother, who protected you perhaps a little too well, has been dead for about a year. You tried being a lawyer, but it was pretty dull. So you've decided to start a political magazine called George. Never mind that 90 percent of all start-up magazines fold, and that there hasn't been a commercially successful political magazine in this century. You've always cared about politics and public service even if you're not absolutely sure you could name all the members of the president's cabinet. The executives of Hachette Filipacchi, a media conglomerate, believe in you. Or did they offer to invest $20 million for your mythic name and overexposed pectorals?

Resisting such doubts, you're sitting in the Adcraft Club of Detroit on an April morning getting ready to pitch your new magazine, watching the good crowd- 1,900 people, a few hundred less than the record audience drawn by Lee Iacocca several years earlier. Then you notice the heavy concentration of lip gloss and remember: the Adcraft Club, which normally does not invite editors of start-up magazines, has scheduled the lunch for Secretary's Day.

You play along. "I'm speaking not as a politician, but as a magazine editor," you say. "And if I do that right, I hope some day to end up as president . . . [long pause] . . . of a very successful publishing venture." The people laugh appreciatively; they want to like you. But do they take you seriously? During the Q&A, many of the index cards from the audience, which are intended for questions about the launch of your new magazine, come with home phone numbers and lipstick kisses instead. Smiling sheepishly, you make a show of tucking one card away in your pocket. The ballroom fills with delighted giggles.

It's not easy being JFK Jr. Then again, maybe it's not that hard, either. For well over a decade, the "Sexiest Man Alive," as he was dubbed by People magazine in 1988, has lived in a fantasy world many men secretly envy. For about 10 years longer than most men can get away with it, Kennedy has been able to live without real responsibility, as a bit of a slob, considerate to his (many) women, not quite sure what he wants to do, looking forward to . . . the Frisbee game in the park. Friendly, charitable to worthy causes, natural for someone in such an unnatural position, not nearly as jaded as he might be. But a little immature.

Now, apparently, he's ready to grow up. "People were only focusing on his girlfriends, whether he is going to get married. That was annoying him," says family friend Pierre Salinger. He means to be more than a dilettante at publishing. Starting up a bimonthly magazine is a difficult undertaking, no matter how much help Kennedy has. In the last year, he has been dutifully making the rounds of potential advertisers in locales, like the Adcraft Club of Detroit, that require him to shed his usual slacker garb and put on a business suit.

Still, making a success of George is not going to be easy. The magazine, light-heartedly named after George Washington, was conceived on the questionable premise that people today are excited about politicians and public service. The focus of George is not even on well-known figures, but rather on behind-the-scenes players and up-and-comers. Magazine professionals, a cynical lot, think that Kennedy would be better off putting his own face and body on the cover of every issue and calling the magazine John (box).

John F. Kennedy Jr. does not use the "F." or the "Jr." on his business card, and he introduces himself with a disarming, "Hi, I'm John." (Though not to NEWSWEEK; Kennedy declined to be interviewed.) "He's like a regular guy," says his friend Kevin Hynes, who worked with Kennedy as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan. That's the problem: John Kennedy is like a regular guy, but he isn't one. He can't be. Born less than a month after his father was elected the 35th president of the United States, he has been a public possession since infancy. When his mother, Jacqueline, favored a European-style Little Lord Fauntleroy hairstyle for her 2-year-old son, angry voters began mailing in dollar bills with instructions to get him a haircut.

Sons of famous men are infamous for not living up to their fathers. The lives of various Churchills, Roosevelts and Stalins are a wasteland of depression and exhibitionism (page 59). Relatively speaking, JFK Jr. is a model of decorum. If anything, he has been too polite, too careful. The central dilemma of young Kennedy's life is that to protect himself from public failure and exploitation, he has been reluctant to take the chances usually required to achieve success.

By the time Kennedy's father was his age--as JFK Jr. is too often reminded-he was already a U.S. congressman. Joseph Kennedy Sr. drove his boys to be forward thrusters. Jack Kennedy shook hands with his father by making a power salute; the younger Kennedy would make a fist, and the elder Kennedy would wrap his hand around it. Jackie Kennedy took a different approach with young John. She wanted him to have a worthwhile life, to do good works, but she was fiercely protective. When Bobby Kennedy was shot in 1968, Jackie was overcome with fear for her children. "I hate this country," she said. "I don't want my children to live here anymore. If they're killing Kennedys, my children are No. 1 targets." One of the attractions of Aristotle Onassis was his fortress-like island in the Aegean.

Young John was taught to safeguard his fame. He was to be at all times well mannered, to call the Secret Service agents Mister. He was shielded, for the most part, from the bacchanals of the many children of Robert F. Kennedy. John Kennedy "definitely inhaled," said a friend, and he once lost his license for speeding. But he learned to be careful around the inevitable hangers-on and paparazzi.

"He had a slight shyness, a slight uncertainty that I find refreshing," says Fred Papert, a friend of Jackie's who gave John a job at a city preservationist organization, the 42nd Street Development Corporation, in the mid-'80s. When Kennedy, then in his early 20s, was hassled by city bureaucrats, "he would just smile and shrug," says Papert. "Jackie would dole out her celebrity in a careful way, knowing perfectly well what power it had. Never letting it be overused. At heart she was a shy person. The kids are, too." JFK Jr., he says, "has picked up a lot of her parsimony."

If ever there was a target for a "My Night With. . . " tabloid confessional, it is JFK Jr. But so far, there has been none, at least nothing terribly revealing or designed to wound. For years Kennedy's girlfriends tended to be fresh-faced and wholesome, "good girls" he could bring home to Mother. That does not mean, however, that he was entirely faithful to any of them. During his long relationships with various girlfriends from Brown and Andover, he was routinely photographed emerging from late-night clubs with models and actresses. Kennedy is aware of his father's reputation as a philanderer; in college, Kennedy Jr. would turn to another channel when Marilyn Monroe came on the TV. Kennedy ills does not appear to be as coldblooded as Kennedy pore about his conquests. His ex-girlfriends demurely say that he calls, sends flowers, stays in touch. The marriage speculation, of course, never ends. A couple of years ago it was Daryl Hannah. Lately it has been Calvin Klein spokeswoman Carolyn Bessette, seen wrapped in his suntanned arms at a recent Hamptons party. "I hear he's pretty serious this time," said a former girlfriend, though she added, "you knew when you went out with him that he was dating two or three other women."

Restlessness has been a defining characteristic of JFK Jr. He takes after his father in believing that boredom is the greatest sin. He is constantly on the move, Rollerblading, hiking, dancing, throwing footballs, Nerf balls, Frisbees. As a student he was bright and curious, but erratic. He twice failed the New York State Bar exam, which measures diligence more than intelligence. THE HUNK FLUNKS, jeered the New York Post. Though a genuinely good athlete, Kennedy never lived up to his potential at team sports; as a rugby player at Brown, he missed practice too often.

Most of his athletic feats were on the fraternity quad, with his shirt off. Kennedy likes to show off his body; his schoolmates joke that he went through college draped in a towel. He went to one Halloween party dressed as Michelangelo's David, complete with fig leaf (over long underwear). He likes to be on stages of his own choosing. At college and prep school he was a natural actor, if less than dedicated. "John's problem as an actor was that he didn't take it seriously," said one of his college directors, Don Wilmeth. "He did it for fun and lacked discipline. He would work hard for short stints and then go off and lose it."

There is a slight carelessness about Kennedy. Wilmeth was struck that the young scion had to borrow a quarter every night for coffee. Like many rich people-including his own father-Kennedy often has to borrow cash, and he is sometimes forgetful about paying back. He became accustomed at an early age to getting lavish things--a speedboat, a jukebox, and a Jeep from stepfather Onassis. He does not live rich, though he can afford to buy an extra airplane seat for his guitar. Friends say his apartments, like his dress, are generally on the sloppy side.

His mother tried not to indulge him too much, and she made clear that she disapproved of a life in the theater. The law seemed like a more responsible course, but Kennedy was an indifferent lawyer. In four years, he won six trials as an assistant D.A. in Manhattan, but no one pegged him as the next Johnnie Cochran. He is much more interested in charitable work. He has contributed considerable money and time to various causes, particularly ones devoted to helping blacks. He has some of his Uncle Bobby's social conscience. Appearing on a phone-in radio show in 1989, he got a little carried away on the question of why the town of Hyannis Port, Mass., failed to do more to provide public housing. "You can start in my house," blurted Kennedy. The local housing director later had to explain that Kennedy was not being literal.

Kennedy did good works--giving his name and face to charity auctions, smiling gamely and trying to ignore the squeals from the mostly female audiences. But charity did not amount to a career. Meanwhile, his sister, Caroline, to whom he is very close, had become a legal scholar. This fall she is publishing her second book, a tome on privacy and the First Amendment. Kennedy, his friends say, felt some need to eater up.

Two years ago, while Kennedy was still an assistant D.A., he and a friend named Michael Berman decided to start a political magazine. They shopped the proposal to various small investors. The president of a small publishing house says that Kennedy came with no business plan, no marketing studies, just a somewhat vague idea, "He gave me his feelings about the marketplace, that young people are interested in politics but we don't realize it and it doesn't show up in the stats," recalls the publishing executive. The potential investor asked about a magazine article suggesting that only 15 percent of any generation find government or civic affairs interesting. Kennedy brushed him off. "It was the worst presentation I have seen in my business life," says the publishing executive. "He was like, 'I'm JFK, so there you go. ' He just knew he had this perfect idea, he was so worked up."

Over time, Kennedy's pitch became sharper and more sophisticated. In about six months, Kennedy and Berman raised $3 million -- not bad, but not enough, either. Hachette Filipacchi, which owns Elle and Premiere magazines, wooed them with a promise of heavy backing. David Pecker, Hachette's top man in America, was drawn more by Kennedy's name than by his editorial concept. "Having John Kennedy as editor in chief is going to be a big benefit to the magazine," he explains. "He has access to almost everyone."

Earlier this summer, Kennedy got a chance to try out his journalistic skills and demonstrate his access by interviewing former Alabama governor George Wallace, who had stood in the schoolhouse door three decades ago to prevent an earlier generation of Kennedys from integrating the South. Kennedy let another reporter do most of the questioning. "He was quiet and reserved and polite," says John Katopodis, a family friend who accompanied Kennedy in Alabama. At a later interview with the current governor, Fob James, Kennedy left his reporter's notebook behind. No spiral pad, the notebook was made of Italian bonded lather. It included few notes from the interview with Wallace (which was taped), but had a couple of reminders that are not found in most reporters' notebooks: instructions to call Roseanne Barr and a certain archbishop about the pope.

Kennedy plans to do a regular Q&A with the hard-to-get. But he will not reveal much about his own political opinions. Indeed, George is supposed to be nonpartisan and high-minded, like George Washington himself. When Paul Begala, a former Clinton adviser, submitted an article on how the media cover politics, Kennedy bounced the first version for being too ideological. Kennedy intends to be a hands-on editor in chief, vetting manuscripts as well as pitching advertisers. Yet it's still not clear how willing he is to play a high-profile role. His mother's own son, he does not wish to expose himself too much. He declined to give NEWSWEEK even a photo to promote his own magazine. "I just don't want to change everything about my life just because we're launching this magazine," he explained in a letter. This strategy, shrewdly conceived as a defense by Jackie and second nature to her son, John, worked to make his mother a national icon. It is less certain it will succeed for a fledgling magazine publisher who has to hustle his product.

While he was down in Alabama, "Hard Copy" was running a teaser for an upcoming show, "John Junior Takes It Off for Summer." "Kennedy just shook his head," says Katopodis. He handled most other distractions with low-key graciousness. Over dinner with an entourage at the Blue House Cafe in Alabaster, he patiently shook hands with a stream of gawkers. When his party of 14 got bumped ahead of some other diners, there were mutterings and complaints until one of the diners recognized whom they were being bumped for. She just said, "You go ahead and take all the time you need."

Kennedy has become accustomed to such forbearance. He handles it gracefully and humbly. But the time has come for Kennedy to make his mark. He already has his parents' charm and intelligence; now he needs to find their perseverance and will.