We gave it a D
To understand the opportunities squandered in Richard Blow’s American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr., one need only turn to the bottom of page 206. The author and a fellow George editor have walked into Blow’s office to find JFK Jr. watching a black-and-white video clip of JFK Sr. giving a speech. ”Once, I think, John would have quickly shut off the television if someone had come into the room while he watched his father,” writes Blow. ”Now he let us join him, and for several minutes the three of us sat without speaking and listened to JFK.” That’s it; Blow quickly moves on to a discussion of how George would cover rumors of Hillary Clinton’s Senate run.
It’s an absolutely crucial scene: the one moment in this book in which John Kennedy Jr. comes face-to-face with the father whose life and death forged his own predicament — and whose mythology continues to warp the political landscape — and Blow lets it pass without a peep, even as he spends the greater part of his tale sifting the son’s life for meaning. Presented with a context that would give his book reason to exist, Blow blinks.
But such things are the province of biography, and this is, please note, not a biography but a ”portrait” — a straightforward ticktocker of the author’s four years at George, during which he rose to the position of second-in-command. Because it is not a ”biography,” Blow is not obligated to do the things that biographers do: research, analysis, and the like. Instead, he records his impressions, and gradually the story of two naive men — one far more classy than the other — falls together.
It has to be asked, of course: Does John F. Kennedy Jr. deserve a biography? To his family and friends, certainly, he was a loved individual who, among other things, coped with the demented stresses of unasked-for fame in a manner that bespeaks Olympian ease. To the billions who did not know him, he was a prince of whom great things were expected: limitless potential with pecs to die for. But potential unfulfilled makes for a perversely hollow read. There’s no THERE in ”American Son”; the THERE was to have come later.
What we get, instead, is a flatly written account of JFK Jr.’s struggles to turn his monthly pop-culture take on politics into a viable publishing proposition. Blow arrives at George in 1995 a skeptic by his own account, but his book isn’t the predicted behind-the-scenes tell-all. No reputations are eviscerated; no choice muck is flung. Carolyn Bessette comes off as a bit of a high-maintenance racehorse, but, in the main, ”American Son” is exactly as interesting as listening to someone else’s office gossip.
Except that someone else’s boss wasn’t JFK Jr. Still, it’s a mark of Blow’s failings as a writer that he can’t even make a compelling story out of working for the ”Sexiest Man Alive” — or, more to the point, for a guy who had to go through life with everyone calling him that. There are a few spooky grace notes, notably an early scene in which John outraces the paparazzi on his bicycle, then waits in the shadows to make sure Blow and his girlfriend are all right. But for all his journalistic objectivity, Blow is ultimately as invested in the myth of Prince John-John as any gushing tabloid. ”Mother Teresa and Lady Diana represented the two extremes of John’s existence,” Blow writes. ”The call to service and the lure of celebrity.” Maybe that’s true, but the Enquirer couldn’t have put it more lubriciously.
Given his sympathies, Blow’s most damaging revelation — that Kennedy simply did not have the skill set to be a great magazine editor — seems unintended. Time and again, one is struck by JFK Jr.’s lack of killer journalistic instincts: He backs away from interviewing Oliver Stone, Chelsea Clinton, and Spike Lee; he cans a well-reported story on a political consultant’s spousal abuse yet runs a piece by the mother of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin that is widely derided. There is the infamous editor’s letter in which he posed near-nude and (contrary to the press’ interpretation) defended his cousins’ bad behavior. And there is an astounding moment when Kennedy responds to the Monica Lewinsky media furor in front of Blow by exploding, ”Why the hell should the president have to justify himself to the press?”
Anyone who asks such a question has no business running a political magazine. And anyone who would let that question go unchallenged, even unexplored, has no business writing a book.