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In this October 1962 file photo provided by the White House, President John F. Kennedy, left, claps time as his children Caroline, center, and John, Jr. dance in the Oval Office. (The Canadian Press)
In this October 1962 file photo provided by the White House, President John F. Kennedy, left, claps time as his children Caroline, center, and John, Jr. dance in the Oval Office. (The Canadian Press)

John Doyle: JFK Jr. documentary lends perspective to modern politics Add to ...

It’s America’s week. On Tuesday, the whole world will be gripped by the election of another Clinton or a rogue businessman. Either a dynasty being forged or a seismic shift in the history of presidential politics in the United States.

It’s a good time to think about dynasties and the nature of political ambition and celebrity in the United States and, by chance, we have an excellent outlet for that.

I Am JFK Jr. (Monday 8 p.m. on Super Channel and on-demand starting Tuesday) is a new, first-rate documentary, made by Canadians, about the short life and times of John F. Kennedy Jr. It opens with this on the screen: “A Tribute to a Good Man.”

Mainly, it is that – a look at, and celebration of, someone born into great fame and tragedy and with enormous expectations. Someone who eventually said, “I’d rather be a good man.”

We get the history, of course. There’s much archival footage of little John John, as he was known as a boy, playing in the White House or on his father’s knee and the iconic image of him saluting at his assassinated father’s funeral.

That was burned into the U.S. consciousness and, as one CNN journalist who knew him says, “The message was: ‘Do nothing ordinary, you are destined for greatness.’” And that message was very hard to resist. Others who knew him, some famous and some who simply knew him as a college student, say people projected their hopes and dreams onto him. Some marvel at how he was able to retain his soul when he was the centre of so much attention and constantly photographed and it was so clear that so many people were in awe of him.

Christiane Amanpour, who shared a house for a couple of years with JFK Jr. and others at Brown University, marvels at his ease with the fame and attention. Amanpour has a great anecdote about John taking her on a wild night of carousing with Hunter S. Thompson and, in the midst of it, when they were all tipsy, she turned to him and said, “‘John, do you want to be president?’ And he laughed and replied, ‘Just shut up, Chrissie.’”

Behind that, there was the reality, we are told, of his mother’s approach to raising him and his sister. His mother understood the wages of celebrity and Jacqueline Onassis was insistent on keeping John and Caroline away from the Kennedy family. She would put them at the ends of the earth to do so. They were a political family and hers wasn’t.

John suffered through the indignities of New York tabloid coverage when he failed his bar exams and had to take them again. “The Hunk Flunks” declared a tabloid. He dated women and legends grew about his romantic encounters. The press got it wrong, mostly, we’re told. He had a one-night stand with Madonna, probably, but many of the rumours were about women who were simply in the same room or restaurant as him. When he said, “I’d rather be a good man,” he meant that he wanted to be a good and caring man to his friends, partners and his family.

His marriage to Carolyn Bessette was good, people say, but Bessette could be deeply unhappy about the lack of privacy and there is one powerful scene of a deeply upset John pleading with an army of paparazzi to just leave them alone.

When he co-founded the glossy magazine George, which tackled politics and pop culture, he found a métier he enjoyed and a way to be on the fringe of politics without direct involvement. John F. Kennedy Jr. died in a 1999 private-plane crash in which his wife and sister-in-law were also killed. At the time, he was trying desperately to save the magazine.

Some say that, at that point in his life, he was more interested in political office than he let on. Others say he was always wary of it. What the documentary, made by Steve Burgess and Derik Murray, asserts is that what interested him most of all was being a decent, honest person. One can scoff, but it puts this week in American politics into a certain perspective.

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Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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