Jack Ohman

Editorial cartoonist, writer and Joe King’s alter ego

How many times do we have to pry into a Kennedy’s life?

09/11/2013 12:00 AM

09/10/2013 6:25 PM

The New York Post, a publication once founded by Alexander Hamilton but now apparently run by a bunch of voyeurs, has somehow come into possession of a 398-page diary from 2001 written by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

This is not going to be a defense of what Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote about, which was a very personal dissection of what is clearly a sex addiction. There are moments of profound pain that pour out of the pages, as well as candid descriptions of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Again, Kennedy has his own opinion of these people, which he shared with his journal and not The New York Post. The Post got it, by who knows what means, and now the contents are out there for everybody with an internet connection.

I know it’s a lot of fun to gang up on celebrities when they’re down. I have done it myself. I don’t enjoy it. It’s rather difficult, in this media culture, to just ignore sleazy subjects (Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton…you name it). I wish that we didn’t have to know about their proclivities, as long as they haven’t somehow interfered with the discharge of their public duties. In Spitzer’s case, which I view as the most flagrant (prosecuting prostitution while engaging in same), I really do think that his particular case should keep him from further elective service. In Anthony Weiner’s case, it’s bad judgment. In Bill Clinton’s case, it’s massively bad judgment.

In Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s case, this is truly a case of none of our business.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is not an elected public official. He is a private citizen who is a public policy advocate. He is a public figure, no doubt. That doesn’t rise to the threshold of allowing the New York Post to run his deepest thoughts, fears, demons, and desires. Period.

But let us consider the life of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and what he has experienced. Yes, he is the son of one of the icons of the 1960s. And, of course, his uncle is President Kennedy. Those two names alone opened a lot of doors for Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and he certainly had many advantages in life: fame, good looks, money, perceived power, a great education, many friends, and a large supportive family.

No one really thinks about what Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has endured.

Let’s say your father was murdered on national television, for starters, when you were 14 years old. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. could walk into any store in the United States when he was 14 and see his father’s bloody head in every news magazine and on every network television program. I was alive then. I saw it, too. It was hard enough for me and millions of other people to process, but your own dad? Oh, and your uncle, the sainted late president, was also murdered in a car in the street. You could see his head blowing up in color in Life Magazine, in books, and, later, on every upper cable channel every night, if you so chose.

Might that have an effect on your future behavior?

Do you think that maybe you’d be damaged? Maybe you’d need therapy? Maybe you’d do things to mitigate your pain? My father’s father died when he was 14, and my father said poignantly at the end of his life that “you don’t know how goddamned bad that is until way later.” No question.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was hooked on heroin as a young man. He was a serious stoner. He was, by some accounts, not that pleasant to be around sometimes. I get that. We are all flawed. I know I am.

I met Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., once.

I was asked to drive him from Portland State University to his hotel when he was doing an alumni event. I introduced him to a large crowd that had gathered to hear him, and he was a very effective and engaging speaker. It was probably about 2001. I found him to be cordial, decent, and polite.

As I was driving him to the hotel, I noted that my eldest son had read his father’s book, Thirteen Days, a diary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. If you ever get into the mood to make fun of Jack or Bobby Kennedy, read it. They managed to avoid killing every single person on the planet, even while they were engaged in extramarital affairs. Let’s keep some of their behavior in perspective as well.

When I mentioned this to Robert F. Kennnedy, Jr., he smiled. “That’s great,” he said with a small sad smile. “My father loved young people, and I’m glad he’s still reaching them.” We discussed the movie Thirteen Days, and I remarked that I thought the actor who played his father was very good.

He said, “Oh, I didn’t think so, but Bruce Greenwood had my Uncle Jack down cold.”

His Uncle Jack.

There was something I wanted to say to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., too.

“I hope this isn’t upsetting to you. When I was seven, I went to your father’s burial at Arlington. I was very close to you. I could see the gravesite, and the coffin drove right by my family. It was a very profound event for me.”

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., could have said virtually anything, but he said, “Wow. You know, every day, mostly when I’m in Boston, some really old person will come up to me and said, “I knew your fathah!” It doesn’t bother me, and it makes me feel good that he is still in people’s hearts.” We discussed a few other subjects, like the fact that I had interviewed an 85-year-old Gene McCarthy, and that he was still mad about how RFK campaigned in the 1968 Oregon primary with his dog.

“Oh, I will have to tell my mother. That’s rich. She’ll love that.”

Now, I don’t want to make excuses for anyone. But think about it. His father and his uncle were taken from this now-59 year old man, who had to grow him in a fatherless family. This man is now middle aged, melancholic, conflicted, had a very messed up marriage to a woman named Mary, and she committed suicide. She also was very sad and troubled, too. And we should feel sorry for her as well and her family. It’s all very dreadful. And I wasn’t inside their marriage. And God knows that lots of other Kennedy family members have gotten themselves into all manner of embarrassing situations, or worse. I am not defending any of it. We all know people and families who have also had embarrassments and horrors. Bad judgment is bad judgment.

But I can tell you one other thing, too.

He called his wife while I was standing there. He loved her. You could tell. I think they had just had a baby. He was very happy-sounding. For a moment, he probably forgot his pain.

But just for a moment.

I felt like I was in a moment I shouldn’t have been in.

Have you ever accidentally or on purpose read someone’s diary? Were there things in it that made you sad or uncomfortable? Would you want your own diary on the internet? Would you want to see your father killed when you were 14? Would you like to hear everyone in the United States making jokes about how screwed up you were?

I didn’t think so.

About This Blog

Jack Ohman joined The Sacramento Bee in 2013. He previously worked at the Oregonian, the Detroit Free Press and the Columbus Dispatch. His work is syndicated to more than 200 newspapers by Tribune Media Services. Jack has won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the Scripps Foundation Award and the national SPJ Award, and he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 and the Herblock Prize in 2013. Contact Jack at johman@sacbee.com. Twitter: @JACKOHMAN.

 

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