August 5th, 2020


'A Simple Accident?' Perhaps, But Not A Political Sliding Door

Bill Whalen

By Bill Whalen

Published July 18, 2019

Caroline Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr. circa 1996 in New York City.

In news not concerning presidential tweeting, we're experiencing a wave of Camelot nostalgia courtesy of the 20th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's Jr.'s fatal plane crash (July 16 also being the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11's lift-off and, more ominously, the 229th anniversary of a plot of land along the Potomac River being designated as the future seat of the federal government).

Some of the Kennedy remembrances have been touching — for example, a television documentary on JFK Jr.'s clandestine wedding off the coast of Georgia that included behind-the-scenes footage of the couple and a ceremony brilliantly kept out of the paparazzi's reach.

Other recollections are a tad more curious — for example, Carole Radziwell's Daily Mail column describing the moment as "a simple accident. A single engine plane fell out of the sky into the ocean."

It wasn't that innocent, as the entire story involves pilot error and a reckless decision to fly into disorienting evening haze (two years later, the Kennedy family reached a settlement in the crash that also claimed the lives of JFK Jr.'s wife and sister-in-law);

Ironically, as is usually the case with remembrances of President Kennedy and conversations that lead us into lamenting a shocking death and unfilled potential, there's also a political aspect to the abbreviated life of his namesake son: would JFK Jr. have sought political office? If so, how far would he have climbed?

That, we'll never know. But one thing I wouldn't call the Kennedy plane crash: a turning point in American political history.

Maybe Hillary Clinton still makes it to the U.S. Senate (some assume Kennedy had an interest in the same line of work as his father and two uncles — if so, it would have put him on a collision course with Hillary), just as Andrew Cuomo maybe still manages to become governor of New York (Kennedy's other political path could have taken him to Albany, if he preferred the executive side of government).

Here are six other dates either soon before or soon-to-well-after Kennedy's plane crash that arguably have had a deeper impact on our political landscape.

October 8, 1998. The U.S. House of Representatives votes, 258-176, to begin an impeachment inquiry into then-President Bill Clinton (31 Democrats siding with majority Republicans to trigger the process).  

The significance? The most ardent of today's House Democrats want to use that precedent to do the same to President Trump. Just as Speaker Pelosi looks at the outcome of those proceedings — Clinton was impeached by the House but not convicted by the Senate — and worries about the political repercussionsgoing into an election year.

Just as an escalation of tensions with Iran will lead to a review of the leadup to war with Iraq, look for the media to revisit the House's choices in 1998 should the Trump impeachment train start to leave the station.

December 12, 2000. In addition to being the birthday of Rory Kennedy, whose wedding was the reason why JFK Jr. took that fatal flight, it's also the day that the Supreme Court rendered its verdict in Bush v. Gore and the presidential election results in Florida.

Where to begin in a world that includes President Al Gore?

Does the U.S. still invade Iraq (assuming there's still a 9/11)? Does Congress still flip to the Democrats, or does a long Gore presidency only pad the GOP's numbers.

And the 2008 election: assuming the same bad economy coinciding with the final months of a Gore Administration, good luck extending 16 years of Democratic administrations.

July 27, 2004. Speaking of the 2008 election, it's on this day four years earlier that a little-known Senate candidate from Illinois delivers the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

The Barack Obama on display that evening gave America its first whiff of the politics of hope ("That is the true genius of America," Obama declared, "a faith in the simple dreams of its people, the insistence on small miracles").

And a future president with a fondness for the first-person singular had no trouble talking about . . . well, himself ("My parents shared not only an improbable love; they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or "blessed", believing that in a tolerant America your name in no barrier to success").

Perhaps Obama still makes it to the Oval Office without that prime-time appearance. But that speech not only electrified a crowd, it can also be seen as the soft launch of "Obamamania" — and a presidential campaign that, in essence, began that night.

October 3, 2008. On this date, O.J. Simpson is found guilty of charges of kidnapping and armed robbery — and President George W. Bush signs legislation allowing the U.S. Treasury to put its proposed Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) into effect.

In the years since, there's been a healthy debate over how TARP was constructed (should money have been provided to banks with more strings attached?).

The political consequences? To some, TARP is the true starting point for the Tea Party movement, not the Obama stimulus. Without that populist resentment, is there still a Trump presidency? And it's her dogged, rhetorically charged pursuit of big banks bolstered by TARP that starts Elizabeth Warren on a course that currently has her in presidential primary states.

April 30, 2011. On this date, a reality-television star attends that year's White House Correspondents Dinner only to find himself the butt of presidential jokes.

But Donald Trump was no ordinary television star. And some contend that it's this moment — Obama making light of Trump's fascination with "birther" conspiracy theories — that's the true genesis of Trump's presidential run.

Only Trump can tell you how much animus he holds toward his predecessor. But if the former British ambassador to America is correct in his assertion that Trump abandoned the Iran nuclear deal simply to spite Obama, then the 2011 date takes on even more significance.

June 23, 2016. Another Trump preview: on this date, U.K. voters choose to leave the European Community ("Brexit" turnout approached 72%, with "leave" prevailing, 51.9%-48.1%).

This event is still playing out.

Boris Johnson is likely to be the next prime minister, when the results of the Tory leadership contest are announced next week; already, he reportedly is considering a plan to suspend Parliament in October to force through a no-deal Brexit without Parliament's consent (Parliament's failed three times to approve a Brexit deal).

And there's the question of the U.K.'s future relationship with its former European Union partners (Germany, for example).

How long could that drama play out?

Probably longer than a Trump presidency, which at best has a shelf life of another five-and-a-half years.

But longer than the what-if's and could-have-been's of Kennedy nostalgia?

Let's hope not.