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Jewish World Review July 21, 1999 /8 Av 5759

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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When your name is
JFK jr., how do you
choose to use it? --
THE PHONE MESSAGE -- this was well over a year ago -- said that the woman was calling "on behalf of John F. Kennedy Jr." That tends to get your attention -- which, I am certain, was the point. Someone leaves a phone message like that, the call is going to be returned.

Which, of course, this one was. Kennedy, along with the editors of his political magazine, George, had come up with an idea. They wanted to ask 250 Americans to write short essays about how to make our country better. Each person was being requested to think of one aspect of American life that could use improving -- and how that improvement should come about. Sort of a patchwork plan for the next century.

Now, were most people to have such an idea -- get 250 Americans to write these essays -- they might or might not succeed in persuading the 250 to do it. When your name is John F. Kennedy Jr., your chances are better. So the calls went out. And those who were asked, for the most part, said yes.

The Americans who helped out came from different lines of work and from all along the political spectrum. There was Quincy Jones, there was Phyllis Schlafly, there was Dan Rather, there was Martina Navratilova; there was Pat Robertson, Sean "Puffy" Combs, Rob Reiner, Ross Perot. Isaac Stern, George McGovern, Mo Vaughn, Tim Russert; Eric Bogosian, Robert Schuller, Stephen Breyer, Garry Wills.

There were a lot of people you've heard of and some you probably haven't, and it's a pretty good bet that the thing that got the majority of them to do this -- none of the contributors was paid for his or her work -- was that the invitation came from the man it came from.

Which -- and this is the point here today -- is not such a bad thing. If you have a name that strangers are familiar with, you can use that name in just about every way possible. You can use it to get the best table at the hottest restaurant, you can use it to swing business deals, you can use it for the most trivial and transitory of pleasures. Celebrities can and do use their names for those kinds of things all the time.

So it's sort of nice when a person who has a name 100 percent of the country knows -- a person who can use that name any way he wants -- uses it on a project designed to come up with ideas to make the United States a better place as the new century gets ready to begin.

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When the book that Kennedy and his associates at George put together -- it is called "250 Ways to Make America Better" -- came out a few months ago, I decided not to mention it in print. Even though none of us in the book is profiting from it, I thought some readers might feel I was plugging something in which I had a vested interest; also, the publishing executive at Villard Books in charge of this project is a man who has edited several of my own books, which I thought might be another potential conflict.

A few weeks ago, when I wrote a column about a call to get computers out of the classrooms because children up to the 8th-grade level would do better with traditional learning than by spending time playing with computer screens, I credited the idea to an essay written by Jonathan Karl. The essay was from "250 Ways to Make America Better," although I didn't say so at the time; I still wanted to stay away from praising a book that I'm part of.

But as the events of recent days have unfolded, and I've thought about John F. Kennedy Jr., it has occurred that perhaps his instinct to put together a project like this is worth people knowing about. Kennedy wrote the introduction for the book; he said that what he was hoping to do was assemble "a convergence of ideas as diverse as the great drama of public life in America." He didn't want contentiousness for contentiousness' own sake, he wrote; instead, he wanted to portray "a cross section of opinion as wide as the Grand Canyon, while leaving the boxing gloves at home."

Many things, some full of praise, some not, are being said about Kennedy this week. At least a small corner of his legacy might be reserved for this part of him -- for the part that knew he could use his name in any way he wished, and decided to use that name in an attempt to come up with some plans to make his country a better place, both for now and for long after all of us are gone.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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