Extra search effort was 'the right thing'
By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff, 07/22/99
WASHINGTON - Nearly 36 years ago, when Bill Clinton shook President Kennedy's hand and decided he would try to be president, John F. Kennedy Jr. was not yet 3 years old. Four months later, President Kennedy was assassinated and his son didn't return to the White House residence - until President Clinton invited him in March 1998.
Yesterday, after somberly recounting this story, Clinton made no apology for acting as commander in chief in the search for the bodies of Kennedy, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, acknowledging that he ordered the Coast Guard to take a few days longer than usual to complete the job. Clinton said he believed the nation would understand that he wanted to spare no expense in helping a family so familiar with tragedy.
''If anyone believes that was wrong, the Coast Guard is not at fault, I am,'' Clinton said at a White House news conference dominated by questions about the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. ''It was because I thought it was the right thing to do under the circumstances.'' Clinton said he didn't get involved in the rescue or search effort at first. But at one point, he said, Coast Guard officials told him they would normally end their search, but they urged him to allow more time because of the availability of advanced equipment and the national interest in finding the bodies.
''The Coast Guard felt a capacity to succeed in this, if they had a few more days, and because of the role of the Kennedy family in our national lives and because of the enormous losses they have sustained in our lifetimes, I thought it was appropriate to give them a few more days,'' Clinton said.
In keeping with the way the Clinton and Kennedy sagas have intertwined over the years, an emotional Clinton took a long, deliberate walk through the White House hallway to meet an assemblage of reporters waiting in the same East Room often used by former President Kennedy. In what amounted to an impromptu eulogy, Clinton recalled playing a small role in helping the younger Kennedy ''come to terms'' with the death of his father.
''He came back to the Oval Office, where he saw the desk that he took the famous picture in,'' Clinton said, referring to the photograph of the younger Kennedy peering from beneath his father's desk. Clinton has been using that desk in the Oval Office.
Later, on a March 8, 1998, visit, Clinton offered Kennedy a tour of the White House residence.
''So I took him upstairs and showed him the residence, which he had not seen since he was a tiny boy,'' Clinton said. ''And I showed him some of my memorabilia that I had from his father's service ... we had a very nice evening and I sent him pictures from it.''
Clinton said the visit was cathartic for Kennedy, who grew up with many pictures and stories about his father, but relatively few firm memories about his time at the White House.
''I think that he really wanted to come to terms with all of it,'' Clinton said, leaving unspoken the fact that he and the nation are now trying to come to terms with the death of President Kennedy's son.
Throughout his presidency, Clinton has often grieved publicly. He has dealt with the death of his mother and the suicide of his deputy counsel, Vincent Foster, and mourned the victims of tragedies such as the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
Yesterday, the president made clear the death of the 38-year-old son of President Kennedy had severed a treasured relationship, and he made no apology for the extra government expense taken to try to find the bodies. Clinton said he first met the younger Kennedy when Kennedy was an intern at a law firm in Los Angeles ''and we have been together on many occasions since then.''
''The thing that struck me was ... he was a very deliberate person, as many people have noticed,'' Clinton said. ''He had his mother's care for having a private life. And I'm not sure he wanted to go back to the White House before he did. But, especially in light of everything that's happened, I'm glad he had the chance to come back here one more time and see the residence and know where he was when he was a little boy. I'm glad he did that. I'm grateful that happened.''
The National Transportation Safety Board notified the White House at 2:30 a.m. yesterday that the fuselage and at least one body, believed to have been Kennedy's, had been located, but Clinton aides decided against waking the president. Instead, they briefed him at 9:15 a.m., but the president apparently had already heard the news on the morning television shows.
Clinton delayed his 2 p.m. news conference by 30 minutes yesterday to receive a briefing about the discovery of two more bodies.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, in her weekly newspaper column distributed yesterday, wrote: ''The John Kennedy I met at the White House was elegant and eloquent - a man who had lost so much as a child, but who went on to live a life filled with love, adventure, accomplishment and, as he said, `relative normalcy.'''
This story ran on page A9 of the Boston Globe on 07/22/99.
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