When QAnon followers began fixating on John F. Kennedy, Jr. about five years ago, his friends became aware slowly then all at once. Twitter messages, the first mainstream articles on the group, and strange texts alerted them to what only years prior would have seemed too bizarre to be real: right wing extremists were claiming John, the late Kennedy, as their own. In November, hundreds gathered at Dallas’s Dealey Plaza, the site of President Kennedy’s murder, believing that John Jr., who died in 1999, would appear and eventually serve as running mate to Donald Trump in 2024. Many of them had been there for weeks. They left empty-handed.
News coverage of QAnon supporters largely focuses on either the electoral power the group could hold or the ridiculousness of their claims, like the idea that a powerful cohort of child sex-traffickers is controlling politics and the media. What seems to be lost is the cruelty the lies inflict on a human level. How grotesque it is to imagine the reemergence of a brother, cousin, and friend lost tragically and to situate it at the site of his father’s murder.
Brian Williams spoke out powerfully against the conspiracies in the last days of his MSNBC show 11th Hour. “The Kennedy and Bessette families deserve our respect and our sorrow after their staggering loss,” Williams said on air in November 2021. “They do not deserve the circus of lost souls that is now soiling the sacred place in American presidential history.” He is one the few journalists who has acknowledged how painful the rhetoric must be for the survivors of John, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and Lauren Bessette.
“What happened in Dallas was a tragic cult circus. The stories of individuals who have spent their savings and left their families to seek ‘belonging’ in a group of the like-minded were sad enough. That they flocked to Dallas to ‘witness the return’ of John Jr.—so that he could be Trump's running mate in 2024—is beyond pathetic,” he tells Town & Country. “I could not help but see it as a personal story. The Bessette family lost two daughters, Carolyn and Lauren. Lauren left behind a twin sister, Lisa. Who speaks for them? Who, among the deeply troubled masses in Dallas—driven by grievance or emptiness to embrace a laughable fantasy—would want to trade places with a family that buried two children? The Kennedys, so often referred to as ‘American Royalty’ have paid a staggering price for their place among our nation's aristocracy.”
Williams’s words inspired the only public response to QAnon from a member of the Kennedy family, with Maria Shriver, a cousin of John, tweeting, “Well said, Brian Williams. He’s right, you never get over these losses. I know many others struggle with theirs, as well. Go kindly into the days.”
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Behind the scenes, those who were close to John have struggled with how to react to the painful lies. Speaking out seems unwise, if not dangerous. Some have already faced online harassment. “I don’t want a bunch of crazies coming after me. I’ve had that experience before. It’s not fun,” a friend tells me, explaining why they aren’t comfortable going on the record. “On the one hand, I think it’s completely comical. On the other, there are very few people who had as much respect for the political process as John did. To me, I fundamentally believe in my heart that if John lived he actually probably would’ve been president himself one day.”
Friends vacillate between disbelief and anger when encountering the QAnon claims. “When I first read [about] it. I figured it had to be a mistake. It was so absurd. It was so shocking that I simply had trouble comprehending and believing that it could even possibly be true. Then, once it was on my radar screen, it would pop up on Facebook and various other social media platforms. Initially it just made me sick,” says Dr. Steve Gillon, a history professor at University of Oklahoma who befriended John at Brown University. “Now, I’m just resigned to the fact that we live in crazy times… They could not have picked a person whose ideas were so different from theirs and whose goal in life, bringing people together and finding common ground, was so different from everything that they’re doing.”
Conspiracy theories have plagued the Kennedy family for generations. Trump himself has dabbled in them, on multiple occasions accusing Senator Ted Cruz’s father of associating with Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. This ranks right up there with the most outlandish of ones that have come before.
Where did it all start? A friend says he first started seeing John’s name associated with QAnon around 2018. The postings of the anonymous Q first surfaced in 2017 on the message board 4Chan and its offshoot 8Chan. In the summer of 2018, the Daily Beast reported that a poster had theorized that John faked his death to escape political enemies. The Washington Post began covering the QAnon myths shortly after. At this point, two different men are believed by QAnon supporters to be JFK Jr. living under aliases.
“This [situation] is particularly strange because there were always random, seemingly unstable people who were delusional about John. Some were more aggressive than others when he was alive, but it wasn’t a cabal of people. It wasn’t an entire group,” a close friend explains. “Are we supposed to forget that they were actually real people? A comparison would be, ‘How would you feel, you all who think John and Carolyn are alive and you’re parading these photos around, how would you feel if one of your dead loved ones was hijacked and this was all very public saying that they were still alive? It’s hard to believe that 23 years later, we’re having a conversation about people saying that they’re still alive, [and] even promoting that it’s true.”
There can be an impulse to try to find gallows humor in the situation. “Somebody wrote me something about how John was coming back from the dead in Dallas, when Trump was there. I just wrote this note and I said, clearly, these people don’t know John, because John never shows up on time,” says Gillon. But levity can be hard to maintain. What people close to him find particularly disturbing is the distance between what QAnon represents and John’s values. “I think John would’ve been horrified to see where the country has gone in the 23 years since he passed away,” one says.
That the world John lived in was so jarringly different from that of today (and of our future) adds an additional level of heartbreak. “I take the long-term perspective as an historian, and what I worry about is in 25 years from now, when someone does a search on the circuit that’s in their brain, that’s now connected to the internet, they won’t remember who John was and they won’t have any sense of the nuance. There’s not many of us around who understood his character, nuances of his personality. And over time, we will soon be gone and then John will be a memory. He’ll be something that people look up online to learn about,” Gillon says.
Ironically, it was George, the magazine John started in 1995, that seized upon the increasing overlap between politics and celebrity that led to Trump’s ascendance. There’s no doubt that John knew Trump but he hardly could have imagined the trajectory Trump's life would take. “The funny thing is John sort of liked Trump. I mean, this was long before he was a threat to humanity. I don’t think he ever could have contemplated Trump being president,” a friend says. “I think he found Trump amusing.”
The two were acquainted from New York social and philanthropy circles and Trump once visited the George office. In 2016, Michael Berman, John’s partner in George, spoke about a visit he, John and George advertisers made to Mar-a-Lago, the New York Post reported. John was asked if he could see himself living at the White House for a second time. “I think you should be asking those questions of Donald,” Berman recalled him saying. “He’d clearly have the most extravagant winter White House.” (Palm Beach was not unknown to John. A Floridian compound was purchased in 1933 by his grandfather Joseph P. Kennedy and was a frequent refuge for the family during his father’s presidency. Like Mar-a-Lago, it too was known as the winter White House.)
A close friend of John’s believes that the association stems from a photo of John and Trump seated, by happenstance, next to one another at a Knicks game. John stares ahead at the court while Trump leans in toward him. In 2019, the photo was posted to Facebook with the egregiously false claim that in an issue of George John had said, “If my dear friend Donald Trump ever decided to sacrifice his fabulous billionaire lifestyle to become president he would be an unstoppable force for ultimate justice that Democrats and Republicans alike would celebrate.” The quote was falsely attributed to the June 1999 issue of the magazine, one of the last published before John's death.
It's also been suggested that QAnon members may have aligned John with Trump because they imagine him to have had an adversarial relationship with Hillary Clinton. In 1998, when New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan announced he would retire after the end of his term, many believed that John would seek his seat. He never publicly indicated any interest in the position and Clinton was elected in 2000, though many have suggested that he harbored resentment. “John watched with growing dismay as Hillary subtly insinuated herself into what he considered his state,” wrote author Laurence Leamer in his 2004 book Sons of Camelot: The Fate of an American Dynasty. In October 2020, an Instagram user called Conspiraceye posted side by side shots of Kennedy and Clinton. “When Daniel Moynihan decided to retire his Senate seat, JKF Jr. claimed he was interested in running for that seat. Days later, Hilary [sic] Clinton also decided to run for the open seat. Within months of Clintons announcement, JFK Jr.’s private plane went missing.”
The overriding sentiment from those who knew John seems to be a simple inability to understand how anyone could possibly believe the claims. “Are people eventually going to think that he was this made-up character in the Trump universe? It’s so disheartening,” a close friend says. “It’s a disconnect from humanity and I wonder if those people who went to Dallas and stood there and waited, did they really believe he was coming back? If they did, it's terrifying and if they didn't, it's cruel.” There’s no clear recourse for those struggling with this. A cease and desist or defamation lawsuit may not be as effective against this type of a loosely tied group, and the media is unlikely to stop covering the rallies any time soon. Trump has yet to publicly endorse any QAnon theories around John. But he also hasn’t debunked them. “Out of respect for his family, his friends and his memory, wouldn’t you, at some point, denounce it and try to put a stop to it when you know you can?” asks the friend, who, like others, is struggling to understand how we got to this place.
She’s not alone. Brian Williams signed off from MSNBC on December 9, after 28 years working under the NBC umbrella, saying, “My biggest worry is for my country.” It was likely that same sentiment that called him to sound the alarm on QAnon less than a month earlier, on the 58th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination. “This was me speaking as a husband and parent of two children,” he told Town & Country in December. “The Kennedys have been the target of conspiracy theories since the motorcade screeched to a halt at the Emergency Room entrance of Parkland Hospital on November 22 of 1963. Dealey Plaza in Dallas is our national bullet wound. It has always attracted both the curious and unbalanced. But this is different. Because our language has been forcibly stripped of any wording that would cause harm, while my colleagues in the mainstream media covered the QAnon gathering in Dallas, few were willing to call it what it is: pitiful, morbid, hurtful insanity.”
Many have noted how at odds QAnon’s practice of sowing political division is with the Kennedy ideals. In late May, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation along with the family will award the yearly Profiles in Courage Award to five recipients, among them President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, Representative Liz Cheney, and three state officials who helped maintain election integrity in 2020. The honors, which have been given out since 1989, single out political courage; this year’s theme is defending democracy. In announcing the recipients, Caroline Kennedy said, “There is no more important issue facing our country—and the world—today than the fight for democracy.”