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Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg

Champion of civility

By Romesh Ratnesar

July 26, 1999
Web posted at: 4:27 p.m. EDT (2027 GMT)

TIME magazine

In 1960, on the night John F. Kennedy returned from the Democratic National Convention as the party's nominee for President, his two-year-old daughter Caroline toddled out of the family's Hyannis Port home to greet her father. Immediately a fusillade of photographers' camera bulbs went off, and the frightened Caroline turned away. "Don't be afraid," J.F.K. told her. "They won't hurt you." In the 39 years since, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg has rarely run willingly into the glare of public attention. Instead she has allowed her cousins to inherit the Kennedy legacy of political ambition and her younger brother to assume the role of family icon. Meanwhile, she has tended to her three children, walked anonymously through New York City's streets and granted few extended interviews, except during publicity rushes for her two books. "She is first and foremost a wife and mother," says Paul Kirk Jr., chairman of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and a family confidant. "That's a key priority for her. She saw how important it was to her as a child."

And yet if her life has been more guarded than her brother's was, it is far from cloistered. Her mother was more glamorous and socially adroit, but Caroline shares Jackie's cultivated charm and has steadily expanded her own profile as a patron of culture and the arts. And though not driven to politics as were J.F.K. and his brothers, she has nonetheless compiled a ledger of quiet but diligent service to the public, and to her father's legacy, that reflects a commitment to civic life and a belief in the value of rigorous, reflective debate. "She has a strong sense of personal responsibility," says historian David McCullough, who sits with Caroline on the panel that hands out the Kennedy Library's annual Profile in Courage Awards. "She knows she has serious work to do. And in that sense, I've always felt she is very much a Kennedy."

Her political education came early. During Caroline's summers as a Harvard undergraduate, her uncle Ted insisted that she work in his Senate office as an intern. "He wanted her to understand how the Senate operated and what her father's place was in it," says a longtime Kennedy friend. "He made sure...she would meet the players." After college, she worked for five years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and met her husband, the interactive-media designer Edwin Schlossberg. In 1988 she graduated from Columbia Law School and gave birth to their first child, Rose. Soon after, she began researching a book on the Bill of Rights, In Our Defense, with her friend and law-school classmate Ellen Alderman. The two canvassed the country, interviewing professors, attorneys and prison inmates. "She was very, very serious," says Richard Burr, a death-penalty expert who advised the authors. "She had done a lot of homework on specific cases already, which is rare." Rarer still was her gentility. Both times she interviewed Jack Boger, then a lawyer with the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund, Caroline sent him a handwritten thank-you note.

Caroline refused to exploit her mother's publishing contacts for her book, but she wasn't disingenuous about her star wattage. "If my name makes more people want to read it," she told an interviewer in 1991, "that's fine." Says Vanden Heuvel: "She understands that because she is well known, she can get attention for the causes she's interested in. She is unpretentious about it, but she knows what its benefit can be." With the book's publication, Caroline stepped into a more visible role. After Jackie's death in 1994, she assumed her mother's place in the New York cultural scene, becoming an honorary chairwoman of the American Ballet Theatre and in 1997 joining the board of the Citizens Committee for New York City, which supports local volunteer service groups. She took over as president of the Kennedy Library Foundation in Boston. She rarely misses quarterly board meetings and often phones library staff members with ideas for new programs and exhibits.

She helped found, in 1989, the library's Profile in Courage Awards, an honor given to public officials for acts of political bravery. The 12-member panel meets every year for two days of vetting the nominees; in those sessions, Caroline is known for her intense preparation and affinity for discussion. She personally telephones winners and presents the awards at an annual ceremony at the library. This year's event, which honored Senators Russ Feingold and John McCain, was Caroline and John Jr.'s last public appearance together. Alan Simpson, the former Wyoming Senator who is director of the Kennedy School's Institute of Politics at Harvard, was reminded of Caroline's forebears. "When I saw her step forward to make those awards, I saw the same poise and warmth and desire to participate in politics and carry on the Kennedy name."

Few think Caroline has designs on elected office, but she has become more aggressive lately about promoting public service. In May she touted the Profile in Courage Award on the Today show "as a way of showing how important it is for people to continue to celebrate and expect political courage." In politics, Caroline picks her moments. She turned down an invitation to serve as chairwoman of the Democratic National Convention in 1992, but she stumped for Teddy and her cousin Patrick, a Rhode Island Congressman, late in the 1994 campaign. In 1998 she lent her name to the campaign against an anti-affirmative-action initiative in Washington State and gave a speech at a U.N. ceremony in which she implored the U.S. Senate to ratify an international treaty on children's rights.

Even after John's death, she will probably stay behind the curtain of the public stage, pouring her energies again into her family life. Her most recent book with Alderman, The Right to Privacy, was read by some as a veiled protest written by a woman uneasy with the public's demands on her personal space. It is actually much more--a scholarly but accessible work that aims, in some small way, to raise public understanding of a complex legal problem. "I hope it will show people there is a process for working things out," she said in 1995. "To the extent that we are all educated and informed, we will be more equipped to deal with the gut issues that tend to divide us." It's a quaint notion, perhaps more easily received in her father's time than our own. Caroline's greatest public service has come in trying to revive it.

--With reporting by John Cloud and Andrea Sachs/New York and Ann Blackman/Washington

MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: August 1, 1999

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