WASHINGTON — She is the little girl riding her pony Macaroni around the White House lawn, the big sister hiding under the Oval Office desk with her little brother John. And in a heartbreaking childhood photo, she is the white-gloved daughter kneeling with her mother at the coffin of her slain father, the president.
Flash forward 50 years and here is Caroline Kennedy again: author, lawyer and mother of three, tending to the Kennedy flame as her family’s sole survivor. And, finally, after decades protecting her privacy, she’s stepping into a more public role as U.S. ambassador to Japan.
Kennedy, 55, was five days short of her sixth birthday when John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.
The family’s nanny gently informed Caroline that her father had been shot “and they couldn’t make him better.”
With that, Caroline’s world was shaken, not for the first time or the last.
Three months earlier, a little brother, Patrick, had died shortly after birth. Then Robert F. Kennedy, the uncle who stepped in to serve as a sort of surrogate father after JFK’s assassination, was himself shot and killed five years later. After losing her mother to cancer in 1994, Caroline lost her brother John in a 1999 plane crash at age 38.
Through it all, level-headed Caroline soldiered on, lending her support to the causes and ideals her parents and brother had championed. She’s served as president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and chaired the senior advisory committee of the Institute of Politics at Harvard, set up as a memorial to Kennedy.
Trey Grayson, director of the institute, describes Kennedy as quiet and down to earth, willing to be blunt when needed, and gracious at managing the daily challenges that come with nurturing her father’s legacy.
“Every day, people walk up to her and say, ‘I’m such a big fan of your father, he inspired me to do this,’ and she’s handled that so well,” Grayson said.
Asked in 2012 if she ever felt overwhelmed by the legacy of the Kennedy years and the carefully cultivated image of a modern day Camelot, Kennedy said simply, “I can’t imagine having better parents and a more wonderful brother. So I feel really fortunate that those are my family, and I wish they were here.
“But my own family, my children, my husband, are really my real family and so … we’re just us.”
Raised in privilege on New York’s Upper East Side, Kennedy earned a Columbia law degree but rather than practice law, she chose to write and edit books about the right to privacy, poetry and other subjects. While her brother made a public splash and earned the label “sexiest man alive” from People magazine, Caroline limited her public appearances and tried to be just another parent shepherding her kids to adulthood, working as an unpaid fundraiser for the city’s school system once they got older. She is married to exhibit designer Edwin Schlossberg.
For all the days that felt just ordinary, though, there were moments when recollections of the trials of her life would come crashing through.
“You don’t think about it all the time,” Kennedy once said, in a comment cited in Christopher Andersen’s biography “Sweet Caroline.” ”Sometimes you’re just walking down the street and it just hits you ….”
Over the years, she has gradually edged back into the spotlight, and stepped more deeply into politics.
Early in 2008, she endorsed Barack Obama in the presidential campaign, a pivotal moment in his primary race against Hillary Rodham Clinton; Kennedy later served on the team that helped Obama select his running mate.
But she abruptly withdrew after flirting with the idea of seeking appointment to the Senate seat vacated when Clinton became secretary of state, citing personal reasons. Kennedy had been harshly criticized for giving halting interviews and limiting her interactions with reporters, and some critics questioned whether her background had prepared her for the Senate.
Kennedy seemed far more comfortable with the job description when Obama last summer nominated her to serve as U.S. ambassador to Japan. She was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in October.
She is expected to take up her position in Japan by the end of the month.