Typifying a Kennedy with her poise and eloquence, former ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, spoke to students of The Bishop’s School during an all-school assembly Feb. 2. She discussed her upbringing, her influences and the importance of working with others.
Kennedy is the daughter of former President John F. Kennedy and Jacquelyn Kennedy Onassis, and an attorney who served as the ambassador to Japan from November 2013 to January 2017. During her tenure, she helped realize the U.S. military’s return of land on Okinawa to the Japanese government (the largest land transfer since 1972), and President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Hiroshima in 2016.
She opened her presentation with a quote from her father (president from 1961 until his death by assassination in 1963), which came from a speech he gave in Nashville, Tennessee at the 90th anniversary convocation of Vanderbilt University, May 18, 1963: “The educated citizen has an obligation to serve the public. He may be a precinct worker or president. He may give his talents at the courthouse, the Statehouse, the White House. He may be a civil servant or a senator, a candidate or a campaign worker, a winner or a loser. But he must be a participant and not a spectator.”
She stressed the importance of being participants in democracy.
Kennedy also discussed her childhood, including memories of living in the White House and hiding under her father’s famous desk. Yet, she said she wasn’t moved into public service until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, nor had she been inspired by elected officials the way people have told her they were inspired by her father, until former president Barack Obama came along, because his message of hope resonated with her.
Continuing her message of hope, she quoted her uncle Robert “Bobby” Kennedy (senator from New York from January 1965 until his assassination in June 1968, and previously the 64th U.S. attorney general from 1961 to September 1964), who talked about the “ripple of hope” in a famous speech. “We all have the power to create those tiny ripples of hope,” she said, “which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
She talked about family accomplishments, including her uncle Edward “Teddy” Kennedy’s, long-fought effort to provide healthcare to millions of children in 1990s, which has come back into the political spotlight with the Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP) debate. Ted Kennedy was Senator from Massachusetts for more than 40 years, from 1962 until his death in 2009.
She noted how he had to partner with Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who was very different from him politically and personality-wise, to create a bipartisan program. Her uncle’s “secret to success,” she said, “was working with others,” and she stressed the importance of reaching out to those with whom you disagree to find common ground.
Kennedy’s visit was part of The Bishop’s School Endowed Scholar-in-Residence program, which each winter brings academic leaders in the fields of science, arts, humanities and social sciences to campus for a brief period of residency. During Kennedy’s time, she spoke to parents on Feb. 1, and visited classrooms and had lunch with a select group of students, Feb. 2.
Seniors Bianca Serbin and Dory Bertics spoke with the Light after the visit. During the assembly, Bianca asked the ambassador if she thought the definition of “patriotism” had changed.
“She said she thinks patriotism has come to be associated with conservatism and she sees it as a universal part of American society, not just affiliated with one party,” Bianca said. “When she was writing her book, ‘A Patriot’s Handbook’ (2003), she tried to include commentary from both parties to transcend that boundary.”
As for what she knew about Kennedy leading up to the assembly, she added: “I knew she was JFK’s daughter, but I didn’t know much else about her beyond that ... When we learned she was coming to speak, I did some research.”
Similarly, Dory said she only knew Caroline bore the Kennedy name. “It was cool to see a Kennedy within our school, because these people seem like ones you’ll never get to meet. Government officials can seem so far away, and this just goes to show they are people, too, and can talk to us,” she said. “When she was up on stage, she still seemed so distant. But having lunch with her, we got to laugh with her and talk about normal stuff. It brought the experience that much closer to home. She is just like us.”
Reflecting on the takeaway, Bianca added: “I liked her message that whatever you think you can do to help, you should do that.”