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Archive for Sunday, April 28, 2002

Taking another look at ‘Courage’

Caroline Kennedy carries on family name with update of father’s book

April 28, 2002

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— Caroline Kennedy emerges from behind her publicist and steps lightly into the conference room. A gray blazer accentuates her broad, slender shoulders. Her fine, light-brown hair is brushed back, baring her high cheekbones and lively, wide-set eyes.

For a moment, you'd swear it's Jackie.

Caroline Kennedy says an update of her father's award-winning book,
"Profiles in Courage for Our Time," was "an important thing to do"
for her family.

Caroline Kennedy says an update of her father's award-winning book, "Profiles in Courage for Our Time," was "an important thing to do" for her family.

At 44 and famous for nearly as long, Caroline Kennedy is both an involuntary and willing conveyer of her own past. Like her mother, fascination about her private life has been met by determination not to discuss it. Few memoirs would be so prized by the publishing world as Caroline's, and few seem so unlikely to be written.

"I have no plans," she says with a laugh. "Talk to me again when I'm 90."

But as the last surviving member of America's most glamorous first family, she is eager to sustain the Kennedys' place in public life. Three major projects have emerged in the past year.

She helped organize "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years," an exhibit of her mother's influential fashion style, and edited "The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis," a best seller last fall. She now is promoting "Profiles in Courage for Our Time," an update of her father's Pulitzer Prize-winning book that has a first printing of 250,000 and will be in bookstores Wednesday.

"Over the past five to seven years, I've spent a lot of time on things to do with my family. ... You begin to think about what you want to pass on to your children, and about your own childhood," says Kennedy, referring to the deaths of her mother and brother, John F. Kennedy Jr., and to the raising of her three children with husband Edwin Schlossberg. (She said she prefers to be called Kennedy and has never legally adopted her husband's name.)

"The great thing about the exhibit, the poetry book and the new book is it's a way of continuing this conversation that's been going on. ... So many people shared the same ideals as my parents. Those values are timeless."

Honoring award winners

Seated in the office of her publisher, Hyperion, Kennedy is friendly, if not always forthcoming. A slight tightening at the corners of her mouth can dim her bright smile from Camelot to cautious, the mark of knowing more than she wants to tell.

But her fame proves more imposing than she is. Her voice is surprisingly plain and unaffected, evoking neither her father's pointed, reedy orations, nor her mother's whispery tones. Kennedy-esque pronouncements about leadership and public service are tempered by "ums," "you knows" and run-on sentences.

The new "Profiles in Courage," which she edited, compiles 14 essays about winners of the Profiles in Courage award. The prize is given annually by the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library "to an elected official who has withstood strong opposition from constituents, powerful interest groups or adversaries to follow what she or he believes is the right course of action."

Winners include international, national and local public figures: U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, cited for many qualities, notably "his commitment to shaping a world response to international terrorism"; former President Ford, for his 1974 pardon of Richard Nixon; Corkin Cherubini, a school superintendent in Georgia who fought race-based student placement.

"When we started this award, which was 12 years ago, it was easy to knock politics and politicians and there was a lot of cynicism out there, and it's one of the reasons we thought the award would be a good idea," says Kennedy, who believes the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks made people less cynical about public service.

Kennedy says she and her brother agreed a few years ago on a new "Profiles in Courage." Then, as she puts it, the book "sort of got put on hold for a while"; John was killed in 1999 when the plane he was piloting crashed in the ocean near Martha's Vineyard.

"It would have been more fun to do it with him," she says, "but I thought it was an important thing to do and I know he thought so, too."

Disputed origins

The new publication, like Caroline Kennedy, arrives with both the burden and the privilege of a complicated legacy, for the original "Profiles in Courage" is among the most successful and most disputed of political books.

Published in 1956, it sold more than 100,000 copies, won the Pulitzer Prize and established then-Sen. Kennedy as a national figure. The book featured essays on eight United States senators who risked their careers in the name of principle.

As the Kennedys and supporters tell it, "Profiles" was the creation, and the Pulitzer the confirmation, of an unusually literate and eloquent politician. The book itself was born from adversity: John Kennedy was in Florida, recovering from back surgery, when he reportedly came up with the idea of writing about political courage.

But skeptics have alleged in several books, among them Herbert Parmet's "Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy," that much of the work was actually done by Kennedy aides and the Pulitzer was less a validation of excellence than a validation of power.

"The mythology around that book is just ridiculous," says Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at the University of New Orleans who at Georgetown University studied under one alleged "Profiles" co-author, the late Jules Davids.

"I can vouch for what Parmet said about Davids and his involvement with the book. We talked about it at length. He remained a Kennedy loyalist, but he was embarrassed by what he did."

Kennedy was known for his sense of humor, but not when it concerned questions about "Profiles in Courage." Soon after publication, columnist Drew Pearson alleged in an ABC television interview that the book was ghostwritten. The family threatened to sue and the network issued a retraction, prepared by Kennedy lawyer Clark Clifford.

Caroline Kennedy does not claim expertise on this part of her father's life she wasn't even born when "Profiles in Courage" was written. But she says her mother would talk about her father working on it and "reading all the books during the winter that he spent convalescing in Florida."

"The book is his," she says.

She sounds less assured when discussing her personal memories of "Profiles in Courage." Asked when she first read it, she hesitates.

"Quite late."

Teens?

Nervous smile.

20s?

Nervous smile; nervous laugh.

When?

"I was older," she says.

Whenever she did read it, she found the book "fantastic" and says she has no regrets about waiting until adulthood.

"This is something I really grew up with," she says. "I had heard these stories, so the reading didn't change anything. It wasn't like something I just discovered one day that opened a huge new thing."

Controversial courage

The first edition of "Profiles in Courage" carried the implied message that Kennedy himself was worthy of the men about whom he wrote. The message was stated, clearly, in a 1963 foreword to a later edition written by Robert Kennedy, who praised his recently slain brother for "reflecting what was best in the human being."

But commentators differ on whether John Kennedy would have merited a chapter in his own book. Some historians see him as a charismatic but careful politician. As president, for example, he was often perceived as slow on civil rights, even trying to persuade the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others to call off the March on Washington in August 1963.

"Kennedy showed personal courage in dealing with a whole range of physical illnesses, but I don't think of him as someone who showed unusual political courage," says Alan Brinkley, a professor of history at Columbia University not related to Douglas Brinkley.

Others do offer several examples: his 1963 signing of a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union; his willingness to accept blame for the 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster; and, especially, his peaceful resolution of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

"He resisted the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the military," says historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a former Kennedy aide. "They were all in favor of the invasion of Cuba."

Author and journalist Pete Hamill, a family friend who contributed an essay to the current "Profiles" edition, believes the Kennedy who most embodied the family's model of courage was Robert Kennedy.

He mentions a 1966 trip to South Africa, when the senator attacked the government's system of apartheid. He remembers Kennedy's tragic, impulsive run for the presidency in 1968, when he challenged an incumbent and fellow Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, only to be assassinated three months later.

"Jack Kennedy had a kind of temperament that set limits, that you can't go too far, too fast," says Hamill, who worked on Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign.

"One lesson Bobby learned is, 'Don't wait, you'll have no guarantees that you have plenty of time to do things.' That Irish fatalism drove Bobby, but it did not drive Jack."

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