Kerry Kennedy: Keeper of her father's legacy

Kerry Kennedy speaks about her childhood and her

Kerry Kennedy speaks about her childhood and her efforts to fight for social justice as the president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights at her office in Manhattan. (Sept. 13, 2012) (Credit: Rory Glaeseman)

She's a single, divorced mom who runs a global human rights organization based in Manhattan. She dashes between midtown and Westchester to pick up her 15-year-old daughter from school a few days a week.

"When she's spending the night with me, I'm there for her," Kerry Kennedy said of her daughter, Michaela, whose custody she shares with ex-husband Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. "I try to leave work early enough to pick her up from school and bring her home and do homework and cook her dinner."

While managing a job and family are familiar to women everywhere, the 53-year-old Mount Kisco mother of three is in a unique situation. She is the seventh of 11 children born to Ethel Skakel Kennedy and the late Robert F. Kennedy and is committed to keeping his legacy alive through the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights. Her mission, however, is sometimes overshadowed by personal tribulations that grab tabloid headlines around the world.

Last May, she mourned her troubled best friend and sister-in-law Mary Richardson Kennedy, 52, who committed suicide at her Bedford estate amid a bitter divorce from Kennedy's older brother Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

In July, Kennedy sideswiped a tractor trailer with her white Lexus SUV on Interstate 684, which led to charges of driving while ability impaired. A North Castle police officer said she appeared dazed as she explained that she might have mistakenly taken the sleep aid Ambien instead of her thyroid medication.

"I don't think the side of me that's in the headlines is my personality," she said during a recent interview with Newsday at the RFK center's Madison Avenue office. "I'd label myself as a mother, as a sister, cousin, a friend, a human rights defender."

A relaxed Kennedy sat at a long, polished wood table in the center's conference room as she spoke candidly about her family, faith and work, surrounded by posters of her father and late uncles -- President John F. Kennedy and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy.

"My parents did not separate their home life from their work life," she recalled. "And so our household was always filled with people who were on the cutting edge of social change. And I found them fascinating, exciting and heroic."

 

Carrying on the mission

Kerry Kennedy was 8 when her father was shot dead in a Los Angeles hotel while campaigning for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. The 42-year-old U.S. senator from New York was riding high in the polls as the champion of migrant workers, civil rights and the fight to end the Vietnam War.

After his assassination, Ethel Kennedy and other relatives created the RFK center as a living memorial that would continue to fight for social justice. While she has been involved with the center for much of her life, Kennedy earned degrees from The Putney boarding school in Vermont, Brown University and Boston College Law School, and returned to run the nonprofit in 2008.

Today, the organization has an $8 million annual budget and employs 28 people at offices in Washington and Italy in addition to New York.

Over the years, the center has organized dozens of human rights delegations, visiting nations from East Timor to Guatemala. Domestically, the organization's successes include helping to negotiate wage hikes for migrant tomato pickers in Florida and fighting for government funding to assist New Orleans homeowners who were devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"The people I work with are the bravest people on earth, facing imprisonment for basic rights that we take for granted," Kennedy said.

In her role as their "microphone," she noted that the Kennedy name comes in handy "when you're trying to have a government meeting about an issue . . . That's a great gift, that name, because of all the good that so many people in my family have done in this world."

She also relishes private moments when "that whole Kennedy thing is not in the room" and it's all about "just trying to have conversations as human beings with one another."

Her brown eyes lit up when she spoke about frequently meeting strangers who tell her that her father inspired them to get involved with public service. In 2000, she took the stories of 50 activists worldwide and profiled them in a collection titled "Speak Truth to Power" that has become the core of the center's education program.

"I think one of his great messages is that one person can make a difference," she said.

Doing her part, Kennedy's job involves intense globe-trotting. Last summer, she took daughter Mariah, 17, on a tour of refugee camps in the Western Sahara. She also jetted to London, Toronto, Abu Dhabi and twice to Africa among other spots.

"It's not here, in the safety of Westchester, that she feels she can have an impact," explained Larry Cox, who led Amnesty International USA until 2011. "She'll do whatever she has to do to make a difference in people's lives. And she'll do it from their level, not from above, not from a fake, lofty position."

Mary Lawlor, head of the Irish human rights organization Front Line Defenders, has accompanied Kennedy on trips. "Sometimes the work can get depressing and soul-destroying. But she has remained committed and steadfast for so long, that has to come from within, you can't fake that."

 

Keeping the faith

Kerry Kennedy's work as a proponent of women's rights often puts her at odds with Roman Catholic teachings against abortion and birth control.

"I think family planning, having control over their bodies, is of course one of the ways that women need to be empowered," she said. "Women should have access to condoms."

Yet, she is devout because prayer and faith always have comforted the Irish-American Kennedy clan.

In her 2008 book, "Being Catholic Now," Kennedy described how she was raised on the nightly ritual of prayers for the family's dead, as a reminder that their loved ones were safely together in the afterworld. The book is a collection of essays about faith by notable Catholics that include conservative talk show host Bill O'Reilly and actors Susan Sarandon, Dan Aykroyd and Gabriel Byrne, who wrote about leaving the church after he was sexually abused by a priest.

More than a decade ago, Kennedy's need to have these sorts of open conversations about faith led her to search for a spiritual home. She found it at the Church of St. Patrick in Armonk with Father John Quinn.

He's "really extraordinary," she said. "It's no good, in my case, to go to a church on Sunday and walk out furious over whatever the priest is saying, or to feel disconnected."

Nearly every Sunday Kennedy attends Mass at St. Patrick's and has taught Sunday school classes for children. "She is very much a presence here," Quinn said.

Kennedy said she followed her parents' example in raising her daughters. "I did the same things" -- prayers at meals and crosses and religious statues in the home.

When the brood is vacationing at the Kennedy compound with the extended family in Hyannis Port, Mass., the message is reinforced because "everybody goes to church," she said.

On a recent Sunday morning outside St. Patrick's, Kennedy beamed as daughter Michaela stopped to tell Newsday how her mother's faith has affected her life.

"If I ask her for advice or something she'll always say, 'Well in church remember we learned from this passage or Father Quinn said,' and that's been really influential on me because I know I can always go to my mom or go to God when I'm in doubt," she said.

 

Top job: being a mom

In 1990, when Kerry Kennedy wed Andrew Cuomo, the son of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, political observers hailed the marriage as the union of the Democratic Party's two great dynasties. Fifteen years later, they divorced amid allegations by her husband that she was having an affair. She has never publicly commented on the situation.

Today, Kennedy said her relationship with Cuomo, 56, is on solid ground. They live within driving distance of each other among the wooded, rolling hills of northern Westchester. He resides in New Castle with girlfriend Sandra Lee, the Food Network TV show host. When asked about her love life, Kennedy laughed, "I don't have a sweetheart."

She and the first-term governor share custody of their daughters, 17-year-old twins Cara and Mariah, who are seniors at Deerfield Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts, and Michaela, a sophomore at Byram Hills High School in Armonk.

"It's good and healthy, and we're co-parenting our kids and working closely with one another to raise our children," Kennedy said.

Sister-in-law Sheila Kennedy, wife of her brother Christopher, said Kerry Kennedy "always spends plenty of time" with her daughters. "That is her primary job in life, being a good mother."

Still, Kerry Kennedy finds time to stump for the Democratic candidates for president, and is out there pressing for Barack Obama's re-election. During the 2008 primary, however, she supported Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom she praised as "probably the best secretary of state in the last 150 years."

As Kennedy talked about the importance of women in politics, she said she has no interest in a political career and is focused on being a mom and working for the RFK center. However, she added, it would be "wonderful, wonderful" in 2016 if Clinton ran for president -- a bid her ex-husband is seriously eyeing.

While Kennedy noted with a shy smile that she is not in Hillary Clinton's "inner circle of friends," she added that the secretary of state -- who lives in nearby Chappaqua with her husband, former President Bill Clinton -- has been "incredibly generous to me and our family. She calls on occasion to check in and see how things are going."

Focusing on the future

Kennedy, who has a Nov. 20 court date in North Castle on the misdemeanor charge in connection with the July 13 accident, is troubled by the impact the case has had on her life's work.

"It's frustrating sometimes because what is written can undermine our capacity to be effective. I'm not a politician. I'm not getting people's votes. So that's not the issue.

"The issue is, for instance, I have a glass of wine only with, and when I'm with people . . . I don't take prescription pills on a regular basis beside my thyroid medication. I just don't do that kind of stuff. And the headlines in the New York Post were: "Kennedy Drug Bust," she lamented.

A blood test taken by police shortly after her arrest about 8:30 a.m. showed that she had Ambien in her system. And those headlines ricocheted around the globe.

"I get a call from a friend of mine in a refugee camp in Namibia saying, 'You OK?' Then we go to Morocco and we're trying to talk about very serious violations of people's rights, people being subjected to extrajudicial executions, people being tortured . . . and the guy sitting across from me says, 'Oh, I read about this drug bust of you.' So that undermines my capacity to be effective in my advocacy work, and that's the thing that hurts me."

Despite these obstacles, Kennedy said she remains focused on what's important. "My philosophy is that you go out and you do your work and you try to make some part of the world more just and peaceful."

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