"Ever since I was a little girl," says the soft-spoken woman in the silver dress, "people have told me that my father changed their lives, or that President Kennedy's inaugural challenge—'Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country'—inspired a generation in the 1960s that transformed our nation with courage. To me that is one of his greatest legacies. Now, it is up to us to redefine that commitment for our time."
That "little girl" turned 50 in November. And nobody has done more to honor President Kennedy's call to action than she has. Caroline Kennedy today is a busy wife, mom, bestselling author, and vice chair of New York City's reform-minded Fund for Public Schools. Her quiet demeanor brightened by flashes of the sardonic Kennedy wit, she smiles at the inevitable question of how the milestone of AARP eligibility feels.
"It's not that old, is it?" she says. "I guess I make other people feel old, but I got really excited about my birthday. I feel like I'm really happy, fortunate to have my family and the things I'm involved in, even without the people not here who were here once. Knowing the impact my parents had, and have, has always given me a continuing sense of their presence, as well as an understanding of the power every individual has to make a difference."
In the generation since she came of age with a Harvard College diploma and a Columbia University law degree, Kennedy has used her personal power to help those less fortunate. She has raised tens of millions of dollars for the New York City public schools—a cause she adopted after being shocked into greater activism by the horror of September 11—and works to design the special programs that will put that money to its best use. Says the fund's CEO, Stephanie Dua: "What Caroline has done is help us figure out how to function as a catalyst for change, how to leverage every dollar we provide. That requires being in the schools, where the action is, all the time, which she is. The impact is huge."
It is a hallmark Caroline Kennedy trait: by zealously guarding her time and her privacy, she can focus her energy—whether it's using her quiet leadership style to help build consensus each year around the winner of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum's signature Profile in Courage Award, working on the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, actively supporting the NAACP's history-shaping Legal Defense and Education Fund, or serving as the honorary chair of New York City's American Ballet Theatre.
Among her professional endeavors, though, her first love is literature: her latest project is a collection of Christmas-themed poetry that she and her brother John loved (A Family Christmas, Hyperion). And though her three children attend private schools, her passions are the public schools and literacy. "Having grown up in New York, and having school-age children, it was shocking to realize how starved our students and schools have been for so long," she says.
"It means a great deal for the principals and teachers and families to feel that the city cares about their children. And things have gotten better."
So what does the future hold for the woman the nation has watched grow from adorable youngster to accomplished young woman to AARP-eligible activist? Kennedy isn't exactly sure, but she's excited about the possibilities. "I'm extremely busy, but of late I've had the sense that something was going on. It's not unease, but more a feeling that there are a lot of mountains still out there, that there's something else." She adds with a hopeful smile, "I can't wait to figure out what it is."