When a Kennedy breezes into town, it’s not just an arrival, it’s an event. So when Caroline Kennedy spoke March 8 at Desert Town Hall in Indian Wells, in a presentation by the H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation, there was electricity in the air.
An accomplished diplomat in her own right, it is her iconic status as daughter of President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy that drew a sellout crowd for an hour-long lecture that touched on themes ranging from life in the White House to her time as U.S. ambassador to Japan (she served 2013-17) to President Trump.
Kennedy began her remarks casually.
“I’ve already met some people here who remember meeting my father, my parents,” she told the crowd. “I’m sure some of you know President Kennedy did visit President Eisenhower here in the desert, in Palm Springs — it’s a place that many presidents have enjoyed, so I’m excited to check it out myself.”
Now 60, Kennedy was almost 6 in 1963 when her father was assassinated. The late president proved an inspiration to his daughter on many levels, both early on in life and well into the 21st century. The only surviving child of JFK and Jackie, she is an attorney and editor of nine best-selling books on constitutional law, American history, politics, and poetry.
Kennedy cut a slender figure in an elegant black pantsuit with Japanese-style patterning. Soft-spoken but supremely self-assured, she put the Kennedy charisma on full display during her lecture, and while addressing a group of high school students beforehand. She alternated anecdotes about life in Camelot with stories from her more recent time in Japan, weaving in examples of the importance of public service and holding the audience in rapt attention as she segued from topic to topic, interspersing thoughtful prepared remarks with some lighthearted ad-libbing.
Her favorite thing to do as a child at the White House, she recalled, was to “hide underneath our father’s desk. No matter how busy my father was, we were always welcome — he and his advisors would always pretend to be surprised when we popped out.”
Keith Goff, president of Desert Town Hall, welcomes guests.
Indeed, her recollections of those early years were especially poignant.
“People are also always curious about my childhood in the White House. My mother said she was absolutely terrified at first, thought it was the worst thing that could possibly happen, but it ended up being the happiest time in her life because our family was all together. Whereas for me, it was just my everyday childhood. My father worked from home, so I got to see him every day. I visited him in the morning when he was getting ready to go to the office before I went upstairs to go to nursery school. He used to tell me bedtime stories at night. I got to pick the characters, and he made up the stories. Usually I was the hero. We [the kids] rode wild horses, which he named White Star and Black Star. There was a bottomless jar of candy on my father’s secretary’s desk, I could ride my ponies to the office … Yes, the White House was a magical place for children.
“I do miss my father every day, but I feel that he does live on in the stories people tell me, and in studying his presidency and teaching my own children about him, I think I have gotten to know him as a president and patriot. People are always coming up to me and saying my father changed their life, that they got involved in their communities because he asked them to, and that’s the way his memory and values have stayed alive for me. But it’s also really an incredible tribute to his memory and to America and what it stands for in the world … People ran for office because of him, astronauts have talked about being inspired by his dream of putting a man on the moon and how we really gave our whole country an advantage in the technological age. They fought for justice or joined the Peace Corps.”
His influence was also felt strongly in Japan, she noted, where “a generation learned English by memorizing the Inaugural Address. I never heard the inaugural address more than when I was in Japan, because everyone wanted to recite it for me … What I didn’t really know until I got to Japan and what many people don’t know is that after World War II, in the 1950s, my father corresponded with the Japanese captain of the destroyer who sank his PT boat [during the war].
Leo Milmet asks Caroline Kennedy a question during the Youth Town Hall with Coachella Valley students held prior to her keynote speech.
He invited him to the inauguration. One of the most moving moments I experienced as ambassador was meeting that Japanese captain’s widow. One of her treasured possessions was a photograph of President Kennedy which he had signed to her late husband with the inscription, “To Captain Hanami: great enemy, present friend.” My father hoped to be the first sitting president to visit Japan in a second term, so I felt that in a small way I was carrying that hope forward.”
Kennedy was frank about her concerns for the current political climate, especially the situation in Asia.
“Japan feels very exposed…it’s a tricky time. We’ll see what happens if Trump meets with Kim Jong-un. China’s expansionist policies affect Japan tremendously. China is really heavy-handed in its attempts to influence other countries in the region…it’s a somewhat perilous moment.
“Politically I think we can say this seems to be an unprecedented moment. We all do seem to agree that this is different, and that this president is unlike any of his predecessors. What comes next? What is going to follow this? Does this break with tradition signal the beginning of a new era with a divided and more partisan government, or will we swing back to some sort of a consensus after this period of disruption? What is the role for ordinary citizens in all of this and what sort of leaders are we going to choose?”
Becky Kurtz, executive director of Desert Town Hall, arrives with Caroline Kennedy.