by Miceál O’Hurley
Scion of an Eminent Family
The eighth of nine children from a distinguished political family, sister of a United States President, two United States Senators, Attorney General of the United States and the Founder of the Special Olympics, Jean Kennedy distinguished herself for decades by simply not distinguishing herself. Without diminishing the remarkable achievements of her brothers and sisters, the late United States Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith proved herself their equal by helping Ireland achieve enduring peace, prosperity as well as by promoting universal human dignity and equality through the arts.
Born in 1928, Jean Kennedy was the last daughter in a large family. Educated largely in boarding schools and graduated from the Society of the Sacred Heart’s Manhattanville College, Jean married New York financial advisor, Stephen Smith in 1956. She accompanied her brother John F. Kennedy on the campaign trail throughout his career and in 1963 returned with him on his last visit to Ireland where he was received warmly throughout the country, addressing Dail Eireann and visiting the family homestead in Dunganstown, Co. Wexford. Through the years she volunteered for her brothers Bobby and Ted in their campaigns for the United States Senate and on their Presidential campaigns. After the assassination of Bobby at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in 1968 as he campaigned for President, then the fallout from Ted’s automobile accident at Chappaquiddick on Cape Cod where campaign volunteer Mary Joe Kopechne died, the Kennedy family seemed to fade from the forefront of American politics for a long period and Jean, always the ‘quiet one,’ did so along with them.
Coming Into Her Own
And yet in 1974 she began to come into her own. Following in the family’s devotion to public service and philanthropy Jean founded Very Special Arts (VSA). VSA reflected Jean’s belief that everyone should be given opportunities to excel. VSA was founded to promote art, education and opportunity for people with disabilities. At first, VSA was perceived as another ‘pet project’ of a member of the privileged class, dismissed by many critics as the ‘busy work of someone with nothing to do’. Jean Kennedy Smith quickly proved them wrong, later musing “They said I did charity work, but if I were a man, they would have said I ran an international organisation.”
For Jean, VSA was about helping every American embrace the fullness of life. VSA sought to “promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in the arts, education and culture around the world” though its primary focus was on arts education opportunities for young people with disabilities. Jean’s hard work paid off quickly, providing people of all ages and abilities a chance to participate in VSA programmes covering all artistic genres—music, dance, visual arts, theater and literary arts. Indefatigable, and although never having held an executive position, Jean demonstrated a penchant for organisational development. She is remembered at being adept in two areas – discovering young people with talent and mentoring them and in building non-traditional alliances to achieve VSA’s goals. Today, in addition to having organisations in every U.S. State, VSA has an impressive network of affiliates in 52 countries helping break-down barriers that once kept people with disabilities in the shadows.
In 2011, for her work with VSA in promoting equality for people with disabilities, United States President Barack Obama would award Jean Kennedy Smith America’s highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. What would be the crowning achievement for anyone’s life may not, however, be that for which Jean may be best remembered or even her greatest achievement. Between founding VSA and being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Jean would unexpectedly do something remarkable.
Doing the Unexpected – Entering Diplomatic Service
Following the death of her husband Stephen two years previously in 1992, Jean made one of her many pilgrimages to Ireland. During a visit to Dublin she was invited to Deerfield House, the Residence of the United States Ambassador to Ireland. During her visit at the residence her host reminded her that much had changed over the years with the building having been the Chief Secretary’s Lodge for the Crown and she was regaled with the customary viewing of portraits of all the distinguished American men who had served as Ambassadors through the years. On the flight back to New York’s JFK Airport Jean recalled the speech she witnessed her brother, President Kennedy, give in Germany in 1963, “For time and the world do not stand still. Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past, or the present, are certain to miss the future.” Thinking of her family’s ancestral home of Ireland, and her sense of duty to perform public service as her father, brothers and sisters had before her, Jean resolved that it was once again time for change. Upon returning to the United States she confided to her brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, the ‘Lion of the Senate’ her determination to enter the diplomatic corps with her sights set on serving in Ireland.
President William Jefferson Clinton (an admirer of the Kennedys who as a teenager had once met President Kennedy in the Rose Garden) easily acquiesced to Senator Kennedy’s request and nominated Jean to become the United States Ambassador to Ireland. At the age of 67, Jean would be serving in her first official role. Having remained aloof of Irish politics to date, and determined to be confirmed, Jean is remembered to have spoken so softly during her confirmation hearings that several Senators claimed they could not entirely hear her answers. To some, this led to criticism. To others, like former Special Assistant to President Kennedy and noted historian Arthur Schlesinger, they knew this was simply good tactics designed to avoid conflict, “Jean may well be the best politician of all the Kennedys” quipped Schlesinger. Time would prove Schlesinger a Sage. A notably smitten Senate confirmed her.
On 24 June 1993, Jean Kennedy Smith continued the tradition started by her father who had served as the United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James and presented her letters of credence extraordinary and plenipotentiary at Áras an Uachtaráin and was received by President Mary Robinson as the 17th United States Ambassador to Ireland. The tenure of these two remarkable women would almost coincide with both leaving an indelible mark on Irish history and for women.
Meeting Challenges Head-On
Determined not to be underestimated, Ambassador Kennedy Smith threw herself headlong into her work. The United States Embassy in Dublin had become complacent through the years. Given the historic good relations between Washington and Dublin, and with London and Berlin being the centre of the United States’ attention during the Cold War, diplomatic and consular service in Dublin had long been considered a post filled with ‘sightseeing, social engagements and a passive attitude towards work’. Department of State investigators were appalled to hear Embassy Deputy Denis Sandberg’s oral evidence in their investigation of the workings of the U.S. Embassy in Ballsbridge, “…the U.S. Embassy in Dublin had become non-productive with very low output.” So notorious was the dynamic that President Ronald Regan’s cultural attaché to Ireland, Robin Berrington, famously insulted Ireland by calling its lack of “real importance” to U.S. policy and diplomacy as being “small potatoes.”
From the outset of her tenure, Ambassador Kennedy Smith not only faced sleepy U.S.-Irish engagement but an Ireland at the crossroads in the nascent peace process. Percieving her brief to fulfill President Clinton’s desire for Ireland to achieve peace with U.S. assistance, Ambassador Kennedy Smith realised her ability to play an effective role might be stymied by an entrenched Embassy staff not keen on reform. The staff seemed to bristle at the kind of high output that marked the work product of every Kennedy who had entered public service. Not surprisingly, she ran into difficulties, not as an envoy, but as an administrator with her own staff.
Having taken a ‘deep dive’ into Irish politics, relying on her official title and her personal charm, employing her remarkable intelligence and years of experience in developing a largely volunteer organisation where accomplishment depended entirely on personal buy-in, Ambassador Kennedy Smith quickly realised that if the Irish peace process was to break free of the perennial cycle of failure the dynamic in the Embassy would have to change. Employing feminist theory of inclusion, she quickly resolved that Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams would have to get the VISA to visit the United States he had repeatedly been denied so that he and the Republican community could be full partners in negotiations for a meaningful and lasting peace. Defiant at the idea of change, the Embassy’s staff would fight her in making the VISA available.
It was not her advocacy for a VISA for Adams alone that rankled her staff. Ambassador Kennedy Smith had enmeshed herself in Irish politics where her predecessors had made considerable efforts to stay aloof from them, especially when it came to issues related to Northern Ireland, terrorism and Irish unity. In the 1970s, Ambassador Kennedy Smith had befriended John Hume, even being a guest for several days in his Derry home. She renewed that acquaintance and built upon it. Loyalists, from leaders to families who had lost family members in the Troubles began to traipse in and out of the Ambassador’s Residence in Phoenix Park as the Ambassador began to build bridges between communities that possibly only an American could do. Ambassador Kennedy Smith was willing to use all the power of her Mission, her personal name and her connections, including her close relationship with her brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, to ensure that the United States could become an honest broker and not simply an interested observer in the peace process.
Not surprisingly, the Embassy’s staff began a campaign, through official channels in the Department of State and through back channels to others in Government and the media to complain about what they perceived to be her ill treatment of them. In January, 1994 matters came to a head. Ambassador Kennedy Smith cabled the Secretary of State recommending that Gerry Adams be granted a VISA for a limited 48-hour visit to the United States. In an unprecedented move, her own staff sent a dissenting cable, without her being apprised of its contents, hoping to derail the issuance of a VISA. Not surprisingly, the Ambassador reacted angrily. This set off a firestorm that culminated in an official investigation within the Department of State. Eventually, the Inspector General upheld the complaints by the staff.
Contributions that Lead to Enduring Peace and Prosperity
Still, as a testament to grasping ‘the big picture’, Ambassador Kennedy Smith won the day. Adams got his VISA which he credits as being key to convincing the IRA to call a ceasefire in August 1994. Reflecting on the peace process on the 25th anniversary of the visit Adams said, “The visa granting was pivotal. Symbolically it was very important. It was important in showing that you could build an alternative… an alternative to armed struggle…. It wouldn’t have happened at the time that it happened if the VISA hadn’t been granted.”
The issue of the VISA might have been a significant hurdle to cross but the work was not done. Ambassador Kennedy Smith knew a ceasefire was only a foundation to build on. Eventually, owing in no small part to her personal diplomacy, and several more years of efforts, Ambassador Kennedy Smith saw the Good Friday Agreement adopted. Three months after the accord was signed Ambassador Kennedy Smith tenured her resignation as the United States Ambassador to Ireland.
Remembered by Those With Whom She Served
While having played a pivotal role in bringing peace to an island that has seen little of it during the previous 800 years was an incredible achievement, Ambassador Kennedy Smith’s many other achievements are often overlooked. Yet those who knew her and collaborated with her saw her achievements as multi-faceted. Former Labour Teachta Dála and Tanaiste Dick Spring took time with Diplomat Ireland to recall his friendship with Ambassador Kennedy Smith. “Jean Kennedy Smith exuded the confidence and charm which one expected of a member of the Kennedy family” said the former Taniaste. “She was committed to helping with the Peace Process and she played a very important role during her time as Ambassador.” Recalling the United States’ disappointment with Ireland concerning one of their votes in the United Nations, an Tanaiste Dick Spring recalled Ambassador Kennedy Smith being a gracious pragmatist, “She was good company and always a pleasure to work with and she was also very understanding when we changed our vote on Cuba in the U.N.”
Diplomat Ireland also had the chance to discuss the late Ambassador and her work in Ireland with someone who knew her quite well, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. The Ambassador and Taoiseach built a fruitful working relationship during her time as an envoy in Ireland and a friendship that endured through the years. An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern recalls the breadth of Ambassador Kennedy Smith’s achievements and lasting legacy as a friend to Ireland through her diplomatic service. “Much has been written recently about Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, in particular her involvement in assisting the Northern Ireland Peace Process all of which is true. I join in these comments, but can I make two important points on her work, one relates to Ireland and one is world wide.
Firstly, in the early nineties, when I was Minister for Finance, the term the ‘Celtic Tiger’ was featured internationally about Ireland and its revival from the economic difficulties of the early to mid-1980, and this led to renewed interest in our economy. Jean used each and every opportunity to organise business contacts to promote investment and employment in American business circles and hosted several prominent visits here, which I had the privilege of meeting. Many of these contacts were in high technology and pharmaceutical companies and assisted in our achievement of expanding employment in 1990 from one million to two million in a decade.
Secondly, in recent decades the issue of disabilities has grown in importance across societies worldwide giving dignity and opportunities to these special people. From the issue having little time in governmental sectors, most countries now have Ministers and resources appointed and resources allocated.
Long before modern times, in fact in 1974 Jean founded ‘Very Special Arts’ known today worldwide as the Department of USA and Accessibility at the John F Kennedy Centre for performing Arts. For decades, in over fifty countries, she travelled advocating for greater inclusion in the Arts for people with disabilities. Hundreds of thousands have benefited from these programmes which continue to this day.”
“I’ll Be Back Again in the Springtime”
Ambassador Kennedy Smith fulfilled the promise of her late brother, President Kennedy, when she returned to Ireland as an envoy in 1994, beginning her duties on the anniversary of his unfulfilled pledge to return to Ireland in the Springtime. Her service to Ireland more than fulfilled his promise and remain lasting owing to her unique contributions. As a further testament to her many contributions to Ireland, President Mary MacAleese, noting Ambassador Kennedy Smith’s ‘fixedness of purpose’, conferred Honourary Irish Citizenship upon her, an honour never bestowed on any of her illustrious brothers. Throughout her time as an envoy in Ireland Ambassador Kennedy Smith travelled widely, mixing with her fellow diplomats, members of government and the ordinary people of Ireland she encountered on her travels.
President John F. Kennedy visiting family at the Kennedy Homestead in Dugganstown, Co. Wexford, accompanied by his sister, Jean Kennedy-Smith (1963)
In the final analysis, Jean Kennedy Smith, the quiet, unassuming, youngest daughter of an iconic family grew to become a pivotal player in not only achieving peace and prosperity in Ireland, but in elevating people with disabilities everywhere to the fullness of society through what historian Kenneth Clark observed in his epic series ‘Civilisation’ being the singular thing for which great societies are remembered – the arts.
Jean Kennedy Smith, born 20 February 1928, the 17th United States Ambassador to Ireland died surrounded by her family in New York on the 17th day of June 2020, having served her nation, the cause of peace, humanity and the elevation of enduring, universal human dignity through the arts.