Her father was the leader of the free world; her mother, the style icon of the century, and her brother, the sexiest man alive. But Caroline Kennedy seems genuinely uncomfortable when she's asked to come up with a description of her own defining role. How about lawyer/best-selling author/fund-raiser? Kennedy acknowledges that she is indeed all of the above, but quickly dismisses any suggestion that she's carrying impressive public obligations for a resolutely hands-on mother of three (Rose, 14, Tatiana, 13, and John, 10). As for that living-legend stuff--Kennedy recalls a recent visit to a New York City school in her newest role as chief school fund-raiser. Sure, all the grown-ups recognized her, but then a kindergarten teacher introduced the "special visitor" to her class.
"Do you have any idea who this is?"
More stares. Finally, a girl raised her hand. "Britney Spears?"
Kennedy, 45, laughs as she tells this story, and you can see the laugh lines crinkling around her eyes. "I was very flattered, actually. I thought that was great."
For someone whose family "secrets" are still the subject of tabloid exposes, there's something luxurious about not being recognized. And much of the time, Kennedy can get away with being just another New York mom on the crosstown bus. But, like her mother, she has become adept at exploiting her celebrity when there's a cause she cares about. Right now, the cause is "A Patriot's Handbook," an anthology of songs, poems, stories and speeches that Kennedy says represent some of the most important "building blocks of our democracy." To promote it, Kennedy is sitting in her publisher's office, assuming the role of author at the start of a book tour. She says she got the idea for the book after September 11, when "everybody started thinking about what it means to be an American." With a team of researchers, she spent a year assembling five notebooks full of material--which had to be pared down to a mere 663 pages (including the index). "My daughter was really disappointed in how heavy it was," Kennedy confesses.
With anybody else's name on the cover, such an imposing volume could head straight for the remainder shelf. But Kennedy has a track record. Her most recent books, "The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis" and "Profiles in Courage for Our Time," were best sellers, and she got respectful reviews as the coauthor of books on privacy and the Bill of Rights. For "Handbook," Kennedy says she tried to find a balance, both politically and historically. Thomas Jefferson and Ronald Reagan are here, along with some surprising entries: "Surfin' U.S.A.," a passage from "The Joy Luck Club" and Einstein on the arms race.
Even with that clearly earnest effort to create a "big tent," Kennedy still finds room for her own family's history. There are speeches from her father and her uncles Bobby and Teddy--and even an offering from her cousin-in-law, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Picking those was a little tricky, she says. "It's hard for me to read or hear them as someone who doesn't have a personal connection to them," she says, "but I didn't want to leave them out just because I have that connection."
There is one selection, however, that Kennedy concedes is personal. It's a picture of her and her mother on the beach in Hyannis Port in 1959--the kind of shot a million families have pasted into their own photo albums. "I don't remember that exact moment," Kennedy says, "although I still go to that exact spot." She's quiet for a moment, briefly shedding her role as keeper of the flame to be... just a daughter.