Kerry Family Values
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John Kerry's sister Peggy Kerry has been a political and social activist for almost 40 years. From the anti-apartheid movement in England to the anti-Vietnam War movement in the U.S., she has been involved in cutting-edge foreign policy political movements. Peggy was involved in the United Farmworkers' grape boycott and later in promoting social welfare policies. She persuaded Convention Chair Bill Richardson, when he was Bill Clinton's ambassador to the UN, to invent a new job – liaison to the world's non-governmental organizations – a job that she still holds.
Both you and your brother John were social activists in your youths. We know about his activism in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I'd like to talk about your social activism. First, what is it about your family background, your family's beliefs and values that led you and your brother to take an active part in political and social causes?
It's my mother. My mother was an incredible person dedicated to public service. She would have been a nurse if she had finished her nursing degree which she started to get in France before the war, but she would up evacuating. She actually escaped with her sister and brother in law and an English friend on bicycle from Paris (but that's a whole other story), so she didn't finish her nursing degree, but she was a hospital volunteer and a girl scouts leader, a cub scout leader, she was John's den mother. She was an incredible environmentalist, a recycler of newspapers long before it was ever fashionable to do so. People wondered why we had the Washington Post stacked up in our garage in Washington in the 50s. She was a silver-haired legislator in Massachusetts when she was older. Her whole life was one of public service.
What did she tell you and your brother and your other siblings about what your responsibilities were as citizens? How did that affect your values?
It's more do as I do rather than do as I say. She was an example for us.
Can you talk more specifically about the political and social activities you've been involved in through the years, beginning in the 60s, if that's when it began?
Actually, yes. I graduated from college in 1963. I taught English as a foreign language, first in Cambridge, England. I got involved in Cambridge University in the United Nations Association. I became the vice-chair of the Anti-Apartheid Committee, and after Nelson Mandela was jailed, in the late 60s, about a year after he was jailed, we held the first demonstration ever at Cambridge University – it was my first demonstration – to free Nelson Mandela.
When I came back to America in 1967, I got involved in the anti-war movement in Cambridge, Massachusetts and continued my anti-apartheid work. When I moved to New York, I decided to concentrate on working against the Vietnam War. I got involved in the Vietnam Moratorium. I then worked at the ACLU Roger Baldwin Foundation, and later at the New York Civil Liberties Union.
And I got involved in politics. I was a volunteer in the McCarthy campaign, and I learned there was something in New York City called "clubs," and I didn't have to go all the way up to the headquarters in Columbus Circle, where Harold Ickes and Sarah Kovner were, but I could actually volunteer in Sheridan Square at the Village Independent Democrats. [Ickes and Kovner were both at the convention.]
During this time, your job choices were reflective of your political interests. Can you say more specifically what you did in the jobs you just mentioned?
The Roger Baldwin Foundation gave grants to projects around the country. The one that I remember the most was funding the United Farmworkers, and I personally was involved with Gloria Steinem in New York with the United Farmworkers and the boycott of grapes in New York City. [Steinem was at the convention.] Of course it was a much wider boycott, but I was specifically involved with the one in New York City.
Then I recall you went to work representing one of the social work agencies as a legislative rep in Albany. Am I missing a lot in between?
Not really. I took my first leave of absence when I was at the NYCLU to work in a political campaign for Ellie Guggeheimer when she ran for president – I think that's when we met – I worked for her when she ran for president of the City Council on Herman Badillo's team. He ran for mayor and Jay Golden ran for comptroller. [Lucy Komisar was Guggenheimer's press secretary for that 1969 campaign.]
And then you went to work for the social work agency?
In 1979, I went to work for the Community Service Society and I was their lobbyist, mostly at the state level, although we did a little at the city and the federal level. I worked for better housing, better health care, welfare reform, that sort of thing. Actually in those days homelessness had come to hit the front pages, and we worked to get the first state money for homeless programs.
You created a new job at the U.S. Mission to the UN. Can you talk about how you thought of this job and what it involves?
I was a consultant to Planned Parenthood for two UN conferences, in 1994 a conference on population, and in 1995 the conference on women. The UN had outreach to NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and the U.S. mission used to sporadically meet with NGOs. When Ambassador Richardson became the UN ambassador, I lobbied him to create a position to do more outreach to NGOs. It later became a civil service position to which the State Department appointed me and I am now a civil servant and I still do the outreach. There are many NGOs who are interested in following the work of the Economic and Social Council as well as the Security Council at the UN. Under the Economic and Social Council comes the follow-up to the many conferences, from the Women's Conference to the Environmental Conference to the Social Summit and so on. There are a myriad of NGOs who follow up as well as a group of humanitarian and human rights NGOs who follow the work of the Security Council and right now are particularly concerned with the Sudan. I might say that the U.S. government is in the forefront of trying to get the Security Council to take action on the Sudan.
Did you communicate with your brother John through the years about your mutual political and social concerns and activism?
Absolutely. In fact it was when I was working on the Vietnam War Moratorium and John was stationed at the Brooklyn Naval Base that we needed somebody to fly a plane so that one of our speakers, Adam Walinsky, who happened to have been Bobby Kennedy's speechwriter, could get around the state and make all of his speech commitments. And I asked my brother, who'd learned to fly when he was at Yale, to take the day off, and he did, and he and Adam have become – it was the beginning of a long friendship.
John also met Vietnam Veterans Against the War because we happened to share an office with them. And then of course in 1971, because Vietnam veterans who came back to speak out against the war were not being heard, John organized the march in Washington, raised money for it, and spoke at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for which he became an instant hero for many of us and a Nixon enemy and a White House enemy.
Teresa Heinz Kerry said recently that she had marched against apartheid in the 50s. So she was on the other side of the world, and she was doing what you were doing here.
I was actually marching against apartheid and actually going up with some friends to lobby parliament. I remember one of the other people lobbying parliament at the same time – I can remember exactly what she was wearing – was Vanessa Redgrave. She was lobbying parliament, and she wore, I remember, a bright red suit!
There must be values that Teresa shares: here she comes together with John, and her whole history seems to have inexorably brought her to this place.
She [has] mentioned ... about caring for justice and caring for the rights of people. Caring for them even if you were in a small minority. Yes, I guess it is amazing that we all did seem to have the very same deep values.
Are your other brother and sister, are they activists in the same way, or was this basically a John and Peggy branch?
Oh, no. Diana and Cam – it's a Kerry value system. Cam and Kathy and their daughters do a lot of outreach through their synagogue. [Cameron Kerry's wife Cathy is Jewish, and he converted 21 years ago.]
My sister was the expatriate. She says that she's a recovered expatriate. Until my parents were very sick, my sister lived abroad. She taught high school English, social studies and drama at international schools. She taught for many years in Indonesia, she taught in Thailand, she taught in Iran. She was on the last civilian plane out of Iran.
She has been active in involving Americans who are abroad and care deeply about their country and who want to make sure that America is respected and has the same reputation that Teresa [has spoken of]. What do you think of as the face of America? Do you think of a Peace Corps volunteer?
In your personal life, you married a man, George, who was a social worker. Again, is it about values?
I guess it is. It is indeed. George was a social worker and we met at a coalition to create more single-room occupancy housing. The two ministers who directed it, a Catholic priest and a Lutheran minister, were the people who officiated at our wedding. We were working to create more single-room occupancy housing. George worked for a settlement house in New York.
When did you get married?
In 1984, when John was running for the Senate.
You and George decided to adopt a baby girl [Iris]. Tell me about that and how you chose where you would find this baby girl.
We chose China, and the reason we chose China is that most of the children adopted, at least in Asia, are abandoned and don't know who their parents are. And so many kids from China are adopted in America that we really thought it was wonderful for her – since she would never know who her parents were – that she would have a lot of very close friends who were in a similar situation. So that she would feel that she wasn't alone in not having real parents.
Are you concerned about Iris keeping her Chinese culture as well as growing up American?
Actually, Iris is keeping her Chinese culture. She spoke a little Mandarin when we adopted her. [She was 3.] We sent her to a private Mandarin nursery school, Red Apple Child Development Center. She now goes to the only bilingual public school [in New York City]. They teach Mandarin and English, and the wonderful thing about Shuang Wen is that it is multi-racial. There are kids who are African-American and Caucasian, and that's because the curriculum is so good that people from around the city want their children to go there. And there they are, these African-American and Caucasian kids with the Chinese learning Mandarin. And it's really wonderful.
In all your life experiences, professional, personal, political – are we talking about the Kerry brand of family values?
I think the Kerry brand of family values is an American brand of family values. ... It's standing up for what is so deeply American which is reaching out and helping other people. It's what America has been known for for so long. It's reaching out and helping people who are less well off. It's ingrained in us, and John and I both have found spouses who believe in the same values. I believe it's so important that you find someone to share your life with who has the same deep commitment to the same values.
Lucy Komisar is a freelance journalist in New York.