By Christina Cheakalos
Updated October 16, 2000 12:00 PM

Kerry Kennedy Cuomo listens closely while her three little girls play their favorite dinner-table game. This time Cara, 5, is making up a story about an old man and his garden. Suddenly she stops and looks at her mom. That’s Kennedy Cuomo’s cue to take it from there. “The man had a nasty little gnome who worked for him, and the gnome used to pinch and bite and scratch and tell tales and hit everyone,” says Kennedy Cuomo, 41. “And his name waaas?” “Pinochet!” shouts a triumphant Mariah, Cara’s twin.

Most kindergartners might be more familiar with Pinocchio than Augusto Pinochet, the former dictator of Chile. But in this family, human rights parables are served up along with the meat loaf. Not surprising, when Mom is the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and Dad is Andrew Cuomo, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and son of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. “It’s something I have always shared with my kids and I hope they will embrace,” says Kennedy Cuomo of her human rights activism.

Now she has taken her passion from the dinner table to a wider public with a new book, Speak Truth to Power, which spotlights 51 human rights advocates. Kennedy Cuomo hopes that the profiles (accompanied by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Eddie Adams’s portraits) will inspire Americans to help right the world’s wrongs. “This is not a survey about human rights around the world,” she says. “This is much more of a spiritual journey about the best humanity has to offer.”

She traveled to 40 countries over two years to interview Nobel Prize winners, including Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, and lesser-known crusaders such as Juliana Dogbadzi of Ghana, who was given away into slavery as a child and now campaigns against the practice, which persists in her country. Kennedy Cuomo has long loved the road, though. “I’m told that as a child, when my dad was alive, I’d get up, put on my coat and go sit in the back of his car,” she says, laughing. “The driver would just go around the neighborhood—as long as I had my little trip, I was happy,”

Yet she was just a toddler when she learned that heroes can become martyrs. She lost her uncle John F. Kennedy when she was 4. Her father was assassinated five years later, in 1968. Kennedy Cuomo says she tries to honor her father’s credo. “He spoke about the capacity for an individual to make a difference,” she says. “That’s like the people in the book.”

She also learned from her father to embrace both public service and religious faith. “Kerry’s heart is so big,” her mother, Ethel, says proudly. The 11 Kennedy children said their prayers together on the stairwell of their Hickory Hill estate in Virginia. It was, Kennedy Cuomo says, “the one place where everybody could fit.” That faith has sustained her through the deaths of brothers David, who overdosed on drugs in 1984 at 28, and Michael, who was killed in a skiing accident at 39 in 1997. “Mourning is tough,” she says. “But faith and family are the greatest sources of strength.”

From the time she could walk, Kennedy Cuomo—the seventh child-learned to stand up for herself. “She had to hold her own with her big brothers,” says her sister, Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Town-send, 49, who quips, “That gave her a sense of justice for the little person.”

Kennedy Cuomo graduated from Vermont’s Putney School in 1977. Her interest in human rights grew during her college days at Brown University—she graduated in 1982—after a summer internship with Amnesty International. She examined cases of Salvadoran refugees who had been abused by U.S. immigration officials. “I was shocked and outraged, and determined to make a difference,” she says. After receiving a degree from Boston College Law School in 1986, she founded the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, which honors and aids activists around the world; the group also lobbies Congress to link foreign-aid grants to human rights issues and pressures governments to release political prisoners. She’s active in domestic issues too: Kennedy Cuomo attended the Million Mom March last May, where she spoke out against guns. “I was 8 years old when my father, Robert Kennedy, died at the hands of a man with a handgun,” she told the crowd. “This is one of killing’s cruelties. It leaves the work of love undone.”

Kennedy Cuomo, also active in Amnesty International, has undertaken 40 missions to 33 countries. She acknowledges that her celebrity helps open doors. But, she says, for the right cause she will happily trade on what she calls “my fancy last name.”

Her name got fancier in 1990, when she married Andrew Cuomo, now 42, in Washington, D.C.’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral where President Kennedy’s funeral mass was held. They met at a private dinner in 1988; he proposed at an Italian restaurant on Valentine’s Day two years later.

Rory Kennedy understands her big sister’s appeal. “Anything Kerry sees that is wrong, she tries to right,” says Kennedy, 31, a filmmaker in Manhattan. “She provided a great role model—from her courage to her zest for life. She has a full-bodied laugh and loves to tell stories.”

Kennedy Cuomo also knows how to listen. Those she interviewed for Speak Truth to Power—many of whom had been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs—marvel at her compassion and iron will. “I was impressed with her ability to penetrate and get directly to me,” says Bobby Muller, 55, who was paralyzed in the Vietnam War and went on to found the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. “She came marching in, and I couldn’t say no.” Neither could Ka Hswa Wa, a Burmese activist who was tortured by his country’s military. “She asked me where I got my courage,” he says. “I get courage from people like her.”

So does her husband. “What she’s done with this book can literally save people’s lives,” says Cuomo.

“It’s not every lifetime you get to say that.” The couple and their girls—the twins and Michaela, 3—live in a brick colonial house in McLean, Va., near her mother’s home. The family loves to hike and spend time at the beach on Martha’s Vineyard. An avid photographer, Kennedy Cuomo fills her home with pictures of the family at play. Though she hates to leave her kids for the two or three trips abroad she takes each year, she believes her human rights work sets an example for them. “You can’t live in the past and say, ‘if only,’ ” she says. “You have to pick up and move along and make the world better.”

Christina Cheakalos

Linda Kramer in McLean