Jean Kennedy Smith, who served as the United States ambassador to Ireland under Bill Clinton, died at 92

By Sean Neumann
June 26, 2020 07:35 PM
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Former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith and President Bill Clinton
PAUL J RICHARDS/AFP via Getty

President Bill Clinton remembers taking "a leap of faith" in appointing Jean Kennedy Smith as the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, at the request of her brother Ted Kennedy.

Jean, who died in her Manhattan apartment at 92 on June 17, was remembered by members of the Kennedy family, former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, and Irish politician Gerry Adams, who is the former head of Sinn Féin. During a virtual memorial for Jean, the last surviving sister of President John F. Kennedy, Clinton, 73, spoke about their time together during his presidency.

"What I didn't know then that I later came to appreciate most, was just how dogged she would be in the pursuit of peace," Clinton said on Thursday.

Clinton appointed Jean to be the U.S. ambassador to Ireland in 1993, when she was 65 years old. Jean went on to play a role in the peace talks within Northern Ireland, which was then plagued by religious violence that killed more than 3,000 people, according to the New York Times.

The former president said one thing he admired about Jean was "how hard she worked to make the other people believe" in peace. "And when they didn't believe she just kept pushing until she was confident they would," Clinton said. "I'm very grateful for that. We need people like that, especially now at this time of tribalism."

Jean was the second-youngest of the nine Kennedy siblings, but she outlived all eight of her brothers and sisters. Kym Smith, one of Jean's two daughters, recently told PEOPLE that "she lived an amazing life" and "was so generous, and she had a kind heart," adding that Jean "spoke about them [her siblings] all the time and how close they all were."

In her 2016 memoir, The Nine of Us: Growing Up Kennedy, Jean said that it was "hard for me to fully comprehend that I was growing up with brothers who eventually occupy the highest offices of our nation, including president of the United States,” according to the Associated Press.

During the virtual memorial, Clinton was the one seemingly in awe of what Jean accomplished in politics and in the push for global peace.

"What a force she was for people believing in what they had in common was more important than their interesting differences," the former president said. "She served well, she made a difference, and she was a blessing in my life and the life of our country at a very important time."

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Clinton also recalled how he came to appoint Jean as the country's Irish Ambassador. "When I was elected president, Ted Kennedy called me and said, 'I think you should name my sister Ambassador to Ireland,' " Clinton recounted. "I had known him for several years by then and I'd talked to all of our people I said, 'You know, we promised in New York we were going to get actively involved in the Irish peace process. It's going to be controversial. I think it will help if Jean Kennedy Smith is an ambassador.' "

Clinton said the State Department was "very nervous" about the idea of getting too involved with Irish peace talks because it could potentially have threatened the United States' relationship with the United Kingdom.

"Well, the Irish had a special relationship with America too, and I thought we had a special responsibility and a real opportunity," Clinton said. So, he appointed Jean, who he believed could have a positive impact on Ireland's peace talks.

Portrait of members of the Kennedy family at their home on the night after John F. Kennedy won the 1960 US Presidential election, in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, November 9, 1960.
Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty
Left to right: Kennedy Sisters Jean, Pat (1924 - 2006) & Eunice Kennedy, kids Caroline & John Jr., widow Jacqueline, Pres. Clinton, Ed Schlossberg & Ted Kennedy at John F. Kennedy Library opening.
Diana Walker/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty

In addition, Clinton said Jean stuck up for his push to grant Adams a visa to the U.S. and to name former Sen. George Mitchell the Special Envoy to Northern Ireland after he left the Senate — both controversial moves at the time, Clinton remembered.

"She was a dogged, unbending supporter," Clinton remembered. "When President Mary McAleese conferred honorary Irish citizenship on Jean, she said that she had 'rarely known anyone who had such fixedness of purpose.' That is a delicate way of saying, 'You didn't want to be between her and an objective that she deeply believed in.' "

The former president remembered Jean as someone who "was willing to break a few dishes" and "ruffle a few feathers to keep people focused and moving ahead."

"And I'll always be grateful for it," Clinton said.