NEW YORK – Caroline Kennedy emerged from weeks of near-silence Friday about her bid for a Senate seat by saying that after a lifetime of closely guarded privacy, she felt compelled to answer the call to service issued by her father a generation ago.
She said two events shaped her decision to ask Gov. David Paterson 11 days ago to consider her for the position if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is confirmed as secretary of state: the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and her work for Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
In her first sit-down interview since she emerged as a Senate hopeful, the 51-year-old daughter of President John F. Kennedy cited her father's legacy in explaining her decision to seek to serve alongside her uncle Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy.
"Many people remember that spirit that President Kennedy summoned forth," she said. "Many people look to me as somebody who embodies that sense of possibility. I'm not saying that I am anything like him, I'm just saying there's a spirit that I think I've grown up with that is something that means a tremendous amount to me."
She also credited her mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, with giving her the courage to seek the job.
"I think my mother ... made it clear that you have to live life by your own terms and you have to not worry about what other people think and you have to have the courage to do the unexpected," she said.
Since Kennedy expressed interest in the job, she has faced sometimes sharp criticism that she cut in line ahead of politicians with more experience and has acted as if she were entitled to it because of her political lineage. More than a half-dozen elected officials are vying for the seat, including New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and several members of Congress.
Kennedy said that she had long been encouraged to seek public office and that Clinton's expected departure from the Senate offered the perfect opportunity to follow in the footsteps of her father, two uncles and cousins.
"Going into politics is something people have asked me about forever," a relaxed Kennedy said as she ate a grilled cheese and bacon sandwich and sipped coffee at a diner in Manhattan. "When this opportunity came along, which was sort of unexpected, I thought, `Well, maybe now. How about now?'"
She said she realizes she will have to prove herself and "work twice as hard as anybody else." She acknowledged, "I am an unconventional choice," but added: "We're starting to see there are many ways into public life and public service."
Since Kennedy's name first surfaced as a possible replacement for Clinton, her advisers have shielded her from the media, with the exception of a few brief interviews on a swing through upstate New York and a visit to Harlem with the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Some commentators likened her to Sarah Palin in the way her dealings with the media were being carefully managed.
She agreed to sit down for interviews Friday with The Associated Press and NY1 television.
Kennedy acknowledged that her recent time in the limelight — after a relatively private life as a wife, mother of three, best-selling author and fundraiser in New York City — had not gone entirely smoothly.
But she said she had turned down interview requests and tried not to appear to be campaigning for the job because she knew that the choice rested solely with the Democratic governor.
"I was trying to respect the process. It is not a campaign," she said. "It was misinterpreted. If I were to be selected, I understand public servants have to be accessible."
Asked about criticism from other politicians and members of the public that she seems to regard herself as entitled to the job as a member of America's most storied political dynasty, she said: "Everybody that knows me knows I haven't really lived that way. ... Nobody's entitled to anything, certainly not me."
Kennedy chuckled when she was asked if her brother, the late John F. Kennedy Jr., had ever suggested she run for public office some day. "He usually thought about himself," she said. "He would be laughing his head off at seeing what's going on right now."
She also was asked to explain why she failed to vote in a number of elections since registering in New York City in 1988, including in 1994 when Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was up for re-election for the seat she hopes to take over.
"I was really surprised and dismayed by my voting record," she said. "I'm glad it's been brought to my attention."
Former New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, who urged Paterson last weekend to consider experienced members of Congress for the job, said she was glad to hear Kennedy was willing to "work twice as hard as others."
"I think it's great she understands she will have a tougher time," Ferraro said. "I don't know if she can work twice as hard because having been a member of Congress I know they work 24-7. They already work hard."