Kelly Craft brings her rural roots, lessons to the national—and international—scenes
A little girl in Glasgow, Kentucky, raised her hand in her classroom at Bunch Middle School in 1973 to ask a question about the map on the wall. Fascinated by the world beyond her rural Kentucky home, the girl wondered: Will I ever visit any of it?
Fast forward to a crisp Friday last fall. The location is the United Nations Security Council meeting in New York City, and that Glasgow girl—now 57 and serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations—raised her hand again, this time to deliver a statement on the unfolding catastrophe in Yemen.
“We are proud of our continued role as one of the largest humanitarian contributors,” she says, “because the programs the United States funds … have a profound impact on the lives of ordinary Yemenis.”
The speaker is Kelly Craft, a Kentuckian with a long history in Republican politics, now on a rocket ship ride up the diplomatic food chain.
“I developed the moral compass needed for this job growing up in Glasgow. It has never failed me,” Craft says over lunch at a nearby Italian restaurant, where the waitstaff (and many others around the city) has grown to love the new American ambassador in town. After just a few months on the job, Craft has earned a reputation for treating everyone she meets—from security guards to fellow ambassadors—with the same level of respect.
A voracious letter writer, Craft wakes at 4:30 a.m. to handwrite notes to every new acquaintance before embarking on a 7-mile run through Central Park. A personal aide says Craft’s letter production reaches several dozen per day.
“I like her a lot!” bubbles the young woman manning a check-in table in the lobby of the U.S. Mission to the U.N., Craft’s office.
“She’s very charismatic, but extremely humble,” says another State Department staffer. For her part, Craft readily admits she has a lot to learn and spends a large chunk of each morning reading briefing materials to prepare for the day’s meetings.
“She listens, and she has strong connections to Washington,” according to Scott Taylor, a member of the State Department staff that advises Craft. “She’s actively trying to jump into situations where the United States can bring hope.”
Every person has value
Craft, who previously served as President Donald Trump’s U.S. ambassador to Canada from 2017 until she won Senate confirmation to her current post in 2019, says she prays for a chance to make a difference every day.
“God, give me a life to change tomorrow,” is Craft’s faithful, and nightly, refrain.
Talk with Craft for any amount of time and it’s clear that her faith in God underpins her public service. An October trip to South Sudan, Africa’s newest nation but one afflicted by political strife, drought and massive food shortages, really stuck with her.
“I felt such a burden to help, especially the children,” Craft says, noting that some 7 million South Sudanese are hungry. “I was carrying all of them with me on that plane ride home.”
Despite the country’s challenges, Craft’s visit was marked by the international language of smiles. In the town of Malakal in the country’s Upper Nile region, dozens of young students exchanged laughter with the ambassador, who also heard from women widowed during the Sudanese civil war.
And even some 7,000 miles from home, Craft found a home-court advantage in South Sudan. When she made a special trip to visit some of the 800 boys and girls who play basketball at a court named after famous Sudan native Manute Bol, both she and the players were decked out in University of Kentucky basketball shirts. Craft and her husband, Joe, are proud supporters of the Wildcats.
“One of my biggest requests was to spend some time with the basketball program here,” Craft told local reporters, “because it really promotes sports diplomacy and each player here is a student, and to really stress the importance of education and that they are role models today.”
The world faces an overwhelming number of humanitarian crises, many of them in remote places. Craft thinks her upbringing in rural Kentucky provides an immediate connection to people who live nowhere near an urban area.
“I grew up on a farm. When you are raised around people who work with their hands for a living, you really understand that every single person on this earth has value,” Craft says.
It was no accident that Craft chose South Sudan as her first overseas trip. Her views on the need for U.S. engagement in Africa were formed years ago, during her first U.N. stint as a delegate appointed by President George W. Bush.
“President Bush’s example and his initiative to cure AIDS on the African continent instilled in me the value of using diplomatic positions to help the less fortunate. And that’s what I am going to do,” Craft says. “It all goes back to human dignity, and that’s what I carry with me from Kentucky to the United Nations.”
She says she is proud to have served under two Republican presidents, even though they had distinctly different styles. Craft is grateful to President Trump for allowing her, from her perch in Toronto, to help renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement before promoting her to the U.N.
“Your personality, Mr. President has … given voice to many who thought their voice, their place, their standing, was forgotten for good,” Craft wrote in a thank you to the president (handwritten, of course, on her signature blue, engraved stationery). In her Kentucky upbringing, Craft knows she encountered many of those “forgotten” Americans who found their way into Trump’s winning coalition.
Craft exudes an infectious sense that anything is possible, and she hopes to inspire young girls growing up in rural Kentucky to aim high. She didn’t expect to be in perhaps the most important diplomatic post held by a Kentuckian since Henry Clay served as secretary of state under President John Quincy Adams, but now that she holds it, it’s evident that Craft won’t squander the opportunity.
“I never want to face the question ‘Why didn’t you?’ when I go home to Kentucky,” Craft says. “And when I meet God, I’m trying to earn a simple, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”