The Senator And The Lady

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I REMEMBER

She was the most powerful woman in America, if not the world. He was the junior senator from the state of Massachusetts. She wanted no position or favor, only to extend her already enormous influence, something she professed not to have. He wanted desperately to become the next President of the United States. Clearly he was at a disadvantage.

I saw Mrs. Roosevelt weekly in the spring of 1958 and throughout the academic years of 1959-60 and 1960-61. We taught a seminar together on international law and organization at Brandeis University. She adopted me and my family as she did so many others. There were visits to her cottage at Val-Kill and dinners at my home in Massachusetts. From there we would drive to the campus, where she usually slept the night before our morning class. Then breakfast in the mornings to prepare for the seminar or just as often to talk politics.

On one of those weekend visits to the cottage in the fall of 1959 Mrs. Roosevelt included us for dinner with Henry Morgenthau n, the Secretary of the Treasury under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John Roosevelt, her youngest son, both of whom lived nearby. The conversation was heady for a professor of politics at a small university. Son John, a Wall Street securities broker, favored Richard Nixon for President; lifelong Democrat Morgenthau thought Nelson Rockefeller much the best candidate; Mrs. Roosevelt was convinced that Adlai Stevenson, of all the names mentioned for the Presidency, was the only one with the maturity and wisdom to be a great Chief Executive; I spoke up for John Kennedy when I could, convinced, as he had said to me and many others, that the only way Stevenson would ever get near the White House would be if he had an invitation from J.F.K. That evening Mrs. Roosevelt and I began a series of talks about Kennedy that lasted one and a half years and that, along with talks I had with the Senator, are reported here for the first time.

Mrs. Roosevelt was not strongly antagonistic toward Kennedy that night. He was a fine senator, she acknowledged surprisingly; but didn’t I think that he was rather young and inexperienced? Shouldn’t he get more seasoning? For many months after when she spoke to me of Kennedy, she would call him “your young Senator” or “your young man from Massachusetts.” Didn’t I think he would make a fine Vice President under Adlai? she wanted to know.

Mrs. Roosevelt had not thought Kennedy Vice-Presidential caliber in 1956. Then that usually gracious and generous lady had taken a scalpel to Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in a meeting that had been arranged by a mutual friend. Kennedy wanted her to support him for the Vice-Presidency and to speak to Stevenson, the Presidential nominee and her good friend, on his behalf. Instead she lectured the Senator in a room full of people for his not having taken a stronger stand against Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunting tactics in the early fifties.

The Lady lanced the Senator again in December, 1958, on an ABC television program called “College News Conference,” praising his charm but doubting that he had the independence to have the courage that he so admired in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage . She repeated a report that “Senator Kennedy’s father had been spending oodles of money all over the country and probably has a paid representative in every state by now.” Kennedy was appalled by this loosening of the tongue, and on December 11 he wrote Mrs. Roosevelt to protest that she could not name one paid representative or give a single example of spending by his father to obtain the Presidency for him. She replied sixteen days later with a frosty letter, indulging the McCarthy tactics she so deplored. “I was told,” she wrote, “that your father said openly he would spend any money to make his son the first Catholic president of this country, and many people as I travel abroad tell me of money spent by him on your behalf. This,” she concluded, “seems commonly accepted as a fact.”

Kennedy realized it would do him no good to provoke Mrs. Roosevelt further, since she currently led every public-opinion poll as the most admired woman in the world. But he did say in a thoughtful reply that he was disappointed that she seemed to accept rumor as fact. He hoped, he said, that she would correct the record in a “fair and gracious manner … consistent with your reputation for fairness.”