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The Senator And The Lady
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
She backed away ever so slightly, printing in her column of January 7 the main points of his letter and quoting from the most important sections of it. Still not satisfied, the Senator wrote three days later that while the column was helpful, he wished she would state categorically that she had been unable to find evidence to justify rumors about buying the election. In this particularly tactful, almost gentle letter he apologized for burdening her with too lengthy a correspondence, but—and here was his turn to twist the knife—he wished she would totally repudiate false allegations against him “because I am totally familiar with your long fight against the use of unsubstantiated charges. …” Mrs. Roosevelt relented partway, assuring Kennedy in her reply that if anyone asked her in the future, she would assert that she had his word “that the rumors are not true.” Then, in her first gracious gesture to him, she wrote, “If you want another column I will write it—just tell me.” Kennedy, satisfied that her weapon had been put down, at least for a while, responded that he would not ask for another column, but he hoped that they would get together in the future to discuss other matters, appreciating “your consideration and courtesy. …”
But the feeling between them was not good. There would come a time of easy, flowing mutual warmth and affection, but that time was not the spring of 1958. Mrs. Roosevelt had supported Jack Kennedy for the Senate against Henry Cabot Lodge in i95a because he was a Democrat, but now she doubted his qualifications for the White House. Besides thinking he was young and inexperienced, she had four other reasons for opposing Kennedy. On the positive side was her devotion to Adlai Stevenson. Of three negative reasons, two—that John F. Kennedy was a Catholic, and he was the son of Joseph Kennedy—she later admitted were not entirely fair or rational. The final explanation was her strong view that an Irish-Catholic senator from an Irish-Catholic constituency, who purported to be a liberal, could have taken a significant role in helping to block the foul assault made by Joe McCarthy on civil liberties in the early igSo’s. No matter how many times friends of Senator Kennedy’s repeated the basic facts of his opposition to McCarthy, she remained unconvinced that he could not have done much more. Those facts included Kennedy’s having ignored a personal plea from McCarthy to vote against confirmation of Harvard’s James Conant as ambassador to West Germany, helping to block McCarthy’s friend Robert Lee from appointment to the Federal Communications Commission, and preparing a speech to be made on the Senate floor explaining why he was going to vote in favor of the motion to censure the Wisconsin senator.
Kennedy never made the speech, because the Senate voted to curtail debate before his turn came; and he never voted on the censure motion itself, because he was in a New York hospital, where he developed a perilous infection following a spinal-fusion operation. He lay ill for five weeks, too ill even to discuss what was going on in the Senate. Of course Mrs. Roosevelt’s point was not about the censure vote itself. She thought that someone who had written a book on profiles in courage—a very heroic title, as even Kennedy might have admitted—ought to exhibit courage precisely on the big issues when the political cost might be high.
Mrs. Roosevelt understood politics. She did not expect Hubert Humphrey to come out against farm subsidies or Lyndon Johnson to oppose the oil-depletion allowance, but the McCarthy issue was something else. It went to the question of democracy itself, and Kennedy, she believed, had a margin of safety in which to help lead the nation away from McCarthyism. He should have socked it to McCarthy, even if it had cost him some votes.
Her fears about the Catholic Church were typical of liberals in the igSo’s. She worried about the temporal power of the Church, opposed federal aid to parochial schools (except for transportation), had supported Loyalist Spain in the thirties, and was furious when New York City’s public schools banned The Nation from their libraries in response to Catholic pressure without a public hearing. When she wrote a column on the school-aid issue, Francis Cardinal Spellman, later a tough foe of Kennedy in his bid for the Presidency, delivered a sweeping public attack against her that was echoed in Catholic journals throughout the United States and Europe.
When J.F.K. began to speak out forcefully and clearly on the separation of Church and State, Mrs. Roosevelt’s nervousness was relieved. But in 1958 the Senator’s record was not that clear, and the terrible battles between Catholics and liberals during the i g4o’s and early 5o’s were fresh in her mind. An open person who wanted to be totally free of prejudice, Mrs. Roosevelt had thrown over the genteel anti-Semitism of her youth; but in 1958 it was still common for liberal Protestants to be anti-Catholic.
Although she had strongly supported Al Smith for President in 1928, she was nagged by the thought that a Catholic President in the i goo’s might further strengthen the temporal power of the Church in the United States. Nothing could have been further from the truth in Kennedy’s case, as his election proved. Following the Al Smith dinner in 1960 Dave Powers complained about the hostility of Cardinal Spellman toward Kennedy, especially in contrast to his friendship with Nixon. Powers queried: “Why are so many of those top Catholics like Spellman against you?” Smiling broadly, the Senator replied with a question of his own: “Dave, who is the most powerful Catholic in the United States right now?” “Why, Cardinal Spellman, of course,” Powers answered. “And who,” said Kennedy, “will be the most powerful Catholic in this country after I am elected President?”