- Historic Sites
The Senator And The Lady
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
But Mrs. Roosevelt was not privy, as were Dave Powers, Ken O’Donnell, and other Catholic friends, to Kennedy’s skepticism about certain members of the hierarchy. She probably never thought that he, unlike her one-time friend Al Smith, lived almost entirely apart from the world of Holy Name societies, Knights of Columbus, and Communion breakfasts. Kennedy was yet to make publicly known his view that priests had no special competence in public matters and his growing conviction that a strict separation of Church and State was necessary for a pluralistic democracy. Following his nomination and election Kennedy would quip more frequently with friends about his Catholicism. He once wrote to John Cogley of Commonweal: “It is hard for a Harvard man to answer questions in theology. I imagine my answers will cause heartburn at Fordham and BC [Boston College].” Another time, when Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., handed him a speech draft in the 1960 campaign with the observation that it was possibly too Catholic, Kennedy replied with a smile, “You Unitarians [meaning Schlesinger and Sorensen] keep writing Catholic speeches. I guess I’m the only Protestant around here.” He reminded a 1961 gridiron-dinner audience of a popular anti-Catholic story following Al Smith’s defeat in 1928. As told by gleeful non-Catholics, Governor Smith, immediately upon learning of his loss to Herbert Hoover, sent a one-word telegram to the pope: “Unpack!” Tongue in cheek, Kennedy said that after his stand against federal aid to parochial schools the pope sent him a one-word cable. This one said: “Pack.”
None of these things Mrs. Roosevelt could anticipate. What she did know was that during his first years in Congress, Kennedy supported federal aid-to-education programs in which private and parochial students would share funds for nonreligious textbooks and health services as well as for bus transportation. She had heard that in 1947 he declined to attend the dedication of a memorial chapel in a Protestant church on the advice of Cardinal Dougherty of Philadelphia. (As he later explained, in 1960, Kennedy based his refusal on the fact that he had no credentials to attend as a representative of the Catholic Church, but he would have been delighted to join in the dedication had he been invited as a public official.) Also, in 1954, he stated that he would vote for an ambassador to the Papal See (a position he reversed later) if a nomination were submitted to the Senate (Presidents Roosevelt and Truman had favored representation at the Vatican). But most important of all in Mrs. Roosevelt’s view was that Kennedy’s family was known to be close to members of the Catholic hierarchy, and his father was reported to be a heavy contributor to Catholic causes. Mrs. Roosevelt’s hostility toward the father was unambiguous and from the Senator’s point of view irrational and unfair. Even she knew that. In the second volume of his biography of Mrs. Roosevelt, Joseph P. Lash tells of a conversation she had on Memorial Day, 1960, with Representative Richard Boiling of Missouri, a leading White House liberal and Kennedy partisan: “She knew the sins of the father should not be visited on the sons, she explained apologetically to Boiling, but she had to admit she was strongly affected by her feeling about Joe Kennedy.”
When I had told her earlier that year that the Senator thought she was prejudiced against him because of his father, she readily admitted that she thought the father was a narrow-minded, bigoted, and power-hungry man but that she would try to judge John F. Kennedy on his own merits. It was a struggle for her. The father, when President Roosevelt’s ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, seemed to acquiesce in Hitler’s growing power in Europe. Mrs. Roosevelt remembered one conversation in particular, a luncheon at Hyde Park with the ambassador, when he appeared to be almost indifferent to the plight of those being trampled under Hitler’s boot.
It was that conversation between Mrs. R. and his father to which Kennedy referred when we talked for almost an hour in Hawaii in the spring of 1959. I was writing a book on ethnic politics; he was seeking delegate votes for the upcoming Democratic convention in 1960. Talking with me alone in his room at the elegant Royal Hawaiian Hotel, he thought it absurd that Mrs. Roosevelt did not see him as a genuine heir to her own husband’s policies. There was no other explanation for her opposition or those of her liberal friends than prejudice against his religion and his father, he asserted. When I explained that the main ground for her reluctance to support him was her strong preference for Stevenson in contrast to his youth and relative inexperience, he repeated, “It’s just a matter of prejudice; it’s an argument she had with my father thirty years ago.” When I answered back that it was more complicated than that, he was sharp. “You just don’t know,” he said. “She hates my father.”