The Senator And The Lady

PrintPrintEmailEmail

I doubt if Mrs. Roosevelt had much understanding of the relationship between Kennedy and his father. She had been devoted and uncritical toward hers and had a rich fantasy life about him before and even after he died when she was a young girl. He had been a phantom, touching her life infrequently by his real presence but constantly in her imagination. The only other father she knew well—Franklin—was as different a father from Joe Kennedy as he was from her own. Franklin was often indifferent to his children, sometimes indulgent, but rarely involved. Joe Kennedy was enormously involved in the lives of his children, but he never tried to force a particular line of thinking on Jack. Once the father boasted to a friend that he had set up trust funds for each of his children so that they could be completely independent financially and “could look me in the eye and tell me to go to hell.” He encouraged John and his older brother, Joe, Jr., to study with the Socialist theoretician Harold J. Laski at the London School of Economics, even though the father thought Laski was “a nut and a crank.” The elder Kennedy relished a good verbal battle at the dinner table, especially if the two boys fought on the same side against him.

These things Mrs. Roosevelt did not know; I understood some of them better on that lovely afternoon at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel when Kennedy shot out questions and comments to me about fathers and sons. “Well look,” he said, “don’t you love your father?” And then he went on, “I love my father. But that doesn’t mean I have to agree with him. We hardly agree on anything. Why, he’s to the right of Herbert Hoover. Do you agree with your father on everything in politics?” When I said that I didn’t, he queried angrily, “Then why the hell are they so prejudiced?” He pointed out that the only time his father, allegedly an anti-Semite, tried to put pressure on him concerning a Senate vote was when he tried to persuade Jack to vote to confirm the nomination of the extremely conservative Lewis Strauss, who was Jewish, to be chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. It was a close thing, explained Kennedy, not because of his father’s pressure, but because the Senate ought to let a President choose his own men. But Strauss had shown himself too narrow (read reactionary) to hold that critical spot, and Kennedy voted against him.

Kennedy moved quickly across the hotel room, throwing toilet articles and shirts in his suitcase, practically shouting, “Don’t you love your father? I love my father.” Later he told several friends, as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., reported it in A Thousand Days , that the elder Kennedy had a way of making “his children feel that they were the most important things in the world to him. He was terribly interested in everything we were doing. He held up standards for us, and he was very tough when we failed to meet those standards.” There was much more to this father than Mrs. Roosevelt could possibly have known. And much more to the son.

Even if she had known it all, Mrs. Roosevelt would have preferred Stevenson for 1960. I talked to her frequently of Kennedy, and she listened carefully, but the twice-beaten noncandidate Adlai was her choice. Although she was devoted to him, she understood his limitations. She told me of the talk she had had with him after he lost in 1952. “Look,” she said. “You’re never going to get elected President of the United States unless you can feel with the little people. It’s not enough to understand them intellectually; you have to feel with them. You should spend the next four years driving around the country, getting out at the gas stations and the lunch counters, sitting down and listening to people. Try to understand them, not just in an intellectual way, but feel their problems so you’ll be able to communicate with them.” Despite his remoteness from ordinary people she loved him. He held for her a fascination, I think, not just because of his intellectual depth or artistry with words, but because she found in him a deep sense of compassion and tragedy. He may not have communicated a warm feeling to many people, but he knew about humanity, its foibles and its agonies. I remember being amazed to see at her house on Seventy-fourth Street in Manhattan the picture she had of him in her bedroom on her dressing table. It was larger than any other in the room, I think, even larger than pictures of her husband.

Mrs. Roosevelt’s consistent objection to Kennedy was, as far as I could make out, that he was not Adlai Stevenson. In our conversations she would always come back to her conviction that Stevenson was a farseeing statesman, wise and mature. I sensed something more. That for her he embodied a constancy to ethical principles in human relationships that a far more able statesman and politician—her own Franklin—didn’t have.

Steadfast in her support for Stevenson in our conversations, she became increasingly curious about Kennedy. She would ask questions about him and seemed to listen attentively to my positive answers, as I presume she did to those of others, including three of her sons. Still, she told me repeatedly in 1959, the best ticket would be Adlai for President and “your young man” for Vice President. By the beginning of 1960 she had dropped the adjective “young.”