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The Senator And The Lady
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
She had told me that she would not and could not come out for Stevenson unless he was willing to be a candidate. In keeping with that policy Mrs. Roosevelt planned not to go to the Democratic National Convention. As she put it to me in May and early June, it was time for her to step out of the limelight and let her sons in. They would be there, playing important roles. If she came, they would be over-shadowed. Of course there was the deeper reason. Stevenson refused to make his move. Without that Mrs. Roosevelt was reluctant to move herself. She wanted no part of a stop-Kennedy movement that would lead to the nomination of Symington or Johnson. But the Stevenson fantasy lived on.
Mrs. Roosevelt and I talked politics before and after our last class at Brandeis on May 9. She remained firm in her intention not to attend the convention, making it clear that Kennedy was her second choice for President. Her dilemma was real. She did not want to stop Kennedy with the other hopefuls, and Adlai was doing nothing to get out in front on his own candidacy. Yet she felt it her duty (the big word in her life) to hold what was left of the Stevenson people together. That Stevenson had been beaten twice by Eisenhower did not daunt her, since she believed Nixon was beatable. That she ran the risk of having Johnson or Symington nominated did not, despite her usual political acumen, enter her conversation. She waived the possibility. The country badly needed a Stevenson-Kennedy ticket, and that was that.
On June 7, the very day she wrote in her column that she would not be coming out for any candidate until the national convention, she saw a story in the New York Times that told of prominent liberal friends planning an endorsement of Kennedy. One of them, Henry Steele Commager, was quoted as saying that he would have supported Stevenson if only he had been a candidate. On June 10, in a complete surprise to me, since I had talked with her by phone only a few days before, she announced that she had changed her mind and was going to the convention to plead for the nomination of Adlai Stevenson. In her statement she admitted that Kennedy was the leading candidate and said that she admired him for the way that he had campaigned; but since the failure of the summit conference between Eisenhower and Khrushchev she was convinced from her mail that most people wanted somebody as mature and experienced as Governor Stevenson to be President. She conluded that the strongest possible ticket would be Stevenson-Kennedy, acknowledging that it would ask a great deal of Mr. Kennedy to take second place. In consolation she offered that it would give him “the opportunity to grow and learn, and he is young enough yet to look forward to many more years of public service.” He was once again the “young Senator.”
Stevenson could hold out no longer and became an open candidate. The facts of the July convention are well known. Stevenson continued to gall the Kennedy people by passing the word to them that he was a reluctant candidate who could not let down his most devoted followers by not running. Mrs. Roosevelt was in the impossible position of trying to light fires for Adlai without scorching Kennedy. At her first and major press conference in Chicago she praised Kennedy and repeated that the best ticket would be Stevenson and Kennedy. Could Kennedy as a Presidential candidate win Negro support? she wondered. Would vicious prejudice against Catholicism hurt him as a Presidential candidate? Wasn’t a move from the Senate to the White House too quick a jump for such a young man? They were fair questions, but some Kennedy people wondered again if she were now a part of a stop-Kennedy drive, pure and simple, even if it meant the nomination of Johnson.
Kennedy supporters were angered further when Eugene McCarthy, who was known to be for Lyndon Johnson, made an eloquent speech placing Stevenson’s name in nomination. The word was passed from Kennedy to Mrs. Roosevelt that it was not too late for Stevenson to sew up the Secretary of State position if only he would announce for Kennedy to unite the liberals and foreclose a Johnson nomination. But Mrs. Roosevelt said she would not pressure Stevenson to withdraw. When the Kennedy men spoke to Stevenson, he repeated that he was a candidate only because Mrs. Roosevelt and others pushed him so hard. Kennedy, the ironist, knew what was going on, smiled a little, cursed more, and won on the first ballot without help from the Lady or her candidate.
Mrs. Roosevelt was unhappy, but not especially at Kennedy. She was annoyed with Stevenson’s indecisiveness and angry with the control that Carmine de Sapio held over the New York State delegation. After the balloting she left quickly for the airport, where nominee-elect Kennedy tried to reach her by telephone. She refused to take the call, but he tried again, and they had a hurried conversation in which nothing of consequence was said. If he had something to tell her, he could reach her through Franklin, Jr., she told him. The Senator, now a nominee for the most powerful office in the world, was still pursuing the Lady.
When I saw Mrs. Roosevelt again after the convention, she made pleasant compliments about Kennedy. But she did not join Herbert Lehman as an honorary head of Kennedy’s committee in New York at first, still slightly skeptical of his bona fides as a liberal. Kennedy, relentless in his pursuit, looked upon Mrs. Roosevelt as something of a sovereign state. If not friendship, at least he needed a treaty of alliance from her. It was time to parley.