- Historic Sites
The Senator And The Lady
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
Once again a mutual friend, Hyman Bookbinder, planned a rendezvous, this time through Ted Sorensen. Once more Kennedy was nervous. Bookbinder and Sorensen arranged for Kennedy to be invited to make an address at Hyde Park on August 14 commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the signing of the Social Security Act by F.D.R. He would come, said Kennedy, but only if Mrs. Roosevelt wanted him to be at Hyde Park. She sent back the message that she would welcome a private meeting with the Senator.
The moment was inauspicious, it turned out, because John Roosevelt’s daughter Sally was killed in a fall from a horse the night before the scheduled speech and meeting. Although Kennedy probably did not know that Sally was one of the grandchildren Mrs. Roosevelt saw frequently, since John lived nearby, and that she was particularly proud of and devoted to her grandchildren, he was sensitive enough to suggest that their private talk be postponed. But Eleanor’s code—service, duty, graciousness—would not permit indulgence in private sorrow. “I insist on seeing you,” the word went back.
They talked the next day after the rally, which she did not attend. Now the kindliness for which she was famous enveloped Kennedy. She wanted him to know, she reported to her friends, that he was welcome at her house and that she was grateful he would take the trouble to come to see her. He had expected her to demand Adlai Stevenson’s appointment as Secretary of State in exchange for her support. Mrs. Roosevelt must have known that Stevenson would have to win that job on his own. She did urge him to bring Chester Bowles and Stevenson into the campaign whenever he could but made it a point not to ask for anything else and actually told Kennedy that he should choose his Cabinet members without making any promises or commitments to anybody in advance of his election.
Kennedy was delighted. When Ken O’Donnell asked Dave Powers how he had gotten along with the First Lady, Dave reported that “the Senator came out of there like a boy who has just made a good confession. It was a great load off his mind.” William Wallon, Kennedy’s good friend, who went along to Hyde Park and spent a few minutes with Eleanor and Jack, said, according to Joe Lash, that Kennedy left Eleanor “absolutely smitten by this woman. …” No doubt he was enormously grateful and relieved.
In talks I had with Mrs. Roosevelt later about her reconciliation with Kennedy, she made light of it. Earlier she had complained mildly about what she called his “cocksuredness”; now she spoke of his openness and willingness to learn, qualities she had had represented to her by me, her sons, and others for months. Anyway, the facts were there. Kennedy was the Democratic nominee with dozens of strong liberals in his corner. Nixon, whom she considered to be a particularly small-minded, manipulative, and untrustworthy person, was the opposition. Kennedy sought an ally; he won a devoted friend.
Wanting to nourish the relationship, Kennedy wrote to assure Mrs. Roosevelt that he would work closely with Stevenson and Bowles and that he was happy she would be active in the campaign. She spoke for him in out-of-the-way places, at small Negro colleges, to liberal groups who followed her every word, and to labor and the poor, for whom F.D.R. remained a saint. As the campaign progressed her respect for Kennedy grew (except on the Cuban issue). After the election Kennedy was grateful for her help. He wanted her in the Presidential box at the inauguration, where she would be warm and comfortable, but she preferred to sit in the stands below in the twenty-degree cold, wrapped in an army blanket. She could stand that; it would not be as cold as those icy baths her grandmother used to make her take when she was a child. With her exquisite sense of the fitness of things she knew she did not belong in the box. She had not been an early booster, nor had she been a central figure in the campaign. Besides, it was time for the young man to have as much of the limelight as possible for himself.