- Historic Sites
The Senator And The Lady
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
Kennedy’s inaugural speech moved Mrs. Roosevelt deeply. She saw it as a call to service, and nothing was more important to her than that. I remember once asking her to let me cut and serve apple pie following one of her simple lunches at Val-Kill. “Oh no,” she exclaimed, “don’t you know I like to serve ?’ She practically shouted the words “like” and “serve.” For at least two years she had been promoting the idea of a national service corps of young people to work at home and abroad in volunteer helping relationships as an alternative to military activity. Now, as she wrote him following his state-of-the-union message, she was delighted with Kennedy’s proposal for a Peace Corps. For Franklin she had been a gadfly (some said gad-about), spur to conscience, and ombudswoman for the relatively powerless. Tentatively she began to renew those roles with the new President, urging a particular appointment to the head of the Children’s Bureau, visiting him with a list of eligible women for appointments to the administration, pressing him in a letter on the need to protect impoverished American migratory workers, and asking him to make the administration more responsive to the plight of sick and disabled veterans. She found in Kennedy a sympathetic ear, in some ways perhaps more responsive than Franklin had been. The new President never wrote back that her position was politically naive, as Franklin sometimes told her. He met her requests for appointments whenever possible, and he wrote thoughtful, direct answers in response to her queries. When he thanked her for a letter she had written about the failure of the Veterans’ Administration to inform certain ex-servicemen of their rights, the President reported that he had instructed the new administrator of veterans’ affairs to attend to the individuals about whose problems she complained. He concluded, “I hope you will never hesitate to call matters like this to my personal attention. As you well know, there is real need in this Office to cut through whenever possible to the problems of individuals in need of genuine help. Your personal assistance on that will be deeply appreciated.”
For Kennedy there were trade offs. He used the Lady well, appointing her to the National Advisory Council of the Peace Corps, as representative to the fifteenth session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, as the head of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, and asked her to join Walter Reuther and Milton Eisenhower on a private fund-raising committee that was to buy tractors to send to Cuba in exchange for the release of twelve hundred prisoners, a project that ultimately failed. For her readiness to serve, Kennedy was keenly appreciative.
By the spring of 1961, when Mrs. Roosevelt and I were seeing a good deal of each other (we were teaching a course together again), the relationship between the President and the Lady was blooming. Sometime in late winter or early spring, while eating dinner at my house, she glowed in her praise of Kennedy. She had particularly appreciated the kindness of the President and his wife in having her visit the White House. Impressed and delighted with the way Jacqueline Kennedy was redecorating the White House, she said something like “Franklin would turn over in his grave if he saw it, but I love it. He would never have let me do anything like that.” (Not that she would have thought of it herself in those days.) The zest of the Kennedys impressed her, and she told happily of their tearing down walls in the W.hite House, rearranging rooms, and putting in new colors. Kennedy was her young man now.
Driving her back to Brandeis, where she would sleep for the night, I could feel Mrs. Roosevelt become a little tense. “Do you believe,” she blurted, “the stories they tell about Kennedy having mistresses in New York?” I said that I did not believe them. She came back emphatically, “Well, good, I don’t either. People used to tell stories about Franklin, too.” And then, almost as an afterthought, she mentioned, “With all those Secret Service following you around, it’s a little ridiculous, anyway, isn’t it?” In a dozen conversations with Mrs. Roosevelt about her husband she never had a negative thing to say about him to me. Now her fierce partisanship and loyalty were given to another President.
I had said good-bye to Mrs. Roosevelt in August, 1961, leaving for the Philippines to become director of the Peace Corps there (she had pushed me for another job in Washington but was delighted when I took an assignment in her beloved Peace Corps). I knew nothing then about her growing satisfaction with Robert Kennedy’s record as Attorney General or her enjoyment over the lively correspondence she developed with Mrs. Kennedy. But I left with the satisfaction of knowing that her own sense of hope had been renewed by this new President. I remember how she used to say that the most important thing Franklin Roosevelt did was to give people hope. I think that was what she liked—the zesty, problem-solving, hope-giving approach to life that Kennedy’s personality and convictions exuded. He was a life-affirming person who knew tragedy and felt irony but still cared.