October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
She was the most powerful woman in America, if not the world. He was the junior senator from the state of Massachusetts. She wanted no position or favor, only to extend her already enormous influence, something she professed not to have. He wanted desperately to become the next President of the United States. Clearly he was at a disadvantage.
I saw Mrs. Roosevelt weekly in the spring of 1958 and throughout the academic years of 1959-60 and 1960-61. We taught a seminar together on international law and organization at Brandeis University. She adopted me and my family as she did so many others. There were visits to her cottage at Val-Kill and dinners at my home in Massachusetts. From there we would drive to the campus, where she usually slept the night before our morning class. Then breakfast in the mornings to prepare for the seminar or just as often to talk politics.
On one of those weekend visits to the cottage in the fall of 1959 Mrs. Roosevelt included us for dinner with Henry Morgenthau n, the Secretary of the Treasury under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John Roosevelt, her youngest son, both of whom lived nearby. The conversation was heady for a professor of politics at a small university. Son John, a Wall Street securities broker, favored Richard Nixon for President; lifelong Democrat Morgenthau thought Nelson Rockefeller much the best candidate; Mrs. Roosevelt was convinced that Adlai Stevenson, of all the names mentioned for the Presidency, was the only one with the maturity and wisdom to be a great Chief Executive; I spoke up for John Kennedy when I could, convinced, as he had said to me and many others, that the only way Stevenson would ever get near the White House would be if he had an invitation from J.F.K. That evening Mrs. Roosevelt and I began a series of talks about Kennedy that lasted one and a half years and that, along with talks I had with the Senator, are reported here for the first time.
Mrs. Roosevelt was not strongly antagonistic toward Kennedy that night. He was a fine senator, she acknowledged surprisingly; but didn’t I think that he was rather young and inexperienced? Shouldn’t he get more seasoning? For many months after when she spoke to me of Kennedy, she would call him “your young Senator” or “your young man from Massachusetts.” Didn’t I think he would make a fine Vice President under Adlai? she wanted to know.
Mrs. Roosevelt had not thought Kennedy Vice-Presidential caliber in 1956. Then that usually gracious and generous lady had taken a scalpel to Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in a meeting that had been arranged by a mutual friend. Kennedy wanted her to support him for the Vice-Presidency and to speak to Stevenson, the Presidential nominee and her good friend, on his behalf. Instead she lectured the Senator in a room full of people for his not having taken a stronger stand against Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunting tactics in the early fifties.
The Lady lanced the Senator again in December, 1958, on an ABC television program called “College News Conference,” praising his charm but doubting that he had the independence to have the courage that he so admired in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage . She repeated a report that “Senator Kennedy’s father had been spending oodles of money all over the country and probably has a paid representative in every state by now.” Kennedy was appalled by this loosening of the tongue, and on December 11 he wrote Mrs. Roosevelt to protest that she could not name one paid representative or give a single example of spending by his father to obtain the Presidency for him. She replied sixteen days later with a frosty letter, indulging the McCarthy tactics she so deplored. “I was told,” she wrote, “that your father said openly he would spend any money to make his son the first Catholic president of this country, and many people as I travel abroad tell me of money spent by him on your behalf. This,” she concluded, “seems commonly accepted as a fact.”
Kennedy realized it would do him no good to provoke Mrs. Roosevelt further, since she currently led every public-opinion poll as the most admired woman in the world. But he did say in a thoughtful reply that he was disappointed that she seemed to accept rumor as fact. He hoped, he said, that she would correct the record in a “fair and gracious manner … consistent with your reputation for fairness.”
She backed away ever so slightly, printing in her column of January 7 the main points of his letter and quoting from the most important sections of it. Still not satisfied, the Senator wrote three days later that while the column was helpful, he wished she would state categorically that she had been unable to find evidence to justify rumors about buying the election. In this particularly tactful, almost gentle letter he apologized for burdening her with too lengthy a correspondence, but—and here was his turn to twist the knife—he wished she would totally repudiate false allegations against him “because I am totally familiar with your long fight against the use of unsubstantiated charges. …” Mrs. Roosevelt relented partway, assuring Kennedy in her reply that if anyone asked her in the future, she would assert that she had his word “that the rumors are not true.” Then, in her first gracious gesture to him, she wrote, “If you want another column I will write it—just tell me.” Kennedy, satisfied that her weapon had been put down, at least for a while, responded that he would not ask for another column, but he hoped that they would get together in the future to discuss other matters, appreciating “your consideration and courtesy. …”
But the feeling between them was not good. There would come a time of easy, flowing mutual warmth and affection, but that time was not the spring of 1958. Mrs. Roosevelt had supported Jack Kennedy for the Senate against Henry Cabot Lodge in i95a because he was a Democrat, but now she doubted his qualifications for the White House. Besides thinking he was young and inexperienced, she had four other reasons for opposing Kennedy. On the positive side was her devotion to Adlai Stevenson. Of three negative reasons, two—that John F. Kennedy was a Catholic, and he was the son of Joseph Kennedy—she later admitted were not entirely fair or rational. The final explanation was her strong view that an Irish-Catholic senator from an Irish-Catholic constituency, who purported to be a liberal, could have taken a significant role in helping to block the foul assault made by Joe McCarthy on civil liberties in the early igSo’s. No matter how many times friends of Senator Kennedy’s repeated the basic facts of his opposition to McCarthy, she remained unconvinced that he could not have done much more. Those facts included Kennedy’s having ignored a personal plea from McCarthy to vote against confirmation of Harvard’s James Conant as ambassador to West Germany, helping to block McCarthy’s friend Robert Lee from appointment to the Federal Communications Commission, and preparing a speech to be made on the Senate floor explaining why he was going to vote in favor of the motion to censure the Wisconsin senator.
Kennedy never made the speech, because the Senate voted to curtail debate before his turn came; and he never voted on the censure motion itself, because he was in a New York hospital, where he developed a perilous infection following a spinal-fusion operation. He lay ill for five weeks, too ill even to discuss what was going on in the Senate. Of course Mrs. Roosevelt’s point was not about the censure vote itself. She thought that someone who had written a book on profiles in courage—a very heroic title, as even Kennedy might have admitted—ought to exhibit courage precisely on the big issues when the political cost might be high.
Mrs. Roosevelt understood politics. She did not expect Hubert Humphrey to come out against farm subsidies or Lyndon Johnson to oppose the oil-depletion allowance, but the McCarthy issue was something else. It went to the question of democracy itself, and Kennedy, she believed, had a margin of safety in which to help lead the nation away from McCarthyism. He should have socked it to McCarthy, even if it had cost him some votes.
Her fears about the Catholic Church were typical of liberals in the igSo’s. She worried about the temporal power of the Church, opposed federal aid to parochial schools (except for transportation), had supported Loyalist Spain in the thirties, and was furious when New York City’s public schools banned The Nation from their libraries in response to Catholic pressure without a public hearing. When she wrote a column on the school-aid issue, Francis Cardinal Spellman, later a tough foe of Kennedy in his bid for the Presidency, delivered a sweeping public attack against her that was echoed in Catholic journals throughout the United States and Europe.
When J.F.K. began to speak out forcefully and clearly on the separation of Church and State, Mrs. Roosevelt’s nervousness was relieved. But in 1958 the Senator’s record was not that clear, and the terrible battles between Catholics and liberals during the i g4o’s and early 5o’s were fresh in her mind. An open person who wanted to be totally free of prejudice, Mrs. Roosevelt had thrown over the genteel anti-Semitism of her youth; but in 1958 it was still common for liberal Protestants to be anti-Catholic.
Although she had strongly supported Al Smith for President in 1928, she was nagged by the thought that a Catholic President in the i goo’s might further strengthen the temporal power of the Church in the United States. Nothing could have been further from the truth in Kennedy’s case, as his election proved. Following the Al Smith dinner in 1960 Dave Powers complained about the hostility of Cardinal Spellman toward Kennedy, especially in contrast to his friendship with Nixon. Powers queried: “Why are so many of those top Catholics like Spellman against you?” Smiling broadly, the Senator replied with a question of his own: “Dave, who is the most powerful Catholic in the United States right now?” “Why, Cardinal Spellman, of course,” Powers answered. “And who,” said Kennedy, “will be the most powerful Catholic in this country after I am elected President?”
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.”
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.”
The trouble was that Stevenson had not even indicated that he wanted to try once more. Typically, he held back, letting others speak for him. Promoting Stevenson, who had not run in the primaries, meant stopping Kennedy with Humphrey, Symington, Johnson, or anyone else to stalemate the convention. Never once did I hear Mrs. Roosevelt indicate that she preferred any of those candidates to Kennedy for either of the top two jobs. Not once did she praise Johnson to me in private, although early in 1960 she complimented him publicly for his great parliamentary skill in getting a civil-rights bill to the Senate floor. When Averell Harriman and Samuel Rosenman visited her in April at Hyde Park to urge that she back Humphrey, she refused to do so. She was loyal to Adlai, praising him at public dinner meetings and wishing in private that he would declare himself a candidate.
Kennedy could not understand Stevenson at all. He wanted Adlai’s endorsement even more avidly than he desired Mrs. Roosevelt’s. If Stevenson came out for him, she would follow and so would most of the liberals. That endorsement would have meant a great deal before the West Virginia primary, when Kennedy beat Humphrey in a state with 97 per cent Protestant population, but it would have been significant afterward, too. In Hawaii the Senator had told me, as he undoubtedly had told many others who had the ability to get the word back, that a Stevenson endorsement would assure Adlai of appointment as Secretary of State in a Kennedy administration. “He can have it if he wants it, if he just says the word.” For whatever reason—recalcitrance, indecision, or ambition—the word never came. And Mrs. Roosevelt waited in the hope that the statesman of the century would be called by a stalemated convention.
On January 2 Kennedy came to Cambridge, where he did a television program with Mrs. Roosevelt (arranged by John Kenneth Galbraith, who, like Schlesinger and others, was trying to bring the liberals together), and they exchanged pleasantries. In late spring, after the Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries, with Kennedy now clearly the front-runner, he returned to appear with Mrs. Roosevelt on “Prospects of Mankind,” a television program emanating from Brandeis University and viewed on the public television station, WGBH. (I helped Mrs. Roosevelt plan these programs and appeared with her on some of them.)
Kennedy, whom I had not seen since Hawaii a year before, came early to meet with other participants on the program and the staff of WGBH. We had lunch and then talked for about an hour before the broadcast. The conversation turned mainly to issues. He wanted to talk about the Common Market, nuclear disarmament, and other questions of high policy. Mrs. Roosevelt seemed detached, giving no sign of enthusiasm or endorsement. Somewhere in the conversation Kennedy was told (or reminded) that a press conference had been scheduled for him and Mrs. Roosevelt, to be held immediately after the broadcast. He smelled a trap. Taking me off to the side, he asked if I could arrange to have her call off the press conference. Even though it might look funny, he thought it would be better than risking some kind of argument. I asked him what he was afraid of. “Well,” he said, “she might bring up the McCarthy business.” No good could come ofthat, he thought. It would just get people excited. By this time Kennedy was not happy about his failure to oppose McCarthy more strongly. That was a subject he wanted to bury. Besides, Mrs. Roosevelt had zapped him on that issue once before in Chicago in 1956. Why take a chance on the same thing happening again?
I agreed to talk to her, arguing first with the Senator that it would not do any good. Mrs. Roosevelt and I met in the little room we used to prepare for the broadcast. I began to relay the message, but before I could complete his suggestion that she cancel the press conference, she interrupted and said something like: “You tell the Senator not to worry. Everything will be all right. I won’t do anything that would embarrass him.” I had been trying to play it cool, and I would not have hinted that he might be the least bit embarrassed, but she knew just what I meant. So, having run my errand for the Senator, I came back with the message from the Lady. “Well, I’ll have to live with it,” he said. But he fidgeted until the press conference was over.
I never found out what Mrs. Roosevelt had in mind by agreeing to the press conference to begin with. All the Boston newspapers were represented and, I think, someone from the New York Times . She thanked the Senator for coming to the broadcast; he thanked her for having him. Political curve-balls, screwballs, and spitballs were thrown by the reporters. She took them all without even a half-hearted swing for Stevenson or against anyone else. Perhaps she had thought earlier of something dramatic, such as a public call for a Stevenson-Kennedy ticket, but I find it hard to believe she would even have contemplated doing something that inhospitable to a guest. Perhaps she just wanted to let people know she was now at least on friendly terms with Kennedy.
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.
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.
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.
She did not live to hear his American University speech in June, 1963, opening wide a route for negotiation with the Soviet Union, but she knew the way he wanted to travel. He wrote her in November, 1961, “I have no use for those who think that any negotiation is necessarily equivalent to appeasement.” On Christmas he and Mrs. Kennedy sent Mrs. Roosevelt a telegram wishing her a happy Christmas and a good year to come. Then on January 23, 1962, he wrote a handsome three-page letter nominating Mrs. Roosevelt to receive the Nobel Peace Prize without telling her anything about it. In the spring he went out of his way to associate himself with her causes, promising a televised introduction to her presentation on TV concerning the status of women in the United States, and he made a tape for the Eleanor Roosevelt Cancer Foundation telecast for April i. When she continued to press on the issue of employment opportunities for women, he wrote back on June 15, 1962, that he had directed the chairman of the United States Civil Service Commission to amend civil-service regulations to prevent federal appointing officers from listing positions for men only. By this time he was addressing his letters “Dear Eleanor.” On the next day he sent another “Dear Eleanor” letter, this one two and a half pages, in response to her criticism against high-altitude atomic tests.
By late summer, 1962, she was not feeling well. Her bone marrow had lost the capacity to form blood. Kennedy wrote that he hoped she would be feeling herself again soon. By November she was dead of tuberculosis, which had been activated by the treatment with steroids for the bone-marrow failure. The President directed that the American flag be flown at half-mast at all naval stations, embassy legations, consular offices, and all U.S. installations. He also appointed a committee of seventeen prominent citizens headed by Stevenson to create a living memorial for Mrs. Roosevelt and on April 23 signed a bill passed by Congress to charter an Eleanor Roosevelt Foundation, a singular expression of recognition to someone who had never held high elective office. When Pierre Salinger and Ken O’Donnell planned the President’s interview and television schedule for the spring of 1963, the one program Kennedy told them in advance he would be willing to participate in was a one-hour film on Eleanor Roosevelt called “Perspectives of Greatness.” Twelve months and fifteen days after she had breathed her last, he was dead, too.