The Kennedys and the Roosevelts are two great American political dynasties. But in spite of both being Democrats, they have not always got on well. In this article, Christopher Benedict explores the often difficult relationship in the 1950s between John F. Kennedy and the wife of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Family Ties, Twisted Knots
The original Adams family - John, Abigail, John Quincy, Charles Francis, and Henry - were among the first American clans to project a far-reaching political and historical sphere of influence. The many intertwining branches of the Lee and Harrison family trees likewise extended well beyond the eighteenth century and the same goes, more recently and to a lesser degree, for the Bushes and Clintons.
The two names, however, most synonymous with almost mythological levels of intrigue and adoration, or else abominable degrees of bitterness and contempt, would inarguably be Roosevelt and Kennedy.
Before embarking on a political career which many thought would culminate at the White House, patriarch Joseph Kennedy, during the early stages of the “Happy Days are Here Again” presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, founded the scotch and gin distribution company Somerset Importers with FDR’s eldest son James. Joe was rewarded for his loyalty and shrewd business sense with the appointment as the first Secretary of the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) and, subsequently, Ambassador to the UK. His tenure, and with it any hope for future political aspirations, ended with his opposition to US intervention and acceptance of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement.
Given this discourteous fall from grace, it is quite understandable how reticent Eleanor Roosevelt was to pass the proverbial torch to John F. Kennedy without her feeling as though he would wield it recklessly enough to risk burning the nation down.
1956 Democratic Convention
Never unafraid of voicing her opinions on weighty matters in the face of equally considerable opposition, Eleanor re-entered politics in 1956 by making known her displeasure with the lack of progress made by Dwight Eisenhower’s so-called Modern Republicanism and giving her endorsement to Adlai Stevenson for the Democratic presidential nomination, earning the ire of Harry Truman who was avidly backing New York Governor Averell Harriman. Her approval was sought as well by both serious contenders for the Vice Presidency, Senators Estes Kefauver and John Kennedy.
“I did not feel I could support him because he had avoided taking a position during the controversy over Senator Joseph McCarthy’s methods of investigation,” Eleanor explained to the unnamed Kennedy associate who had approached her at the convention. Kennedy proved unable himself, in the course of a face to face meeting in Chicago, to sway her with the assurance that his absence during those hearings was due only to his recuperation from back surgery, or by his buoyant argument that the episode was “so long ago” and “did not enter into the current situation”. Needless to say, this letdown ruffled the feathers of Kennedy supporters sufficiently for his counselor and speechwriter Ted Sorensen to gripe that Mrs. Roosevelt “used the occasion to chastise the Senator in a roomful of people for being insufficiently anti-McCarthy.”
With “a sense of great relief at leaving politics behind”, however short-lived it would prove to be, Eleanor boarded a New York-bound plane prior to the balloting. Jack Kennedy was left in the dust to deliver Stevenson’s nominating speech, stew over his bitter loss to Kefauver, and choke on the aftertaste of sour grapes at how Eleanor “hated my father and can’t stand it that his children turned out so much better than hers.”
My Dear Boy
Following Jack’s 1958 re-election to the Massachusetts Senate with the assumption that it was a likely foothold propping open the door to the 1960 presidential nomination, Eleanor commented on the ABC Sunday afternoon program College News Conference that she had learned from her sources that “Senator Kennedy's father has been spending oodles of money all over the country and probably has a paid representative in every state by now”. This sent shockwaves throughout the Democratic Party and initiated a two-month exchange of correspondence beginning with Kennedy’s open challenge for her, as a “victim of misinformation”, to demand of his slanderers ”concrete evidence” of their “gossip and speculation”. Though her first retort ended with an admonition that “building and organization is permissible but giving too lavishly may seem to indicate a desire to influence through money”, Eleanor offered to give voice to Kennedy’s rebuttal, which she did in the January 6, 1959 edition of her syndicated column My Day.
Kennedy was grateful but pressed the advantage. At the risk of seeming “overly sensitive”, he wondered whether “the fairest course of action would be for you to state that you had been unable to find evidence to justify the rumors.” He dismissed her proposal of a follow-up article and hoped that they might get together in person to hash out their differences and make amends.
Eleanor got the last word on the matter by way of a haughty Western Union Telegram which said “My dear boy, I only say these things for your own good. I have found, in a lifetime of adversity, that when blows are rained on one, it is advisable to turn the other profile.” Her intentional wording of the concluding adage is an obvious reference to Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage.
Knowing all too well that devotion dies hard, Eleanor remained steadfast in her fidelity to Adlai Stevenson, the two-time loser who most party faithful conceded was the best candidate but simply unelectable. “For my part,” Eleanor recalled, “I believed the best ticket would be Stevenson and Kennedy, with the strong chance that the latter would become president at a later time.” Despite the concerns of Eleanor’s associates that Kennedy was “making a political football of your husband’s noble experiment”, to say nothing of the tragic death of her twelve year-old granddaughter Sally following a horse-riding accident two days prior, Eleanor agreed to meet with the Senator at her home in Val-Kill before his visit to the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York that August to commemorate the 25th anniversary of FDR’s Social Security Act. As the personal and philosophical breach between the two narrowed enough for a mutually navigable bridge to be erected over the remaining chasm, Eleanor confided to a friend that she now found Kennedy to be “so little cock-sure” and possessed of a “mind that is open to new ideas”. Civil rights, which was a cause near and dear to her heart and on which she had seen her own husband flounder so feebly in spite of her aggressive efforts, was one of the discussion’s central topics. Her final analysis (to borrow from Kennedy terminology) was that “here is a man who wants to leave a record (perhaps for ambitious personal reasons) but I rather think because he is really interested in helping the people of his own country and mankind in general.”
The eager candidate drafted a letter only two weeks later to Eleanor who was in Warsaw, Poland on behalf of the United Nations Association. In it, he regrets the failure of the Senate to pass the proposed medical care, minimum wage, and housing legislations but promises to “take this fight to the people during this campaign” and that, if elected, he will “make the most of those first 100 days to bring about these and other measures which the country needs so badly.” Kennedy also made sure to extend his gratitude to Eleanor and Franklin’s grandson Curtis Roosevelt, acting Vice Chairman of the Democratic Advisory Council whose “reform clubs are beginning to galvanize into action”, he assured the presidential candidate.
In response to Kennedy’s October 21 statement in the New York Times amenable to pledging financial and military aid to “non-Batista forces in exile and in Cuba itself, who offer eventual hope of overthrowing Castro”, Eleanor took it upon herself to chastise the president-to-be less than a fortnight preceding the election. “I thought I understood you to say during the last debate that you did not intend to act unilaterally but with the other American states,” she wrote in a letter drafted three days after Kennedy's piece in the Times. “I think it would be unwise for people to have the impression that you did expect separately to interfere in the internal affairs of Cuba.”
“Things at present look as though they are going pretty well,” Eleanor ends cheerily, albeit offset by an added sense of disquiet regarding his opponent. “I cannot, of course, ever feel safe till the last week is over because with Mr. Nixon I always have the feeling that he will pull some trick at the last minute.”
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- The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt (1961, Harper and Bros.).
- Kennedy and Roosevelt: An Uneasy Alliance by Michael Beschloss (1980, WW Norton & Co.).
- Kennedy by Theodore Sorensen (1965, Harper & Row).
- Papers of John F. Kennedy (with relation to Eleanor Roosevelt) from the Archives of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.