Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a wave of tributes and memorials commemorated him around the world. One such memorial was the naming of a mountain in Canada – Mount Kennedy. Here, Christopher Benedict explains the story of how JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy, attempted to make the first ever ascent of the mountain.

The Kennedy brothers in 1960. Robert is in the middle, with John on the left, and Ted on the right.

The Kennedy brothers in 1960. Robert is in the middle, with John on the left, and Ted on the right.

Difficult and Perplexing Times

There is no setting the clock on grief. Tragedy does not come with a catch-all instruction manual to help survivors cope in some uniform fashion with the incomprehensible. Retreating into a cocoon of counter-productive and self-destructive tendencies-denial, despondency, and inactivity-may suffice for most people. But, Robert F. Kennedy was not most people.

Which is not to suggest that he was impervious to such things. In the time spanning Jack’s murder and his own, he took to wearing his brother’s naval jacket, literally cloaking himself in sorrow. However, he also accepted this most wretched of calamities as a provocative personal challenge. To struggle against the stagnation of pre-conceived notions and overcome confidential fears and ideological obstacles to achieve forward progress in his own thought process and, therefore, of the society of which he was an active participant and public servant.

“He had always been a taker of risks from that day, so many years before, when he had thrown himself off the yawl into Nantucket Sound in his determination to learn to swim,” historian, Special Assistant to the President, and family friend Arthur Schlesinger wrote of Bobby, “and John Kennedy had said he had shown either a lot of guts or no sense at all, depending on how you looked at it.”

When the National Geographic Society proposed that the surviving Kennedy brothers Robert and Edward join the assemblage of experienced climbers seeking to be the first to ascend the Canadian mountain peak named for their fallen brother, a horrible plane crash less than seven months after Jack’s assassination, in which Ted suffered three broken vertebrae, two cracked ribs, and a collapsed lung, removed him from the equation.

It would have been more than understandable had Robert, terrified of heights and otherwise “rash but not reckless” in Schlesinger’s estimation, begged off the expedition, especially given the perilous nature of recent circumstances. For most people, this would have been perfectly acceptable. But, again, Bobby was not most people.

 

Lofty and Magnificent

Tributes to the martyred President John F. Kennedy emanated from all points on the globe common and obscure, his name and/or likeness affixed to coins, plaques, statues, stamps, streets, high schools and law schools, office buildings, an international airport in Queens, New York, the former Plum Pudding Island in the South Pacific from which Lt. Kennedy and his surviving PT-109 crew were rescued during World War Two after their craft had been demolished following an encounter with a Japanese destroyer.

The Canadian government had something in mind on a much grander scale. Though initially, in the opinion of Bradford Washburn, not grand enough. Washburn, founder and director of Boston’s Museum of Science, was a cartographer and mountaineer with an impressive list of first ascents to his credit, most notably the West Buttress of Mount McKinley, North America’s highest mountain.

He urged the Canadian Parliament to reconsider their original choice for Mount Kennedy, a 12,200-foot peak which he referred dismissively to as “a burble”. The uncharted 14,000-foot Yukon mountain near the Alaskan border that he had in mind was one Washburn had discovered himself from a Fairchild ski-plane during a 1935 mapping mission for National Geographic. Thirty years later, he was now gathering a survey and summit party on behalf of National Geographic and the Boston Museum of Science to set out for Mt. Kennedy and its two adjoining peaks. The expedition would include in its ranks Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mt. Everest in 1963, Barry Prather, who was a support member of the 1963 team but fell ill with pulmonary edema and was unable to continue, Mount Rainier park ranger Dee Molenaar and fellow Washington state native George Senner, British Columbia Mountaineering Club member James Craig, National Geographic photographer William Allard, and last  - but not least - New York Senator Robert Kennedy.

Asked by Whittaker about his training regimen for the upcoming journey, Bobby joked, “Running up and down the stairs and hollering, help!”

Lightheartedness was a fine defense mechanism to ward off the fear which must have been substantial to a novice climber. Even Whittaker worried over the potential for avalanches caused by melting spring snows, not to mention the concerns inherent to exploring uncharted territory where “one doesn’t know what those problems will be.” 

 

Mount Kennedy as shown from an airplane in 1984. Mount Kennedy is the high peak towards the left. Source: Gary Clark, available  here .

Mount Kennedy as shown from an airplane in 1984. Mount Kennedy is the high peak towards the left. Source: Gary Clark, available here.

Commitment of Body and Mind

His first actual sighting of the mountain came, “lonely, stark, forbidding” Kennedy recalled, on March 23, 1965 from a relatively safe sixty-mile distance in the confines of a Royal Canadian Air Force helicopter. The team members were deposited at 8,700 feet where Base Camp One had been established on the newly christened Hyannis Glacier for their first night’s stay. The following morning, the expedition gained an additional 4,000 feet of elevation over the unwelcoming terrain of Cathedral Glacier to reach the High Camp through a snowstorm that, by early evening, had developed into white-out blizzard conditions. This turn of events threatened the next day’s planned summit attempt.

Fortunately, wrote Robert Kennedy for his Life cover story, “during the night the snow stopped, the stars became bright, and the northern lights appeared over the ridge of the mountains.” As picturesque as it was propitious for the task at hand, their tents were nonetheless buffeted by 50 mph winds which “made sleep impossible” but also “either cleared or packed the fresh snow which had fallen and made our climb to the summit that much easier.” Not that it would be free of near disaster.

After waking at 6am to amenable temperatures of 5 above 0 for a breakfast of “soup, mush, and chocolate bars”, the climbers geared up and set off on their final assault at 8.30am. Bobby had learned well from his mountaineering mentors who were all duly impressed with the Senator’s efforts. He was, after all, a veteran of the legendary Kennedy football games on the front lawn at Hyannis Port which would not uncommonly end in bloody noses and bruised egos for brothers and sisters alike. He kept his attention on the progress of “how far we would be in 100 steps” but would also create a diversion in his mind by way of mentally reciting poems as well as passages from Churchill and Emerson. It was not for lack of focus, but simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, that Bobby, negotiating a 65-degree incline, suddenly plunged into an icy crevasse up to his shoulders. Quickly pulled free, he looked down from whence he emerged unable to see the bottom, pondering in retrospect the advice given by his mother Rose: “Don’t slip, dear.”

 

What Am I Doing Here?

“I had three choices: to go down, to fall off, or to go ahead”, reflected Bobby, who was told by a newspaper reporter prior to his departure that he had already written Kennedy’s obituary. With the grim determination for which he was famous (and feared), he reassessed that “I really had only one choice.” 100 feet from the summit, the ridge flattened and widened considerably and it was about here that he was untethered from his rope team of Jim Whittaker and Barry Prather.   

Whittaker, who had been awarded the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal by President Kennedy during a Rose Garden ceremony a mere four months before JFK was killed in Dallas, was the first to selflessly urge Bobby ahead of the pack of proud and accomplished climbers so that he could be the first man to set foot on the summit of Mount Kennedy.

Ironically, at approximately 1pm Robert Kennedy unfurled and planted at the pinnacle of the mountain a three-foot tall flag bearing his family’s crest - the official moment of death ascribed to his brother. He also set in the snow, “with mixed emotion”, two PT-109 tie clasps as well as a golden inaugural medallion which complemented the bound copy of the President’s historic “Ask Not” address encased in plastic. “It was with a feeling of pain that the events of 16 months and two days before had made it necessary,” Robert later wrote. “It was a feeling of relief and exhilaration that we had accomplished what we set out to do.”

Happy to be home, Kennedy would neither scale another mountain nor entertain the desire to do so. Removed from the immediacy of quick thinking and physical exertion necessary in the present moment, however, Bobby was finally able to treasure the views and elements which “I’m sure would have greatly pleased the man for whom the mountain was named.”

 

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Sources

  • Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (1978, Houghton Mifflin)
  • Our Climb Up Mt. Kennedy by Robert Kennedy (Life Magazine, April 9, 1965)
  • Mountain Tribute to JFK Evoked by Kennedy Trip to Yukon by Michael Jourdan (National Geographic, August 5, 2013) 
  • The Strange History of Mount Kennedy, http://www.theclymb.com/stories/out-there/the-strange-history-of-mount-kennedy/

 

The assassination of John F. Kennedy inevitably came as a huge shock, but this shock was compounded for those people who had to lead the US afterwards. In this article, Christopher Benedict explains what happened in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination, and the problems and politics between Bobby Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson as they sought to move forward.

The swearing in of Lyndon B. Johnson in November 1963.

The swearing in of Lyndon B. Johnson in November 1963.

A Heartbeat Away

You would be hard-pressed to find, among the men who peevishly held the office, a favorable opinion uttered of the vice presidency.

John Adams complained to his wife Abigail of the frustrating ineffectiveness affixed to “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”

The vice presidency “ought to be abolished” in the mind of Theodore Roosevelt, who offered his grumpy yet prescient perspective that “the man who occupies it may at any moment be everything, but meanwhile he is practically nothing.”

Franklin Roosevelt’s first VP John Nance Garner proclaimed the position “not worth a bucket of warm piss”, while Harry Truman, FDRs third and final second-in-command, joked that vice presidents “were about as useful as a cow’s fifth teat.”

Lyndon Johnson was certainly no stranger to the discontent of thwarted ambition and irksome exclusion. Consistently and deliberately closed out of the president’s inner circle, it was not exactly a well-kept secret that LBJ reserved the greatest measure of his odious disdain for Kennedy’s Attorney General, brother, and ruthless right-hand man Bobby, who Johnson thought “acted like he was the custodian of the Kennedy dream, some kind of rightful heir to the throne.” Jack, meanwhile, would send Johnson off on as many insignificant overseas diplomatic missions as he could concoct with the express purpose of sparing himself the despondent look pulling down Lyndon’s already droopy features as he moped in a perpetual state of self-pity around the White House.

 

Power Struggle

Lyndon Johnson was literally and figuratively kept in the dark at Parkland Hospital. Seated with Lady Bird in a small, dimly lit waiting room as physicians down the hall attempted frantically to achieve what everyone knew to be the impossible and save John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s life, he was simultaneously processing the pandemonium of Dealey Plaza while looking as far as he dared into the immediate future and the very real probability of his impending ascendance to the presidency. But, amidst the confusion of emergency responders who did not have the time to give him - and some of Kennedy’s other men – an update, Johnson yet again found himself odd man out.

“The disaster had exposed a hidden weakness, the allegiance of individual agents to a man,” William Manchester penned in his masterful The Death of a President. “As long as Kennedy had been in command the lines of authority were clear. Now the old order had been transformed into hopeless disorder.”

Streaked in gore, Jackie refused to be parted from her husband’s side, insisting “I want to be in there when he dies” and that a priest (Father Oscar Huber) be summoned to administer last rites to Jack before the official pronouncement of death could be made for the sake of his immortal soul.

Johnson, meanwhile, awaited word of the inevitable which he would obstinately accept only from the president’s personal friend and political aide Ken O’Donnell who, with Dave Powers, Larry O’Brien and others, comprised JFKs doggedly loyal ‘Irish Mafia’. Whatever the gruesome reality, Lyndon Johnson would never be their president. Johnson, not for the last time that day, would be left wanting. Secret Service agent Emory Roberts was the first to alert Johnson to the president’s mortal demise, but Assistant Press Secretary ‘Mac’ Kilduff would have to do in satisfying Lyndon’s desire for a spokesman from the Kennedy contingency, the first to address Johnson as “Mr. President”.

Only then was LBJ spirited away, the enormity of the situation pressing down upon Lady Bird in her later recollection of flags already flying at half-mast on buildings between Parkland Hospital and Love Field. Kennedy’s body would make the same journey only after a tense standoff between Parkland’s medical staff backed up by local law enforcement and the Secret Service, Irish Mafia, and Jackie Kennedy who collectively used the president’s coffin on a gurney as a battering ram to force their way out. Kilduff finally addressed the press to formally announce to the nation, “President John F. Kennedy died at approximately one o’clock central standard time today here in Dallas. He died of a gunshot wound in the brain.”

 

Bobby’s Wounds Ripped Wide

The trauma of Robert Kennedy having to learn of his brother’s assassination was compounded immeasurably by the callous insensitivity with which, and from whom, the news was delivered. Bobby would suffer two indignities dealt out in quick succession by the men he hated most. The feelings of loathing, it goes without saying, were reciprocal.

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover phoned Bobby’s Hickory Hill home in McLean, Virginia and, with no pretense at sympathy or human decency, informed Kennedy, “I have news for you. The president’s been shot. I think it’s serious. I am endeavoring to get details. I will call you back when I find out more.”

Bobby’s sudden and abominable grief would be rudely interrupted one hour later.

Lyndon Johnson “had been lobbying his bereaved cabin mates one by one,” writes Jeff Shesol in his book Mutual Contempt, “forcing a consensus that the plane should not leave the ground before the transition of power was properly-constitutionally-confirmed.” Whatever his aims were in assuring that presidential continuity be achieved swiftly and legitimately, Johnson’s decision to seek the guidance of the nation’s Attorney General, who at this moment in time was above all a freshly grieving brother, was consistent with behavior that Godfrey McHugh (Air Force Aide to President Kennedy, who had once dated Jackie Bouvier) found “obscene”.

“A lot of people think I should be sworn in right away,” Johnson urged when he got through to Bobby.

“Do you have any objection to that?” He then tactlessly barraged the slain president’s sibling with very specific legal, procedural questions pertaining to taking the oath of office, forcing Bobby to consult his Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach who was “absolutely stunned” by Johnson’s crass requests.

 

The Judge

Elected to the Texas legislature in 1931 and subsequently 14th District Judge in Dallas, Sarah T. Hughes became acquainted with Lyndon Johnson “in 1948 when he ran for the Senate and I campaigned for him at that time.” In 1961, she was appointed to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas by President Kennedy over the objections of brother Bobby who was of the opinion that Hughes was “too old” and “would be able to retire after ten years”.

She recounted her drive to Love Field following the entreaty for her specific presence to swear in Lyndon Johnson aboard Air Force One. “I was thinking...that I must get there in a hurry, because Vice President Johnson is always in a hurry and wants things done right now and I shouldn’t delay. And the other thing I was thinking about was what the oath of office was...I was brash enough to think that I could give the oath without having looked it up.” Upon her arrival, she walked into the aircraft’s crowded and stiflingly hot second compartment where she encountered and hugged Lyndon and Lady Bird. Rather than getting directly to the business at hand, Hughes was informed by Johnson that “Mrs. Kennedy wants to be here. We’ll wait for her.”

Ken O’Donnell was charged with the unthinkable task of retrieving Jackie from the rear of the plane for her placement in Johnson’s contrived photo-op and angrily refused. He ultimately relented and was stunned by the nobility of Jackie’s response once she had emerged from freshening up in the restroom.                          

“It’s the least I can do”, she said.

 

The Photographer

Jacqueline Kennedy was rightfully protective of her children and warned away press members from taking or publishing pictures of them, a wish that, back in those days, could be counted upon to be respected. Her husband, on the other hand, relished the opportunity to ring up his personal photographer Cecil Stoughton for impromptu photo sessions, one of which would produce - among the many iconic images he would capture during Kennedy’s 1,000 day administration - what would forever remain his own personal favorite. Caroline and John Jr. appear to be singing and dancing in front of the president’s desk in the oval office as their doting father sits in his chair and happily claps along. Stoughton is also responsible for the only known picture of Jack, Bobby, and Marilyn Monroe together (at a Democratic fundraiser), as well as Kennedy’s inauguration, state dinners and White House visits, personal vacation snapshots, and national magazine covers. He would also be assigned, as a photojournalist for Time magazine, to Bobby Kennedy’s railway funeral procession.

 

Kennedy with his children in the oval office.

Kennedy with his children in the oval office.

Accompanying the Kennedys to Dallas, he photographed their arrival on the tarmac at Love Field, rode several cars back in the motorcade, and was rushed along with all other participants to Parkland Hospital. Witnessing Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson being escorted from the premises, Stoughton asked where they were going and, after being told Washington, replied “So am I” and was conveyed to Love Field in the cruiser of a Texas state trooper which was very nearly shot at by police officers guarding Air Force One with good intentions but itchy trigger fingers. He switched out the color film he had been using that day for black and white that would be suitable for the wire services and was mortified when the shutter of his Hasselblad camera would not engage as the makeshift ceremony began. Fortunately, after a vigorous shake or two, he was able to fire off twenty shots while standing on a couch behind and to the right of Judge Hughes who grasped a Catholic missal on which an extraordinarily solemn Lyndon Johnson placed his left hand, the right raised at a ninety degree angle. ‘Mac’ Kilduff held President Kennedy’s Dictaphone between Hughes and Johnson to record audio documentation of the swearing-in. Lady Bird stands to the right of her husband, partially obscured, while Jackie is positioned prominently and strategically to his left, the bloodstains on her skirt and stockings undetectable because of the manner in which Stoughton prudently framed his shots.

 

Insubordination

Before landing at Andrews Air Force Base, Johnson made certain that the press was aware that their presence was not only permissible, but sanctioned. His hope was to be filmed stepping off of Air Force One, escorting Jackie as well as Kennedy’s coffin in a visible show of personal solidarity and presidential continuity. Kilduff tried to convince Mrs. Kennedy that it was best to offload the president’s body from a side or rear entrance out of view of the cameras, but she maintained, “We’ll go out the regular way. I want them to see what they have done.” Furthermore, Jackie resisted the suggestion that she change into a clean outfit, one that was not befouled by her husband’s blood and brain matter. “No”, she repeated disobediently. “Let them see what they’ve done.”

No sooner had Air Force One touched down in D.C. than Robert Kennedy burst onboard and headed directly for Jackie. In a breach of both protocol and etiquette, he pushed past Lyndon Johnson, the new president, without so much as acknowledging his existence. Along with O’Donnell, Powers, O’Brien, Kilduff, and McHugh, they hurriedly disembarked, carrying the coffin with them to a waiting ambulance. An abandoned and incensed Johnson was thwarted once more by the Kennedy assembly, promising those left to listen that “I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help, and god’s.”

It would not take Johnson long to begin throwing his considerable weight around the White House, ordering Kennedy’s personal secretary Evelyn Lincoln, on the morning of November 23 to gather her things and depart the Executive offices so that he could bring in “my own girls”. Having already met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff the night before, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk prodded the new president to move immediately into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, something even he knew to be imprudent, not to mention insensitive.

Regardless of Bobby Kennedy’s vitriolic evaluation of Johnson’s haste to occupy the oval office or else “the world would fall apart”, LBJ did in fact have sincerely fond feelings for Jackie and sought not to injure her, especially in an already fragile state. Lady Bird, who had quite a way with words, put it like this: “Lyndon would like to take all the stars in the sky and string them on a necklace for Mrs. Kennedy.” He was, however, an egocentric individual and would be deeply wounded by the fact that Jackie kept him at a physical and emotional distance from then on, in favor of Bobby to whom she was bound by grief.

With that in mind, it is a good thing for Johnson that Jackie’s 1964 conversations with Arthur Schlesinger would not be published until forty-seven years later. In them, she reveals these none too flattering sentiments. “I guess it’s very good for the country that he could go around and make this air of good feeling and lull so many people into this sense of security, which they wanted after all the tragedy of November. He can’t bear to ever be alone and face something awful. Maybe he wants to disassociate himself so if it goes wrong, he can say ‘I wasn’t there.’”  

 

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Sources

  • Kennedy Assassination: 24 Hours After (2009, Produced by Time Travel Unlimited for History Channel)
  • The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2014, Simon & Schuster)
  • Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (1978, Houghton and Mifflin)
  • The Death of a President: November 1963 by William Manchester (1967, Harper & Row)
  • Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud That Defined a Decade (1997, W.W. Norton & Co.)
  • Sarah T. Hughes Oral History Interview 10/7/68 by Joe B. Frantz (from the archives of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library
  • Cecil Stoughton Dies at 88; Documented White House by Margalit Fox (New York Times, November 6, 2008)
  • Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy: Interviews With Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. 1964 (2011, Hyperion)                                                                                                                                                                                                      

 

After winning the 1961 election, the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy became ever more intriguing. Roosevelt tried to influence the president in a variety of ways, and JFK was normally ready to listen. Indeed, over the first two years of JFK’s presidency they forged a bond that seemed unlikely to some just a few years before.

 

Here, Christopher Benedict follows-up on his article about Roosevelt and JFK in the 1950s (available here) and the dramatic 1960 US election between Nixon and Kennedy (available here).

The official presidential portrait of John F. Kennedy.

The official presidential portrait of John F. Kennedy.

Support Any Friend, Oppose Any Foe

Although she was not seated prominently on the rostrum beside new first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and her past and future peers Lady Bird Johnson, Mamie Eisenhower, and a disagreeable-looking Pat Nixon, Eleanor Roosevelt was in attendance when John F. Kennedy took the oath of office. On that frigid January morning in 1961, JFK’s breath was billowing visibly from his mouth as he implored his fellow Americans to “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” She would ride past the president on the reviewing stand in the inaugural parade with fellow representative of America’s war years Edith Wilson, Woodrow’s eighty-eight year-old widow, and later write to Kennedy of the “sense of liberation and lift to the spirit” she had experienced during his address.

Six weeks later, President Kennedy hosted Eleanor at the White House on the day he issued the Executive Order making the Peace Corps a reality. She was thankful for the opportunity to “have a glimpse of the children…and of the lovely redecorating that you are doing,” adding that “with all the responsibilities and aggravations that are bound to come your way, it does make a difference if one’s surroundings are pleasant and cheerful.” Kennedy outlined for her the agency’s systemic particulars and stressed how vital public service among the nation’s youth was to the success of his policies and to their own best interests. The Advisory Council for the Peace Corps would be one of several pro-active brain trusts (others including Tractors For Freedom, George McGovern’s Food For Peace, the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, as well as the Cancer Foundation bearing her name) to which Eleanor would contribute during the twenty months of earthly existence left to her.   

 

I Might Be of Use

Appointed in 1945 by President Harry Truman to the first American delegation to the United Nations, Eleanor Roosevelt was unanimously elected to chair the newly formed Commission on Human Rights. Before magnanimously stepping down from the position in 1951 (then forcibly resigning from the UN altogether a year later, per President Eisenhower’s request), Eleanor was the driving force behind the drafting and passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, still considered, nearly seventy years later, a monumental achievement.

Kennedy, at the urging of UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, reinstated her to the General Assembly just before the official formation of the Peace Corps. She sat in on plenary meetings, consulted with international delegates, traveled the globe extensively on productive good will missions, and used the My Day column to proliferate her message from the exclusivity of private chambers out into the court of public opinion.

In July 1961, with the physical, moral, and ideological wounds sustained by African Americans in Alabama and Mississippi during the Freedom Rides still very fresh, a bulk mailing was sent out across the country with the endorsement of Harry Belafonte, including one addressed directly to President John F. Kennedy in care of the White House, soliciting donations for CORE, or Congress of Racial Equality. Among their esteemed advisory committee were the likes of Reverend Ralph Abernathy, novelist James Baldwin, Jackie Robinson, FDR’s main civil rights critic A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King Jr. Eleanor contributed a note inside each envelope which beseeched that “you and I keep faith with those who suffered” and demanded the continuation of vigilant activity “until buses and terminal facilities are open to all - everywhere - in our country.”

She personally appealed to Kennedy for mercy in the case of fifteen year-old Preston Cobb Jr., a black Georgian found guilty and condemned to death for the murder of a seventy year-old white farmer. Though Cobb admitted in an unsworn statement to having shot Frank Coleman Dumas to death, Eleanor branded “unthinkable” the County Superior Court’s eye-for-an-eye retribution against “a boy of fifteen, whether black or white.”

She also petitioned the president on behalf of convicted Communist Junius Scales who, after weighing the facts of his case, Eleanor believed was “deserving of compassion”, determining that “in a democracy, the fate of an individual is important”.

 

You Can Take the Boy Out of Boston…

Kennedy’s elocution, and the general delivery of his speeches, which could be mistaken by some for condescension, caused Eleanor to remark that his public addresses would never “take the place of fireside chats”, FDR’s famous form of communication while he was in the White House. As for his harsh Boston accent, which she wished he would “deepen and strengthen” to convey more sincere “strength and personality”, Jack could only volley back light-heartedly, “It is difficult to change nature, but I will attempt to nudge it.” In the very next sentence he mirrors Eleanor’s somber concern over the nuclear arms race with the Soviets in which there could be no winner. “It would be possible to be among the dead rather than the quick,” he wrote. “This has been the weapon on which we have relied for our security…we are going to attempt to improve this, however.”

In light of this, it seems a bit ironic that Eleanor would forward to President Kennedy, “with every good wish and apologies for the number of things I keep sending your way”, the January 1962 issue of Computers and Automation. The cover story was a report on the advancements made to military weapons capabilities called Computers and War Safety Control, which she hoped would be of use to Kennedy and the scientific community in beating their Soviet counterparts to the atomic punch. 

 

This Great Society of Ours

In recognition of her numerous global humanitarian endeavors, President Kennedy sent a letter to the Nobel selection committee nominating Eleanor Roosevelt for 1962’s Nobel Peace Prize. “I am grateful for your kindness,” she humbly wrote to him, “but shall not be surprised if nothing comes of it.” Unfortunately, nothing did. The golden medallion went instead to molecular biologist Linus Pauling who had previously won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954.

Kennedy was the special guest on Eleanor’s Prospects of Mankind program, broadcast in April 1962 on WGBH, Boston’s public television affiliate. Discussing their joint venture, the Committee on the Status of Women, the president opined that “providing equal pay and equal conditions for women” was a “matter of great national concern”. After acknowledging the sincerity of his sentiments, Eleanor laments the dichotomy of the situation in relation to foreign nations wherein “women can be found in higher positions, policy-making positions or legislative decisions than they are in this country.” A recurring theme of the president’s boys’ club mentality throughout the interview centered around “how a mother can meet her responsibilities to her children and at the same time contribute to society.” To prove his commitment to the cause, Kennedy, just weeks later, joined Eleanor for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Housing Project dedication in New York City.

 

These Particularly Difficult Days

In mid-June, with the Cold War heating up daily by calculable degrees, Kennedy responded to Eleanor’s despair in regard to National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy’s proposal to conduct high altitude nuclear testing, recognizing “an apparent contradiction between our efforts to advance the peaceful uses of outer space at the UN and experiments like these.”

Unwell yet unwavering, Eleanor dictated a September 27 letter to President Kennedy asking for the use of his name as Honorary Chairman of the Wiltwyck School for Boys, “a unique residential treatment center for deprived, neglected, and disturbed children all under the age of twelve” of which she was a founder and member of its Board of Directors. Five days later, Eleanor mailed Kennedy a typed thank you note for the flowers he sent, along with the cryptic disclosure that “the cause of my fever has been discovered” above her alarmingly shaky signature. The unspecified “cause” was bone marrow tuberculosis.

The handwritten note Eleanor received from Kennedy for her 78th birthday would sadly conclude their personal correspondence. She passed away in her Manhattan apartment on November 7, 1962. An Executive Order issued the following day decreed that, until her internment, flags of all buildings, grounds, embassies, legations, consular offices, military facilities and vessels be flown at half-mast. Mary Todd Lincoln was the only other first lady up to that point to be accorded such a distinctive honor, and only then because of her husband’s extraordinary achievements.

Typically defiant, even while staring into the grim face of her own mortality, Eleanor expressed her desire for her public farewell to be quiet and intimate, a wish which even she must have known on some level was absurd and would be disregarded. She was laid to rest on November 10 beside Franklin in Hyde Park, New York in what was tantamount to a state funeral, attended by her dear old friend Adlai Stevenson, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, former Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower alongside Bess and Mamie, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson with Lady Bird. 

John and Jackie Kennedy arrived on the first flight made by the new Air Force One, the very same plane that would, not much more than a year later, convey the body of the assassinated President Kennedy back to Washington from Dallas and on which Lyndon B. Johnson would assume command of the mourning nation as Jackie stood boldly by his side in her blood-spattered pink suit.

In a statement issued on October 11, 1963, Kennedy (as both President of the United States and Chairman of the Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Foundation) celebrated what would have been her 79th birthday with the release of the Eleanor Roosevelt commemorative stamp.

“Her memory serves as an abiding reminder of the ideals of which she provided the most complete embodiment among Americans of this age,” declared Kennedy. “The ideals of justice, of compassion, and of hope.”

 

Did you enjoy this article? If so, tell the world! Tweet about it, like it or share it by clicking on one of the buttons below!

 

And remember, you can read Chris’ article on JFK and Roosevelt in the 1950s here, and his article on 1960 election between Nixon and Kennedy here.

Sources

  • Papers of John F. Kennedy (with relation to Eleanor Roosevelt) from the Archives of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
  • Eleanor vs. JFK: The Back Story by Elizabeth Deane (Inside the Open Vault, WGBH Boston).
  • Eleanor Roosevelt’s Anything But Private Funeral by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer (The Atlantic, November 4, 2012).

 

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

The 1960 US presidential election is surely one of the most famous in history. It pitched the glamor of JFK against political heavyweight Richard Nixon. Here, Christopher Benedict looks at the fascinating key areas in the election including JFK’s religion, civil rights, and those TV debates.

 

You can read Chris’ article on JFK and Eleanor Roosevelt’s uneasy relationship in the 1950s here.

Kennedy and Nixon before the first presidential debate in September 1960.

Kennedy and Nixon before the first presidential debate in September 1960.

Step Right Up!

“There’s a sucker born every minute” is a phrase which continues to live its wrongfully folkloric life as having been fathered by P. T. Barnum, the greatest showman on earth and four-term Connecticut legislator whose abolitionist ideals led him to switch allegiances from the Democratic Party to become a sworn Lincoln Republican.

Though the origin of the aphorism is believed to trace instead to David Hannum, who financed the exhibition of the alleged ten-foot tall mummified remains of the ‘Cardiff Giant’ in 1869 and took great exception to Barnum’s simultaneous display of a mold he had made and passed off as the real deal (a fake of a fake), journalist and Gangs of New York author Herbert Asbury attributes the saying in his 1940 book Gem of the Prairie: Chicago Underworld to Michael Cassius McDonald. A charismatic Irish immigrant whose four-story gambling house ‘The Store’ was often referred to as Chicago’s “unofficial City Hall”, McDonald is said to have uttered the immortal words to calm the nerves of his business partner Harry Lawrence over his concern as to how they could possibly attract enough of the Windy City’s inhabitants to patronize their establishment. Wielding great enough influence, both criminal and political, he formed a syndicate known as McDonald’s Democrats which strong-armed the mayoral election of 1879 in the direction of Carter Harrison Sr., a distant cousin of President William Henry Harrison. 

Politics and show business have long been cozy bedfellows. There are carnival-like elements inherent to campaigns, conventions, and elections which rub shoulders with those of traveling ten-in-one sideshows and three-ring, big-top circuses of old. So, it seems only natural that both of 1960’s presidential aspirants would invoke similarly germane imagery as the election cycle wound down through the home stretch.

“The people of the United States, in this last week, have finally caught up with the promises that have been made by our opponents,” said Vice President Richard Nixon from the steps of Oakland’s City Hall on a windswept November 5. “They realize that it’s a modern medicine-man show. A pied piper from Boston and they’re not going to go down that road.”

John F. Kennedy, meanwhile, speaking before a frenzied constituency at the Boston Garden two days later, took the analogy one step further by quipping, “I run against a candidate that reminds me of the symbol of his party. The circus elephant, with his head full of ivory, a long memory, and no vision. And you have seen elephants being led around the circus ring. They grab the tail of the elephant in front of them.”

 

The Religion Issue

Not since anti-Prohibitionist New York Governor Alfred E. Smith in 1928 had there been a Catholic nominee for the U.S. presidency. While it may be difficult today to fathom what a substantial stumbling block this presented then to upwardly mobile politicians, the very notion of a non-Protestant potentially merging church and state was very real and simply unthinkable, making Kennedy’s Catholicism an allegorical cross to bear. So much so that his Press Secretary Pierre Salinger recalls attempting to enlist the staunchly conservative Reverend Billy Graham to aid their cause during a train ride from West Virginia to Indianapolis. 

“We were in the process of trying to get the nation’s leading Protestant churchmen to sign a public statement urging religious tolerance in the political process,” Salinger said. After initially promising his signature to the document’s final draft, Kennedy confidante and speechwriter Ted Sorensen later received a far less amenable response, in the form of “a flat-out no”, remarking that it would be wrong “to interfere in the political process.” Salinger noted that “later that year, however, Graham appeared at a number of political rallies for Richard Nixon. Apparently, it would have been wrong to interfere in the political process on behalf of a Democrat.”

Forced to directly confront the issue, Kennedy addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, not to mention the nation at large, on September 12, 1960.

“Contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for President”, he stated in clear defiance without the tone of agitated self-defense. “I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”

 

The Red Menace

With the domino theory put in place in the 1950s and threatening to set off a chain reaction of toppled democracies across the map, replaced by Communist adherents to the tenets of Marxism-Leninism, the incoming Commander-in-Chief would be expected to deal assertively with the bogeymen of the “red scare” in the forms of South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem, Castro in Cuba, and particularly First Secretary of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev. 

Nixon had earned a reputation as a hard-liner in the struggle to seek and destroy socialist tendencies with tough words and even tougher endeavors. First serving as legal counsel on Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, he became a household name for his successful prosecution of Communist spy Alger Hiss in 1948. It was suggested that Hiss represented all that Nixon despised. Wealthy, liberal, Harvard-educated, and handsome. Sound familiar?

Senator Kennedy was persistently needled as being “soft on Communism” by Nixon, who had slapped his 1950 Senatorial opponent Helen Gahagan Douglas with the libelous epithet “pink lady” for her New Deal progressiveness and references to HUAC as a “smear organization”. Interestingly enough, in 1950 Kennedy, his father Joe an anti-Communist McCarthy crony, privately supported Nixon. “I obviously can’t endorse you,” he admitted, “but it isn’t going to break my heart if you can turn the Senate’s loss (Douglas, herself a former actress) into Hollywood’s gain.”

Khrushchev, who would go toe-to-toe with Kennedy during the Vienna Summit, Cuban Missile Crisis, Berlin Wall standoff, and Test Ban Treaty, offered this after-the-fact personal assessment of both candidates in his memoirs. “I was impressed with Kennedy. I remember liking his face which was sometimes stern but which often broke into a good-natured smile. As for Nixon...he had been a puppet of Joseph McCarthy until McCarthy’s star began to fade, at which point Nixon turned his back on him. So, he was an unprincipled puppet, which is the most dangerous kind,” he wrote. “I was very glad Kennedy won the election... I could tell he was interested in finding a peaceful solution to world problems and avoiding conflict with the Soviet Union.”

 

Civil Rights

An initial Kennedy backer until he felt snubbed during a personal meeting and came to the conclusion that the Democrat was unwilling to move forward on civil rights issues, retired Brooklyn Dodger and destroyer of baseball’s color barrier Jackie Robinson campaigned instead for the Republican nominee but bemoaned the fact that “the Negro vote was not at all committed to Kennedy, but it went there because Mr. Nixon did not do anything to win it.”

Kennedy, in a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt who was pushing the reluctant Senator into progressive action in courting the support of the black community, wrote, “With respect to Jackie Robinson… he has made uncomplimentary statements to the press about me,” sulking that, “I know that he is out to do as much damage as possible.” Nixon’s running mate Nelson Rockefeller, with Robinson’s blessing, was eventually called upon to espouse the ticket’s fidelity to civil rights in what was considered a too-little, too-late effort.

Kennedy, meanwhile, placed a conciliatory phone call to Coretta Scott King following the arrest of her husband Martin and fifty-two fellow protestors staging a sit-in at the Magnolia Room of Rich’s Department Store in Atlanta. Sentenced to four months of hard labor after all others involved had been released, Martin Luther King was freed only when news of Kennedy’s gesture, as well as brother Robert’s personal intervention on King’s behalf, reached the Georgian judge who had presided over the case. “Because this man was willing to wipe the tears from my daughter’s eyes,” said an emotional King, “I’ve got a suitcase of votes and I’m going to take them to Mr. Kennedy and dump them in his lap.”  

It is worth noting that these maneuvers on the part of the Kennedy brothers carried more than a slight whiff of patronizing opportunism and that, although the both of them did evolve dramatically and genuinely in later years on race relations, it was a birthing process which was painful and sluggish.

 

The Debates

“Without the many panels and news shows, without his shrewd use of TV commercials and telecast speeches, without television tapes to spread wherever needed his confrontation with the Houston ministers, without the four great debates with Richard Nixon, John Kennedy would never have been elected President,” asserted Ted Sorensen. 

Though they squared off four times (Kennedy lobbied fruitlessly for a fifth), it was the first on September 26, 1960 in Chicago’s CBS Studios which proved to be as visually revealing as it was historically significant. The first ever televised presidential debate, the new medium did Nixon no favors. Having just been released from the hospital after the knee he injured on the campaign trail had become dangerously infected, the Vice President, underweight and sporting a five o’clock shadow, was still susceptible to feverish sweats and a sickly complexion which may have been alleviated somewhat had he not refused a cosmetic touch-up. Nixon’s poor physical appearance was augmented by his unfortunate choice of a grey suit which was ill-fitting and represented poorly in black and white against the studio’s similarly drab backdrop. 

Contrasted against Kennedy’s navy blue suit, copper-colored tan, and million dollar smile, Nixon staggered into a situation which found him already at a decided disadvantage. Like college kids cramming for an exam, Kennedy went through hours of dry runs with Sorensen and Salinger and his levels of confidence and preparedness were evident for all to see. Falling back on practices learned while starring on Whittier College’s esteemed debate club, Nixon continually addressed Kennedy personally, looking away from the television cameras to do so, appearing anxious and adversarial. Poll results differ to this day, but most seem to suggest that the two combatants were evenly matched in terms of verbal content as heard by radio listeners which was betrayed by the pair’s physical incongruities visible to home viewers.

One person who concurred was Nixon’s own running mate Henry Cabot Lodge who remarked, “That son of a bitch just lost the election.”

 

First Ladies

On assignment for the April 1953 edition of the Washington Times-Herald, their Inquiring Camera Girl Jackie Bouvier interviewed both Vice President Richard Milhouse Nixon and newly elected Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy. Jack and Jackie had been quietly seeing one another since a dinner party the year before where, as then-Congressman Kennedy recalled, “I leaned across the asparagus and asked for her for a date.” Their relationship attained a public profile in January 1953 when the Hamptons-born beauty (with brains to match) accompanied Kennedy to Dwight Eisenhower’s inaugural ball. Pregnant with John Jr. and confined to bed rest for much of the 1960 campaign, Jackie may not have been an observable presence, but did contribute in the way of a syndicated newspaper column called Campaign Wife which combined personal anecdotes with political affairs, as well as handling correspondence and giving interviews. 

Pat Nixon, on the other hand, was never far from Richard’s side, or the public consciousness. A “Pat For First Lady” movement gained strength among the schoolteachers and housewives to whom she tailored her message, and her likeness could be seen on nearly as many buttons and bumper stickers as that of her husband. An attempt was even made in the press, ill-conceived and ill-fated, to manufacture a race for First Lady between Pat and Jackie based on clothing choices as much as, if not more than, party platform.

Dismissed by Mamie Eisenhower as “that woman” for her inimitable fashion sense, Jackie, in turn, took a catty swipe at her 1960 rival for First Lady by telling historian and Kennedy think-tank member Arthur Schlesinger Jr. that Jack “wasn’t thinking of his image, or he would have made me get a little frizzy permanent like Pat Nixon.” 

  

Postlude

Both men would, of course, achieve the Presidency. Nixon not until 1968, and only after the path had been paved by Lyndon Johnson’s concession to neither seek nor accept his party’s nomination as well as the assassination of Robert Kennedy a mere four and a half years after his own brother, on that fateful November day in Dallas, was made a national martyr on equal footing, in the hearts and minds of generations of Americans, with the beloved Abraham Lincoln.

All of this calls to mind something P. T. Barnum actually did say. “You have to throw a gold brick into the uncertain waters of the future, and faith because there will be many difficult days before you will see the returns start rolling in.”

 

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And remember… You can read Chris’ article on JFK and Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1950s by clicking here.

Sources

  • The Making of the President 1960 by Theodore White (1961, Atheneum House).
  • With Kennedy by Pierre Salinger (1966, Doubleday).
  • Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady by Greg Mitchell (1998, Random House).
  • Khrushchev Remembers by Nikita Khrushchev, edited by Edward Crankshaw (1970, Little, Brown, and Co.).
  • Letter from Jackie Robinson to Theodore L. Humes, November 16, 1960.
  • Letter from John F. Kennedy to Eleanor Roosevelt, September 3, 1960.
  • The Kennedy Legacy: A Peaceful Revolution for the Seventies by Theodore Sorensen (1969, MacMillan).
  • Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy, Interviews with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. 1964, with introduction and annotations by Michael Beschloss (2011, Hyperion).
  • Jack Kennedy: The Illustrated Life of a President (2009, Chronicle Books).

 

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

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.

JFK and Eleanor Roosevelt together in New York in October 1960.

JFK and Eleanor Roosevelt together in New York in October 1960.

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.

 

1960 Election

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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You can also read earlier articles by Chris on the visits of Elvis (link here) and Johnny Cash (link here) to Richard Nixon’s White House. 

 

Sources

  • 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.