Researching Dear Mrs. Kennedy, I became fascinated by the connection between FDR and JFK—all the more so when I realized August 14 was the 75th Anniversary of Social Security. I wrote the following article this summer for the quarterly Dutchess/Columbia County community guide I co-publish, AboutTown. I had to leave out some details about FDR's and JFK's relative political success in "upstate" mid-Hudson Valley New York, which I've now appended to this article as a post-script.
Seventy-five years ago, on August 14, 1935, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the bill that established the Social Security system. In 1960, exactly 25 years to the day after that “cornerstone of the New Deal” became law, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy came on a pilgrimage to this corner of the Hudson Valley. He came to the FDR Home in Hyde Park to deliver a major speech championing a program of universal medical benefits for seniors based on Social Security: the program subsequently known as Medicare. Just as important, he came to make peace with the woman who held one of the keys to his success or failure on Election Day.
Eleanor Roosevelt, more than Harry Truman or any other heir of the “Roosevelt coalition,” embodied the heart and soul of her late husband’s liberal legacy. A nod from her automatically granted legitimacy to Democratic candidates. Yet for the preceding four years she had been implacably if graciously hostile to John F. Kennedy’s ambitions to become president.
Eleanor had played a fundamental role in Adlai Stevenson’s unsuccessful presidential campaign of 1956. Although she sometimes could not help comparing the candidate unfavorably with her late husband, she had a complicated and close relationship with Stevenson that went beyond a shared set of political convictions. Her biographer Joseph Lash characterized Eleanor as Stevenson’s “protectress.” The 1956 defeat left her feeling so depleted that she hoped never again to be so thoroughly involved in any campaign.
Yet when push came to shove four years later, she found herself leading a quixotic effort to resurrect Adlai Stevenson for a third effort as the Democratic presidential nominee. Her actions seemed to contradict some of her own words. At the 1956 Democratic convention she had issued a clarion call for an infusion of young leadership with new ideas. Yet when JFK met with her during that same convention about her possible support for becoming Stevenson’s running mate she refused, telling the young Senator bluntly that he had not done enough to condemn Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting.
JFK’s stance regarding McCarthy, however, was not all there was to Eleanor Roosevelt’s negativity towards the young Senator from Massachusetts. In late 1958, in an appearance on ABC-TV’s College News Conference, she let it be understood that her objections to his candidacy had something to do with his very character. Making a reference to Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Profiles in Courage, she explained caustically that Senator Kennedy might well be “someone who understands what courage is and admires it but has not quite the independence to have it.” She was talking about more than just political independence, as became clear when she complained that Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was “spending oodles of money all over the country and probably has a paid representatives in every state.” Why couldn’t JFK do it himself, she wondered? The charge hit a sore spot with Kennedy, initiating a month-long exchange of letters that spilled over into Mrs. Roosevelt’s regular newspaper column.
When Kennedy and three other well-known Democrats began a serious competition for the Democratic presidential nomination in the spring of 1960, Eleanor Roosevelt announced that she would endorse no one. Then an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russian territory, triggering the cancellation of a Soviet-American summit and a dramatic increase in Cold War tensions. Mrs. Roosevelt, alarmed over the threat to national security, decided “to exercise the prerogative of a woman and change my mind.” Not, however, to rally behind Kennedy, the recent winner of several Democratic primaries. As in 1940, when she called for that year’s convention to draft her husband for an unprecedented run for a third term because of the threat of war, she now made a public plea for the upcoming convention in Los Angeles to draft another undeclared candidate—Adlai Stevenson. He was, she insisted, “the only man” with the requisite “maturity” to handle the US “position in the world now.”
Some commentators saw an element of pathos in Mrs. Roosevelt’s clinging to a two-time loser whom many in the party had ruled out as unelectable. Norman Mailer caricatured her as a kind of small town first lady who, though never doubting that Mr. Kennedy qualified as “a gentleman,” nonetheless would not allow him into “her political house.”
Of Presidents & Parents
Where was all of Eleanor’s hostility coming from? In part, surely, from the tangled relationship and rivalry that had bound FDR to JFK’s dad, Joseph P. Kennedy. In the 1932 presidential contest, Joseph Kennedy’s early support for FDR had been an important boon both financially and politically among Irish-Catholic constituents. Joseph Kennedy had also proved an effective ambassador to Wall Street as the first Chairman of the new Securities and Exchange Commission. More problematic was to be his later role as a real Ambassador, to the United Kingdom. Here his Irish combativeness and inborn isolationism proved nearly disastrous once the European war broke out, undermining FDR’s need to build a closer alliance with Great Britain. Matters came to a climax a few weeks before the 1940 election, when longstanding Democrat loyalist Kennedy made an implicit threat to derail FDR with a last-minute endorsement of his Republican rival Wendell Wilkie.
Joseph Kennedy’s apostasy may well have been averted by FDR’s implicit promise to look benevolently on the future political aspirations of Joe Kennedy’s four sons. If so, FDR certainly knew something about the power of parental ambition—after all, he too had four sons. If such a bargain was indeed struck, as FDR’s oldest son James maintained, it sheds an ironic light on the parental competition that seemed to flare up between Eleanor and Joseph Kennedy when Kennedy’s son ran for president.
The connections between and among the generations of Roosevelts and Kennedys are complex and contradictory. To the younger Kennedys, FDR was their first political hero and a frequent topic of conversation around the dinner table. To the older Kennedy, the younger Roosevelts presented avenues of opportunity—as when Prohibition was about to end and Joe Kennedy enlisted young James Roosevelt to assist him in a venture to line up distributorships for the most prestigious liquors from Great Britain.
The younger Roosevelts themselves, though buffeted by deeply conflicted feelings about their parents, tried but mostly failed to emulate their famous father. Two of the sons, James and FDR Jr., became active in politics at about the same time as JFK made his own entrance onto the political stage. Both FDR Jr. and JFK overlapped as young members of the House of Representatives and had friendly relations. Back in 1952, when Eleanor endorsed JFK in his campaign to unseat Henry Cabot Lodge as Senator from Massachusetts, calling him “young” and “courageous” and citing his valuable experience as a congressman, was she also implicitly pointing to the future ambitions of her own congressman son? And in 1958, when she complained about Joe Kennedy’s financial support for Jack Kennedy, did she not perhaps unconsciously fret about how she herself had used her own public platform to support FDR Jr.?
Jimmy, FDR Jr., and the maverick of the Roosevelt gang, Elliott, all went on record for JFK at the same time their mother was throwing roadblocks in his way. FDR Jr. lent JFK a Roosevelt imprimatur during Kennedy’s spring 1960 West Virginia primary race against Hubert Humphrey. In all these complicated generational connections, one thing was certain: the undying animosity between Joseph Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Some have accused Eleanor Roosevelt of being anti-Catholic. Certainly she bore scars from the criticism directed at her by the Church for her “feminist” stands on divorce and birth control and her opposition to public aid for parochial schools, which resulted in a very public feud with Cardinal Spellman of New York. More important probably was her ongoing feud with the Tammany Hall political machine that had re-emerged in the 1950s as a significant factor in NY State Democratic politics. In 1954 the Tammany boss, Carmine De Sapio, blocked FDR Jr.’s bid to become the Democratic candidate for governor, forcing him to run for State Attorney General instead. With little or no support from the city Democratic “machine,” Junior became the only statewide Democratic candidate to lose that year. Mrs. Roosevelt was so infuriated that soon she assumed leadership of a reform movement determined to end Tammany’s influence once and for all. When Eleanor Roosevelt complained about the candidates to the 1960 Democratic Convention being controlled by “unseen forces,” was she perhaps unconsciously mixing up Joe Kennedy and his Catholic associates with New York City’s Tammany’s bosses? (In truth, up until nearly the last moment, De Sapio & Co. had been supporters of Lyndon Johnson.)
At the convention, Mrs. Roosevelt led the Draft Stevenson movement, while making a gesture towards Kennedy by promoting him as best choice for Vice-President. Promoting the ticket she had frowned on four years earlier did not work. Most convention delegates wanted Kennedy to lead now, not later. Although the pro-Stevenson forces packed the galleries with so many enthusiasts that the “spontaneous” demonstration in his favor looked for a moment as if it might overwhelm the Kennedy forces, the results on the first ballot were overwhelming: Kennedy, 806; Stevenson, 79 ½.
Omens for Kennedy-Eleanor Roosevelt relationship were not good as the convention in LA wound down. Mrs. Roosevelt left immediately after Kennedy’s victory and was noncommittal when intercepted at the airport with a personal call from the new nominee. Her first syndicated “My Day” column appearing after the convention complained that delegates favoring Stevenson had been pressured by “their leaders” to accept Kennedy. And when Bobby Kennedy nearly lost his temper in an initial meeting with New York’s reformers, negotiations for a modus vivendi between reformers and Tammany supporters of JFK hit a temporary brick wall. By early August the bloom was off Kennedy’s first ballot victory and he was trailing Richard Nixon in the polls.
New York—including the upstate communities that Eleanor knew so much about—was a linchpin in any of JFK’s winning scenarios, and the Kennedy forces worked frantically behind the scenes, to pacify the leading lady of Democratic politics. In the end it was probably not so much her politically ambitious sons who convinced her to relent, but her grandson Curtis, who like his grandmother had been a Stevenson supporter. After the convention Curtis, who as Anna Roosevelt’s son had for a while “grown up” in the White House, was invited to dinner at JFK’s Georgetown house. He agreed to intercede on JFK’s behalf, and one summer afternoon at Val-Kill when he was alone with his Grandmère, he pointed out to her that it might reflect badly on her if she continued to refuse to even speak with the Democratic nominee for president. And so, she finally agreed to the August 14, 1960 meeting on the 25th anniversary of Social Security.
For his part, Kennedy saw this meeting as the chance to cement a critical alliance. The stakes were high: he made a joke with family friend William Walton that his upcoming encounter was like the 1807 encounter between Napoleon and Czar Alexander of Russia in Lithuania that resulted in the Treaty of Tilsit. That agreement had placed continental Europe more or less at the mercy of Napoleon for five years; would the meeting at Hyde Park prove equally consequential for the conquering hero of 1960?
On the Friday two days before the scheduled “summit,” a family tragedy in the Roosevelt clan nearly forced its cancellation: Eleanor’s granddaughter Sally was thrown from a horse at summer camp and died shortly afterwards in an upstate hospital. JFK volunteered to cancel the entire occasion, but Eleanor insisted it go ahead, hosting the candidate for a light lunch that Sunday at Val-Kill before secluding herself with other members of her family in anticipation of the funeral service at Hyde Park’s St. James Church that afternoon. A couple miles down the road and two hours earlier, JFK made his appeal for what would become known as Medicare before a crowd of some 6,000, with no Roosevelts in attendance.
Most of what we know about the private meeting that Sunday comes from a letter Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to a close friend about it (a copy of which she later sent to Kennedy himself). Although hardly “won over,” it testifies that, while maintaining her own critical perspective, she had overcome both her disappointment and whatever personal prejudice she had harbored in an effort to seek common ground. She listened to Kennedy’s analysis of the state of congress and the country and she offered her own advice on his prospects for November, especially in New York and California. She did not ask for any commitments but offered to work for him provisionally as she grew to know and appreciate his views more. In the end she confessed that she “liked him better than I ever had before because he seemed so little cocksure,” and “he is really interested in helping the people of his own country and mankind in general.”
As the campaign progressed, Eleanor became more enamored and respectful of JFK. She saw him as having a good “mind and ability,” of being “truthful” and likely to be “honest with the people.” She would never have ascribed such qualities to Joseph Kennedy. Clearly, she was at last able to distinguish Jack from his father.
The results for Kennedy in New York on November 8, 1960 were gratifying if not overwhelming. He won by a plurality of not quite 400,000 votes—a margin of a little over 5%. On the more local level of Dutchess County, the results showed that “Democrats, despite the new vigor and enthusiasm of their 1960 effort, still have a long way to go to overcome traditional local Republicanism,” as the Poughkeepsie Journal editorialized the day after.
Eleanor Roosevelt continued to play an incidental role in the first years of Kennedy’s presidency—chairing the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, offering advice on how JFK could lower the sometimes high pitch of his speaking voice, prodding Attorney General Robert Kennedy to pay more heed to civil rights activists in the South, counseling Jacqueline Kennedy about how to protect her children’s privacy and balance the roles of First Lady and mother—a juggling act Eleanor herself sometimes failed at. But her health was already fragile and almost exactly two years later she died. Both Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy came to honor her at the funeral services in November 1962, when she was buried beside her husband and his loyal dog Fala in the Rose Garden behind the FDR Library.
At that time, the Medicare program Kennedy had enunciated at Hyde Park in August 1960 as a candidate looked permanently stalled in Congress. It would take another death—the jarring, violent assassination of Kennedy himself little more than a year later, and the subsequent outpouring of shock, grief and rededication to the liberal agenda JFK had finally come to symbolize—that provided the impetus for its enactment.
In fact, the huge wave of pro-Kennedy sympathy that swept the nation in 1964—played deftly by Lyndon Johnson in his presidential race against Barry Goldwater and by Kennedy’s brother Bobby in his challenge to New York sitting Republican Senator Kenneth Keating—also formalized the passing of the torch from the reigning political family of one era to that of the next. Who in 1945, or even a dozen years later, would have imagined that the Democratic Party in the second half of the 20th century would be dominated not by Franklin and Eleanor’s progeny, but by those of their all-too-often bitter rival, Joseph P. Kennedy?
A postscript about the upstate/downstate factor in New York politics:
Dutchess County has historically been a Republican stronghold, and historians often like to point out the lack of political support for FDR here. It’s true enough: FDR always lost in Dutchess as a presidential candidate. But the average margin of defeat in presidential years was around 12%, whereas Kennedy lost to Nixon in Dutchess County by a margin of over 20%. As for Hyde Park itself, local boy FDR tended to run almost even with his Republican opponent in presidential years. Kennedy, on the other hand, did even worse in Hyde Park against Nixon than he did county-wide.
Also: FDR, in his five earlier, more local races for State Senate and Governor, carried Dutchess County all but once. The year that FDR lost the county vote for Governor was 1928, although he carried New York State as a whole. In a year of disasters across the country for most Democrats, this was an outstanding success. His margin of victory was due entirely to a better-than-expected showing upstate: a factor that immediately made him the most promising Democratic national candidate for 1932.
In the 20th Century, being local has always helped Democratic candidates in Dutchess County—often just not enough. In his 1960 bid to become US Congressman from the 29th Congressional District Barrytown celebrity Gore Vidal (incidentally related by marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy) lost in Dutchess County by the historically low margin of around 8%.
Vidal’s showing was remarkable at the time. (The 1964 election in Dutchess County, where LBJ trounced Goldwater and in the Senatorial contest Bobby Kennedy was only very narrowly outpaced by liberal Republican Kenneth Keating, was an historical anomaly, since the country was still in the sway of a post-JFK swelling of liberal compassion.) Still, there has been a perceptible “liberalizing” trend in exurban Northern Dutchess. Sometimes, when these upscale liberals combine with minority voters in Poughkeepsie, they can produce a countywide Democratic victory. But such trends are hardly certain or predictive given cultural trends among the “native” middle class that run the other way, especially during the current deep recession.