Eleanor vs. JFK–The Back Story

By Elizabeth Deane

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By Elizabeth Deane
Longtime producer and writer for WGBH Boston 
 
At first glance, the 1962 black-and-white video doesn’t appear to capture anything more than a straightforward interview. Former ?rst lady Eleanor Roosevelt quietly prods President John F. Kennedy about the status of women in America. But WATCH closely, and read on. These two had a rocky history.
 
This month from the Vault: Eleanor vs. JFK–The Back Story
You’ll see that the former first lady is polite, but dogged, and she’s on message with every word. She’s been fighting this battle for decades.

Eleanor Roosevelt & John F. Kennedy interview on Prospects of Mankind. (Credit/WGBH)

 
The president, looking as if he’d rather be anywhere but in that seat, dutifully expands on the goals of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. But he was a man of his time, and there’s a whiff of Mad Men-era assumptions in his careful language.
 
Filmed for Roosevelt’s WGBH-produced series Prospects of Mankind, their cordial conversation belies the adversarial past between these two power players in the Democratic Party. 
The discord between them first arose in 1958, as JFK’s campaign for the Democratic nomination moved into high gear. Roosevelt gave an interview to ABC TV in which she suggested that the candidate’s father, millionaire Joseph P. Kennedy, intended to buy the presidency for his son in 1960. The elder Kennedy, she said, “has been spending oodles of money in the country on his behalf,” and the Kennedys had “paid representatives in every state.”
 
JFK was angry—and worried. Roosevelt had considerable influence within the party, and he needed her support. He wrote to her immediately, suggesting that she was “the victim of misinformation,” and asking for the name of her informant. “Surely,” he said, she would not want to spread “false statements, rumors or innuendo.” 
 
In her reply, Roosevelt refused to retreat. Joseph Kennedy’s big spending was “commonly accepted as fact,” she asserted. “Building an organization is permissible,” she continued, “but giving too lavishly may seem to indicate a desire to influence through money.”
 
In our post-Citizens United world, the flow of big money through American politics is a given, but this was a different time. Worse, she had thrown a spotlight on JFK’s father. The elder Kennedy, once FDR’s ambassador to England, had supported the isolationist cause before World War II. He subsequently backed away from public life in disgrace, and kept a low profile as his son’s political star rose. 
 
Roosevelt was convinced that Joseph Kennedy was the real power behind the campaign, and with him, she believed, came an odor of corruption that threatened the Democratic Party. She wanted Adlai Stevenson, who’d been defeated by Eisenhower in 1956, to run again. 
 
Kennedy wrote back, this time blind copying his friend Donald Graham, editor of the Washington Post, and asking Roosevelt to “correct the record in a fair and gracious manner.”
 
Roosevelt stonewalled, but Kennedy persisted. She eventually yielded—just a little—while reminding him that there were other reasons for her opposition to his candidacy. “I have never said that my opposition to you was based on these rumors…but I could not deny what I knew nothing about,” she wrote. She added, “From now on, I will say, when asked, that I have your assurance that the rumors are not true.”
 
That last sentence gave Kennedy a small opening, and he seized it. “Many, many thanks for your gracious letter,” came his reply. “I believe we can let it stand for the present.”
Roosevelt answered with a telegram drenched in irony: “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.”
 
Note the condescending “My dear boy,” and also the use of the word “profile,” rather than the familiar “cheek.” It’s a reference to Kennedy’s book, Profiles in Courage. 
 
WGBH legend has it that JFK wanted to formally announce his candidacy in January 1960 on Prospects of Mankind, but Roosevelt refused. He did, however, fly up to Boston from Washington after making his announcement on January 2 in order to appear on her show (a discussion of US policy toward Europe). She opened the program with a reference to his “announcement”—without saying what it was that he had announced.
 
Roosevelt continued to press for Stevenson’s nomination for many months, and to belittle Kennedy. Nevertheless, he won the nomination in July. Roosevelt then conceded that she would support his candidacy, but not campaign for him. 
 
Not enough for JFK. He went to see her in her house at Hyde Park, NY, in August. Finally, she agreed to campaign for him—but not without a price. Kennedy would have to involve Stevenson in the campaign on foreign policy issues. And, once elected, he would need to establish a commission on the status of women. 
 
It turns out this rocky relationship has a proud legacy. Roosevelt’s commission has helped mobilize forces still fighting for women’s rights today.

Elizabeth Deane is a longtime producer and writer for WGBH

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About the Author
Elizabeth Deane
Elizabeth Deane is a longtime producer and writer for WGBH Boston.

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