tv The Presidency Roosevelts Kennedys - Political Relationships CSPAN February 8, 2021 3:20pm-3:46pm EST
cspanshop.org. shop today at c-spanshop.org. a conversation with the head of the john f kennedy presidential library about the political relationships between members of the roosevelt and kennedy families. in particular, the alliance between eleanor roosevelt and jfk. >> welcome to another edition of at home with the roosevelts. i'm the director of the library and museum in hyde park, new york. today we're talking about the relationship between the roosevelts and kennedys. i'm joined by the director of the jfd library. >> paul, it's good to be with you. allen price here. >> thank you for joining me today.
this is really one of the most interesting and complicated relationships, multigenerational relationships, two families that are really dynasties in the way they impacted american political life. and there's a component of this that a lot of people don't really understand. not only is the relationship between franklin roosevelt and joseph kennedy, but there was an incredible relationship between eleanor roosevelt and john f. kennedy. i think we'll start at the beginning which is the relationship between franklin roosevelt and joe kennedy. joseph kennedy made most of his money in the '20s in the stock market, and when yawn f kennedy became president, one of the things he did was he appointed joseph kennedy as the head of the securities and exchange commission which would serve as he said putting the fox in charge of the hen house. then this created a relationship between the two of them in which joe kennedy really became a very close confidant of fdr ending up
as the ambassador of st. james. you want to talk about how he managed that in london right before the war? >> well, it is an interesting time. i almost want to go back just a tiny bit before that. as you could imagine when young people are in the age where they're graduating from high school whoever is the president in that moment i think has a profound impact on them and shapes their view of the presidency, and fdr is the president when jfk comes of age and through his adulthood. and i think much of his vision what is leadership and what is the nation is very much informed by fdr. and so i think that's a big part of it. clearly through his father joseph and the posting at the court of st. james he has direct connection to what that service might look like. there is a moment when the
german u-boat sinks the first u.k. ship, and jfk is asked by his father to look after the surviving u.s. passengers and their families in that transition. so he actually gets a little bit of responsibility in that moment. and so i think it's -- it informs his notion of public service. ultimately he goes and signs up to go to war, ultimately finally being accepted into the navy with his father's help a little bit. and i think to go to war under a president, the only president you've really been conscious of as an adult can't help but impact your sense of what is leadership in the future. >> and because john f. kennedy in england he wrote a book. you want to talk about that book just a second?
>> sure. in addition to being in england and from there touring through different parts of europe he observes ultimately the lead up to world war ii, and some of that was intentional in terms of his research for his thesis at harvard. and he ultimately turns that thesis into a book, "why england slept." and i don't know it pays that much attention to his father's role in that. but he looks at what is the buildup to later. i think it informs his view of the cold war and how do you respond, so it's an interesting time. >> interestingly that book, john f. kennedy gave a copy of the book to franklin roosevelt, and jfk signed it and franklin roosevelt signed it. we have a few collected rare books and other things, and that's one of our most precious
possessions. you may not know this story. it's one of my favorite antecdotes. in 1940 when kennedy came back from europe, he came to visit the fdr library which was under construction at the time. it didn't open until 1941, but it was under construction. and he left a gift for fdr, and we have the thank you -- a copy of the thank you note that fdr wrote to jfk, and it's sort of a scribbled note. it's a little hard to read, but it appears to say thank you for the machine gun and goggles. >> oh, really? >> which everyone was like can you imagine john f. kennedy dropping off a machine gun at the presidential library with some guards -- actually what it said was marine gun which was a spear gun for fishing because he knew fdr loved fishing and loved to be in the water, and the
goggles were like swimming goggles. we never were able to find what happened to the spear gun or goggles, but it does sort of go to the relationship the two families had which is they were close. >> they were. there's a lot of intersections through the years, no question. and obviously the continuing conversation between jfk and eleanor is also significant in jfk's rise. >> yeah, the period right before the united states gets into the war when joseph kennedy is the ambassador he starts really siding with germany, and he's telling roosevelt and anybody who will listen he doesn't think england will survive and he thinks america needs to find a way to get peace with germany, and this creates a real fraction between him and the president, and also i believe a little bit of friction between him and his sons. >> yes, i think it's a good bit
of friction. and as you can imagine inside the kennedy family to go against your father would have been a tough road to go. >> yeah, well, joseph kennedy almost ran against fdr in 1940. it wasn't clear fdr was going to run because it was an unprecedented third term. and at that point kennedy felt he had something to offer not to mention significant funds to support his candidacy. but fdr kept him in england just long enough to prevent him from running and brought him back and they parted ways, and it eventually became quite nasty between the two of them. >> fdr did serve long enough a lot of people at least thought about running against him. >> very true. but when the war broke out john f. kennedy joined the navy. talk about that. how that experience influenced his presidency and influenced his view of fdr as the commander
in chief. >> well, a lot of people recognize today the exceptional circumstances of his joining the navy. he overcame a lot. a lot of physical disabilities in fact he was disqualified for naval service due to lower back injuries which had gone back a long time. he had a number of other maladies. his father joked about him that if a mosquito bit jfk that the mosquito would die, that he just seemed to be sick all the time with different maladies. but he did want to join the navy even though he was initially rejected or disqualified he appealed to his father to intervene on his behalf. and in conversation with a lead naval person, office of naval operations i believe it was. he was initially assigned to a desk job.
president kennedy didn't want a desk job. he wanted to go to the front and then he was given a command of pt boats in the pacific theater. so certainly all those operations very much informed his sense of public service and deepened his appreciation for democracy, knew that democracy was under assault from a worlds that did not believe in that kind of freedom. he said even in his debates with nixon his address to the nation at that point is, you know, can america live -- can the world live half free and half slave? he actually referred to lincoln in that speech although lincoln was talking about a literal slavery domestically and kennedy was referring to democracy versus communism. but it's an interesting take on
the world, and i think in large part that is grounded by his service in world war ii. >> there was another incident during world war ii that i think had enormous influence on john f. kennedy which was the death of his older brother, joseph. joseph was quite a hero. >> yes. and according to the family dynamics of that time his older brother was to be the one who went into politics. and jfk was to play a supporting role, and when his older brother passes away unfortunately in a bombing run in which the bombs went off prematurely before they were discharged from the plane, his father joseph turned to him as it was now his turn to lead the family into politics, which was an interesting identity shift for him. i think much of his younger life he gets away with being friendly and well-liked but not all that serious a student and not all
that serious a player in the world, and it's only through seeing the war develop and then, you know, his last couple of years at harvard really focusing in his studies and certainly his naval service i think he becomes a much more serious person in understanding how the world works. >> so when world war ii ends fdr has died, dies in april. and the world changes. and we enter into a new phase-in the relationships between the kennedys and roosevelts because now the primary relationship becomes between eleanor roosevelt who is arguably the most powerful woman in america, certainly one of the most famous women in the world and a major force within the democratic party. their political careers start to intersect, and it really happens when kennedy becomes a senator and eleanor has very different political views than he does. you want to talk about how that evolved?
>> well, sure i think -- and you can correct me if i'm off on this. i think a large bit of the early schism revolves around senator mccarthy. and senator mccarthy's relationship with the kennedys. and even when the senate votes to sensor mccarthy, and kennedy had a speech ready to support that censure, but he was in the hospital and unable to deliver that speech. and because he's not able to publicly distance himself from mccarthy when others are i think eleanor refers from that and the ongoing family relations between the mccarthies and kennedys that he may not be as strong a candidate and may not share the same values she shares. and i believe engages in some public criticism of kennedy as maybe not being the right candidate, and kennedy i think
wisely does not engage in a public battle with eleanor roosevelt. i think he would not win that battle but just very privately writes her and asks her to consider the facts and be open to meeting with him. and it's only in the in-person conversations that his genuine curiosity, his willingness to learn and his patriotism come through to her in a way that she can support him, but i can appreciate given what she knew at the time and her greater familiarity with stevenson why it was difficult for her to wrap her mind around kennedy. >> and i think bobby kennedy's role as one of the counsels to the senate committee that mccarthy was leading certainly tarnished jfk in her eyes as well, a little guilt by association there. >> right. >> but there's no question that
she was an adelaide stevenson supporter. she was very strong on civil rights. she didn't feel the kennedys were strong enough in supporting civil rights either in the senate or later. and i think she really held a grudge. to be honest i love eleanor roosevelt, but she could hold a grudge against his father, joe. i mean she still resented the fact he had criticized fdr during the war and had supported germany over england and i think she never fully let go of that ax she liked to grind. >> right. >> but i do think there's a wonderful moment in their relationship, and if you come here to visit eleanor's home they have pictures on the wall. after the convention when kennedy gets the democratic nomination, he knows he has to win her over, and he goes to visit her up in -- >> and we have some of those photos in our library as well. yes, he has to go in person to meet with her. again, she's a big supporter of
adelaide stevenson as being a very bright and capable candidate, and she's worried not only about kennedy's relationship with mccarthy but his overall age and inexperience. she doesn't think he's got a strong enough record to run on. and it's only in person that he's able to convince her. so i think that's true to who kennedy was throughout his life. there's so much evidence of once people met him he was the one voted most likely to succeed. he won people over. he had a smile that was completely disarming and charming, and i think that -- there's no amount of correspondence that's going to convey that. it has to be done in person. >> and although eleanor roosevelt had some objections to jack kennedy, she hated richard nixon. >> when it came down to picking one of those, that was an easy choice for her.
and one of my favorite letters she's ever written was the letter she wrote to jfk the day after the first televised debate between nixon and jfk. and it's classic eleanor roosevelt, in its passive aggressive compliment criticism. the sort of tone of the letter is, you know, i was watching the debate last night with some friends and although i thought you did very well i thought i would share some of their comments with you. and interesting side note here one of the people she was watching the debate with was lloyd benson. you may remember many years later in a famous reference during the vice presidential debate i knew john kennedy. and you're no john kennedy. that lloyd benson. but one of the things she says is he came across as too confident and he needed to
include the audience more in his answers. it's a classic letter but to eleanor's credit she campaigned for him quite vigorously. and she did what she felt needed to be done for the democrats to win. at that point she felt it was vitally important. she had had repeated run-ins with eisenhower, completely disagreed with his policies and really felt it was important for a democrat to get in, and she hoped obviously to resurrect a new deal of policies she had supported so strongly when her husband was president. but then you get into once kennedy is elected -- the first thing he does is appoints eleanor roosevelt. >> yes, it's fascinating. i think not just for that campaign but for presidential campaigns writ large it's always an interesting challenge particularly when kennedy is trying to frame himself as standing up for a new generation, right we have new
ideas and a new energy and at the same time he knows full well if he doesn't win over the establishment, he's going nowhere. so he has to get eleanor's support while at the same time creating this image of really just trying to get out young voters. and i think that's fascinating. i think he has a good sense of history but some new ideas and new energy. and i think one of the things he gets from fdr is the importance of what i'll just call innovation in leadership. and fdr did some really 911 vative -- innovative things. when i think about i'm just going to go off on retreat, not talk to anybody and come back with this lend-lease idea it just turns the war. and i think president kennedy knew you needed to take time to think about the bigger picture and commit resources. that's not just money, it's
political capital, and you have to build up that political capital first. and so he pays very close attention to those relationships including i was intrigued to learn on our day of infamy, november 22, 1963, on the assassination of president kennedy, earlier that morning he called to express birthday wishes to fdr's first vp who i believe was turning 93 or 95, something in that range. and, you know, a real student of history and a real -- a person who really pays attention to relationships does those personal touches throughout. and in addition to being a good, you know, large scale retail politician those personal touches to individuals i think made a huge difference throughout his career. and i'm sure eleanor had no affection for john garner. >> no, she wasn't a huge fan.
but what's interesting despite all the work eleanor had done account -- with the united nations, her years of work with the united nations, jfk puts her on the commission of on the status of women understanding that at this moment in time, you know, this idea of equality for women and including more women into the political establishment to stop some of the discrimination being levelled against women in all the industries. and i think it's very interesting he would appoint her in that role. it went to one of her passions. she had fought for gender equality for whole adult life. >> and i think it's a brilliant pick and i think eleanor did a good job with it. and i think the subject came up repeatedly in his press conferences.
he may not have appointed as many women to senior leadership roles as we would expect to see today but the level to which he did involve women in his administration was somewhat of a breakthrough for his time, and certainly the appearance of women journalists in the press pools that he interacted with, and many of them called him to account for what are you going to do to continue your campaign pledge of equal rights for women and equal pay for women and equal roles and all that. and i think by today's standards we would say coulda, shoulda, woulda done more. but for those times i think that he did some amazing things. >> so eleanor roosevelt dies in november 1962, and jfk comes back up to hyde park along with harry truman and every political
figure in america to pay his respects at her funeral. and i think there is a true sincerity at that moment to the passage of this great woman and his acknowledgment of her role in the creation and establishment of the democratic party. i also think it's a honor that he felt she had earned. >> i can't find words that accurately capture eleanor's significance to the democratic party, to the nation and to president kennedy's ascension to the presidency. she paves the way and influences so many people. obviously you can't have fdr's support at that point. fdr is long gone, but eleanor is able to bridge that gap. >> well, we'll end with the thought about the fact that both of these men, jfk and fdr essentially gave their lives in duty to the country. i think in both cases their
death in office created a resonance with the american people that has stayed with us all these years. and i think that there is a -- something missing in today's politics in that both of these people truly believed in public service. they had been raised with the sense they had a duty and a responsibility to serve the american people, and they both did in very, very extraordinary ways. and, you know, i think john f. kennedy's inaugural address remains one of the greatest speeches of all-time. >> i have to agree, and i have to say fdr and the events in his time as president shaped the nation, shaped that generation in profound ways. president kennedy, even nixon is only 3 years older than kennedy and later president herbert walker bush is only 6 years older than kennedy and world war
ii shapes them. and so many other kennedy siblings serve in the war, either in the military or in civilian roles. and i think president kennedy would have encouraged us were he alive today to always value public service and consider public service in its many forms as a way to strengthen the nation and make the world better for the people around us. >> that's a great place to end today's conversation. thank you very much for joining us. i appreciate it. you're doing a great job up there at jfk, and i hope you have a great year. >> paul, always great to talk. look forward to visiting hyde park again soon. >> thank you. that's it for today. we hope to see you again in the future. >> you're watching american history tv. every weekend on c-span 3 explore our nation's past. american history tv on c-span3,
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