Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Life of JFK3: FDR's Widow Lends a Hand

My main contribution to Kennedy’s election was inadvertent, and it was delivered by Eleanor Roosevelt.

We had run a piece by FDR’s widow, “My Advice to the Next First Lady.” The producers of the “Tonight” show called me to ask her if she would appear with Jack Paar. To my surprise, she agreed.

On the way to the studio, I asked Mrs. Roosevelt, who had supported Adlai Stevenson during the convention and been visibly cool to JFK, what made her decide to take part in a talk show. “I want to help elect Senator Kennedy,” she said.

On the “Tonight” show, she did just that. As Paar sat beaming deferentially, she compared Kennedy to FDR during his first campaign in 1932, inspiring voters and responding to their enthusiasm, and predicted he would make a fine President. In Kennedy’s hairline victory, her testimonial may well have been significant.

Jacqueline Kennedy’s contribution was more iffy. For the 1960 article I sent my college classmate Bob Levin to interview her. A few years earlier, he had taken his family to Italy while writing a novel. I asked him to try for an interview with Ingrid Bergman, the first since the uproar over her affair with Roberto Rossellini. Surprisingly, he got it.

Back home, I assigned him to write about Grace Kelly, who had agreed to marry Prince Rainier after spending only a few hours with him. Why would a beautiful, rich and famous young woman marry a man she hardly knew to become princess of a tiny realm? Her sisters were so intrigued by the question they persuaded Grace to see him. Her musings about being a quiet, overlooked and undervalued member of a hyperactive family was on the stands the day her first child was born.

Bob spent several days with Jacqueline Kennedy in Hyannisport. She was less forthcoming than Ingrid Bergman and Princess Grace, sounding more like a Stepford Wife: "The most important thing for successful marriage is for a husband to do what he likes best and does well. The wife's satisfactions will follow...If the wife is happy, full credit should be given to the husband because the marriage is her entire life."

She never deviated from this submissive line until Bob put away his notebook. Then she looked him in the eye and said, "But I'm smarter than Jack, and don't you forget it."

From today’s perspective, the 1960 campaign boils down to the first TV debates ever, Kennedy’s speech to Houston ministers about his Catholicism and the beginning of a “youthquake” decade symbolized by a 43-year-old with young children moving into the White House after all those gray-haired elders.

All true enough, but that fails to appreciate the enormity of JFK’s accomplishment. He was in so many other ways “other” than Americans had come to expect in a President, from a family even richer than FDR’s, nouveau riche at that and culturally more sophisticated.

His sexual proclivities were not a campaign issue but not entirely a secret either. When a young Manhattan matron wearing a Kennedy button was told by another, “There’ll be a line of women at the back door of the White House,” she responded with a smile, “Where does it form?”

In that campaign, the advantage of a sitting Vice President was overcome both by Nixon’s sleaziness and Kennedy’s confident authenticity. “It must be terrible to be Nixon,” JFK told friends, “and wake up every morning having to decide who you’re going to be that day.”

As Eleanor Roosevelt observed, Kennedy gained confidence as the campaign wore on and eked out a victory to usher in something new in American history.

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