Historical Introduction

More than any politician of the postwar era, Eleanor Roosevelt symbolized the political legacy of the New Deal and the hope the United Nations presented to a war-scarred world. John Kennedy, the junior senator from Massachusetts, represented the ambition and determination of the World War II generation to interpret the Roosevelt legacy for themselves. Both elicited passionate responses from their supporters and their critics. Both used the media masterfully to make their respective cases to the public and to rally popular support for their policies and campaigns. In short, they were two titans of the Democratic Party, harboring a strong commitment to public service from an early age, and bestowed by their supporters with almost mythic power and prestige.

Eleanor Roosevelt initially did not support John Kennedy's quest for the presidency. Kennedy's victory at the 1960 Democratic convention did little to change her mind. Yet the candidate knew that her support was a key to his victory. The documents contained in this mini-edition recount the wariness with which they regarded one another and the steps they took to overcome this suspicion as they combined forces in the campaign's final days. The documentation of their rapprochement will interest those studying American politics, the Cold War, McCarthyism, civil rights and the role of media in presidential elections.

The selection of documents annotated for this edition – letters, speeches, press conferences, columns, telegrams, campaign advertisements, radio and television broadcasts – reveal but a small sample of the variety of material available to scholars, teachers and students interested in Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy and the 1960 presidential election.


Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy and the Election of 1960

By 1960, Eleanor Roosevelt had spent more than four decades in politics – including forty years as a colleague of labor and women's organizations, twenty-two years as a colleague of civil rights organizations, twelve years as first lady, seven years as a delegate to the United Nations, and three years on the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A prolific author, she had published more than 7500 columns, 500 articles and 24 books. She edited party newsletters, moderated her own television and radio shows, and spent each summer delivering twenty-five lectures across the nation. She personified the Roosevelt legacy and the daunting energy that commitment to a new world vision entailed.

John Kennedy matched her energy, charisma and political ambition. As the youngest man ever to win a party's presidential nomination, Kennedy could not match Roosevelt's political longevity. His fifteen-year congressional career produced no singular legislative triumph. Rather than embrace specific political orthodoxies, he rejected political labels and launched a disciplined, innovative campaign for the presidency that would set the standard for all candidates who followed him. Like Roosevelt, he skillfully mastered both print and electronic media to introduce himself to voters and clarify his political positions. Although many voters knew of his courage under fire as the captain of a sunken PT boat, his 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, helped present him to the public as an independent, courageous senator and advanced his failed bid for the 1956 Democratic vice-presidential nomination. The narrowness of his defeat emboldened Kennedy to seek the presidential nomination in 1960.

Eleanor Roosevelt opposed Kennedy's nomination in 1956 because she thought he avoided taking a stand on the Senate censure of Joseph McCarthy and on enforcing civil rights legislation and court decrees. While she detested Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, she refused to campaign for Kennedy until the final days of the 1960 campaign.

The story these documents recount is the tale of Roosevelt's and Kennedy's opposition to one another, their criticism of the Eisenhower administration and the candidacy of Richard Nixon, their dedication to the Democratic party, and the truce they made to advance "the New Frontier."