The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers

Excerpt from Chapter Forty-three, "Unfinished Business" of The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt by Eleanor Roosevelt

And then, in spite of all my protestations that I would never again campaign actively, I did take part in John Kennedy's campaign for the Presidency, not so strenuously as I had worked four years earlier for Adlai Stevenson but as well as I could with the commitments I already had to carry out.

Having supported Adlai Stevenson during the convention, I was uncertain what I would do after the nomination. I withheld my decision to join Herbert Lehman as honorary chairman of the Democratic Citizens Committee of New York until I might have a chance to see and talk with the Democratic candidate and judge his qualities for myself.

When he came to see me at Hyde Park I found him a brilliant man with a quick mind, anxious to learn, hospitable to new ideas, hardheaded in his approach. Here, I thought, with an upsurge of hope and confidence, is a man who wants to leave behind him a record not only of having helped his countrymen but of having helped humanity as well. He was not simply ambitious to be president; he wanted, I felt convinced, to be a truly great president. He neither desired nor expected his task to be easy. He saw clearly the position of the United States in the world today as well as the shortcomings at home and was both too honorable and too courageous to color these unpalatable facts or distort them.

He believed that Americans could, as they have done in the past, meet and conquer the obstacles before them, but only if they knew what the obstacles were, what the conditions were, what must be done, by sacrifice, if necessary, by courage and conviction, certainly, to accomplish our ends.

And yet, because what happens in the next few years may well settle the future of the world for decades if not longer, I waited, knowing what hinged on this election, for the first of the Great Debates. After that, I had no further hesitation. On the one side, I heard that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds, that we lived in a country without unemployment or want, that our world leadership was unchallenged, and that it was, presumably, un-American to think differently. On the other side, I heard the less popular story, the one I had met face to face, over and over, in my travels around this country and around the world.

So I took part in the campaign. Unfortunately, I started out under a slight handicap as I picked up a virus and was far from feeling well, but I traveled to California by plane one afternoon and the next day was a fair example of what followed. In the morning, press conferences, television interviews, radio spots. A hasty bite of lunch. A long drive to a totally unimportant meeting. A long drive back. A brief rest at the home of my friend Mrs. Hershey Martin. A big meeting in a church, a meeting in a theater, a quick dinner, and a plane back to New York.

One day at home--and whenever I was at home I had meetings in various parts of the city--then a day in West Virginia, where we traveled 250 miles, stopping to shake hands and speak to outdoor crowds ten or eleven times. An hour's rest, a large rally, and back to New York by a small plane.

I campaigned in four states in the Middle West, two of which, I am glad to say, turned up in Mr. Kennedy's column. In the other two I felt I had not been very effective.1

Again I say I am never going to campaign again. After all, next time I will be eighty and that would be absurd.

As the campaign advanced and I followed Mr. Kennedy's speeches, I came more and more to believe that he has the power to engender the sense of identification with him which is so important. If a man has this quality he can call out the best that is in people. Today the United States needs to be reminded of its greatness, and the greatness of a nation can never be more than the greatness of its people.

If my observation is correct, I have more hope for the solution of our problems than I have had for a long time. This does not mean that I am sure we can solve them all or that we will not make mistakes. But I do now have hope.

One feature of the campaign that dismayed and shamed me was the injection of the religious issue. It is a long time since I sat in my office and read the scurrilous literature that came into the Democratic headquarters during Alfred E. Smith's candidacy.2 Nothing quite so vicious happened during the 1960 campaign.

But the ugly feature was that it should arise at all. The question seems to me fairly simple. The Constitution gives us all religious freedom and we are not to be questioned about our religious beliefs. Some preposterous notions were set loose during the campaign: the Pope would dictate our form of government, our way of life, our education, our reading. The Catholic Church would dominate the nation politically as well as spiritually. This idea, of course, arises from the fact that in Spain, which is a Catholic country, the church does, for the most part, control the state. But Spain is not the United States and we have a Constitution which expressly provides for separation of church and state.

It is, I am afraid, true that frequently various religious groups endeavor to exert pressures and control over different legislative and educational fields. It is the job of all of us to be alert for such infringements of our prerogatives and prevent any such attempts from being successful. Like all our freedoms, this freedom from religious-group pressure must be constantly defended.

What seemed to me most deplorable was not the fact that so many people feared the strength of the Roman Catholic Church; it was that they had no faith in the strength of their own way of life and their own Constitution. Have we forgotten so quickly that our Founding Fathers came here for religious freedom--Protestants, Catholics, Quakers--for the right to worship God as they chose? This is our foundation stone. I, for one, believe in it with all my heart, and I reject, with shame and indignation, the fear, the lack of faith, the shaken confidence of those who would topple the stone on which we stand so proudly.

When the Great Debates had ended and another election was over, one could sit back, in a new quiet and calmness of spirit, to weigh what had happened. One thing I believe no one would challenge: the debates were a landmark in democratic procedure; they brought before the people of the whole country the candidates and their views. They stimulated a new interest in the issues, they emphasized the importance of the voting public's familiarizing itself with the issues at stake; they made the citizens, as they should be, a vital and participating element, with a stake in what happens to their country. The telling point, of course, is that, as a result of the debates, more people voted than have ever voted in the history of the country. And that was a victory for the democratic system.

And after the election--back to work. There is so much to do, so many engrossing challenges, so many heartbreaking and pressing needs, so much in every day that is profoundly interesting.

But, I suppose, I must slow down.

     1. ER campaigned for Kennedy in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri. Kennedy carried Illinois and Missouri. See also ER Press Conference, 10/28/60, n4.
     2. In 1928, the Democrats nominated New York governor Alfred E. Smith, a Catholic, to be the party's presidential candidate and, from the outset of his campaign, his religion dominated the election. Even Smith's opposition to prohibition was tied to his Catholicism. Although the majority of political and personal attacks against his religion were anonymous, many came from the highest levels of Protestant denominations as well as the Ku Klux Klan. Smith's candidacy also stirred up latent anti-Catholic sentiment around the country, which helped Herbert Hoover secure a landslide victory. ER, who admired the governor and campaigned diligently for him, chaired the vote drive organized by the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee and thus experienced the attacks firsthand. [Christopher M. Finan, Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002), pp. 209-215.]

Index to this Document: 1928 presidential election: anti-Catholicism and; Al Smith and; 1960 presidential election: ER, assessment of; Anti-Catholicism: 1928 presidential election and; ER's criticism of; rumors concerning; California: ER's campaign visit to; Catholic Church: fear of; ER's political disagreements with; rumors concerning; Catholics: Founding Fathers and; freedom of religion and; Chicago, Illinois: ER's campaign visit to; Citizenship: responsibilities of; Democratic Citizens Committee of New York; Democratic National Committee, Women's Division; Founding Fathers (U.S.): Catholics and; Protestants and; Quakers and; Freedom of religion: Catholics and; Protestants and; Quakers and; ER on; Hoover, Herbert; Indiana: ER's campaign visit to; Kennedy, John F.: ER's assessment of; ER's campaign trips for; ER's endorsement of; Kennedy-Nixon debates: impact of; ER on; Ku Klux Klan; Lehman, Herbert: ER and; Martin, Mayris Chaney (Mrs. Hershey): ER's friendship with; Michigan: ER's campaign visit to; Protestants: Founding Fathers and; freedom of religion and; Quakers: Founding Fathers and; freedom of religion and; Roosevelt, Eleanor: on anti-Catholicism; autobiography of; on Catholic Church; on freedom of religion; health of; JFK campaigns for, in California; JFK, appraisal of; JFK, endorsement of; JFK, leadership of; on Kennedy-Nixon debates; on Herbert Lehman; Mayris Chaney Martin and; on separation of church and state; Al Smith and; on television and politics; on U.S. Constitution; Rumors: anti-Catholicism and; Catholic Church and; Saint Louis, Missouri: ER's campaign visit to; Separation of church and state: ER on; Smith, Alfred E.: 1928 presidential campaign of; ER on; Stevenson, Adlai E.; U.S. Constitution: ER on; United States (U.S.): as world leader; West Virginia: ER's campaign visit to

Published by the Model Editions Partnership

Recommended citation: Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the Election of 1960: A Project of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, ed. by Allida Black, June Hopkins, John Sears, Christopher Alhambra, Mary Jo Binker, Christopher Brick, John S. Emrich, Eugenia Gusev, Kristen E. Gwinn, and Bryan D. Peery (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2003). Electronic version based on unpublished letters. .

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