Kennedy and Roosevelt

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Michael R. Beschloss has written a somewhat unusual double biography. he looks at two very powerful and very different men who lived through the same time period (late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries) and whose lives intersected at some points, widely diverged at others. The presupposition of the work is that these two men, Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) and Joseph P. Kennedy influenced each others’ lives and the nation’s future in significant ways and also reflected certain salient tendencies of their age. Beschloss is most successful in dealing with the two individuals, and Roosevelt’s impact on Kennedy’s life, somewhat less so in viewing them as representatives of their times, and least successful when he attempts to show Kennedy’s influence on the policies of FDR.

The contrasts between the men are clearly described and interesting. Roosevelt was outstandingly successful as a politician but far less fortunate as a businessman. Kennedy saw his political hopes fail repeatedly but had a Midas touch with things financial. It certainly was not inevitable that they would meet, but since they did, their lives make a fascinating contrast which illuminates the interplay of moneyed men and political power in American government.

The author sees two distinct definitions of public and private leadership in America: the visionary tradition of Jean Jacques Rousseau which posited the subordination of individual interests to a broader public interest; the other, a more pragmatic tradition growing from John Locke and Adam Smith in which individuals would follow their own private interests and the common good would naturally be enhanced. FDR, Beschloss argues, represents the former view, if imperfectly, and Kennedy the latter. Since neither man carried forward his views with absolute consistency (American business and politics do not lend themselves to ideological purity) they frequently do not fit the author’s Procrustian bed. Nevertheless, it is a useful device.

Both men were from families which combined political and business interests, but in rather different ways. FDR came from the Hyde Park background of old money and noblesse oblige. Kennedy, with far smaller financial resources, grew up with the rough and tumble of Irish ward politics in Boston and its creed of personal loyalty and gratitude. They both had attended preparatory schools, Groton for Roosevelt and Boston Latin for Kennedy, who then followed FDR to Harvard eight years later. One senses early in the work the differences between the two men brought about by class and background. Roosevelt “belonged” at Harvard. He “fit in” and Kennedy did not. The reader can infer that it was early insecurities that caused Kennedy’s driving need to succeed in business. Financial security for his family became, for him, the ultimate test. FDR did not have to succeed in business and when he attempted it, his failures were frequent but did not seem to be particularly important to him. At the same time, his political successes, emotionally more necessary, were more quickly forthcoming.

The two men met for the first time when Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy and Kennedy was managing the United States Steel shipyard at Fore River, Massachusetts. It was, or should have been, an instructive meeting for Kennedy. A dispute between the Argentine government and U.S. Steel over payment for ships had held up delivery and FDR smilingly warned Kennedy that the Navy would not stand for any more delays. Kennedy, thinking that he was dealing with “just another rich man’s son, ... a smiling four-flusher,” flatly refused to deliver without payment. He returned to the yard to see Navy tugs with armed marines cast off the lines and tow the Argentine warships out to sea. Roosevelt in power was a hard man to push.

Both men used the 1920’s, as many did, to try to get rich or richer. FDR’s schemes, some of which the author believes ran fairly close to the legal line, frequently came to naught. Kennedy succeeded in banking, motion pictures, and the stock market, pulling out of the market prior to the 1929 crash, and ended the decade a millionaire with friends in politics, journalism, business, and finance. FDR had returned to his first love, politics, winning the governorship of New York in 1928 and...

(The entire section is 1766 words.)