Joseph Kennedy had befriended McCarthy because he found him to be a likable fellow Irish-Catholic who had all the right ideas on the domestic communist menace. These warm feelings were quickly transferred to the entire Kennedy family. JFK liked the fact that McCarthy went after the "elites" in the State Department whom JFK regarded with contempt. (13) Even before McCarthy made accusations against the State Department of subversion, JFK had already aligned himself with the militant anti-communists who blamed the Truman State Department for the "loss" of China. So JFK declared on the House floor in January 1949.
"The responsibility for the failure of our foreign policy in the Far East rests squarely with the White House and the Department of State." (14)
Small wonder then, that at the same Harvard seminar where he cheered Nixon's victory to the Senate, that JFK expressed the view that McCarthy "may have something" to his charges of domestic subversion that had by then become vocal. (15)
There were also other deep personal bonds between JFK and McCarthy by the time McCarthy reached the peak of his power in 1952 and 1953. Not only had McCarthy been a frequent guest at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis, but McCarthy had also dated two Kenendy sisters, first Eunice (the mother of Maria Shriver) and then Pat (who later married actor Peter Lawford). McCarthy was invited to the wedding reception for Eunice and Sargent Shriver, and even presented Eunice with a silver cigarette case inscribed "To Eunice and Bob from one who lost." (16)
The ties with Bobby were forged when he gave RFK a job as minority counsel to his Senate committee investigating domestic communism. Though RFK would later have an intense falling out with McCarthy's other counsel Roy Cohn, the younger Kennedy brother would maintain a deep loyalty to a man he loved enough to make the godfather of his first child. In 1955, Bobby displayed his residual feelings of loyalty for McCarthy even after the Senator's fall into disgrace at a dinner meeting described by the court historian of Camelot himself, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
"Still his Irish conception of loyalty turned him against some he felt had treated McCarthy unfairly. In January 1955, Edward R. Murrow [who had issued a famous anti-McCarthy telecast the previous year] spoke at the banquet honoring those, Kennedy among them, who had been selected by the Junior Chamber of Commerce as the Ten Outstanding Young Men of 1954. Kennedy grimly walked out." (17)
JFK's warmth for McCarthy was not as great as Bobby's, but he still felt enough of McCarthy to have performed a similar act three years earlier at the 100th Anniversary of the Harvard Spree Club dinner. Robert Armory, who had been at the dinner and who later worked in the Kennedy Administration recalled in an oral history at the JFK Library that when a speaker had likened McCarthy to the convicted Soviet spy Alger Hiss, JFK rose to his feet and declared "How dare you couple the name of a great American patriot with that of a traitor!" and walked out. The incident has never been denied by anyone who was there, and is accepted by JFK biographers Herbert Parmet, Thomas Reeves and Chris Matthews.
McCarthy, likewise considered JFK a supporter. So much so that in 1952, as JFK took on Henry Cabot Lodge for the Senate, McCarthy privately supported JFK. McCarthy already had an intense dislike of Lodge, and had such a good rapport with the Kennedys that the decision was easy for him. Lodge would be the *only* Republican Senate candidate that McCarthy made no active campaign for, and William F. Buckley, Jr. was present when McCarthy received from a phone call from the RNC asking McCarthy to make an appearance for Lodge. But when McCarthy hung up, he told Buckley that his preference was for Kennedy. (18)
Two years later, when McCarthy's support collapsed and the Senate took up a resolution of censure, JFK was absent from the debate, recuperating from back surgery. He would be the only Democratic Senator not to publicly declare support for McCarthy's censure, even though he could easily have declared his feelings for the public record. As it was, he had instructed Ted Sorenson to draft a statement of support for censure on very narrow grounds, in which, as Schlesinger and Reeves note, made no mention whatsoever of civil liberties, and had more to do with McCarthy's employment of Roy Cohn. In the undelivered statement, JFK was quick to distance himself from the resolution's assertion that McCarthy's actions had harmed America's image abroad, and also stressed the long period of support he had given to McCarthy and his cause.
"This issue involves neither the motives nor the sincerity of the Junior Senator from Wisconsin. Many times I have voted with Senator McCarthy for the full appropriation of funds for his committee, for his amendment to reduce our assistance to nations trading with communists, and on other matters. I have not sought to end his investigations of communist subversion, nor is the pending measure related to either the desirability or continutation of those investigations." (19)
JFK could easily have delivered this statement from his hospital bed, but in the end, he couldn't bring himself to do it. Ted Sorenson admitted in 1971 that he felt that JFK deliberately ducked him on that matter. And JFK admitted it to another friend, Charles Spalding just prior to his release. Here is Spalding's recollection of what JFK said.
"You know, when I get downstairs I know exactly what's going to happen. Those reporters are going to lean over my stretcher. There's going to be about ninety-five faces bent over me with great concern, and everyone of those guys is going to say, 'Now Senator, what about McCarthy?' Do you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to reach back for my back and I'm just going to yell 'Oow' and then I'm going to pull the sheet over my head and hope we can get out of there." (20)
Not until 1956, would JFK issue a public statement supporting McCarthy's censure, and even then it was only because his political future dictated it. "Even my Dad is against McCarthy now," he remarked in private, "And if he is, then McCarthy has nobody left." (21)
JFK's after-the-fact conversion to anti-McCarthyism did not impress the party liberals. Eleanor Roosevelt, the beloved symbol of the liberals openly berated JFK in 1956 at the Democratic Convention for not having taken a stand against McCarthy, and repeated her mistrust of JFK in an interview for Look magazine in 1958. The lingering image of JFK and the McCarthy connections was another reason why JFK was challenged from the left in 1960. (22)
JFK may have regretted the McCarthy connection in later years, but the assertion of the JFK-As-Progressive advocates that he was never close to, nor sympathetic to McCarthy during the critical years prior to 1954 is totally contradicted by JFK's own words and deeds. As with the friendship with Nixon, the confirmation comes not from conservatives spreading rumors, but from JFK's own friends.
(14) Congressional Record, January 29, 1949.
(15) op. cit. Mallan, 10-11.
(16) Thomas Reeves, The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy (New York, 1982), 203.
(17) Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Robert Kennedy and His Times (New York, 1978), 119.
(18) William F. Buckley Jr., column. September 30, 1962.
(19) Ted Sorenson Papers, JFK Library.
(20) Thomas Reeves, A Question of Character (New York, 1991), 123. Based on author's interview with Spalding.
(21) Reeves, A Question of Character, 124.