This issue too, is critical to the JFK-As-Progressive image, because how could JFK be truly liberal and progressive without bending at the altar of the liberal-progressive heir to the New Deal wing of the Democratic party?
It is a claim that is once again, undercut by the words and deeds of both the Kennedy brothers and Stevenson himself. Supporters of the "progressive JFK" myth have attempted to show proof of friendship by producing letters Stevenson wrote during the 1960 campaign where he expressed his support for JFK on the stump, but this hardly proves anything. After the nomination, in which Stevenson had challenged JFK from the left at the convention, what else was loyal Democrat Stevenson going to do, especially since he wanted to be Secretary of State in a JFK administration? (If Stevenson truly liked JFK and regarded him as his heir, then why did he run against him?) Of greater interest is what happened before and after the 1960 campaign.
In 1956, JFK had actively sought the vice-presidential nomination with Stevenson and believed that he had reached an agreement with Stevenson where he would be selected. But Stevenson shocked JFK when he announced that he was going to throw open the vice-presidential selection to the convention delegates. A race which JFK lost to Estes Kefauver.
Afterwards, JFK was upset and felt betrayed by Stevenson. Biographer Thomas Reeves reports that "Jack was bitterly disappointed by his defeat and would feel an intense distaste for Stevenson for the rest of his life, saying privately that Adlai was weak, indecisive, and even effeminate." JFK friends George Smathers, Kenny O'Donnell and Dave Powers also acknowledge the bitterness JFK felt.(23)
Stevenson's conduct in the 1956 campaign would also sour Bobby's view of the man. Arthur Schlesinger writes of how Bobby started off as an enthusiastic Stevenson supporter, but as he worked with the campaign, he became disgusted by Stevenson's strange fixation with coarse anti-Nixon attacks. As RFK later recalled, "I came out of our first conversation with a very high opinion of him. Then I spent six weeks with him on the campaign and he destroyed it all...The subject of Nixon came up, and I was strongly against making the campaign built around an attack on him." (24)
In the end, RFK proved to be less of a party loyalist than Stevenson would in 1960. As Schlesinger dutifully reports, citing a 1966 interview Bobby gave to John Bartlow Martin, on election day RFK quietly cast his vote for Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. (25)
The rift between the Kennedys and Stevenson was never healed. The party liberals, and Stevenson, felt that he deserved to be Secretary of State. JFK never considered the idea specifically because of the bitterness from 1956. JFK only offered UN Ambassador, a post that Stevenson resented as "beneath his dignity." So determined was JFK not to let a liberal run the State Department that he even rejected the liberals second and third choices, Chester Bowles and G. Mennen Williams. (26)
Neither JFK nor RFK ever thought much of Stevenson as UN Ambassador. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Stevenson urged concessions in the ExComm meetings that made Bobby blow his stack and urge JFK to fire Stevenson. "He's not strong enough to be representing us at the UN at a time like this. Why not get him out of there and put someone like John McCloy in his place?" JFK considered it too risky to fire him, but Republican McCloy was immediately sent in to join the UN delegation for the expressed purpose of "stiffening" Stevenson. (27)
Afterwards, JFK went out of his way to convince the public that Stevenson had been pushing for a "Munich" settlement of the crisis. JFK's friends Stewart Alsop and Charles Bartlett, using information from Jack and Bobby, would convey this impression in the December 8, 1962 edition of the Saturday Evening Post.
As is all too clear, none of this confirms the JFK-As-Progressive image of a relationship of love and chumminess between the Kennedys and Stevenson. What it does show is that JFK had little regard for him and was much closer to the center than to the liberalism espoused by Stevenson. Indeed, there is more evidence of closeness with Nixon and McCarthy than there is with Stevenson.
(23) Reeves, 134-136.
(24) Schlesinger, 134-142; Matthews, 113.
(26) Reeves, 376; Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days (New York, 1969), 28; Ralph Martin, Adlai Stevenson and the World (New York), 724.
(27) Reeves, 376.