Political Dynasties Collide in Massachusetts with a Roosevelt Vs. Kennedy Clash
updated 03/03/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 03/03/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST
Kennedys hardly ever lose elections, but Roosevelts have not been similarly blessed. James Roosevelt Sr. was defeated in that 1950 race, and his son, now 40, says, "It must have been disappointing, but I don't remember that. All I remember is sitting in front of a Philco radio, listening to his final speech in the campaign." While the Kennedys have remained Eastern Democrats, the Roosevelts have scattered, and not just geographically. At the 1960 Democratic National Convention Eleanor Roosevelt supported Adlai Stevenson while James Sr. backed Jack Kennedy. At the 1968 convention James Sr. was for Hubert Humphrey, and Jim was for Eugene McCarthy. By 1980 James Sr. had settled on Ronald Reagan. "What I think happened to the family," says Jim, "is that my grandmother's and my father's generations all got interested in various sorts of public service, like my grandmother in international human rights, and never concentrated on one particular area."
Members of the Roosevelt family carry no aura of political destiny. Jim is an unassuming lawyer who specializes in health-care issues and decided to run for Congress after years of toil for local and national Democratic Party organizations. If he ever had a true calling, it beckoned in 1963 when he joined the Christian Brothers order in California as a novice and remained for one year. "It was a very good year," he says, "because it gave me a chance to read, pray and think about what I was called to do with my life. I decided that being in a monastic setting was not the way I was called to serve people." Even now, when he explains why he is running for Congress, he talks about serving people. His style is conciliatory, not confrontational, although he will needle adroitly now and then. Asked how his concept of service compares with Joe Kennedy's, Roosevelt recalls a conversation at the time of Kennedy's announcement: "Joe told me he was sorry he was running against me, because our families had worked together for so many years, but he had decided it was time to start moving in politics."
The congressional office they seek is currently the property of Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr., the Speaker of the House of Representatives. It is a seat of some standing—before Tip, the Congressman from the Massachusetts Eighth was Jack Kennedy. When Tip passed the word that he was retiring, the eyes of Boston politicians got as big and glittery as the capital dome. A dozen are running in this September's Democratic primary, including one state senator, three state representatives, one city councillor who has always wanted to be a federal marshal and one stand-up comedian. The last two cannot always be told apart.
Roosevelt says his most valuable campaign asset in the Eighth Congressional District is not his grandfather, the former President, but his father-in-law, Walter Conlon, 81, the former assistant headmaster at Cambridge High and Latin. "One is known as a great public figure, and the other as a local man who got four or five generations of kids through school with understanding," he says. "But the real difference is my father-in-law can campaign with me, and my grandfather can't."
Another asset is his residence, a white frame house in Cambridge with Christmas wreaths still in the windows. "We're a little behind," he says. Parked in the driveway is a typical Boston-area car—one that was side-swiped by a hit-and-run driver. It's not the house itself that will get him votes—the neighborhood is a little too exclusive to impress the working man—but the fact that he's been living in the district for 21 years. Several of the other candidates, including Kennedy, either moved into the district after announcing or don't live there at all.
Roosevelt and his wife, Ann, 40, the president of the Environmental Lobby of Massachusetts, have three daughters, Kathleen, 7, Tracy, 3, and Maura, 1. Little about the house suggests that Roosevelts are in residence, not much more than a color photo of Eleanor. Reminded that she is from a famous old political family, Kathleen replies, "I am?"
Whether the voters of the Eighth Congressional District will be more impressed is almost impossible to predict. The Irish electorate that sent Tip to Congress back in 1952 isn't as dominant anymore. The district is now part Irish, part Italian, part Jewish, part Armenian, part black, part gay, and about the only thing everybody agrees on is that no Republican is going to win. The Kennedy name is still appealing to many residents, but it might not mean much to the thousands of students from Harvard and other schools who live there. That particular theory is offered by Nick Roosevelt, 19, a cousin of Jim and a sophomore at Connecticut College, who says, "I'm too young to remember John Kennedy in office, and I hear just as much about President Roosevelt as I do about President Kennedy."
Bill Galvin, one of the state representatives in the race, finds nothing to fear in the Roosevelt name but fear itself. "It's arresting, like Abe Lincoln, but there's no residual political organization after 40 years." Kennedy, though, means trouble. "It's very significant," says Galvin, "not because of a great political heritage or as a tribute to his uncle or his father, but because of the celebrity status. He's treated like a theater star."
So far Kennedy's performance in the campaign has been clumsy, most notably when one of his campaign workers was caught tearing down Roosevelt campaign signs. Kennedy called to apologize and offered a $100 check, which was accepted. Recalls Roosevelt, "He said to me, 'I hear a couple of my workers got carried away, but it was no big deal.' I said to him, 'It might not have been a big deal, but it was a bad way to start a campaign, and I hadn't seen that kind of thing done in all the Kennedy campaigns I worked for.' That's when he said he was sorry."
Roosevelt seems incapable of becoming really upset with Joe, or any Kennedy, for that matter. He criticizes but doesn't attack. In 1980 he was a district coordinator for Ted Kennedy's presidential campaign, and he went to the Democratic convention as a Kennedy delegate. In 1982 he was Kennedy's legal counsel for his Senate reelection campaign. Joe's decision to run for the Eighth Congressional District seat followed Roosevelt's by six months, and it hardly seemed a gracious way to reward Roosevelt for services rendered to the Kennedy family. Asked if Ted Kennedy might owe him some show of support, Roosevelt replies mildly, "Whether he owes me any favors, he has to decide." Thus far, none have come his way.
Just as Joe was the first of his generation of Kennedys to declare for national office, so too is Jim the first of his generation of Roosevelts to declare. He says, "This is the beginning of something for me, but I can't say it's the beginning of something for the whole generation, because this family doesn't approach it that way."
The Roosevelt family—he can't even guess how many Roosevelts that includes, but he says there were 49 first cousins at a reunion in 1984—has rallied around Jim. There is no equivalent of the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, but for this campaign they found the Manhattan duplex apartment of Kate Roosevelt Whitney, Jim's half sister, entirely adequate.
This month she held a catered fundraiser, where Jim had a chance to answer some friendly questions and pocket some promising envelopes. The Roosevelts who gathered there came from both branches of the family, the FDR wing and the Teddy Roosevelt wing, but all seemed similarly quiet and self-assured. "The family," explained Chris Roosevelt, Jim's cousin, "has been dealing with the name at least since Teddy Roosevelt's generation, and by the time you get to my generation, it's pretty ordinary stuff."
The serenity that Jim brings to being a Roosevelt could well translate into docility in the eyes of the voters. While Joe Kennedy campaigns with a degree of brashness that comes with being a member of an anointed family, Roosevelt is more the gentleman politician. Occasionally he will laugh sheepishly when asking a stranger for his vote, as though he hasn't quite learned how to do it and isn't quite comfortable asking for favors. He has a command of issues one might expect from a man who started reading the Congressional Record when he was in fourth grade, but he sometimes loses his listeners with a devotion to specifics that only fellow attorneys could love. "My natural style is thoughtful and deliberate," he admits.
He does enjoy going out on the street to meet voters, posting himself at the entrances to markets and subway stops, a kindly looking man even when dressed in a pin-striped power suit. A lot of the questions he hears are about FDR, and a lot of people walk away with the same impression: They say he seems like a nice man, and they will surely think about voting for him.