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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Jefferson, Franklin, FDR, and Joseph P. Kennedy

From Washington Lawyer, September 2012

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal Spectator

Walter Savage Landor (1775–1864) was a distinguished English writer. He wrote, among other things, what he called Imaginary Conversations. In these dialogues he has two well–known people speaking to each other, strictly off the record, revealing interesting things about themselves.

If Mr. Landor were with us today, perhaps he would entertain us with an imaginary conversation between such people as Sigmund Freud and Richard Nixon, exchanging their personal views—the good and the bad—off the record.

Better yet, what of an imaginary conversation between Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, both sitting before Jefferson’s fireplace, sipping vino, saying what they really think about their friend John Adams?

These three—Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams—had spent time in Paris. Adams disliked Paris and everything about it. He wanted to return to his family in Massachusetts. Jefferson and Franklin embraced Paris. Each had girlfriends. Each liked to show off their conversational French in the aristocratic salons. Each did not wish to spend much time with Adams.

Jefferson: I guess you know, Ben, that Adams dislikes you. He said you wasted time and money in Paris and you didn’t want to return to Philadelphia.

Franklin: I have sized up Adams pretty well. I like him. He is happily married. He is a true believer. He wishes to conduct himself in accordance with the Good Book. Paris is no place for living in accordance with the Good Book. John is courageous in every respect and he has a wonderful son, John Quincy. He, just as you, picks up languages quickly, including Russian.

As you know, my son and I ended up not speaking to each other. I obtained a senior position for him as the King’s representative in New Jersey. When the Revolutionary War broke out, he joined up with the British. What an embarrassment that was to me. He escaped to London somehow, where he spent the rest of his life.

Jefferson: Adams doesn’t like the way we spend money on wine.

Franklin: You have the bad habit of buying bottle after bottle. Furthermore, you buy everything you see in Paris. My friend, Tom, I want you to know that if at any time you really need money, you can call on me, but not if you’re going to spend it on jewelry for your beautiful friend.

Jefferson: Well, that’s nice of you to make the offer. I might call on you. I am tempted to sell books from my library, books that cost me a fortune.

By the way, did you ever learn to ride a horse? I ride my horse every morning, and that’s where I maintain my good posture. I exercise and I watch my diet. You need to lose some weight. Don’t eat so much. I understand you come down to a big breakfast around eleven o’clock in the morning.

Franklin: I am not a horseman.

Jefferson: Years ago, Ben, you wrote for the newspapers. We put in the Constitution that the people have a right to say anything they want. Well, the newspapers now defamed me. Do they leave you alone?

Franklin: Yes, and I myself defamed many people. I was good at it. I wrote under four or five different names. The people I defamed needed defaming. I know we will never extinguish corruption of those in power, but it is only the newspapers that can get at them.

Here is an imaginary conversation between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. FDR appointed Kennedy to be ambassador to Britain. While in England, Kennedy thought Hitler would win the war against France. When Kennedy returned to Washington in 1940, he said publicly he might not vote for FDR, who was running for a third term.

When Kennedy arrived in Washington, FDR had him picked up in a limousine that brought him immediately to the White House. They met privately. After the meeting, Kennedy said he would support FDR in the next election.

FDR: Joe, it’s nice to have you back. Tell me more about your opinion that Hitler will soon be in England.

JPK: The British are weak. They do not have the weapons, and many of the aristocracy want to make peace.

FDR: Tell me about Churchill. There are stories that he drinks a lot.

JPK: I’ve met Churchill a number of times. Yes, he does drink, first in the morning when he conducts his correspondence before he gets out of bed. Then he goes to lunch. More drinking. In the evening, he has big dinners with bottles and bottles of champagne.

FDR: When you say Germany outpowers the United States, you’re wrong. We have the coal, the steel, and the good people who want jobs. We are prepared. You and Lindbergh have it all wrong. You should steer clear of him.

Joe, I am running for reelection. Tell me right now whether you will support me. I want the blunt truth. If you want to go to the other side, then say so. I arranged it so that the press will meet you immediately when you leave this room. You will not have time to deliberate or get opinions from certain people you know who dislike me.

JPK: Well, sir, I get your point. Of course I support you.

FDR: My friend, I knew it all the time.

And now to Mr. Landor:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife:
Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art;
I warm’d both hands before the fire of Life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

—“Dying Speech of an Old Philosopher,”
January 31, 1849

Reach Jacob A. Stein at [email protected].