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The Kindly Stranger

FDR, 1882-1945: A Centenary Remembrance

by Joseph Alsop
Viking, 256 pp., $25.00

Joseph Alsop’s FDR is one of those conjunctions of its author’s charms with his subject’s that are so close to perfect that they nearly numb the critical faculties. Even so, when we reluctantly take our leave of its delights, the old question still teases: How far did these worlds we miss for so many good reasons go to bring us to the world that so afflicts us now?

Henry Adams complained that President Jefferson governed his White House dinners by the protocol of “pell-mell” and Alsop’s memories of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s table sound very much in that key—a company “haphazardly mixed—old friends, high officials, the odd distinguished foreigner, members of the family, often one or two of the waifs and strays Eleanor Roosevelt had a habit of picking up here and there on her trips.”

One of those waifs and strays was Joseph Lash, then young and radical, and subsequently a demonstration in proof of Mrs. Roosevelt’s shrewd eye for the better picks in that lot. When they met, Lash was executive secretary of the American Student Union and he and she shared a high faith in the popular Front. Then Lash jibbed at the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the communists drove him from office and left him alone except for his great patron. Mrs. Roosevelt was never one to run out on her mistakes and she continued to lend her benevolence to counterfeits of purposeful youth like the post-1939 Student Union and the American Youth Congress even after their managers had forfeited every claim to dignity by shifting from vociferous anti-fascism to feverish pacifism when Joseph Stalin announced his treaty of nonaggression with Hitler’s Germany.

Even after most of its fronts had deserted her Popular Front, Mrs. Roosevelt continued to manifest the “patient Griseldaism” which Alsop recalls as among the nobler of her qualities and which she herself seems to have deplored as her most demeaning. The Youth Congress had become a thorough nuisance by February of 1940 when it assembled in Washington for a national convention monopolized by the slogan “The Yanks Are Not Coming.” In the face of these affronts, Mrs. Roosevelt persuaded her husband to meet and reason with the Youth Congress’s leaders in the basement of the White House. His guests turned their opportunity into an occasion for defiance and contumely that reached its peak in a hectoring lecture by Gilbert Green, executive secretary of the Young Communist League. “And FDR just sat there,” Lash remembers, “with his cigarette holder pointing to the ceiling and the harsher the speeches got, the more his smile gleamed.”

Most of what is unforgettable about Roosevelt abides in the withering good humor of his smile. It was read as friendly by those who loved him and contemptuous by those who hated him; and yet neither impulse was the prime source of its majesty. He beamed from those great heights that lie beyond the taking of offense, because the offender, struggle though he may, can never rise to being worth the bother.

Those of us who were born to circumstances less assured tend to think of, indeed revere, this demeanor as the aristocratic style. That is an image which embarrasses Alsop. He is writing, after all, as a kinsman, and some of his most beguiling recollections of their friendship come from the hours when Alsop dined at the White House less because of his own distinction than because his grandmother had been close to Roosevelt’s mother.

He is especially engaging for his anxiety not to be caught taking on airs, and cites with approval Mrs. Archer’s observation in The Age of Innocence: “Don’t tell me…all this modern newspaper rubbish about a New York aristocracy…. Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers were just respectable English or Dutch merchants….” This is one of those statements whose accuracy is only formal. Alsop’s evocation of Roosevelt would not be nearly so touching if the pair of them had not had in common a governance by assumptions that if we cannot call them aristocratic leave us bereft of any other useful adjective. There were differences of temperament to be sure: Roosevelt maintained his cheerful disposition by sunny indifference to the intellectual ferment of his time, while Alsop has now and then darkened his by too fierce contention with its nonsense.

But all doubt that the true aristocrat defines himself by his arrival at being the entire democrat has been resolved for anyone who has had the luck to observe the egalitarian fraternity with which Joseph Alsop reminds the waiter that their shared duty to the standards they are sworn to preserve requires that the hollandaise sauce be carried back and thrust under the cook’s nose. Our Dukes of Orléans are Philippes Egalité or they are not dukes at all. And yet Roosevelt’s elegance was an element that so pervaded his accomplishments that our appreciation of them is particularly served by a chronicler as homesick as Alsop for a time when America was ruled by gentlemen and ladies.

Roosevelt must have been the first president since Lincoln who awoke the capacity of society’s castoffs to look above them and find someone to love. All the same, the tastes of and a taste for his own secure caste survived every expansion of his social horizons; and the New Deal was disproportionately framed with the help of carpenters drawn from the class that came most to dislike him.

My own exposure to the relicts of the Roosevelt cabinet was limited to a scant acquaintance with Frances Perkins, his secretary of labor; and her conversation was marked by a habit of judging the actors on the stage of her memory by the presence or absence of good manners. The deal of good she had done for the workingman had in no way improved her familiarity with his customs and habits. She looked at the tumults of her time through eyes conditioned by a life so sheltered from the harsher winds that, when she expressed regret that the New Deal had done so little for the Negro, she blamed that oversight on a cultural deprivation general in her milieu. “After all,” she pointed out, “we had always had white servants.”

She remembered Dave Beck with a wry affection because, when he was rising in the Teamsters union, he was noticeable for his alacrity when the time came to carry her briefcase. It was Mrs. Perkins who first explained to me that John L. Lewis made his way in the early councils of an administration whose grand antagonist he was to be because his bearing was so lordly. “You know, of course,” she reminded me, “that Mr. Lewis’s wife was an FFV”—an expression so obsolete in Virginia even then as to suggest the insulation of the old friends in the grand army that Roosevelt brought down to the Potomac. The claims of class exacted their authority: what the Lower East Side’s Belle Moscowitz had been to A1 Smith the Upper East Side’s Henry Morgenthau would be to Franklin Roosevelt.

The Second World War at once stimulated a national urge to unity and the president’s natural solidarity with the sort of persons who had, until then, misconceived him as a renegade. He reached out to the fortresses of commerce and the temples of enlightened Republicanism for recruits like Henry L. Stimson, Colonel Frank Knox, and Edward Stettinius.

Harry S. Truman, for all his plebeian pretensions, was oddly elitist in matters of state, and, except for a regrettable fling with the egregious Louis A. Johnson as secretary of defense, continued to trust the extension of the national destiny to servitors of genteel origin, established dignity, and essential indifference to party. Starting with Roosevelt, and speeding up under Truman and carrying on through Kennedy, government by the Democrats, in larger affairs at least, became government by what William F. Buckley has nicely called PLUs, or People Like Us.

The Roosevelt revolution ended, as such things usually do, with the triumph of the conquered. The flaws inevitable in the estate he left behind give us all the more reason to be grateful that Alsop has used his budgetary resources to spend prodigally on Roosevelt’s presence and to skimp on the works. Sixpages are enough to dispose of the economic measures of the first New Deal and seven are required to trace the pains and passions of the young and out-of-office Roosevelt’s too perilously requited love for Lucy Mercer. It is a skewing richly rewarded. For Roosevelt’s attachment to Lucy Mercer was of that special order we must assign to threats to a great destiny that can only be escaped through disappointment. These were persons even grander on the domestic stage than they would end up being on the cosmic one.

Mrs. Roosevelt discovered Lucy Mercer’s letters to her husband and told him that their marriage could continue only if he broke off the affair, and that, if he refused, “she would give him his freedom.” Roosevelt chose Miss Mercer. They told his mother, the stern tower of a generation infinitely more tolerant of adultery than divorce. The senior Mrs. Roosevelt coldly announced that she would disinherit her son if he persisted in his resolve. Roosevelt’s fixed purpose overbore this prospect of ruin; he would have Miss Mercer as his wife if she would have him as her husband. But she would not; her soul was saved and his star preserved on its course by a simple Catholic certainty that to marry a divorced man was to burn.

The really striking aspect of this moving and sad story,” Alsop observes, “is the behavior of the three principals when the climax came. Franklin Roosevelt was ready to sacrifice both fortune and career to love. Eleanor Roosevelt did not choose to keep her husband against his will. Lucy Mercer was guided by deep religious faith and strong principles. All met this crisis in their lives, in fact, in the grandest style—to a degree that one can only admire nowadays, although their vision of the grand style is likely to bewilder all too many persons in the 1980s.”

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer had all acted as the rules dictate for each lady’s and each gentleman’s condition of circumstance; but Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt went on to engrave their distinction in that small company by being forever disinclined to be quick to reproach those who didn’t. As politician Roosevelt could now and then be light-minded about the gold standard; but as a man he was inalterably serious about personal standards.

It seems odd that their chance should have come to a pair who were so close to obsolescence even sixty years ago. That chance was owed to the Depression, which did their country the signal service of transiently diminishing its veneration for the newly rich. By 1933 every climber was pretty much tumbling in the heap with the poor souls he had climbed over; and the old, slightly shabby, aristocratic elegance had its time of authority once more.

That Roosevelt was the democrat that great gentlemen always are in no way abated his grandeur, and, in the photographs Alsop distributes through his text, he looks like a swan most affably touring a duckyard. This majesty had its notes of condescension to be sure; and Alsop has included one photograph of the new president on Inaugural parade in a silk hat, his hands clasped overhead, eyes as goggly as a monster’s, a smile that is near to a predator’s ecstasy—a mixture of the regal and the ridiculous to fit our imagination of Ubu Roi. All the other portraits explain why Roosevelt was loved; but here is one that powerfully suggests why he was hated; and it does great credit to Alsop’s sense of justice that he declined to pass over it.

The manner may have done as much to make him the Depression’s particular hero as his measures did. The exuberance that was his nature’s only excess might in time have led people to think him careless and inconsiderate if it had not been redeemed by the lofty distinction that exactly suited the taste of the prostrate country whose command he had assumed.

In bad times men cherish the elegant and in good ones they exalt the raffish. The symbol of the busted Thirties was Fred Astaire, and the Rolling Stones were the archetypes for the spoiled Sixties. But elegance becomes an affront without the companionship of compassion: it is the combination that adds up to true majesty.

Roosevelt was lucky for a time whose techniques were primitive by the standards of our own. Radio was his only instrument for universal communication; and radio brought his voice from the remote sphere where only the high gods seem to reside. By now television has made domestic intimates of our presidents; and, starting with the clumsy self-importance of Lyndon Johnson, passing into the insinuating ungainliness of Richard Nixon, and ending with the frozen diffidence of Jimmy Carter, they have all ruined themselves as guests in our living rooms.

Roosevelt had the advantage of distance; and that is very likely why the New Deal’s spirit never arrived at proper definition until 1947 when Tennessee Williams had Blanche DuBois say that she had always depended on the kindness of strangers. It was at once her envoi and the epitaph for Franklin D.Roosevelt’s America. He was the kindly stranger, and that kindliness brought our last necessarily remote president closer to us than any successor has been since. And yet would our nostalgia be as aching as Alsop makes it if to be a great presence had by itself been enough to be a resistless force for permanent change?

A great President,” Alsop affirms, “is above all a great teacher of his people; and all of us still repeat, albeit unknowingly, the lessons we have learned from each of our great Presidents from George Washington onwards.”

Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt bear names that unquestionably belong on any list of great Americans who were also presidents. Each was, in his way, a considerable instructor; but only Lincoln and Roosevelt can, with entire persuasiveness, be credited with having done most of their teaching when they were presidents. Washington offered his most useful lessons as a warrior; and Jefferson’s two terms had aspects sufficiently un-Jeffersonian to make him a richer source of inspiration out of office than he managed to be in it.

Even the cases of Lincoln and Roosevelt remind us that, when we identify great presidents as great teachers, we had best resign ourselves to the recognition that, even when great men are not necessarily the bad ones Acton thought them, they almost always do better service to their own times than future ones allow their ghosts. They tell the student body more than it cares to absorb. And so Lincoln saved the union and preserved it as an estate for no heirs more appetizing than the proprietors of the Gilded Age.

Alsop’s assessment of the America Roosevelt left us is endearingly exalted:

…the essence of his achievement, at least that part of his achievement which gave the whole true grandeur, derived in differing degrees and in hardly perceptible ways from the combined impact of all his domestic reforms. On a very wide front and in the truest possible sense, Franklin Delano Roosevelt included the excluded.

This affirmation cannot be denied its elements of historical fact even by those of us who might find its cadences a trifle overstimulated by our national impulse for always going a yard or so too far. Roosevelt left his country an immeasurably more comfortable dwelling place than he found it. A great part of that comfort was owing to his engraving upon the public consciousness the sense that men were indeed equal; and, through all the subsequent vicissitudes of politics, a want of social concern has never since been quite respectable in a public officer. Whatever else he might do, President Reagan could never speak in the icy tones of Calvin Coolidge or the numbed ones of Herbert Hoover.

The hatred Roosevelt inspired spewed forth streams of ancien régime ravings to be sure; but had it not been for his example, we could hardly look back, with almost as much admiration as amusement, at those two remarkable resources for the ironist—General Douglas MacArthur, pausing occasionally to revile the liberal Democrats during his employment at reconstructing Japan on the New Deal model, and Senator Robert A. Taft, that most intellectually vigilant captain of the resistance, making himself author and champion of the federal programs for aid to education and public housing that were just about all the Truman years had to show in the way of social advance.

Alsop remembers the path to the 1932 Democratic convention as a journey both sinuous and hazardous and is heartily grateful that Roosevelt arrived at its prize, because, if he had faltered and failed, “the country would then have had to choose between another four years of Herbert Hoover or a Democratic candidate…wedded to the ways of the American past.”

We are used to assigning MacArthur and Taft to Alsop’s category of “past thinkers” and yet, even as both scorned Roosevelt’s baton, each was to some degree forced to move to his measure. But then Roosevelt was and remains so large a figure that to have lived through and survived him was an experience that compelled even his contemners to look back and see this enormous bulk standing between them and all prior history, and, in dislike almost as much as in affection, bend their heads in its shadow. A national preoccupation with looking backward at Roosevelt lasted a full decade after his death and is the most plausible explanation for the long disablement of his natural political heirs. It became their delusion that he had not merely begun but completed the great change. When his ghost achieved the last of his five electoral triumphs over Herbert Hoover, they felt sure that their reign was permanent and had established the perfect balance of economic progress and social justice. There was nothing left to be built; and even after General Eisenhower upset the complacency of their assumption of permanent office, this chastening in the particular did not deplete their self-satisfaction in the general.

For it would not be the least lasting of Roosevelt’s accomplishments that he had overborne the liberal capacity for the kinds of questions that go to the fundament. He took command of a society clamorous with quarrel about the basic equities of its economy; and when he died, he had left social inquiry such a wasteland behind him that ten years went by before a Commerce Department economist grew curious about the distribution of income and was surprised to discover that its inequality had persisted almost unchanged from Hoover, through Roosevelt and Truman, and after Eisenhower and into Kennedy.*

Only then when he had long since blazed and burned out in our heavens could it be suspected that Roosevelt’s had not been a revolution but a restoration; in lifting the nation from the pit, he had raised the parvenu class higher than it had ever been and yielded to the muckers the sword that would bring the gentlemen low.

His modest elevation of the lives of the millions may be less to the point in real history than the opening he gave to careers of no very tasteful sort; here we are at his centennial and when we cast about for a living monument, we can only settle on John Connally, the last New Dealer, bred in the bone and scheming still in the flesh.

It does not matter. Alsop cannot be entirely correct; but he is right all the same. He is himself a man of the lost cause and so was Roosevelt in the end. We ought to think of his life as belonging, like Jeb Stuart’s and Prince Rupert’s, among those who threw away the scabbard and, smiling still, lost their wars to larger battalions of men more cautious and calculating. Not as relevant to history as we would like to think perhaps but splendidly eternal for romance.

Somehow though, cruel as it is to think of an America deprived of Eleanor Roosevelt, there is a fugitive fantasy that together he and Lucy Mercer had sacrificed her immortal soul and his own high destiny. There these two will endure in the imagination, growing old together, say near Newburgh, he languidly farming and dimly drawing wills and litigating country quarrels and she stealing now and then into the dreary little church to grieve a while for the spiritual loss that had bought their happiness. The Depression is hard on him; but, when he dies, he has managed to recoup by selling his remaining acres for a postwar housing development. His obituary is exactly the size the Times metes out for former assistant secretaries of the navy who had been nominated for vice president of the United States in a bad year for their party.

She lives a long while afterward, is restored to the Church, and works in the library and always thinks of him tenderly. They would, we may be certain, have brought it all off far better than the Windsors, and hardly anyone would have known they had.

  1. *

    See Herman P. Miller, Income of the American People (John Wiley and Sons, 1955) and Rich Man, Poor Man (Thomas Y. Crowell, 1964, revised edition, 1971).

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