Along the walls of the main hall of the classroom building of Groton School were hung, in chronological order, the framed autographed letters of the presidents of the United States. Since Theodore Roosevelt, whose sons had attended the school, these letters had all been addressed to the headmaster. As a fourth-former in the winter of 1933, I eagerly awaited the hanging of the letter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Groton ‘00. Would he write that he had been inspired by this same collection in his student days to become in afterlife the great statesman that he had become? What a climax!
But when the letter arrived, it seemed, at least to a fifteen-year-old, rather an anticlimax. The newly inaugurated president recorded that the collection had indeed inspired him to become what he had later become—a collector. I did not realize how neatly he was spoofing the general expectation.
Later in my academic career I discovered that the FDR twist could work the other way just as neatly. He came to the University of Virginia in the spring of 1940 to deliver the address on the law school graduation of his son Franklin. Professor Leslie Buckler of the law faculty boarded the official train to greet the Roosevelts and sit with them while the ramp for the President’s wheelchair was put in place. It was natural that the topic of law degrees should be introduced, and the President, while expressing his satisfaction at Franklin’s graduation, nonetheless pointed out that in his day a degree had not been a requisite to taking the New York Bar Examinations and that he had become a practicing attorney without finishing at Columbia Law. After a pause, Leslie Buckler replied that his own situation had been similar: returning from the war in Europe, he had been allowed to take the Maryland Bar without going back to school. There was a moment’s silence, and then the famous laugh rang out. “But you’re not president of the United States!”
Both stories suggest FDR’s persistent consciousness of the excitement and drama of his great position, and a study of the last three excellent additions to the swelling body of literature about him—Before the Trumpet by Geoffrey C. Ward,1 FDR: The New York Years by Kenneth S. Davis,2 and FDR by Ted Morgan3—has led me to speculate that a peculiar and very private sense of personal drama and destiny may be the key to the elusive character of the thirty-second president.
Ward quotes Eleanor as writing, somewhat resentfully, after her husband’s death: “I was one of those who served his purposes.” FDR had no real confidants, she maintained, certainly not herself. No human being ever fully shared his inner life.
This was true, even from his boyhood. Morgan writes:
He had to fight to get his locks trimmed and to graduate from dresses and kilts. He learned that there was a part of himself he could not reveal to his mother, and acquired an opaque core, a sort of inner armor. It was a matter of survival….
It was at his mother’s knee that he learned the protective ambiguity that so many of his associates would later comment upon. As the brain truster Rexford Tugwell put it, “He was the kind of man to whom those who wanted him convinced of something—usually something in their own interest—could talk and argue and insist, and come away believing that they had succeeded, when all that happened was that he had been pleasantly present.”
After his affair with Lucy Mercer, FDR’s relationship with Eleanor became more of a political partnership than a marriage. His children he always loved, but they were usually away and apt to give him more headaches than help with their divorces and speeding tickets and business problems. Louis Howe—in Davis’s phrase, that “untidy, irritable, asthmatic, chain-smoking little man”—and his secretary “Missy” LeHand were obsessively devoted to their boss, but idolatry does not make for true intimacy. The President accepted the offer of their lives gratefully, knowing that his success was all the return they expected. The Brain Trust, Moley, Tugwell, Berle, et al., representing, as Davis puts it, “a historic attempt to bridge the gap between Intelligence and Power,” stimulated and excited him, but they were essentially co-workers. As for his friends, they were for relaxation: Vincent Astor for fishing, his old college friend Livingston Davis for jokes and (in earlier days) for girls. FDR liked people in quantity, at parties, for banter, for story swapping, for general hilarity. Harry Hopkins came nearest to establishing a closer tie, but even that was mostly professional.
Yet I suspect he was not lonely: he did not need intimacy. He may even have shunned it. A satisfaction greater than that offered by people may have been supplied by a romantic vision of himself in history, a sense of his destiny that never left him, even in the terrible days of polio, a vision in which America was seen lapped by the blue waves of seas on which rode beautiful naval vessels and covered with rich valleys and streams and productive farms—he was always more of a Jeffersonian than a Hamiltonian, inclined to find the “good life” in the agricultural countryside as opposed to the wicked city. It was a vision, I suspect, whose setting was reproduced in prints and paintings and stamps, most of all stamps, so clear, so precise, so detailed yet so idealized, affirming America as a peaceful and democratic polity, an America that was waiting for a successor to Cousin Theodore.
This sustained inner identification of himself with the nation could have been a kind of artistic creation. He conformed himself to it, in appearance, in language, in manner, surrounding himself with beautiful and appropriate props: naval paintings and prints, fully rigged ship models, English political cartoons, a million stamps. The knowledge of history that he accumulated was prodigious. Adolf Berle said that he could tell you about naval construction, constitutional law, the story of coins, the ability of white men to live in the tropics—he could tell you about any concrete subject, it seemed, but had little interest in abstract ideas, their analysis, their contradictions. It was only natural that he should turn to people like Howe and LeHand who may have glimpsed the vision behind the style. Did any of his family really sense it? How could the verve of his conversations or the brilliance of his speeches have been appreciated by the author of “My Day”? For even the banalities of that column failed to exhaust the armory of clichés that Eleanor had amassed to combat the social evils of her time.
At first things came too easily for FDR. It must have seemed that the vision of himself in history could almost be left to realize itself. As Morgan puts it: “Before polio he walked along flower-strewn paths. Men came to him offering valuable prizes: Would he like to be state senator, or assistant secretary of the Navy? Would he like to run for vice president? There was an embarrassment of riches.” And as Eleanor once said: “If something was unpleasant and he didn’t want to know about it he just ignored it. I think he always thought that if you ignored a thing long enough, it would settle itself.”
It was not only the polio that brought him to deeper revaluations of his character and destiny; it was the affair with Lucy Mercer when for the only time in his life he found himself tempted to throw up his political career and family for the gratification of a passion. He resisted it, gaining some of the strength that he was to need a few years later in the struggle with infantile paralysis. And when he emerged from the temptations of despair it was to find his old vision enhanced, even more powerful, as we can infer from Morgan’s description of him at the Democratic Convention of 1923 when he nominated Al Smith in the “Happy Warrior” speech:
Then came the moment when he had to walk alone. Releasing Jimmy’s arm, he took the second crutch and moved across the stage, the crowd almost holding its breath as it watched. Putting aside his crutches, he grabbed the lectern, threw back his head and smiled into the spotlight’s glare.
Here was a man of American ancestry older than the nation itself, a man with a background of Cambridge Square, bearing a famous name, who had dragged his crippled body into the steaming convention hall to make a bid for a second-generation American born and bred in the East Side slums—surely this was what the farmers of the Constitution had had in mind.
It was, anyway, what FDR had had in mind. A man who lives alone with a vision will be tempted to be his own moral judge. FDR believed in God, but religion to him was a very private matter; he avoided public worship because he did not like people to stare at him while he prayed. He may have regarded God as a kind of senior partner who did not really want to be consulted in pragmatic political decisions where the end (the vision) justified a very broad category of means.
Certainly FDR went very far with the latter. It is sad to learn that he denied Judge Joseph Proskauer any credit (except for the quotation from Wordsworth) in the writing of the “Happy Warrior” speech, his own greatest triumph up to that time. It now appears that Proskauer not only wrote every word of the address, but that FDR objected strongly to the text and agreed very reluctantly to use it at the last minute. He lied in a speech where he claimed to have written the constitution of Haiti. When he was assistant secretary of the Navy he lied in a congressional investigation of the Navy’s use of its men to entrap homosexuals, denying that he knew that the entrappers were instructed, if necessary, to engage in sexual acts with suspects. And as president he did not hesitate to use the tax power to smite his enemies while shielding his friends from its impact. Thus he spared Lyndon Johnson from prosecution by the Internal Revenue Service in the very smelly audit of the Brown & Root construction firm, which had surreptitiously financed Johnson’s campaign for the Senate in 1941. But he pressed for an all-out investigation of Moe Annenberg for tax fraud, which resulted in the old man’s conviction and jail sentence. When Annenberg rose from publishing the Daily Racing Form to become the owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, he attacked the New Deal. Roosevelt told J. Edgar Hoover that Annenberg’s group was out to “get” Harold Ickes if he came to Philadelphia. “I want Moe Annenberg for dinner,” he told Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and he got him.
Of course, this protean side of FDR’s nature could be a great political asset. As Morgan says, he adopted a position of deliberate changeability which allowed him to hold contradictory views simultaneously, juggling apples and oranges until the time was ripe for decision. Norman Thomas, who regarded him as the greatest threat to socialism of the century, charged that he failed to make essential, internal connections between facts. Davis’s reply to this is that as an essential man of action FDR had less faith in the need to correlate items of information than he had in the signs and portents presented to him through his senses. “He collected facts, including other people’s expressed ideas, as he did stamps and naval prints.” There they were, stored away in his remarkable memory, to be used when circumstances called, rather than woven into a systematized body of knowledge.
FDR’s ultimate protection against the extremes to which his pragmatism might otherwise have led him lay in his sense of the nature and fragility of his own power. He knew, as Morgan expresses it, that he could maintain this power only so long as he made himself “the embodiment both of the collective will and the moral compact.” Perhaps that is what I have called his “vision.” Davis offers a touching picture of this usually self-sufficient and practical romantic turning at last to his “spiritual partner.” When his son James was helping him to bed shortly after his election in 1932 he uttered one of his rare expressions of innermost feeling, “an almost unique revelation that what he felt was a fear of personal inadequacy in the face of personal challenge”:
“I’m just afraid I may not have the strength to do this job,” he said. “After you leave me tonight, Jimmy, I am going to pray. I am going to pray that God will help me, that He will give me the strength and the guidance to do this job and to do it right. I hope you will pray for me. too, Jimmy.”
Geoffrey C. Ward, Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt, 1882–1905 (Harper and Row, 1985).↩
Kenneth S. Davis, FDR: The New York Years, 1928–1933 (Random House, 1985).↩
Ted Morgan, FDR: A Biography (Simon and Schuster, 1985).↩