The Inner FDR

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,…

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