1. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Models: Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson
Franklin D. Roosevelt knew he wanted to be president well before he ran for his first political office—New York State senator—at the age of twenty-nine. He assiduously cultivated both the credentials and the qualities he thought he needed to succeed in public life, and there were two men who served as important role models for him.
One was his fifth cousin Theodore Roosevelt, who, old enough to be FDR’s father, entered the White House not long after FDR began college at Harvard. FDR admired TR’s forceful personality and reformist politics, and emulated his career trajectory from Harvard to the U.S. Navy to the governorship of New York and on to the presidency.
FDR’s other model was Democrat Woodrow Wilson. FDR campaigned for his 1912 election as president and served under him as assistant secretary of the navy. He shared Wilson’s aspiration to bring the United States into engagement with the world through an international peace organization—and learned a valuable lesson from Wilson’s failure to build support for the fledgling League of Nations in Congress and among the American public.
2. An Uncommon Partnership: Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt
The relationship of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt began as the courtship of two young people raised in the same elite New York social circle. Over the next four decades, it became something far more unusual. Married in 1905, the couple’s bond withstood the loss of an infant son in 1909, ER’s discovery in 1918 of FDR’s infidelity, FDR’s permanently disabling bout of polio in 1921, and the rigors of a political career that began in the New York State Senate and ended with twelve years in the White House.
During the 1920s, each came to embrace a degree of independence in their marriage that was unusual in their time and might be considered unorthodox even today. While ER continued to perform the duties of a political wife, the pair increasingly spent time apart pursuing separate projects and friendships. By the time they reached the White House in 1933, though, it was clear they both had the instinct for action in those troubled times—that both possessed the drive, as well as the gifts, to lead in their different roles. Theirs was a political partnership based on mutual respect, and marked also by love.
3. Polio and Paralysis: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Disability
In the summer of 1921, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a charismatic, athletic, and successful thirty-nine-year-old, was stricken with a painful illness that left his legs permanently paralyzed. It would have been customary for him to live out his years at home as a wealthy invalid. In his battle to instead regain his health and spirits and resume his trajectory in public life, FDR displayed the seemingly inborn fortitude that, in years to come, would help America overcome towering obstacles. Yet people who knew FDR said the struggle also changed him. “The man emerged completely warm-hearted, with a new humility of spirit,” his secretary of state, Frances Perkins, would recall.
FDR created the New Deal and led America through World War II while contending with a serious disability. In a time when being called “crippled” was a kind of erasure, he concealed the extent of this disability from the public. Yet he also devoted himself very publicly to fighting polio and helping others disabled by it, explicitly identifying himself with people in wheelchairs. FDR’s example remains powerful today: a man who could not stand or walk unassisted was one of the world’s most dynamic and influential leaders.
4. Governing New York: Laboratory for the New Deal, Platform for FDR
After spending his forties out of office recovering from polio and adapting to the disability it caused, Franklin D. Roosevelt became governor of New York just before turning forty-seven in January 1929. At fifty, he would be elected president of the United States.
FDR’s home state served as a testing ground for New Deal initiatives; there, he introduced state old-age pensions, a model relief program for jobless New Yorkers, and an initiative to harness the Saint Lawrence River to produce public power. Many of the people FDR hired to implement state programs and advise him as governor—labor chief Frances Perkins, relief administrator Harry Hopkins—would join him in Washington, DC, and become architects of the New Deal. In the governorship, FDR also developed the direct approach to the public through radio addresses and frequent appearances that would prove so effective in the White House.
Indeed, as FDR’s governance segued into his 1932 campaign for the presidency, he increasingly communicated on a national stage. Governor FDR criticized President Herbert Hoover’s hands-off approach to the nation’s economic ills as ineffectual and inhumane, shaping his own vision of a government that would act “along definitely constructive, not passive lines” for the people’s good.
5. America at the Crossroads: The Election of 1932
The year 1932 was a fractious and perilous time in America. The nation was in the grip of the worst economic crisis in its history, and no one knew for sure what could be done to set things right. Americans did understand that they faced a fork in the road: they could reelect Herbert Hoover and stay with a relatively conservative course of nonintervention in the economy, or they could go with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” for America. Voters didn’t yet know all the details of the plan—neither did FDR—but its ethos seemed to come through in a campaign that was dynamic, defied tradition, and unfolded to the strains of an exuberant theme song, “Happy Days Are Here Again.” In the end, 57.4 percent of voters and forty-two of forty-eight states went for FDR.
6. The Long Transition: From Election Day to Inauguration Day
The presidential election of November 1932 was a landslide for Franklin D. Roosevelt. But FDR’s inauguration would not take place until March 4, 1933. Americans eager for fresh leadership would have to wait four agonizing months, as the nation’s economy tumbled to its lowest point in the worst economic crisis of its history. Banks failed. Homeless and hungry families shivered through a bitter winter. Sitting president Herbert Hoover hesitated to act boldly on his own authority and pressed FDR, unavailingly, to voice support for his policies. The Hoover-appointed President’s Committee on Social Trends warned of “violent revolution.” But finally the orderly transfer of power for which American democracy is known took place on a chill, damp day in the nation’s capital. FDR told the assembled crowd he would address mass unemployment as urgently as one might meet the emergency of war. “The only thing we have to fear,” he famously said, “is fear itself.”
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I. Becoming a Leader:
FDR Before the Presidency
1882 – 1933
Becoming a Leader includes six chapters,
on topics from FDR’s marriage to Eleanor
to his tenure as governor of New York State.
click the “In Brief” button at upper right.
click the chapter arrow at lower left.
1. FDR’s Models:
& Woodrow Wilson
Theodore Roosevelt, who was president from 1901 to 1909, and Woodrow Wilson, who occupied the office from 1913 to 1921, inspired, guided, and taught Franklin D. Roosevelt. TR, a distant cousin some twenty-five years older than FDR, showed him how a president could dominate the American political landscape and, through the force of his personality, redefine the presidency and America’s place in the world. Wilson’s regulation of corporate trusts, banks, and the money supply showed FDR how effective a president could be as legislator. FDR watched their triumphs and learned even more from their failures. These two leaders, more than anyone, helped shape FDR’s vision as president.
FDR followed the examples of TR and Wilson because he shared their fundamental strengths and values. As historian Geoffrey Ward has noted, all three men possessed “an unfeigned love for people and politics, an ability to rally able men and women to their cause, and an unbounded optimism and self-confidence.” They all rejected the notion that “the mere making of money should be enough to satisfy any man or any nation” and accepted “a sense of stewardship” of the nation’s land and resources. Even more important, all three brought active, indeed transformative, leadership to the presidency, taking “unabashed delight,” Ward writes, “in the great power of their office to do good.”
A Awe & Admiration: Theodore Roosevelt as Role Model
A. Awe & Admiration: Theodore Roosevelt as Role Model
Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fifth cousin, fascinated him. As a young boy, FDR took great pains not to tax the energies of his ailing, elderly father and learned to spend hours entertaining himself on the grounds of his parents’ Hyde Park, New York, estate. He delighted in rambunctious visits with his older cousin TR at the latter’s Long Island estate, Sagamore Hill. There, the ordinarily solitary FDR joined TR and his six children on strenuous hikes, swims, and horseback rides. TR returned FDR’s affection, telling FDR’s mother Sara, “I am so fond of that boy, I’d be shot for him.”
While the teenage FDR studied at Groton, a boarding school in Massachusetts, TR rode a high-flying career to increasing fame. First he headed the New York City Police Department and tackled its notorious corruption, then he served as assistant secretary of the navy before resigning from that position to organize a volunteer cavalry unit—the famous “Rough Riders”— to liberate Cuba, and finally he developed a nationwide reputation as progressive governor of New York. Among TR’s many admirers was Groton’s beloved but exacting headmaster, Endicott Peabody, who invited the Rough Rider to address the Groton student body. After eagerly awaiting his famous relative’s arrival, FDR left TR’s presentation “wild with excitement.” FDR so admired his cousin that he began sporting TR’s trademark pince-nez glasses and decided that he too would attend Harvard and eventually enter politics.
While at Harvard, FDR watched his cousin reshape the presidency. Energized by TR’s domestic program to rein in corporate power, protect consumers, and conserve natural resources—TR’s “Square Deal”—FDR grew even more determined to follow his path to the White House. He enrolled in Columbia University Law School but found the life overly sedentary and dull, and, just as TR had done before him, left law school without completing his coursework. In the meantime, he had married TR’s niece, Eleanor Roosevelt, in a 1905 ceremony in which their celebrated relation gave away the bride.
FDR did take and pass the New York State bar exam and, upon leaving school, joined a law firm. But he yearned to run for office. In 1910 Dutchess County Democrats (eager to capitalize on FDR’s famous name and ability to fund his own campaign) asked him to run for the state senate. FDR sensed that to win the race he had to remind Democratic rural voters of his ties to TR without appearing to be beholden to him or his urban Republican constituents. He turned to humor to make his point. “I’m not Teddy,” he often jokingly told his constituents. “A little shaver [a young boy] said to me the other day that he knew I wasn’t Teddy. I asked him why, and he replied, ‘because you don’t show your teeth!’”
The strategy worked. Dutchess County had never sent a Democrat to Albany. FDR would be the first. He moved his family to the capital, opened the Roosevelt home to anti-Tammany reformers, and developed a reputation as an ambitious if inexperienced progressive politician.
B Campaigning for Woodrow Wilson, Emulating Theodore Roosevelt
B. Campaigning for Woodrow Wilson, Emulating Theodore Roosevelt
Despite Franklin D. Roosevelt’s admiration for Theodore Roosevelt, FDR did not support his cousin over Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the dramatic, hotly contested 1912 presidential election. As governor of New Jersey, Wilson had earned a reputation for progressive leadership rivaling TR’s, but his academic credentials—he was a respected political scientist and former president of Princeton University—also intrigued FDR, who campaigned for him vigorously. When Wilson won, FDR lobbied to be his assistant secretary of the navy.
Again following his cousin’s example, FDR used his position to press for a more assertive foreign policy and a larger navy than the administration wanted. As World War I intensified overseas, he worked around the clock to modernize the American fleet. When Wilson clung to the hope that the United States would not become entangled in the war, FDR, like TR, urged the administration to abandon its neutral policies.
Yet after the United States entered the war in 1917, it was hard for FDR to sit out the fight in Washington, DC, ever mindful that some twenty years before, when the United States joined Cuban revolutionaries in their fight for independence, TR had resigned his administration post, formed the Rough Riders, and charged up San Juan Hill against the Spanish, returning home to tumultuous acclaim. When FDR thought he had completed the most important administrative tasks to prepare the navy and its sailors for war, he submitted his resignation, hoping to enlist. The administration, however, would not allow it. His departure from the Navy Department would be “a public calamity,” his superiors insisted.
Bitterly disappointed, FDR remained in Washington, DC, helping administer a growing navy and, later, promoting Wilson’s armistice. The political, administrative, and diplomatic lessons FDR learned watching Wilson manage the war profoundly influenced the decisions he would make twenty years later when America once again confronted global armed conflict. As FDR later told a friend, senior military and diplomatic officials had often worked at cross-purposes, and Wilson’s insistent, lofty, but ultimately unsuccessful promotion of the League of Nations showed him “the perils of too high public ideals.”
Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt,
and the National Park System
C. Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, & the National Park System
Theodore Roosevelt loved the outdoors. He camped, swam, hunted, hiked, roped cattle on a dude ranch, and he delighted in challenging his companions to mirror his “strenuous life.” Asthmatic and frail of constitution as a child, TR had embraced vigorous outdoor activities as part of his determination to make himself into a robust and manly adult. Nature was the arena in which he rejuvenated his spirits and triumphed over his own frailties. Love for the majesty of American landscapes also formed an important part of TR’s patriotism.
Repeatedly he told the nation that it must cherish and protect its wilderness. “Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war,” TR declared, “there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us, and training them into a better race to inhabit the land and pass it on.” Insisting that only the federal government could “jealously safeguard . . . the scenery, the forests, and the wild creatures,” TR doubled the size of the country’s national forests and created four national game preserves, five national parks, eighteen national monuments, and fifty-one federal bird sanctuaries.
Franklin D. Roosevelt shared TR’s instinct for vigorous action, and though FDR’s disability would limit his access to remote wilderness in later adulthood, he certainly shared TR’s love of the land and commitment to conservation, stemming from a boyhood spent among the trees and animals of Springwood. In FDR’s first one hundred days as president, he used executive orders to transfer sixty-four national monuments to the National Park Service, thus doubling the amount of land the service stewarded. He provided the extra funds required to create the Great Smoky Mountain and Everglades national parks and made sure they would be preserved as wilderness areas. He fought the timber industry over logging in Olympic National Park, blocked utility company plans to convert John Muir’s beloved Kings Canyon in California into a hydroelectric plant, and proposed that the Department of the Interior be reorganized and renamed the Department of Conservation.
With the American frontier closed and urbanization advancing, FDR urged America to recognize the value—and the vulnerability—of its natural resources. “We used up and destroyed much of our natural heritage just because that heritage was so bounteous,” he said. “We slashed our forests, we used our soils, we encouraged floods . . . so greatly that we were brought rather suddenly to face the fact that unless we gave thought to the lives of our children and grandchildren, they would no longer be able to live and to improve upon our American way of life.”
He wanted new generations of Americans to respect and enjoy the land, convinced that when they “touched mother earth,” they would arise “with strength renewed a hundredfold.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt,
and Presidential Leadership
D. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Presidential Leadership
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s service in Woodrow Wilson’s Navy Department, historian John Milton Cooper writes, transformed FDR into “a thoroughgoing political professional.” His difficult but close working relationship with his North Carolina–born boss, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, helped strip FDR of his “upper class WASP New England provincialism” and led him to appreciate the skills brought to bear by southern and western policymakers and politicians. FDR’s wartime work with British and French counterparts introduced him to the intricacies of personal diplomacy and to the horrors of war.
Wilson’s leadership made a lasting impression on FDR. He watched Wilson expand economic opportunity by lowering tariffs, regulating trusts, and relaxing the gold standard to make credit more available and the nation’s currency more flexible. FDR learned the importance of a strong (but not too independent) cabinet in persuading Congress to adopt administration policy, and he came to understand the critical role a president’s vision plays in mobilizing popular support.
Ironically, though, FDR learned more from Wilson’s most notable failure—the Senate’s rejection of the peace treaty ending World War I, along with its provision for a League of Nations— than he did from Wilson’s legislative successes. Although FDR shared Wilson’s belief that a well-structured international governing body could prevent future wars, Wilson’s disastrous one-man campaign for the Treaty of Versailles left FDR convinced that vision alone could not effect change. Before plunging down any path, however well justified, a president had to bring along the Congress and the American public.
2. An Uncommon Partnership:
Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt
By the time Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt began their White House years, they had proven their commitment to each other and to the promise of democracy. They had endured the loss of a child, the sting of adultery, and talk of divorce. They had confronted polio and refused to let it confine their lives or limit their dreams. They had learned to manage an aching loneliness and inject a new candor and boldness into their marriage.
They also had seen a world scarred by war, an America polarized by suspicion and divided by religion and custom, and a failing economy that threatened to destroy the American dream.
How they responded to these private and public challenges—and what they learned from them—not only inspired FDR and ER to pursue an unorthodox marital partnership, but also deepened their understanding of human experience, sowing the seeds of the New Deal and the Four Freedoms.
A Becoming a Couple, 1905
A. Becoming a Couple, 1905
On March 17, 1905, Eleanor Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt were married in New York City, after a two-year courtship that they had mostly kept secret. The bride and groom were distant cousins, representing two separate branches of the patrician Roosevelts. The couple’s journey toward leadership would be rocky, unconventional, brave, and surprising.
Although FDR had told a few friends that he would be president one day, no one who knew him in 1905 expected that to happen. At twenty-two, FDR was cavalier, pampered, somewhat condescending, and more focused on expanding his social network than building a career. ER, on the other hand, struggled to balance the glow of romance against the chronic abandonment that had defined her orphaned childhood. She missed the happiness and confidence she had found at boarding school outside London, studying with the headmistress Marie Souvestre, who had taken a special interest in her. At twenty, ER was unsure of herself, quiet, serious, and pining for a home of her own.
But the young couple would make their first home and embark upon married life under the watchful, proprietary eye of FDR’s mother, Sara Roosevelt, who had not supported the match. She ruled the Roosevelt family estate (FDR’s childhood home) in Hyde Park, New York, built adjacent New York City townhouses for herself and the couple, controlled the family wealth that helped support the couple’s lifestyle, and monitored FDR and ER’s social life. Sara’s only child, FDR reveled in his mother’s fierce and unconditional devotion, but wanted to spare his own children the isolation he often felt growing up. He craved a large family.
ER would spend half of her first ten years of marriage pregnant and out of the public eye, while FDR, on the contrary, spent more and more time outside of and away from their home. By 1914 five children filled the Roosevelt homestead. All tended to circumvent their parents, turning instead to Sara for the same unquestioned support she gave FDR.
B Into the Fray: Entering Politics and Government, 1910
B. Into the Fray: Entering Politics and Government, 1910
When Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt married, their only significant experience of the White House had been spending most of New Year’s Day 1902 there with ER’s uncle and FDR’s idol, Theodore Roosevelt. A few years later, the president gave ER away at her wedding—and very nearly became the center of attention. TR’s larger-than-life reputation would also have a part in introducing the couple to politics.
This fateful moment came in the fall of 1910, when Democrats from Dutchess, Putnam, and Columbia counties—hoping to capitalize on Republican Theodore Roosevelt’s name as well as Sara Roosevelt’s substantial wealth—asked FDR, a young lawyer, to run for the New York State Senate. After securing TR’s blessing, FDR campaigned with gusto, crisscrossing the district in a rented red roadster, promising to fight corruption and urban political bosses and to represent his constituents “every day of the 365, every hour of the 24.” He was, by all indications, a natural. ER, meanwhile, having just given birth to the couple’s third surviving child, Elliott, stayed at home with Sara, FDR’s mother.
FDR unexpectedly won the senate seat, and the family—this time without Sara—moved to Albany. The change redefined and invigorated FDR and ER’s marriage. For the first time, they had a home of their own, in a fresh environment that challenged their ambitions and fostered a new kind of intimacy.
C State Senator Roosevelt, 1910–12
C. State Senator Roosevelt, 1910–12
As a newly minted state senator, Franklin D. Roosevelt plunged into the business of government. Inspired by Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy and eager to make a name for himself, he organized progressive Democrats to oppose the confirmation as U.S. senator of a corrupt character named “Blue-Eyed Billy” Sheehan, who was backed by the powerful and notoriously crooked New York Democratic Party machine known as Tammany Hall. For two and a half months, the Roosevelt home served as the progressives’ rallying headquarters, with anti-Tammany senators caucusing morning and evening in the library.
Fascinated by the action and intrigued by the conversations taking place in her home, Eleanor Roosevelt found herself drawn, for the first time, into the drama of politics. She listened to the talk while serving the legislators food and drinks, and regularly sat in the gallery during senate debates, returning home in the afternoon to be with her children. As FDR learned to navigate the political pitfalls and turf battles of the state senate, ER discovered fundamental truths about the life of a politician’s wife—”the first requisite . . . is to be able to manage anything,” as she wrote—and about her own nature. “Something within me,” she would observe, “craved to be an individual.” It was a very busy year.
Although FDR quickly developed a reputation as a determined reformer, political life in Albany was not easy for him. Sheehan’s defeat only paved the way for Tammany to nominate another candidate, and FDR’s slow response to this countermove left him more vulnerable to the machine’s retaliations. Both he and ER watched in helpless outrage as Tammany took its revenge on the reformers, pulling advertising from their newspapers, revoking state funds from programs in their districts, and encouraging clients to retain the services of pro-Tammany businesses and lawyers. Limited to the Forest, Fish, and Game Committee, FDR devoted his legislative career to reforestation, watershed restoration, and other conservation goals. Although he fully intended to run for reelection, he now knew the state senate would not be the path for advancing his political career in the long term.
In the meantime, securing reelection to the seat in 1912 proved more challenging than FDR had imagined, even though it was a Democratic year. After returning from the Democratic National Convention, both he and ER contracted typhoid fever. Forced to remain in New York City to receive medical care for this dangerous condition, FDR became an easy target for rivals in both parties, who tarred him as a wealthy city playboy rather than a serious anti-Tammany candidate from Dutchess County. Too weak to return to Hyde Park, much less replicate the energetic campaign he had run two years earlier, the bedridden FDR asked a recovering but still weak ER to summon Louis Howe, the reporter who had most befriended FDR during the Sheehan battle, to help him return to the senate.
Howe, an odd-looking, chain-smoking journalist for the New York Herald whom other reporters would later liken to a “medieval gnome,” already harbored dreams of an FDR presidency. Howe took over FDR’s state senate campaign and, using posters, letters, newspaper ads—a marketing campaign as varied as it was omnipresent—made the incapacitated candidate as visible to voters as he’d been when he crisscrossed the district in 1910. Meanwhile, the voters Howe targeted were energized by a presidential election campaign featuring Theodore Roosevelt’s run on the newly formed Progressive ticket, a popular Democratic reformer (Woodrow Wilson) on the Democratic ticket, and incumbent President William Howard Taft representing a weakened Republican Party. On Election Day, Howe’s efforts prevailed. FDR won reelection by a wider margin than he had received two years earlier. The victory sealed FDR’s trust in Howe and began the inseparable, inventive political bond that would eventually take them to the White House. Howe would also play an important role in the career of ER, encouraging her to take hold of her gifts as speaker and writer to become an invaluable surrogate for her husband and a powerful public figure in her own right.
Take Washington, 1913–15
D. The Roosevelts Take Washington, 1913–15
In January 1913, Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt, still recuperating from typhoid fever, returned from New York City to Albany for the new legislative session. FDR, now chair of the Forest, Fish, and Game Committee, hoped that once the session was completed he could join the administration of newly elected Woodrow Wilson. He had campaigned vigorously for Wilson before typhoid struck, and thought that a move to the federal executive branch would allow him to elude Tammany’s grasp and perhaps follow Theodore Roosevelt’s path to the White House. When the president-elect summoned him for a meeting, FDR traveled to Trenton expecting to secure appointments for himself as well as a few of his New York colleagues. He may even have told Wilson that he hoped to serve as assistant secretary of the navy, the position TR had used to introduce himself to the nation. One thing is certain: FDR wanted to move to Washington, DC. The only questions were whether Wilson (who didn’t much care for FDR) would offer him a position, what that position might be, and how ER could support his career and care for their family.
The Roosevelts spent most of inauguration week in Washington, DC, where FDR rejected offers to serve as assistant secretary of the Treasury and collector of the Port of New York (a federal post from which he might have challenged Tammany’s influence in the state). As ER took in the impressive spectacle of thousands of women suffrage supporters marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, FDR encountered Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels in the lobby of the Willard Hotel. Daniels asked him if he would serve as his assistant, pending Wilson’s approval and Senate confirmation. FDR eagerly accepted. “All my life I have loved ships and been a student of the Navy,” he reportedly responded, “and the Assistant Secretaryship is the one place, above all others, I would love to hold.” When Daniels floated FDR’s name, some of Daniels’s colleagues responded with caution, warning him that Roosevelts didn’t take well to staying behind the scenes and that Daniels would have to keep FDR on a short leash. But Daniels dismissed their concerns. He found FDR’s charm and ambition attractive and wanted a northeastern liberal in the position to offset his southern conservatism.
FDR began work as assistant secretary of the navy on March 17, 1913, his eighth wedding anniversary. ER remained in Hyde Park, New York, with the children, but political ally Louis Howe joined FDR in Washington as his secretary, aide-de-camp, and alter ego. Neither man had any clear idea of what their jobs entailed. They didn’t yet understand how the Navy Department with its staff of sixty-three thousand officers and enlisted personnel was organized, or how its budget—20 percent of the entire federal budget—was spent. But they hit the ground running.
Within days FDR assumed responsibility for organizing navy relief efforts to assist Ohio and Indiana communities ravaged by floods, overseeing the construction of new docks and caissons at Pearl Harbor, and creating a plan to streamline the naval bureaucracy. When he learned that a significant number of sailors could not swim, FDR insisted that every recruit learn before setting sail, and he required junior officers to pass a swimming test before they could be promoted.
Together, throughout the summer of 1913, he and Howe stoked FDR’s public image. They arranged for shipboard inspections, press coverage of the inspections, speeches before industry groups and key constituencies, and meetings with naval leadership. FDR spent his time away from the office courting senior administrators at dinner parties, club events, and White House gatherings. Most colleagues and the Washington, DC, press noticed his blatant ambition—especially when FDR designed a flag for the assistant secretary of the navy and ordered it flown on naval vessels whenever he was on board. Yet Howe, ever attuned to FDR’s public profile, was ready to say no to his boss or, as Howe put it, “to provide the toe weights” necessary to keep FDR’s ego from floating to unseemly heights.
While FDR and Howe navigated Washington, ER organized the family for yet another move and prepared for her new role as the wife of a junior cabinet official. Everyone was offering her advice. TR urged her to be “particularly nice” to naval officers’ wives, who struggled to meet exacting social demands on limited incomes. TR’s sister, ER’s beloved Auntie Bye, concurred—”Everything that can properly be done to make things pleasant for them should be done,” she said—but also urged ER to “call upon” the wives of cabinet secretaries and undersecretaries and other prominent Washingtonians. Another aunt, Corinne Robinson, coached her on this process and advised her to respect the custom. ER would throw herself earnestly (though not with relish) into both efforts—spending almost every weekday afternoon visiting between ten and thirty women married to men whose support FDR required to advance his career.
As the Roosevelts settled into Washington, ER’s shyness abated and her talent for organizing grew. Almost nightly during the fall and winter, she accompanied FDR to dinner parties, dances, White House social events, or public recitals. She coordinated formal dinner parties in the N Street house they rented from Auntie Bye, entertaining Henry Cabot Lodge and his wife, Nannie; the British ambassador to the United States, Sir Cecil Spring-Rice; senior staff of the French embassy; and other neighbors. Although she still battled intense self-doubt and loneliness (her closest friend had moved to Arizona) and shrank from the stiff formality of “calling,” life in Washington steadily challenged her to see beyond herself and the society in which she was raised. She even confronted her propensity to seasickness to accompany FDR on battleship inspections, once—to the stunned admiration of her naval escort—donning “a suit of dungarees, trousers and all” to climb a skeletal mast to better observe target practice. As she wrote her aunt Maude Gray, “There seems to be so much to see and know and to learn to understand in this big country of ours and so few of us . . . realize that we ought to try when we’ve lived in the environment that you and I grew up in.”
By 1915 some Washingtonians saw ER’s reputation as a kind, efficient, and proper young matron as a counterweight to FDR’s indiscrete criticisms of his boss and impatience with Washington hierarchy. FDR’s persistent disagreements with Secretary Daniels over the size of the navy had become an open secret in the nation’s capital. War was afoot in Europe, and FDR tended to agree with his idol, TR, that the United States should side with Britain, arguing strenuously for an expanded navy to meet that exigency. Daniels’s vision of the navy accorded with President Wilson’s policy of neutrality toward warring nations. FDR’s frustrations increased.
In May 1915, after vacationing on Campobello Island off the coast of Maine, FDR returned to the capital to learn that German submarines had sunk the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania, killing more than a thousand passengers and crew. He wrote ER that he found “everything asleep and apparently utterly oblivious to the fact that the most terrible drama in history was about to be enacted . . . These dear good people like W.J.B. [Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan] and J.D. [Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels] have as much conception of what a general European War means as Elliott [their young son] has of higher mathematics. They really believe that because we are neutral we can go about our business as usual.” Although ER hoped the United States could stay out of the war, she told FDR she was “not surprised” by Bryan’s and Daniels’s inaction, “for one could expect little else. To understand the present gigantic conflict one must have at least a glimmering of foreign nations and their histories. I hope you will succeed in getting the Navy together and up to the mark for I think we’re going to need its moral support.”
Linked to the same distinguished American family and joined as spouses and parents, FDR and ER had also come to discover in each other a deep interest in national affairs and a prodigious energy for engaging in public life that seemed to make them an unusually compatible pair.
Rising to the Emergency
of War—Separately, 1916–18
E. Rising to the Emergency of War—Separately, 1916–18
Despite the candor Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt shared on administration politics, an unspoken tension had crept into their marriage. FDR’s work for Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 reelection campaign and a polio epidemic that kept Eleanor and their young children at the family’s Canadian retreat on Campobello Island prolonged the months that FDR and ER spent apart that year. When they were together in Washington, DC, war work also kept them apart. FDR, thoroughly impatient with the administration’s insistence upon neutrality and struggling to circumvent it, worked late into the night at the Navy Department and sailed to Europe for a month-long inspection of the U.S. fleet. ER, shocked by the horrors of World War I, abandoned the social customs prewar Washington demanded of her, especially after the United States finally joined the conflict in April 1917. She threw herself into war-related volunteer work, staffing a canteen in Union Station, ministering to veterans in trauma centers, organizing relief activities for the Navy Red Cross, and convincing the secretary of the Interior to modernize the treatment of traumatized (“shell-shocked”) veterans. When she and FDR did attend dinner parties together, he invariably stayed later than she, flirting with his dinner companions and, as the historian Geoffrey Ward has noted, refusing to “shield her from gossip.”
By the time America entered World War I, FDR and ER had become very different people than when they married thirteen years earlier.
FDR was still ambitious and impatient, as critical of his superiors in Washington as he had been of colleagues in Albany. But with Howe’s assistance, he had developed administrative skills and a political savoir faire that helped him skirt the retaliations his criticisms might provoke. FDR pressed the administration to create the National Council of Defense, a cabinet-level committee that would be charged with coordinating war-related labor and production initiatives, despite Wilson’s repeated refusals to do so. He allied with the Navy League, Theodore Roosevelt, and other “Big Navy” advocates—all fierce critics of his boss, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, and the administration—and, while Daniels was away, appealed directly (albeit unsuccessfully) to the president to have American ships “cleaned and fitted out” for war. “There is no other navy in the world that has to cover so great an area of defense as the American navy,” he told a Saint Louis audience, “and it ought, in my judgment, to be incomparably the greatest navy in the world.”
Rumors swirled throughout the Capitol that Wilson would tap FDR to replace the outgoing Lindley Garrison as secretary of war. In fact, Wilson, who tolerated FDR only because his last name was Roosevelt, never considered him for the post. Nor did Wilson allow FDR to follow TR’s example by resigning his position to enlist in the navy. “Tell the young man,” the president ordered Daniels, “to stay where he is.” The “Big Navy” men agreed. “Franklin Roosevelt,” General Leonard Wood declared, “should under no circumstances think of leaving the Navy Department.” His departure would be “a public calamity.”
The war also emboldened ER. A fierce independence began to emerge in the young political wife. She no longer deferred to her mother-in-law, Sara Roosevelt, and chafed when relatives refused to see how their world was changing. She relished a growing sense of being needed and seeing her own organizational talents respected. ER’s rigorous relief work startled and impressed her peers, veterans, the Navy Department, and TR—who donated a third of his 1906 Nobel Peace Prize money to support her work. Washington soon saw her as “a willing horse,” as a friend wrote Sara. “They call upon her at all hours, all the time.” Even the British noticed ER’s abilities and invited her to travel to London to develop a canteen program for their military.
These intense experiences, ER later recalled, inspired “a certain confidence in myself and in my ability to meet emergencies and deal with them.”
F A Marital Crisis, 1918–19
F. A Marital Crisis, 1918–19
Eleanor Roosevelt’s growing confidence notwithstanding, in the fall of 1918 there came an emergency—a personal one—that cut very close to the bone. ER would deal with it, as she had other painful experiences. It would change her, setting her on a course toward a more unconventional, independent life.
The crisis began when Franklin D. Roosevelt returned from a naval inspection in Britain and France so ill that four orderlies had to carry his stretcher down the ship’s gangplank and, later, into the New York City home of his mother, Sara Roosevelt. As ER unpacked his luggage, she discovered a packet of love letters her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, had written FDR. While ER may have suspected FDR of infidelity—he was a consummate flirt—this evidence of a passionate love affair stunned and crushed her. “The bottom dropped out of my own particular world,” she later told a trusted friend.
ER offered FDR a divorce. After a short separation and consultations with political operative Louis Howe and Sara—who both opposed a divorce as ruinous to FDR’s reputation and career— the couple decided to remain married. They knew it would not be easy. Their dreams of romantic love had been extinguished. Deep wounds would linger in both their hearts. “This past year has rather got the better of me,” ER confided to her dear friend Isabella Greenway in July 1919. “It has been so full of all kinds of things that I still have a breathless, hunted feeling about it.”
Yet FDR and ER had entered 1919 determined to continue their work, rekindle affection, and restore a modicum of trust. That summer FDR had asked ER to accompany him to Europe as he oversaw the post-World War I liquidation of the American fleet. Although she was glad to join him on the trip, the experience haunted her. No stranger to military hospitals and suffering soldiers and sailors, ER found the scorched terrain of European battlefields brought the war home in a visceral way. “I do not think one can quite realize [the devastation] without seeing [it],” she wrote Greenway. France’s denuded Belleau Wood, scene of a ferocious battle in 1918, “gave one an even more ghostly feeling than the shelled and ruined towns,” ER added. “What the men who fought there lived through is inconceivable.”
When the Roosevelts departed Europe for home, they shared the return voyage with President Woodrow Wilson, who had just completed negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the war, and championing the creation of the League of Nations, an international body that he hoped would prevent future wars. The energy onboard ship was infectious, and it reinforced the pair’s decision to reconcile.
G A National Campaign, 1920
G. A National Campaign, 1920
The year 1920 began with another dreadful event for the Roosevelts: on February 4, 1920, Eleanor Roosevelt’s beloved but moody Aunt Pussie, who had helped raise ER after her mother’s death, perished along with her two daughters when they could not escape a fire that consumed their Greenwich Village home. A distraught ER (“It was one of those horrors I can hardly think of,” she later wrote) coordinated their funerals and burials.
The couple had faced illness, war, and great personal upheaval, but they were people who kept going, and they were soon taken up once again in the political world to which they had chosen to devote their lives.
With the war over, President Woodrow Wilson launched an inept and divisive nationwide campaign to urge Congress to ratify the Treaty of Versailles that closed World War I, and join the League of Nations. When a stroke confined him to the White House, partially paralyzed and embittered, the Democratic Party began to implode. Labor turmoil, a weakened economy, and disaffected out-of-work veterans all cast a pall over the administration and the party. Franklin D. Roosevelt, meanwhile, had barely survived his insubordinate attacks on his boss, most notably his public declaration that he, not Daniels, had undertaken the necessary “illegal acts” to prepare the navy to defend the nation. He worried that his lack of military service would tarnish his political career. Plus, now that he was headed back to New York, he realized that a powerful Tammany machine could damage his prospects.
FDR planned carefully for the 1920 Democratic nominating convention. First, he seconded the nomination of his Albany rival Al Smith as president of the United States. Then he outmaneuvered Tammany delegates to lead the New York delegation in a boisterous tribute to Wilson. After Smith withdrew, FDR bucked the New York bosses to support William McAdoo for president. When the convention appeared deadlocked between McAdoo and the Tammany-backed Ohio governor James Cox, FDR made his move. In exchange for Tammany not opposing his next campaign for elected office, he endorsed Cox. In turn, Cox, hoping to capitalize on the Roosevelt name and Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy, asked FDR to be his running mate. ER was at Campobello Island when FDR wired her the news.
At thirty-eight, FDR began his first nationwide campaign. Hoping to attract the votes of newly enfranchised women, FDR invited ER to join his campaign train as he barnstormed the South and the Midwest. The Warren Harding–led Republican ticket would trounce the Cox-Roosevelt Democratic slate—even in New York State. But FDR would return home exhilarated by the campaign experience and confident that it had enhanced his political future.
For ER, the campaign was a far cry from the reunion with her husband she had anticipated. She spent her days either standing alongside FDR as he repeated his stump speech and wooed women voters, or alone in her railroad car, reading, knitting, and worrying about how her children were faring at home. Nevertheless, political aide Louis Howe, recognizing ER’s complexity, began to treat her less as the candidate’s wife than as an interesting woman in her own right. The former reporter exposed her to the art of speechwriting, the craft of journalism, and the friendship journalists can offer. By the time the train returned to New York, ER and Howe were solidifying a friendly alliance.
The Roosevelts handled defeat and their return to New York in ways that would soon redefine their marriage and shape their political careers. FDR joined the Fidelity and Deposit Company, an insurance and bonding firm that hoped to capitalize on his name and vast connections. He also supported charities and worked assiduously with Howe to bolster the Democratic Party and his own standing in it. It was in this period that FDR, at his wife’s suggestion, hired as his personal secretary the soon-to-be-indispensable Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, whose work on the 1920 campaign had impressed ER.
As for ER, she dreaded the winter in New York City with, as she put it, “nothing but teas and luncheons and dinners to take up my time.” Instead of soldiering through it, she mapped out a schedule allowing her to spend long weekends in Hyde Park, New York, with daughter Anna and son James, while taking on challenging political activities in the city. She cochaired the legislative affairs committee of the newly formed national League of Women Voters, and she quickly developed, to her surprise, friendships with progressive women activists who would become lifelong friends and confidants.
During this phase she herself would characterize as “the intensive education of Eleanor Roosevelt,” ER was drifting away from the old influences in her life. The Roosevelts, as historian Geoffrey Ward has observed, found they could stay together by staying apart.
H Trial by Polio, 1921–28
G. Trial by Polio, 1921–28
Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt’s struggles to reorder their marriage and resurrect his political career faced a sudden and all but overwhelming challenge in the summer of 1921. In August, while vacationing with his family on Campobello Island off the Maine coast, FDR, over the course of just a few hours, developed severe paralysis. For two weeks, attending physicians misdiagnosed FDR’s condition—first as a response to a horrific cold and later as the result of a blood clot in his lower spine. One prescribed counterproductive and agonizing massage. FDR could no longer stand, sit up, urinate unassisted, or hold a pen. His fever spiked and he feared he would die.
ER went into action as nurse, inserting catheters to relieve his bladder, feeding and bathing him, and tending to his every biological need. She and political operative Louis Howe maintained a determined optimism as they took turns sitting by his bed throughout the day and night. Eager to get additional medical opinions when FDR’s condition worsened, they reached out to medical specialists in New York City and Boston. All agreed that FDR had contracted polio.
The Roosevelts and Howe remained at Campobello until September 15, 1921, when Howe helped FDR elude the press and board a train to New York and its Presbyterian Hospital. Though paralyzed from the chest down, FDR, at the age of thirty-nine, began to regain his characteristic optimism and concentrate on trying to strengthen his legs and become as self-reliant as possible. This immensely distressed his mother, Sara, who waged a determined campaign to take her son back to Hyde Park, New York, for a life of leisure and support. ER disagreed with her mother-in-law. With her support, Howe’s constant counsel, and Missy LeHand’s administrative assistance, FDR resisted his mother’s efforts and built a new life for himself. He dabbled in business and formed a new law practice. Convinced his paralysis was temporary, he threw himself into a punishing regimen of exercise and continually sought out new medical treatments. Although his stamina returned and he developed the upper body of a wrestler, his frail, withered legs would not recover; he would never walk unaided again.
Polio matured FDR, giving him, as Labor Secretary Frances Perkins would put it, “a firmer grip on life and on himself than ever before . . . He had become conscious of other people, weak people, of human frailty. . . . His viability—his power to grow in response to experience—was beginning to show.” With Howe at his side, FDR monitored state and national party politics and plotted his return. In 1924 Al Smith asked FDR to make his first public appearance since contracting polio by nominating Smith as the party’s candidate for president at the Democratic National Convention. FDR, the charming politician born to advantage, had now faced a devastating personal setback and shown what he was really made of. His dramatic return to the public stage—combined with his stirring endorsement of Smith as “the Happy Warrior of the political battlefield”—revived his popularity and secured his political future.
Polio also jump-started ER’s political career. It gave her the cover she needed to challenge social customs and develop the independent persona she craved, an arena in which to champion a more humane society, and the opportunity to build a new network of colleagues, friends, and fellow activists. No longer battling a crushing sense of rejection, despair, and fatigue, she became not only FDR’s surrogate, but also (as major reporters noted) an influential woman who spoke her own mind.
In addition to serving as vice president and finance chair of the state Democratic Women’s Committee and an officer of the Women’s City Club, she helped lead state chapters of the National Consumers Union and the Women’s Trade Union League, and developed close ties with unions and other labor organizations.
She and FDR were becoming not just a political couple, but a political team. ER shared her insights with FDR and, when she met leaders she thought he should meet, arranged for them to have extensive, private, and informal conversations. She had spent the 1920 election inside a railroad car, standing beside her husband. Now, as her husband devoted most of his energy to regaining the use of his legs and feet, it was she who crisscrossed the state securing the women’s vote for Smith. She even cochaired the Bok Peace Prize Committee, designed to win congressional support for an international peacekeeping organization that could replace the League of Nations, and testified in support of the plan before the U.S. House of Representatives.
Their combined political activities kept them united in ways their marriage could not. They increasingly spent long stretches of time in separate states. In late 1924, FDR fell in love with a decaying South Georgia resort whose buoyant warm waters had helped another polio patient strengthen his legs. Warm Springs quickly became more than a rehabilitation clinic to FDR. There he built a one-story, completely accessible cottage that would provide what his New York homes could not—independence, mobility, and complete relaxation. By 1926, as ER expanded her networks throughout New York State and beyond, FDR spent half the year at the cottage exercising, working (with LeHand at his side and Howe feeding him information from New York City), getting to know his rural neighbors and fellow “polios,” designing new rehabilitation facilities for Warm Springs patients, and planning his political comeback. He conferred regularly with party leaders, invited key aides to join him for extended visits, drafted party platforms, wrote articles, and advised candidates. His intention: a return to the campaign trail in 1932. A call from his wife would change his plans.
I Return to Public Office, 1928
I. Return to Public Office, 1928
On October 1, 1928, Franklin D. Roosevelt took a phone call at Warm Springs, Georgia, from his wife. When he came on the line, she handed the phone to the Democratic candidate for president, Al Smith. Smith, along with senior party leaders joining in the call, pressed FDR to run for governor of New York. After they assured him they would help raise money to support his plans for Warm Springs, FDR yielded to their request. He had intended to give himself more time to regain his physical strength. Eleanor Roosevelt wired her husband, “Regret that you had to accept but know that you felt it obligatory.”
But FDR quickly put aside any reservations about the campaign. Building on the networks he, ER, and political ally Louis Howe had built, he barnstormed the state in an open touring car, speaking as often as fourteen times a day, while ER traveled the state for Smith. Smith lost. FDR won by a very slim margin. The Roosevelts would now have to live in the same state—and, once again, learn to give each other the independence each required.
After New Yorkers elected FDR to the state’s highest office, he concentrated on selecting his key aides, fleshing out his legislative agenda, and navigating a Republican state legislature. ER strove to balance her commitment to social reform with her husband’s political agenda. She knew that as New York’s First Lady, she had to stop giving political speeches on specific issues, but she wanted to continue challenging women “to learn to play the game as men do.” As FDR expanded his circle of advisors, ER stayed in constant contact with her vast social-reform network, often bringing key reform leaders to brief and argue with FDR. Her greatest joy, however, came from teaching at the Todhunter School for Girls. There she worked to instill in her students the curiosity and confidence the young ER had learned as a favorite pupil in an English boarding school run by the celebrated educator Marie Souvestre.
By 1929 the Roosevelts, after enduring heartbreak and paralysis, were a team. They were united by progressive values, an incessant curiosity about the challenges their fellow Americans faced, and a determination to transcend the social limitations of the upper-class world into which they were born. Politics and shared commitment to social reform now provided the comfort and community their marriage could not. They moved into the governor’s mansion as two individuals who had conquered their own fears; listened to and learned from laborers, farmers, activists, corporate titans, and immigrants; observed the devastation and havoc of rural and urban poverty; and seen firsthand the wretched religious prejudice Smith (a Catholic) endured throughout his presidential campaign. FDR and ER were motivated, and ready, to lead.
3. Polio & Paralysis:
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s
On the summer day in 1921 when Franklin D. Roosevelt first experienced the weakness of polio, this viral disease had Americans in the grip of fear. No one knew what caused it. No doctor could cure it. All people knew was that polio could paralyze a person overnight, that it struck children disproportionately, and that epidemics swept the country at intervals, usually during the summertime. Afraid they would catch it, Americans shunned “polios” just as they had isolated the victims of smallpox and other contagious diseases.
Moreover, when FDR lost the use of his legs at age thirty-nine, the disability rights movement lay long in the future, along with its central tenet that a decent society doesn’t just care for people with disabilities, but lowers barriers to their full participation in public life with high-tech assistive devices, accessible public spaces, and accommodations at school and work. In the 1920s and ‘30s, “cripples” were the objects of pity, often institutionalized or kept at home mostly hidden from view.
For FDR, the athletic, charming, and increasingly successful scion of a wealthy family, being struck with such a dread condition was a transformative experience. “I think probably the thing that took the most courage in his life,” Eleanor Roosevelt would say, “was his mastery and meeting of polio.” According to his longtime colleague Frances Perkins, FDR emerged from his confrontation with death and his struggle with disability a gentler, more compassionate person—a deeper man. Also, in his response to polio, FDR’s extraordinary mettle came forth. Winston Churchill famously remarked that “not one in a generation” could have done what FDR did, taking on, despite his bodily constraints, the arduous job of leading the country through the Great Depression and World War II.
Though in his public life FDR tried to conceal his disability and project physical strength—he was a man of his time—he did not permit his condition or the stigma attached to it to force his withdrawal from the spotlight, as his mother, Sara, counseled. He likewise kept his own counsel in medical matters, insisting against doctors’ prognoses (and some would say in a particularly stalwart form of denial) that he would walk again. But he didn’t wait for that to happen before plunging back into politics in 1928.
During his seven-year hiatus from government, and then as he rose from state to national to international leadership, FDR tackled the problems that come with disability, and the scourge of polio itself.
With few models to follow, he essentially designed his own accommodations, building wheelchair-accessible, one-story cottages for himself, first near the spa he frequented at Warm Springs, Georgia, and, later, on his family estate (Top Cottage) in Hyde Park, New York. During his early rehabilitation, he had the first of a series of cars, a Model T, modified with hand controls so he could drive around the countryside of rural Georgia.
Also in Warm Springs, FDR invested the bulk of his personal wealth (a larger part than ER thought wise) in an old inn, turning it into a world-renowned polio treatment center, the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation. In 1938 a fund-raiser for FDR’s newly created Institute for the Study of Infantile Paralysis led to the March of Dimes and the first private initiative to fund a major scientific program to eradicate a particular disease. The research it sponsored eventually produced the polio vaccine that consigned this terrifying illness to the American past.
FDR’s polio was not a secret. It was, to many Americans, something that he had overcome, and whether by recovery or adaptation hardly mattered—it showed his fitness to sail, steady as she goes, through calamity. And in the dreadful 1930s and ’40s, that was an asset the country could ill afford to squander.
Illness Strikes at Campobello,
A. Illness Strikes at Campobello, August 1921
On vacation, the Roosevelts spent their days in vigorous physical activity in the outdoors. Their family compound on Campobello Island off the coast of Maine, with its rocky coves, forest trails, and glittering lawns, offered the ideal setting for swimming, sailing, deep-sea fishing, hiking, golfing, and jogging. Franklin D. Roosevelt reveled in dashing from one activity to the next and expected his guests to follow his lead.
When FDR awakened at Campobello the morning of August 10, 1921, he felt somewhat achy, but the weather was glorious and he was anxious to take his family sailing aboard his 24-foot sailboat, Vireo. After a long day’s excursion that included battling a small forest fire, FDR and his children sailed back to Campobello, took a short swim in the warm lake water, and raced one another on foot to their cottage. Reading the paper that evening, FDR suddenly felt chilled. He told Eleanor Roosevelt not to set a place for him at dinner and went upstairs to bed. He would never climb a staircase again.
Over the next two weeks, an inexorably progressive paralysis would take hold of FDR’s tall frame, leaving him unable to so much as lift a fork to his mouth, much less swim or jog. As doctors struggled to diagnose his condition, and ER and close Roosevelt confidante Louis Howe closed ranks to comfort and care for him, FDR sank, as author Kenneth Davis wrote, into a “loneliness that [could not] be alleviated by wife or friend, an utter solitude shot through with moments of pure naked terror.”
The first morning after his symptoms appeared, FDR’s left leg nearly buckled beneath him as he tried to rise from bed. By that night, his right leg also was losing strength, and he could hardly stand. The day after that, a Friday, he couldn’t stand, nor move his legs or even sit up, and terrible pain wracked his neck and back. By Sunday FDR was unable to feed or wash himself, and he had to be catheterized in order to urinate.
Nobody knew what was wrong with him. ER and Howe not only took on FDR’s intimate physical care, but also desperately sought a diagnosis and, they hoped, effective treatment for his condition. The Roosevelts’ regular physician on Campobello Island, summoned soon after FDR fell ill, opined that he might have a severe cold. A specialist from Philadelphia who had been vacationing in Maine’s Bar Harbor believed the problem could be due to a blood clot in FDR’s lower spine; he prescribed deep massage, which ER and Howe took turns administering in an exhausting round that caused FDR agonizing pain.
Finally, on the 25th of August, Dr. Robert Lovett, a Harvard expert in infantile paralysis and chief surgeon at Boston’s Crippled Children’s Hospital, arrived on the island to see the patient. FDR’s paralysis had completely stilled his hands and moved to his face. His pain was so excruciating that the doctor spared him a thorough examination, declaring that it was “perfectly clear” FDR had polio.
B Home to New York
B. Home to New York
When Franklin D. Roosevelt got his diagnosis of polio, he was relieved to at last know just what he was facing, especially since the news came with the prognosis that in time he might regain some or all of his functioning. After several weeks at Campobello Island off the coast of Maine, under Eleanor Roosevelt and political ally Louis Howe’s round-the-clock care, in mid-September 1921 he made the journey home to New York City, where he would enter New York Presbyterian Hospital.
Howe orchestrated a plan for the trip that prevented the press from seeing how disabled FDR was, instead projecting the image of a man already on the road to recovery, upbeat about his return to New York, and eager to resume his political and legal work. ER hired the crew that would build his stretcher for the journey by boat, truck, and rail to Grand Central Station. It was a torturous trip for FDR, who was in such pain that he couldn’t bear to have even linen sheets touch his tender legs.
FDR expected to leave New York Presbyterian after three weeks, walking on crutches. Instead, he lay flat on his back for six weeks, with little change in his condition, though he became able to pull himself to a sitting position with gymnast’s rings hung above his bed. When he left the hospital for his home on East Sixty-fifth Street in late October, FDR’s medical chart read, “Not Improving.”
Life on East Sixty-fifth Street was hectic, crowded, and tense. FDR was put to bed in a corner bedroom on the third floor. Howe took another bedroom, and relays of nurses and physical therapists occupied a third. ER slept on a cot in one of her sons’ rooms. Old friends and political well-wishers climbed the stairs at all hours to see the famous patient. FDR overdid his regimen of exercises despite Dr. Robert Lovett’s warning that “the over-use of a muscle is . . . worse than its disuse.” At one point FDR’s hamstrings contracted so acutely that his knees drew up toward his chest, and his doctors encased his legs temporarily in plaster casts. FDR turned forty on January 30, 1922.
In the spring of that year, his mother, Sara, urged him to come with her to Springwood, the family estate in Hyde Park, New York, to rest and recuperate away from all the clamor of the New York City household. FDR eagerly agreed. At Springwood, he took up a quiet life, but one centered on intense and largely unavailing efforts to regain his mobility. He rode an adult-size tricycle, swam in pool and pond, ordered exercise equipment recommended by friends, and faithfully tried to walk while grasping the parallel bars he had installed behind the family home. Finally, placing his full weight on crutches, his legs stiffened by new braces, he strained to drag himself from the top of the driveway to the main road, a quarter mile away. Despite months of effort, he completed the arduous trek only once.
But FDR did regain his health and vitality, while developing the considerable upper body strength that would help him compensate, in function as well as appearance, for his weakened legs.
C Eleanor Roosevelt & Louis Howe
C. Eleanor Roosevelt & Louis Howe
Eleanor Roosevelt and the unkempt, canny political operative Louis Howe had developed a strong rapport during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice presidential campaign in 1920. But the time they spent together caring for an ailing FDR on Campobello Island and later in New York City was something altogether different, their hands and hearts turned to the same urgent and intimate task.
They shared FDR’s physical care. They also waged a fierce campaign to lift his spirits, having been warned by the Harvard specialist who diagnosed FDR that the patient might succumb to a “mental depression” and “irritability” that would compromise his recovery. ER and Howe shared the same basic instincts about what was best for FDR—unflagging optimism and engagement in the world. They assiduously maintained a cheerful atmosphere around him, welcoming friends and associates. In the notoriously stressful role of caregivers, ER and Howe became very close.
The pair’s roles in relation to FDR also expanded during this time. Howe moved into the Roosevelt household (he would also live with the Roosevelts in the White House), seeing his own wife and children on weekends. He made himself essential to FDR by becoming a handler of sorts—protecting his privacy, looking to his reputation, and taking elaborate measures to keep him in the political game, while the would-be candidate devoted his time to restoring his body and spirit from the trauma of polio.
From the earliest days at Campobello in 1921 until FDR yielded to pressure to run for governor of New York in August 1928, Howe manipulated press coverage to depict FDR as a happy, energetic patient working his way to a full recovery. While a seriously ill FDR grappled with the onset of polio, Howe sent letters out under his signature. Later, as FDR cruised Florida on his houseboat and bathed in buoyant waters at Warm Springs, Georgia, Howe acted as FDR’s eyes and ears in New York City, keeping close tabs on state and national party rivalries and internal debates over party platforms and party structure. He conveyed all this to FDR and arranged for elected officials, civic leaders, and party stalwarts to meet with FDR in Warm Springs. In short, Howe made sure that Democrats continued to see FDR as a major force in the party.
ER also became an important link between the convalescing man and the larger world. Her discovery nearly three years earlier that FDR had been having an extramarital affair had been the crisis that encouraged her to blaze a trail to independence and become a political activist in her own right; now, coping with the ordeal of her husband’s polio deepened ER’s confidence and secured her place as FDR’s indispensible partner and rightful public representative. More and more, she would speak out about issues. She also took charge of her own household, resisting her mother-in-law’s well-intentioned plans for the family.
When finally FDR did fully emerge from his rehabilitation to hit the campaign trail and win the governorship in the autumn of 1928, the threesome—FDR, ER, and Howe—would be a formidable force, indeed. Howe, who had urged FDR not to run until 1932, would nonetheless devote himself quite single-mindedly to FDR’s rise. ER, on the other hand, would take care to spend a few days in New York City each week, away from the governor’s mansion in Albany, working on her own issues and teaching at the Todhunter School for Girls.
D Sara Roosevelt
D. Sara Roosevelt
When Franklin D. Roosevelt was struck with polio on August 10, 1921, his mother, Sara, was away on a European holiday. No one told her until she returned to the States at the end of the month. Anticipating her visit to Campobello Island, FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, and political ally Louis Howe knew Sara would be distraught by her son’s condition. ER and Howe in particular feared her response would exacerbate FDR’s depression and interfere with his treatment.
When Sara reached the island cottage and entered FDR’s bedroom, the patient set the tone: “Well, I’m glad you are back, Mummy,” he said, “and I’ve got up this little party for you!” As Sara later confided to her brother Fred, FDR and ER had decided “to be cheerful” and create an atmosphere that was “all happiness.” “So I have fallen in and follow their glorious example,” she wrote. “I can hear them all laughing, Eleanor in the lead.”
Over the following fall and winter, however, the atmosphere around FDR grew contentious, to the point that his New York City physician observed in his beleaguered patient “the intense and devastating influence of these high-voltage personalities.” A power struggle over FDR’s lifestyle—and over his future—pitted his wife, his medical team, and Howe against his mother and children.
Sara believed strongly that he needed a life of repose, privacy, and support, not to reenter the tumult of politics. Nor, at this frightening time, were the five Roosevelt children—the youngest was six—eager for their parents to embrace more activities that would take up their attention. But ER felt just as strongly that a retiring existence would snuff out FDR’s spirit. In the summer of 1922, having joined FDR and Sara in Hyde Park, New York, she defended Howe’s presence there despite Sara’s dislike for him, and both she and Howe encouraged visits by friends and associates who engaged and entertained FDR. Sara pushed back with all the emotional force she could muster.
The tension became so palpable that FDR’s doctors urged him to go to Boston to be refitted for braces so that he might have some respite.
Over the next several years, FDR would pursue both the agendas advocated by his nearest relations, devoting time to rest and relaxation, while also maintaining a presence in politics and public life. But to a large extent he would pursue these activities far from his home and family—while drifting on a houseboat off the Florida Keys or living in a modest cottage in rural Georgia.
E A New Home, a Replenished Spirit
E. A New Home, a Replenished Spirit
In February and March of 1923, Franklin D. Roosevelt spent his first extended time away from New York since contracting polio, cruising off the Florida Keys on a rented houseboat. The next year, he purchased a used houseboat he rechristened the Larooco, and he made the first of three more winter trips around the keys, spending his days swimming, fishing, exercising, sitting in the sun, and, aided by his personal secretary, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, continuing a stream of correspondence with civic leaders and political activists across the nation.
FDR was working to regain his emotional equilibrium. LeHand would recall that there were days aboard the houseboat “when it was noon before he could pull himself out of depression and greet his guests wearing his light-hearted façade.”
In the same year he bought his houseboat, FDR found another home away from home that would renew his sense of purpose and occupy an important and long-lasting place in his life, becoming the site of FDR’s “Little White House” during his years as president.
FDR first learned of Warm Springs, Georgia, in August 1924, when the philanthropist George Foster Peabody sent him a letter from a polio patient describing the dramatic progress the young man had made after swimming in its warm mineral waters at a local resort. FDR decided to see if the waters could be as healing for him.
Two months later, he, Eleanor Roosevelt, and LeHand boarded a southbound train. Tom Loyless, a former journalist who managed the crumbling resort, met them at the station. As they drove the rutted back roads, they passed parched, gutted farmland dotted with unpainted tar-paper shacks. When they reached the resort, they settled into a cottage so flimsy that the floors creaked under their weight and light streamed through cracks in the walls.
FDR was eager to try the mineral springs. Loyless and Leroy Jones, the first of several African American valets who assisted FDR, wheeled him to the 150-foot T-shaped pool and helped ease him into the water. The verdict: “heavenly.” FDR shouted to his companions that he felt so “marvelous,” he didn’t think he would ever get out. He could stand in shoulder-deep water and, holding tightly to the edge and concentrating intensely, lift his right foot slightly off the pool floor. Later he told a friend that once in the water, “I walk around without braces or crutches almost as if I had nothing the matter with my legs.”
ER, after touring the grounds and helping FDR settle in, returned to New York to fulfill her political and family responsibilities. FDR stayed three weeks, with LeHand in the cottage next door, acting as secretary and well as hostess and companion.
Big plans at Warm Springs
FDR loved Warm Springs, whose buoyant water and welcoming community helped him recover the optimism so central to his character. “I feel a great ‘cure’ for infantile paralysis and kindred diseases could well be established here,” he wrote his mother. His three weeks exercising at the springs, he confided to Peabody, had been more productive than all of the exercises and therapies he had undertaken in the previous three years. He told the Atlanta Journal that he planned to build a cottage there, returning for two to three months each year until he was “completely cured.” FDR, the October 1924 article said, was “literally swimming himself back to health and strength” at Warm Springs. He even allowed the paper to publish a photograph of him sitting by the pool, a newspaper carefully hiding the thinness of his legs.
Although he had dreamed of transforming the decaying resort into a profitable spa where polio patients and wealthy patrons could vacation side by side, his plans took on a sudden urgency when he returned to Warm Springs in April 1925. The Atlanta Journal article had inspired polio patients and their families, and hundreds had reached out to FDR for guidance and support; their letters flooded Loyless’s office. FDR was stunned. He was even more surprised to learn that eighteen polio patients had already descended upon Warm Springs unannounced and had no place to stay nor medical staff to advise them.
FDR quickly took control. He arranged for housing and medical examinations, helped the patients with exercises, coached them when they struggled, and horsed around in the pool with them. His fellow visitors affectionately nicknamed FDR “Doctor Roosevelt.”
Finding himself in the role of leader and encourager, FDR was now determined to restore the resort. Over ER’s understandable misgivings—the couple had five children to raise and educate—he invested two-thirds of his personal fortune, about $200,000, in the project, purchasing the resort and other property in 1926 and establishing the nonprofit Georgia Warm Springs Foundation the following year. All his previous investments had lost money, and this was his largest investment to date.
But he threw himself into the work with gusto, and clearly it was doing him good. “You would howl with glee if you could see the clinic in operation at the side of the pool, and the patients doing various exercises under my leadership,” he wrote a former Harvard classmate. “In addition to all this, I am consulting architect and landscape engineer for Warm Springs Co.—am giving free advice on the moving of buildings, the building of roads, getting out of trees and remodeling the hotel. We, i.e., the Company plus F.D.R., are working out a new water system, new sewage plan, fishing pond, and tomorrow we will run the dance hall, tea rooms, picnic grounds and other forms of outdoor and indoor sports.”
One of FDR’s dreams for his rehabilitation center was quickly dashed: that of making a profit. Healthy, wealthy vacationers had no intention of bobbing in mineral waters alongside people fighting polio, a dreaded contagious disease. But this disappointment did little to dampen FDR’s spirits or diminish his enthusiasm for the place. Warm Springs quickly became a second home that gave FDR what his New York homes could not—independence, mobility, and complete relaxation.
A lasting tie
In 1927 FDR built a simple, one-story, wheelchair-accessible cottage for himself at Warm Springs (he would build the Little White House on a somewhat more secluded spot in 1932). By this time he was spending months at a stretch there, usually, as on his sojourns aboard the Larooco, accompanied by LeHand. He worked on his stamp collection, swam, exercised, entertained neighbors and fellow patients, and crisscrossed the back roads, driving himself in a Model T Ford he had equipped with hand controls he designed himself. FDR took particular joy in parking the Ford in front of the drugstore, honking, and ordering a Coke, or driving up next to a field to discuss crops with the men farming it. He got to know his neighbors and they got to know him. “He was a man that could talk to you,” one of them recalled. “He had sense enough to talk to a man who didn’t have any education, and he had enough sense to talk to the best educated man in the world; and he was easy to talk to.”
A patrician New Yorker by heritage and experience, FDR developed a bond to the environs and people of Warm Springs that grew so strong that, through all the busy times to come, he would return there every year of his life except 1942. Not long before assuming the presidency in 1933, he completed construction of a second Warm Springs cottage somewhat more substantial than the first but similarly accessible. It would soon be dubbed the “Little White House.”
F Return to the Political Fray
F. Return to the Political Fray
In 1924 Franklin D. Roosevelt returned from Warm Springs, Georgia, to New York City to chair Governor Al Smith’s campaign for the presidency. His speech placing Smith in nomination before the Democratic National Convention that summer was his first since contracting polio three years earlier. It was an effective address, in which FDR famously labeled Smith a “Happy Warrior of the political battlefield” (a reference to Wordsworth). “He has a power to strike at error and wrongdoing that makes his adversaries quail before him,” FDR said of the candidate.
The power of FDR’s speech, however, only underscored his physical frailty. Delegates watched in silence as he approached the podium, leaning on his son, James, and clutching a crutch. Once there, he gripped the rostrum with both hands to keep from falling. He could not wave to thank the boisterously cheering delegates who celebrated his political rebirth, nor could he wipe away the sweat that poured down his face in a sweltering Madison Square Garden.
Smith failed to win the nomination. And FDR, though urged by state party leaders to consider running for governor or U.S. senator, insisted he needed more time to recoup his strength. By 1926, though, Warm Springs had become as much FDR’s political office as a place for him to relax and grow stronger. Party leaders boarded Georgia-bound trains to confer with him. Those who did not visit received letters FDR dictated to LeHand or read articles FDR wrote and political operative Louis Howe placed in major newspapers and magazines. Voters and local officials listened to him address farm and other policy issues over the radio.
In June 1928, a rejuvenated FDR once again left his beloved Warm Springs to support Smith’s second campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. To the Democratic delegates assembled in Houston, FDR—who now used a cane instead of crutches and leaned less heavily on his son, Elliott, as he made his way to the rostrum—seemed tireless, charismatic, and almost recovered. He managed the convention floor for Smith, ensuring that delegates pledged to Smith came through and voted for him.
FDR and Howe believed they had another four years to prepare for FDR’s own return to the campaign trail. But Smith and other party leaders persuaded FDR to take the leap right away and help Smith build support for the Democrats in New York. In the autumn of 1928, FDR mounted an energetic run for New York governor—and won.
G The March of Dimes
G. The March of Dimes
The goal of the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, which Franklin D. Roosevelt established in 1927, was to treat polio patients using the most up-to-date methods, in an atmosphere of “cheer, optimism, and good fellowship,” as a 1940 annual report put it. But FDR also hoped the institution would pass along its observations and innovations to medical people treating polio all over the country and the world.
Both goals required money, and FDR worked to raise it from his first days at Warm Springs, Georgia, continuing to support this cause during his years in state and national government. Not long after FDR became president, a political supporter launched an ingenious fund drive for polio treatment and research: “Birthday Balls” to take place on FDR’s January 30 birthday in communities across the nation, with part of the proceeds going to the Warm Springs Foundation and, after FDR created it in 1938, to the foundation’s offshoot, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP), soon to be dubbed the March of Dimes.
Actor, comedian, and radio star Eddie Cantor coordinated a radio campaign for the NFIP’s first drive commemorating the president’s birthday in 1938. Cantor coined the term “March of Dimes”—a play on the popular radio and newsreel series The March of Time—to encourage people to send their change to the White House to “show our President that they are with him in this battle against this disease.” Dimes flooded the president’s mansion, and a successful fund-raising campaign was born.
The next year, FDR took to the radio to thank Americans for giving to the March of Dimes birthday campaign, comparing the drive to a military campaign and pointing out that while Americans believed people with disabilities should be “cared for and guided to full and useful lives,” their enemies in Germany and Japan viewed “those who are handicapped in body or mind . . . as unnecessary burdens to the state.” In the fight against polio as in the war overseas, FDR said, one weapon was paramount: “That weapon is morale.”
FDR had founded and lent his name and image to an initiative that would do enormous good, sponsoring Jonas Salk’s work to develop and test the world’s first polio vaccine. In the late 1950s, the threat of polio virtually banished, the March of Dimes changed its focus to preventing birth defects.
H Franklin D. Roosevelt and Basil O’Connor
H. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Basil O’Connor
On October 9, 1922, a little over a year after his paralysis began, Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the crowded lobby of 120 Broadway in New York City’s financial district, home to the offices of the Fidelity and Deposit Company. FDR had taken an executive job at the insurance and bonding firm in 1921 upon moving back to New York after his stint in Washington, DC, as secretary of the navy. Now, after months of recuperation, he hoped his return to work would go smoothly. A crutch under each arm, steel leg braces snapped into place to support his frail legs, FDR dragged his lower body toward the elevator. He had asked his chauffeur to walk beside him and prop his foot against FDR’s left crutch to steady it. But as FDR propelled himself across the slick floor, both he and his chauffeur slipped. FDR fell, his crutches and braces clattering on the tile. When his chauffeur could not pull FDR to his feet, FDR jauntily asked two young men for help. Basil O’Connor walked over, helped FDR stand, and accompanied him to the elevator. They liked each other at once.
They would become law partners and trusted friends. FDR asked O’Connor to serve as counsel for the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, an experience that transformed O’Connor into a tireless crusader against polio. As president of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and later the March of Dimes Foundation, O’Connor raised millions to support polio patients and the research that developed the Salk vaccine.
In 1950, when the vaccine was ready to be tested, O’Connor raised additional funds to support a wider, accelerated clinical trial, and, after the vaccine proved safe and effective, even more funds to vaccinate nine million children. O’Connor’s commitment to eradicate polio did not wane, however, and when researcher Albert Sabin proposed an oral vaccine—Salk’s was administered by needle—O’Connor underwrote those efforts as well.
In 1955, thanks to the work FDR began and O’Connor continued, the United States began widespread vaccinations against polio, and by 1979 the disease that paralyzed FDR in 1921 was eliminated in America. Today polio is exceedingly rare. The World Health Organization reported 223 polio cases in 2012, most of which were found in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria, where security concerns and economic barriers have hindered immunization campaigns.
I The Franklin D. Roosevelt “Walk”
I. The Franklin D. Roosevelt “Walk”
Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to believe that he would never walk again and tackled rehabilitation with the same “bold, persistent experimentation” he would apply to the Great Depression. But despite constant, strenuous exercise, his legs remained frail and fragile.
In 1926 at Warm Springs, Georgia, he perfected the motion that would allow him to appear to walk. He would strap on steel leg braces, hold a cane in one hand, clutch the arm of a trusted aide with the other, and use his hips to swing his legs out in front on him—cheerfully chatting to all around him to distract his companions and put them at ease. This was not something FDR did to get around when unobserved. It was a strenuous display.
America knew FDR could not walk. The public understood he had battled polio. It had been an issue during his first campaign for president in 1932—people whispered about whether he was physically fit for the office. And FDR associated himself prominently with calls for public donations to polio rehabilitation and research clinics.
But Americans did not understand just how frail his legs were or realize that he could not stand without help.
FDR’s team encouraged this misperception. Press agents took care not to let FDR be photographed in his wheelchair or being carried up and down stairs or on and off railroad cars. Staged White House photos emphasized his muscular shoulders and arms as much as his intellect. And FDR’s joyful banter as he “walked” drew eyes away from his atrophied legs and toward his captivating face. It was, FDR biographer and people with disabilities advocate Hugh Gallagher has noted, “a splendid deception.”
Winston Churchill on
Franklin D. Roosevelt & Polio
J. Winston Churchill on Franklin D. Roosevelt & Polio
In his eulogy before the House of Commons after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1945, British prime minister Winston Churchill spoke candidly about the president’s disability, having pushed his wheelchair during Churchill’s first visit to the White House at Christmas 1941 and on numerous occasions afterward. It was now time not to conceal FDR’s paralysis, but to credit him for the strength he displayed in living with it.
“President Roosevelt’s physical affliction lay heavily upon him,” Churchill said. “It was a marvel that he bore up against it through all the many years of tumult and storm. Not one man in ten millions, stricken and crippled as he was, would have attempted to plunge into a life of physical and mental exertion and of hard, ceaseless political controversy. Not one in ten millions would have tried, not one in a generation would have succeeded, not only in entering this sphere, not only in acting vehemently in it, but in becoming indisputable master of the scene. In this extraordinary effort of the spirit over the flesh, the will-power over physical infirmity, he was inspired and sustained by that noble woman his devoted wife, whose high ideals marched with his own, and to whom the deep and respectful sympathy of the House of Commons flows out today in all its fullness.”
4. Governing New York:
Laboratory for the New Deal
Platform for FDR
It was as governor of the Empire State that Franklin D. Roosevelt came into his own as the politician and leader his nation would elect four times to its highest office.
He began his campaign for the post some seven years after the summer day when polio struck a handsome, athletic thirty-nine-year-old FDR, paralyzing his legs and casting a shadow over what had seemed a charmed life. FDR emerged from his years of rehabilitation still unable to walk unaided, yet full of an unmistakable vigor. He was humbler but at the same time more confident, no longer the callow young state senator with the famous name whom many had found condescending, but the sort of man who could connect with all kinds of people.
In 1928, during his first run for governor, he would heave himself from his car to a standing position and deliver a pitch-perfect, homey speech, or arduously make his way toward a podium, smiling and looking people in the eye so they wouldn’t notice his slow progress. Perhaps this was something for which he had unwittingly prepared during much more relaxed drives around the back roads of Warm Springs, Georgia, in a Model T Ford modified for operation by hand controls. He would pull up to a drugstore, honk, and order a Coke, or drive up next to a field and discuss crops with the farmers. “He was a man that could talk to you,” one local recalled. “He had sense enough to talk to a man who didn’t have any education, and he had enough sense to talk to the best educated man in the world; and he was easy to talk to. He could talk about anything.”
If these were excellent qualifications for leadership, the governorship itself offered FDR a chance to try out a spate of progressive ideas, from prison reform to support for rural education and public utilities, but also delivered a lesson in the limits of executive power when matched against a resistant legislature dominated by the opposing party.
When, in the early ‘30s, the country’s economic distress began to assume alarming scale, the time had come for progressive ideas—and for FDR’s active style. While governor, his leading advocacy for creative, government-led solutions to the suffering of the Depression (and his critique of President Herbert Hoover’s desultory response) raised his national profile, indeed made him a strong candidate for the presidency.
“The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation,” FDR said in a commencement address weeks before the 1932 Democratic Convention that would nominate him. “It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
Try something. This had been FDR’s instinctive response to polio. It was in his bones and would serve him well in the years ahead.
A Comeback Trail
A. Comeback Trail
While Franklin D. Roosevelt was working to regain his health and mobility in the mid-1920s, one of the things he did to stay active in politics was support the aspirations of Al Smith, the progressive New York governor whose life and career had begun in the rough streets of New York City’s Lower East Side.
In 1924 FDR returned from Warm Springs, Georgia, to New York City to chair Governor Smith’s presidential campaign. His speech placing Smith in nomination before the Democratic National Convention that summer was his first since contracting polio three years earlier. It was an effective address, in which FDR famously labeled Smith a “Happy Warrior of the political battlefield” (a reference to Wordsworth). “He has a power to strike at error and wrongdoing that makes his adversaries quail before him,” FDR said of the candidate.
But FDR’s physical frailty was apparent. Delegates watched in silence as he approached the podium, leaning on his son, James, and clutching a crutch. Once there, he gripped the rostrum with both hands to keep from falling. He could not wave to thank the boisterously cheering delegates who celebrated his political rebirth, nor could he wipe away the sweat that poured down his face in a sweltering Madison Square Garden.
Smith failed to win the nomination. And FDR, though urged by state party leaders to consider running for governor or U.S. senator, insisted he needed more time to recoup his strength.
But four years later, a rejuvenated FDR once again left his beloved Warm Springs to support Smith’s second campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. FDR used a cane and the support of his son, Elliott, to make his way to the podium, yet to the Democratic delegates assembled in Houston, he seemed tireless, charismatic, and almost recovered. He managed the convention floor for Smith, ensuring that delegates pledged to Smith voted for him.
FDR told the crowd, “It is that quality of the soul which makes a man loved by little children, by dumb animals; that quality of the soul which makes him a strong help to all those in sorrow or in trouble; that quality which makes him not merely admired but loved by all the people—the quality of sympathetic understanding of the human heart, of real interest in one’s fellow men. Instinctively he senses the popular need because he himself has lived through the hardship, the labor, and the sacrifice which must be endured by every man of heroic mold who struggles up to eminence from obscurity and low estate. Between him and the people is that subtle bond which makes him their champion and makes them enthusiastically trust him with their loyalty and their love.”
FDR intended his remarks, broadcast nationwide across the radio, to combat the prejudice Smith’s Catholicism generated among some voters. Instead, the remarks drew the nation’s attention to the special “quality of the soul” FDR himself possessed—and to the “subtle bond” he was forging with the American people. The buzz about FDR’s political future began in earnest.
B A Reluctant Candidate
B. A Reluctant Candidate
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s political star was clearly ascendant after his speech nominating Al Smith as the Democratic candidate for president in 1928. Nevertheless, he returned to Warm Springs, Georgia, where he delighted in avoiding phone calls from party leaders who wanted him to run for governor of New York. He enjoyed long drives and lingering picnics. Finally, when all the Democratic county chairs urged him to run, FDR broke his silence long enough to wire, “As I am only forty-six I owe it to my family and myself to give the present constant improvement a chance to continue.”
With help from Eleanor Roosevelt, presidential candidate Al Smith and Democratic National Committee Chair John Jakob Raskob managed to get FDR on the phone the very night before the state Democrats would nominate a candidate for governor. After countering each of FDR’s objections, they asked, “If those fellows nominate you tomorrow and adjourn, will you refuse to run?” FDR hesitated, and the deal was struck.
On October 2, FDR’s party put him up for governor. ER wired her husband, “Regret that you had to accept but know that you felt it obligatory.” Close friend and advisor Louis Howe was more blunt: “Mess is no name for it. For once I have no advice to give.” Attacks on FDR’s mental and physical health came in short order. “There is something both pathetic and pitiless in the ‘drafting’ of Franklin D. Roosevelt,” the New York Post declared. “Even his own friends, out of love for him, will hesitate to vote for him now.”
But on October 17, FDR launched a three-week campaign that even his critics conceded was a daunting display of energy and political charisma. He barnstormed the state, traveling 1,300 miles by car, visiting areas statewide candidates had never seen, and delivering as many as fourteen speeches a day.
FDR turned the campaign into a contest of ideas one reporter described as “reactionaryism versus progressivism.” Large crowds gathered to hear him assail religious bigotry, champion hydroelectric power, support a minimum hour and wage bill and the right to collective bargaining, insist that the elderly had a right to old-age pensions, and promote state aid to farmers.
By November 6, he had done all he could. He voted in Hyde Park that morning, then drove to New York City to await returns. Early numbers indicated a crushing defeat for Smith. When FDR retired a little past midnight, he thought he’d lost, too. The era’s booming prosperity had all but ensured a banner year for Republicans. But at 4 a.m. FDR took a slim lead and held it. Labor activist Frances Perkins and FDR’s mother, Sara, grabbed a taxi to the Roosevelt home to awaken the new governor.
C “Straight to the People”
C. “Straight to the People”
Early in 1929, Franklin D. Roosevelt went to the governor’s office with a hefty progressive agenda. He wanted to win new legislation for industrial workers and farmers, and harness the state’s waterpower to make cheap electricity for its people. He also wanted to aid the disabled.
However, he would soon find himself tousling with a Republican-led legislature instead. It began in January, when legislators launched a bid to wrest from the governor the power to craft the state budget—a right granted by a voter-approved amendment to the state constitution in 1927 and aimed at curtailing preference for powerful cronies and special interests. In November the state Court of Appeals affirmed the governor’s right to veto large lump-sum appropriations—and thus control the budget.
But the legislators rejected sixteen of FDR’s proposals. By the end of the first session, his only major achievement was a farm aid bill giving more support to rural schools and reducing taxation of rural counties for highway construction. FDR decided to press his cause outside the state capital, calling lawmakers’ resistance to his legislative agenda “a splendid opportunity for carrying matters straight to the people.”
He took to the radio (a precursor to his presidential fireside chats) and left Albany to speak against economic “oligarchy” at Hobart College in upstate New York and against the consolidation of industry and utilities in New York City’s Tammany Hall. He appeared at the Gridiron Dinner roast in Washington, DC, along with President Hoover, then returned to New York to travel by barge, boat, and car, meeting farmers, small business owners, and local Republican and Democratic leaders. By the end of 1929, he was the most popular leader in the state of New York.
D The Nation’s Governor
D. The Nation’s Governor
Beginning in 1930, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s successes began to accrue.
That year he pushed through a bill establishing old-age insurance for New Yorkers over seventy. He won a second term in November, the first FDR landslide. In April 1931, he signed the Water Authority Act, authorizing the construction of a public hydroelectric facility on the Saint Lawrence River (long delayed in execution) “to give back to the people the waterpower which is theirs.” In September, responding to swelling unemployment and impoverishment, FDR created the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration, making New York the first state to have its own agency coordinating relief. Harry Hopkins, a brilliant forty-two-year-old social worker hailing from Iowa but trained on New York’s Lower East Side, became the agency’s executive director. By January 1932, the program had helped one out of ten New Yorkers, through direct “home” relief as well as work-relief jobs at prevailing wages—although 1.5 million remained out of work.
All these initiatives were forerunners of the New Deal FDR would advance on a national scale as president. Indeed, it was by his work in shaping and promoting policies with national application in a time of crisis that FDR rose to greater and greater prominence.
With state labor department head Frances Perkins as his tutor, FDR became the first governor to support the concept of unemployment insurance at the National Governors’ Conference in July 1930. “This form of relief should not, of course, take the shape of a dole in any respect,” he said. He also advocated for a federal old-age insurance program. “Our American aged do not want charity,” he once again insisted, “but rather old-age comforts, to which they are rightfully entitled by their own thrift and foresight in the form of insurance.”
In his last annual address to the legislature in 1932, FDR proposed regulating banks to protect deposits, separate commercial deposits from personal savings, and require brokers to disclose the “true value” of securities they sell.
Meanwhile—and this won the hearts of many hard-pressed Americans—FDR assailed the “Pollyanna attitude” of President Hoover and those who counseled the dispossessed and unemployed to simply grin and bear it.
He was forming the concept of a new and more active role for government. “More and more,” he remarked, “those who are the victims of dislocations and defects of our social and economic life are beginning to ask respectfully, but insistently of us who are in positions of public responsibility, why government can not and should not act to protect its citizens from disaster. I believe that the question demands an answer.” Government, he said, “must accept the responsibility to do what it can . . . along definitely constructive, not passive lines.”
E Human Resources
E. Human Resources
Franklin D. Roosevelt could be blunt when displeased, but what struck most people about him was his buoyancy and warmth. He had a way of inspiring intense personal devotion—so did Eleanor Roosevelt—and one of his great strengths as a leader was recognizing and using the talents of a wide variety of people.
A good example: a handful of academics the press dubbed FDR’s “Brain Trust.” Not long after FDR announced his run for president in early 1932, his counsel and speechwriter, Sam Rosenman, realized he lacked the in-depth knowledge to craft speeches on the many complex issues the candidate had to address. Rosenman reached out to Raymond Moley, a Columbia University professor who had helped FDR reform the state criminal-justice system. With FDR’s enthusiastic assent, Moley recruited fellow Columbia professors Rexford Tugwell, an economist who became FDR’s principal advisor on agriculture, and Adolph Berle Jr., who agreed to brief FDR on policies related to credit and corporations. Other topics tackled by the Brain Trust included trade and tariff policy, constitutional law, and administrative reorganization.
At FDR’s suggestion, they met Sunday nights in Albany, with core advisors bringing visitors to meet FDR over dinner. Later Moley would recall that the governor “was at once a student, a cross-examiner, and a judge. He would listen with rapt attention for a few minutes and then break in with a question whose sharpness was characteristically blurred with an anecdotal introduction or an air of sympathetic agreement with the speaker.”
Brain Trust members had an important role in shaping policies of the New Deal, and some continued to advise FDR, formally or informally, for years.
Two of the most influential individuals FDR brought with him to Washington from Albany were Harry Hopkins, who had efficiently organized a work-relief program for New York and would do the same for the nation, and Frances Perkins, the state labor commissioner who as U.S. secretary of labor would help design social security and unemployment insurance.
F The Candidate of Change
F. The Candidate of Change
“Happy Days Are Here Again!” Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sunny campaign song reflected his own vibrant, optimistic nature—a boon to a country whose destitute wandered streets and byways in ever increasing numbers, sometimes setting up camp in shantytowns called Hoovervilles or sleeping under “Hoover blankets” (newspapers).
Herbert Hoover had not in fact been idle in the face of spiraling economic conditions. He had secured private pledges to maintain wages and employment, helped temporarily suspend international debt payments, supported high tariffs on foreign goods, raised taxes to increase revenue, instituted federal loans to banks and railroads, and promoted public-works projects. But none of these moves had demonstrably improved the situation. And Hoover had refused to embrace large-scale programs aimed directly at the suffering masses. After a lackluster Republican nominating convention, Hoover faced angry audiences that sometimes heckled and booed.
FDR, by contrast, thrilled the Democratic Convention of 1932 by breaking tradition to accept the nomination in person. He flew into Chicago in a summer storm, cannily displaying both physical courage and a spirit of change—and brought a crowd of thirty thousand to its feet roaring with approval. At the podium that night, FDR derided the ideology that “first sees to it that a favored few are helped, and hopes that some of their prosperity will leak through, sift through, to labor, to the farmer, to the small business man.” He labeled the Democratic Party “the bearer of liberalism and of progress.”
FDR promised government action to usher in happier days—reductions in mortgage interest rates for farmers and homeowners, a plan to limit agricultural surpluses (and falling prices), federally sponsored jobs for useful projects like reforestation, regulation on Wall Street, and repeal of Prohibition.
“On the farms, in the large metropolitan areas, in the smaller cities and in the villages, millions of our citizens cherish the hope that their old standards of living and of thought have not gone forever,” FDR told the delegates. “Those millions cannot and shall not hope in vain. I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.”
He campaigned hard over the next few months, though some remarked that it was hardly necessary. On election night, the dramatic results already in evidence, an Illinois man cabled Hoover with the quip, “Vote for Roosevelt, and make it unanimous.”
5. America at the
The Election of 1932
In 1932 Americans faced a stark choice. They could vote to keep “the old order” in the White House, or they could choose Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal for the American people.”
FDR, the fifty-two-year-old governor of New York, argued that incumbent president Herbert Hoover’s policies had failed a nation plunged into despair by the Great Depression. FDR promised “bold, persistent experimentation” to unlock the paralyzed American economy and alleviate the people’s fear and suffering. Hoover’s policies of “Destruction, Delay, Despair and Doubt,” he insisted, were no way to run the nation.
Although most Americans expected Hoover to lose, tainted as he was by the country’s economic catastrophe, few anticipated the dramatic campaign that unfolded as the election season progressed. FDR broke with convention by flying to Chicago to accept the Democratic nomination in person. “Let it be from now on the task of our Party to break foolish traditions,” he told the cheering delegates. Defying tradition once again, he launched a national whistle-stop campaign, crisscrossing the nation, and delivered sixteen major speeches, each tied to a specific policy issue.
By election night, FDR had traveled roughly fifteen thousand miles. “Roosevelt the Robust” trounced the whisper campaign alleging his polio made him too weak to govern. Indeed, his dynamism emboldened voters. They wanted to believe in the hopeful words of FDR’s campaign song, “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
Voters understood that the election of 1932 represented a fork in the road. They could stay the course or insist that government respond more fully to the problems confronting the nation. Although Americans had only a general understanding of what the New Deal would entail, they voted overwhelmingly to give FDR and his program a chance.
A The Road to the Convention
A. The Road to the Convention
Franklin D. Roosevelt used his 1930 campaign for reelection as governor of New York to test messages he planned to use against Herbert Hoover in a bid for the presidency. He won the state election by a landslide—a victory that convinced several party leaders and prominent journalists FDR would be the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in the 1932 presidential election.
Shortly after FDR won a second term as governor, New York Democratic Party Chair James Farley and Louis Howe, FDR’s indispensable and devoted aide, mapped out a presidential campaign strategy that would highlight FDR’s administrative experience and tout the relief policies he had introduced in New York. FDR would not campaign, they thought. He would govern his state, deliver a few speeches, and send surrogates out to the primaries to represent him. Farley would travel the nation recruiting delegates, and Howe would oversee strategy and manage the Friends of Roosevelt outreach network he had spent years developing. After months of preparation, the campaign officially began on January 23, 1932, when North Dakota Democrats entered FDR into their state presidential primary.
As FDR developed momentum in the primaries, the California publisher William Randolph Hearst urged House Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas to challenge him for the party nomination. Garner, loath to jeopardize his “tender majority of three” in the House, did not enter any primaries or campaign in any states. But Hearst made sure his name appeared on the California ballot, and he won the state’s primary.
Another FDR rival for the nomination was Al Smith, his predecessor as New York governor, whom FDR had supported for president in 1924 and 1928. Smith had been put out that FDR failed to consult him while serving in Albany—”He has ignored me!” he told one journalist—and was disgusted to find his onetime protégé mounting a strong challenge to his nomination for president in a year when Democrats at last seemed likely to prevail. Smith stayed in New York, pouting to the press and plotting his political comeback.
As other favorite sons entered the race, FDR delivered a radio address from Albany calling for the federal government to go beyond measures to support failing banks and railroads and do something to help “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” His rivals were caught off guard and fumbled their responses. Smith, who had left school at age twelve to work the fish markets of Lower Manhattan, could not control his fury. He accused FDR of pitting rich against poor. “This is no time for demagogues,” a red-faced Smith fumed at a major Democratic fund-raiser, the annual Jefferson Day Dinner. Reporters could not resist parodying his remarks as “the angry warrior speech,” a play on the moniker FDR had given Smith when nominating him in 1924: the Happy Warrior.
FDR kept his stride. “There are millions of people who cannot be helped by merely helping their employers,” he insisted. The country, he told graduates of Oglethorpe University, needed action. It was “common sense to take a method and try it,” he said. “If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
This demand for federal initiative was an effective rallying cry, but it did not win over everyone in the party. Many northeastern progressives insisted that, as governor, FDR should remove the indicted, notoriously corrupt New York City mayor Jimmy Walker from office. FDR, not wanting to alienate the city’s powerful Tammany Hall machine, sidestepped the crisis and referred it to the state legislature. The journalist Walter Lippmann editorialized, “Franklin D. Roosevelt is no crusader. . . . He is a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President.”
Thus, even though FDR had won the most primaries of any candidate and enjoyed a commanding lead in the delegate count, he had not convinced New England progressives to back him. He would have to win the nomination without them.
B Securing the Nomination
B. Securing the Nomination
When the Democrats gathered for their convention in the Chicago Stadium on June 27, 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt had three times as many delegates as former governor Al Smith, his nearest rival, but not enough delegates to win the nomination outright.
Nine other candidates—including John Nance Garner, the Texan Speaker of the House; Newton Baker, Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of war; and Virginia Governor Harry Byrd—hoped they could block FDR and emerge with the party’s nomination to campaign for the White House.
But FDR entered the convention with an impressive coalition. He had swept the conservative Democratic South (except for Garner’s Texas and Byrd’s Virginia) and enjoyed firm support in the West (apart from California, where publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst had successfully promoted Garner). FDR had even secured the support of progressive Republicans.
His weakness was in the Northeast. There, political bosses and leading progressives—persuaded by journalist Walter Lippmann’s and Smith’s characterizations of FDR as a lightweight—doubted FDR’s progressivism, backing Smith instead. The New York delegation was split between allies-turned-rivals FDR and Smith. Smith held a solid grasp on Massachusetts.
After the delegates finally cast their first ballot at 4:28 a.m. on June 29, FDR had 66 votes—104 short of what he needed to secure the nomination. They would vote twice more before adjourning, exhausted, at 9:15 a.m. FDR had picked up support, but he still needed eighty-eight more delegates to clinch the nomination. Campaign officials worked frantically throughout the day to sway delegates.
FDR’s team spent the next nine hours wooing Garner’s delegates, where its ripest opportunity lay. FDR supporter Joseph Kennedy called Hearst to say if he didn’t release the Garner delegates to FDR, Newton Baker, the former secretary of war whose internationalist views Hearst staunchly opposed, might get the nomination. A dispirited Hearst wired one of his reporters to tell Garner to “throw his votes to Roosevelt.” “Hell, I’d do anything to see the Democrats win one more election,” Garner responded. With Texas and California delegates added to the Roosevelt coalition, FDR won the nomination on the fourth ballot. It was, the journalist H. L. Mencken later wrote, “the most fateful convention in American history,” but “no one knew it at the time.”
Setting a precedent that candidates would follow without fail for generations to come, FDR decided not to stay in Albany to receive word of his nomination, as tradition dictated. Instead he would fly to Chicago to address the convention in person.
Flying to Chicago:
A “New Deal” in
Style and Substance
C. Flying to Chicago: A “New Deal” in Style and Substance
By sweeping into the convention hall to personally rally delegates, Franklin D. Roosevelt created a sense of immediacy, drama, and vigor around his candidacy. With air travel in its infancy, flying to Chicago seemed a dashing gesture that underscored FDR’s modern sensibilities. Not incidentally, it also displayed an energetic mobility, helping to dispel the image of FDR as a man weakened by polio. Finally, the move showed FDR’s readiness to break through fusty traditions in favor of frank talk and practical actions.
On July 2, 1932, he, his family, and key aides boarded a small American Airlines plane bound for Chicago. The nine-hour flight encountered such rough air that most passengers vomited, but FDR, in his element, exited the plane exuding confidence and joy.
A motorcade carried the group to the convention hall, crammed to capacity with FDR supporters (Smith’s supporters had left after his defeat). Gripping the bars of a steel stall attached to the podium, FDR gave a powerful speech, making sure the delegates understood why he had traveled so far to see them. He declared, I have started out on the tasks that lie ahead by breaking the absurd traditions that the candidate should remain in professed ignorance of what has happened for weeks until he is formally notified of that event many weeks later.
My friends, may this be the symbol of my intention to be honest and to avoid all hypocrisy or sham, to avoid all silly shutting of the eyes to the truth in this campaign. You have nominated me and I know it, and I am here to thank you for the honor.
Then FDR turned to the country’s appallingly severe economic problems and how he planned to tackle them:
What do the people of America want more than anything else? To my mind, they want two things: work, with all the moral and spiritual values that go with it; and with work, a reasonable measure of security—security for themselves and for their wives and children. Work and security—these are more than words. They are more than facts. They are the spiritual values, the true goal toward which our efforts of reconstruction should lead. . . .
Our Republican leaders tell us economic laws—sacred, inviolable, unchangeable—cause panics which no one could prevent. But while they prate of economic laws, men and women are starving. We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.
FDR proposed concrete actions to remedy the pain and despair: lower mortgage rates, prevent foreclosures, reduce farm surpluses, regulate the stock and bond markets, repeal Prohibition, cut the federal payroll by 25 percent, and provide relief for the needy unemployed.
“I pledge you,” FDR told the delegates, “I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.”
D On the Campaign Trail
D. On the Campaign Trail
Once Franklin D. Roosevelt had secured the nomination, his campaign team did not want him to launch a nationwide campaign and in particular urged him not to campaign in the West. The West was already solidly behind FDR. Key aides worried that a strenuous campaign would test his health and might encourage audiences to reconsider their support for his proposals.
FDR bristled. “I have a streak of Dutch stubbornness in me, and the Dutch is up this time,” he told his campaign manager, James Farley. “I’m going to campaign to the Pacific Coast and discuss every important issue of this campaign.”
Everywhere FDR went, he began his remarks by attacking President Herbert Hoover for not ending the Depression. Then he offered his audience a general impression of how he would help. Farmers in Topeka, Kansas, heard FDR declare that “this nation cannot endure if it is half boom and half broke” and that he had a “definite policy” grounded in “the planned use of the land.” In Salt Lake City, Utah, FDR argued that “individual railroads should be regarded as parts of a national transportation system” and that, with careful planning, such a system could be developed. He used his visit to Seattle, Washington, to call for reduced tariffs and his stop in Portland, Oregon, to champion hydroelectricity and public power. When critics called his policies radical, FDR retorted, “My policy is as radical as American liberty. My policy is as radical as the Constitution.”
By Election Day FDR had covered more miles more than any other presidential candidate before him. Journeying mainly in a Pullman sleeping railcar called the Pioneer, FDR visited major cities and stopped at small towns along his route to confer with local elected officials and court voters. He also took time away from the campaign to meet with handicapped children. “It’s a little difficult for me to stand on my feet too,” he told them.
E Herbert Hoover Takes to the Stump
E. Herbert Hoover Takes to the Stump
Herbert Hoover, unlike Franklin D. Roosevelt, did not plan to conduct a strenuous campaign. He thought a few well-timed, expertly delivered speeches would be enough to win him a second term. Hoover remained supremely confident in the actions he had taken to address the Depression and insisted that economic recovery lay just around the corner. At their convention in June, Republicans dubbed him “the stalwart American.”
Hoover was happy the Democrats had put up FDR as their candidate. He initially dismissed FDR as a “lightweight” whom he could easily defeat at the ballot box. When FDR began to attack Hoover’s record, the incumbent abandoned his laid-back approach. But his traditional campaign and hold-the-line message stood in vivid contrast to FDR’s embrace of change, and, as historian Frank Freidel has observed, “reinforced [Hoover’s] stature as the symbol of the old order.”
When FDR urged Americans to recognize their “interdependence” and the federal government’s potential to act for the common good, Hoover insisted that Americans must “strain [themselves] to the limit rather than lie down under a paternal government.” He accused FDR of promoting class warfare and of frightening investors. The New Deal, Hoover asserted, was a desperate ploy designed by “false prophets of a millennium” peddling “seductive but unworkable and disastrous theories of government.” “You cannot extend the mastery of government over the daily life of a people without somewhere making it a master of people’s souls and thoughts,” he warned. Most Americans rejected his argument.
Hoover’s defense of the status quo engendered intense bitterness among Americans desperate for relief and weary of ideological and economic orthodoxies. Hoover jokes abounded. A popular one had Hoover asking to borrow a nickel to call a friend, only to have the Secret Service agent respond, “Here’s a dime. Go call both of them.” Another had Hoover’s kidnappers demanding $500,000 “or we will bring him back.” The dispossessed threw up shantytowns they dubbed “Hoovervilles.” Veterans stood at busy intersections blowing “Hoover whistles” that emitted hot air rather than screeching sounds. When people turned out their empty pockets, they called the flopping fabric “Hoover flags.”
As the campaign drew to a close, Hoover pleaded with Americans to see the danger they courted in supporting FDR. “This inchoate New Deal . . . would not only undermine and destroy our American system,” he said, it would “delay for months and years the possibility of recovery.” An overwhelming majority of American voters disagreed.
F Tallying the Votes
F. Tallying the Votes
On November 8, 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to the nation’s highest office in a landslide. Nearly 40 percent of voters cast a ballot for Hoover, but 57.4 percent went for FDR. No president since Andrew Jackson had won a higher percentage of the popular vote. The lopsided outcome was even more pronounced in the Electoral College: 472 votes for FDR, 59 votes for Herbert Hoover. FDR swept the South, the West, and most of the Northeast. Of the 114 American cities with populations over a hundred thousand, FDR won 99 and Herbert Hoover just 15.
African Americans, ever loyal to the party of Lincoln—and not yet persuaded to support the Democratic Party long associated with segregation—remained with Hoover. Despite their 50 percent unemployment rate, black voters cast two-thirds of their ballots for him. In 1936 they would shift their allegiance to the party of Roosevelt.
James Farley had managed an exemplary campaign. He had recruited local party chairs, made sure they had the materials they needed to promote FDR, and sent them morale-boosting letters signed in Farley’s trademark green ink. Louis Howe had produced reams of literature targeted to different constituencies and worked his contacts in the press to present an exceedingly positive image of FDR. Eleanor Roosevelt and her allies in the party’s Women’s Division had organized so effectively that almost 20 percent more women voted in 1932 than had cast ballots in 1928. Perhaps just as important, FDR, Farley, and Howe had done what no Democratic candidate had managed before: united opposing sides in the country’s conflict over alcohol, the “wet” Catholics of the Northeast and the “dry” Protestant Democrats of the West and the South.
FDR’s long coattails drew a host of other Democrats into office along with him. Thanks to Farley and Howe’s outreach, voters across the country put Democrats back in control of Congress, giving FDR the legislative support and popular mandate he needed to implement the New Deal.
6. The Long Transition:
From Election Day to
On November 8, 1932, Americans went to the ballot box and turned the electoral map blue for Franklin D. Roosevelt. The governor from New York carried all but six states and beat incumbent Herbert Hoover in the popular vote by 17 percent.
Voters, desperate for change as the Depression’s cruelest winter came on, had indeed wrought a historic transition, sweeping aside forty years of Republican majorities for forty years in which American politics would be dominated by the Democratic coalition FDR cobbled together—labor unions and city machines, Jews and Catholics, blacks and white southerners, industrial workers and farmers.
But the transfer of power was not accomplished in a stroke on Election Day. On the contrary, the transition between the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations was long and unusually bitter.
It was too long. In the next election cycle, a constitutional amendment ratified in early 1933 would shift Inauguration Day to January 20. But FDR’s swearing in took place on March 4—four months after the election—in keeping with a tradition that reached back to an era when presidents needed time to journey with their households to the nation’s capital.
Now, the country could ill afford the delay. The economy sunk to appalling depths as a lame-duck president and Congress, feeling hamstrung by the people’s mandate for change, hesitated to act—and the president-elect, loath to commit himself while lacking official authority, insistently declined to do so.
Highly wary and increasingly testy relations between the two leaders aggravated the logjam.
In notes, calls, and three sit-downs, Hoover repeatedly tried to persuade FDR to join him in making statements or taking action on specific issues. FDR balked. He saw no benefit in roping himself to the positions of a leader whose views and approach differed from his own—meanwhile tainting his fledgling administration by association with Hoover himself, the object of intense public resentment. Hoover, in turn, believed a fatuous FDR was playing politics while the nation went to ruin.
More than once these tensions played out in the press. On December 22, 1932, for example, Hoover, incensed at FDR’s refusal to work with him on the issue of European war debts, released their cabled correspondence to the press. Dueling public comments followed. Hoover: “Governor Roosevelt considers it undesirable for him to assent to my suggestions for cooperative action.” FDR: “It is a pity . . . that any statement or intimation should be given that I consider it undesirable to assent to cooperation.”
These contretemps did nothing for either man’s popularity. Henry Stimson, who was Hoover’s secretary of state and would become FDR’s secretary of war, said the war-debt exchange in particular made FDR “look like a peanut.” Editorial pages also criticized FDR, although the Congress and a majority of the public remained in his corner.
When the sun rose at last on Inauguration Day, many Americans were ebullient with relief. The crowd erupted in applause as the new president declared in his powerful voice, “This Nation asks for action, and action now.” This was the FDR they’d come to know. The New Deal had begun.
A Frosty Relations
A. Frosty Relations
The morning after he won the presidential election in an unprecedented landslide, Franklin D. Roosevelt sat in bed eating his breakfast and reading telegrams, including one from the defeated Herbert Hoover. “In the common purpose of all of us,” it declared, “I shall dedicate myself to every possible helpful effort.” FDR, along with his advisor Raymond Moley, sensed a veiled threat.
Such was the frosty state of relations between the two camps after a hard-fought campaign. Eleanor Roosevelt even suspected that, when Hoover and then-governor FDR had last met at the White House, Hoover had kept her husband standing an hour, in pain, to embarrass him and emphasize his disability.
The situation wouldn’t improve before Inauguration Day.
Hoover was not only stung by his dramatic loss, but also frustrated by what he saw as FDR’s failure to grasp fine points of the issues before him. After their first meeting at the White House in late November 1932, Hoover, known for his command of economic policy, came away feeling he’d been “educating a very ignorant . . . well-meaning young man.”
By January Hoover believed FDR’s resistance amounted to insincerity—that he’d told Hoover one thing and the press another; Hoover refused to talk to the president-elect over the phone without a stenographer present to record the dialogue.
Their last substantive exchange took place the day before inauguration. Instead of the traditional preinaugural dinner, Hoover threw the Roosevelts a cursory afternoon tea.
B Transition–Period Issues
B. Transition–Period Issues
Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt did not manage to collaborate on pressing issues that arose in the transition period. In part, that’s because they didn’t agree on how to address them.
Foreign War Debts
Britain and France had heavy debts to the United States stemming from World War I. Germany in turn owed those countries huge sums in reparations, borrowing from the United States to cover them. Hoover believed the American economic crisis had roots in Europe and in this cycle of debt. So he wanted FDR’s acquiescence in relieving some of Britain’s war debts in exchange for certain concessions.
But FDR believed the Depression had mainly domestic roots, and he was leery of forgiving obligations to the United States, a move that would surely be unpopular with the public.
The Gold Standard
Hoover urged FDR to preserve the value of a dollar by cleaving to the gold standard—a requirement that dollars be backed by gold reserves. But there were increasing calls in the country to abandon the gold standard and pump more dollars into the economy to stimulate spending. FDR would take the latter course.
A Bank Holiday
Hoover was unsure he had the legal authority to close banks nationwide to stop runs on America’s desperately ailing banking system. He asked FDR to do so jointly with him in the days before he left office. FDR believed the president did have authority to shut banks, but refused to take the action with Hoover. FDR closed the banks his first full day in office.
C “Lost Children”
C. “Lost Children”
"I have looked into the faces of thousands of Americans," FDR told a reporter not long after his election, as he waited to assume the country's highest office. "They have the frightened look of lost children." The Depression was reaching its bottom. Though Americans didn't know it yet, their situation would not get worse than this.
"I haven't had a steady job in more than two years," one father confessed. "Sometimes I feel like a murderer. What is wrong with me that I can't protect my children?" A doctor in a free clinic said he regularly observed people fainting from hunger on the streetcar. The Brookings Institution found almost 60 percent of Americans lived in poverty. Roughly 30 percent of families had no income at all.
The Gross National Product had dropped 60 percent. Manufacturing revenues were down more than 50 percent. Four out of five steel mills stood idle. Urban unemployment reached approximately 38 percent. Very few worked full time.
Farm income, depressed even before the crisis, had fallen by a third. In Oregon, apples rotted on the ground because growers could not afford to spend forty cents to pick, pack, and ship a crate that would fetch only thirty cents at market.
Foreclosures and evictions displaced millions. The newly homeless piled in with relatives, lived on the streets, or spent a nickel a night to sleep on a urine-stained mattress in one of the nation's few homeless shelters. Others erected shacks from scrap metal, crates, or cartons and built shantytowns they christened "Hoovervilles."
One unemployed Iowa teacher and her two children prepared for a second winter in the pit they'd dug the year before, only a tarp separating them from the snow and cold. Others lived in caves in New York's Central Park or under bridges and inside sewer pipes, tunnels, and abandoned cars.
Schools closed as cities, drained of property-tax revenue, ran out of funds. One of three American children now had no public school to attend. In rural areas it was worse. Eight of ten rural children in Alabama had no school at all.
In Los Angeles, homeless youngsters fought over food decaying in garbage cans. Nine of ten West Virginia and Kentucky children were malnourished. More than a million teenagers became "boxcar kids" and hid in freight trains as they sought jobs and food in towns along the railroad tracks. Many children of tenant farmers and sharecroppers battled starvation.
"Why does Every Thing have Exceptional Value. Except the Human Being," a man asked in a letter to Herbert Hoover. "Can you not find a quicker way of Executing us than to Starve us to death?"
A Harlem man protesting a neighbor's eviction said to the police, "You can't shoot all of us so you might as well shoot me. I'd just as soon die now as any time."
In its final report, the Hoover-appointed President's Committee on Social Trends warned of "violent revolution." Indeed, in 1933 worldwide depression was helping to sow terrible seeds in Germany, where Adolf Hitler rose to power, and Japan, which withdrew from the League of Nations unchastened by rebukes for its invasion of Manchuria.
In the United States, on the other hand, there would be a democratic transfer of power—long in coming and ill-tempered, to be sure, but peaceful and orderly.