Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, whom Franklin took as his wife and life-long helpmate, was quite a phenomenon in her own right. In our time, Eleanor Roosevelt (as she was always known) has become a kind of secular saint, an icon perhaps more sacred than FDR himself. Even to breathe a hint of criticism of her, in today’s climate of opinion, is to commit blasphemy. Hillary Rodham Clinton has claimed Eleanor as her role model (if not her personal confidant). That is not surprising, considering that Eleanor pioneered the role, which Hillary has tried desperately to play, of a president’s wife who continually and conspicuously involves herself in the nation’s politics. Before Eleanor, first ladies might very well have exercised influence behind the scenes; in the unique case of Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, she actually governed the country for a short while to cover up her husband’s incapacity in his last months. But in bygone days, presidential wives as a rule kept a low profile. After all, they had been elected to nothing, nor had they undergone close scrutiny through any process of nomination and confirmation. It was looked on as unseemly for them to exploit the prestige and power of their husbands’ office to meddle openly in political affairs.
Eleanor broke decisively with that tradition. In the years to come, indeed virtually until her death in 1962, she was to write and speak on public issues practically nonstop (leading a former friend turned bitter enemy, the journalist Westbrook Pegler, to dub her, cruelly, La Boca Grande, “Big Mouth”). Often her stands made news, helping to publicize one or another of her favorite causes. She lectured around the country, spoke on the radio, even held press conferences (a first for the wife of a president). She wrote hundreds of thousands of words, many of them in her syndicated column, “My Day” (again, her critics could not resist the jibe that it should have been called “My Daze”), and she had millions of readers for her endless verbiage. Yet — as with Hillary today — her prominence in the public eye was in no way a victory for feminism. Nothing that Eleanor was or did or accomplished on her own warranted anyone’s paying the slightest attention to her banal opinions. It was solely by virtue of her husband’s office — on account of his accomplishments — that Eleanor Roosevelt exercised any influence at all.
We know a great deal concerning her family, her early life, her education (or rather, lack of it), and her feelings about herself and those around her, because Eleanor kept telling the world all about it, in books and articles for decades on end. Her father was Theodore Roosevelt’s younger brother, her mother another child of inherited wealth and social prominence. Yet while Eleanor was born into the same class as Franklin, in contrast to her husband’s pampered childhood, she had a father who was an alcoholic and died in a sanitarium and a mother who died when Eleanor was a small child. Eleanor was given little tutoring and no formal education, except for a brief stint in a convent in France and three years at a school for upper-class girls run by an aging French lady, a friend of the family, in London. In her grandmother’s home, she was lonely and isolated — by her own description, an unattractive and gauche young woman with few friends or acquaintances.
Eleanor “came out” in New York society and quickly attached herself to her handsome and debonair cousin. A whirlwind courtship ended in marriage in 1905 while Franklin was still a law student at Columbia. Presumably the groom found much to admire in the young Eleanor, even aside from her family connections and an inheritance that brought in an income of $25,000 a year. In time, she gave him five children and raised them with loving care, while suffering, as she complained again and again, from the domineering interference of her mother-in-law, the matriarch Sara.
In her outlook, Eleanor began as a typical product of her milieu, entertaining the vaguely “progressive” views that were de rigueur among the women of her class. She was all for Uplift — woman suffrage, a national child labor amendment, government tinkering with this and that, and, above all, Prohibition. In those early years she was a fervent supporter of the “noble experiment,” the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act. In 1924, when her husband had become a leading figure in Democratic politics, Eleanor chaired a platform subcommittee at the national convention which called for vigorous enforcement of Prohibition. This she continued to work and agitate for to the very end. That the prohibition of alcohol was a massive assault on individual rights, that it turned America’s cities into gangsters’ killing fields meant as little to her as exactly the same catastrophic results of drug prohibition mean to, say, a William Bennett today. What was important was that an enlightened, progressive government should show the benighted people the proper and decent way to live — according to Eleanor’s sadly parochial understanding of life.
One thing no one ever denied her: that, in spite of all the problems that developed in her marriage, including her feud with her mother-in-law, and, later, the lovers on his side and probably hers, she always unfailingly devoted whatever talents she had to furthering her husband’s path to power. What this might involve was at first far from clear. Franklin’s choice of a profession presented something of a puzzle, since he seemed to have no particular aptitudes. He dropped out of Columbia Law but finally did pass the bar exam. A succession of Wall Street law firms hired him, principally because of his valuable contacts through his and his wife’s relations.
Franklin was not particularly successful on Wall Street, and when, in 1910, the Democrats asked him to run for the state senate from his Hudson Valley district, he gladly accepted. The district had been traditionally Republican, but now, for the first time, FDR demonstrated his remarkable political skills and vote-getting abilities. He was elected, and went on to serve in Albany. At this time, he had no notable political views, aside from a hazy “progressivism.” He began to make a name for himself by standing up for “good government” — which in the New York of that era largely meant opposition to Tammany Hall, the Democratic machine in New York City.
His appetite piqued for politics, Roosevelt assembled an entourage of friends who were fiercely loyal and furnished him with constant aid and encouragement. His closest friend and advisor, Louis Howe, never tired of urging him to strive ever higher; Howe was convinced that Franklin Roosevelt had in him the makings of a president of the United States.
In the 1912 campaign for the Democratic nomination, FDR threw in his lot with Woodrow Wilson, governor of the neighboring state of New Jersey. The convention was deadlocked until the 46th ballot, when Wilson, with the support of William Jennings Bryan, finally attained the necessary two-thirds majority. (Wilson later repaid Bryan by making him secretary of state, which explains how the pacifist Bryan found himself in an administration bent on getting into the European war.) The country, however, was basically Republican; Grover Cleveland had been the only Democrat elected president since the War Between the States. But Wilson was saved by a feud among the top Republicans. The incumbent, William Howard Taft, refused to step aside for another bid by Theodore Roosevelt. Both of the men ran, and with Republican votes split two ways, Wilson was elected president.
When it came to selecting his cabinet, Wilson made Josephus Daniels secretary of the Navy. In choosing his assistant secretary, Daniels hit on the young FDR. Franklin was owed something for his support, and anyway he had always been interested in the navy and naval history. Wilson was pleased by the idea of “a Democratic Roosevelt” in his administration and in the very same post that Theodore had filled under McKinley. While Franklin’s achievements as assistant secretary of the navy could in no way match his cousin’s — TR, after all, had been a key member of the cabal that led the country into the war with Spain and made the United States a Caribbean and Pacific power — his tenure in the office was one of the most formative experiences of his life.
In the course of the next eight years, young FDR witnessed an unprecedented eruption of government activism in Washington — unequaled, in fact, until the days of his own regime. Woodrow Wilson assumed office announcing the arrival of “the New Freedom,” supposedly the culmination of the progressive movement. In foreign affairs, too, the new administration pioneered novel modes of interventionism that left a permanent impression on Franklin’s mind.
His immediate concern, however, was his own department. Franklin soon revealed himself to be as ardent an imperialist as McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, and the other Republican leaders. No one surpassed him in his ardor for a Big Navy. In 1914, he wrote: “Our national defense must extend all over the Western Hemisphere, must go out a thousand miles to sea, must embrace the Philippines, wherever our commerce may be.” Mere defense of America was not nearly enough. “We must create a navy not only to protect our shores and our possessions, but our merchant ships in time of war, no matter where they may go.” This became one of the constants in his political creed — the urgent necessity of a great U.S. Navy, capable of projecting American power across the globe, the destined instrument of American world hegemony.
In August 1914, war broke out in Europe. Like virtually everyone else in the administration — with the exception of the poor beleaguered Secretary of State Bryan — Roosevelt was a passionate booster of the Allied cause from the start. (Bryan resigned in 1915, when, after the sinking of the Lusitania, Wilson insisted on laying down a policy on submarine warfare that Bryan believed would inevitably lead to war with Germany. It turned out he was right.) As a high official of the navy department, Roosevelt might have been expected to express outrage at Britain’s repeated violations of the rights of American (and other neutral) ships at sea. Instead, he favored American entry into the war on England’s side as soon as possible. No surprise here. His family background, his elite education, his social milieu — everything he had ever been practically dictated that he should become a champion of England’s cause.
The complex process by which the United States went to war was a major learning experience for FDR. He observed how his cousin Theodore beat the war drums, leading “preparedness” marches and defaming any objectors to the United States’s joining in the bloody European festivities — and got away with it. In Wilson’s diplomatic maneuverings and public pronouncements, he witnessed at first hand how a president could lead a reluctant people into a world war while seeming to be fighting every waking moment for peace. Learning experiences indeed.