The President, the cousin he was having an affair with, the cousin he was married to, and her girlfriend

Michael Rogin

  • Secret Affairs: Franklin Roosevelt, Cordell Hull and Sumner Welles by Irwin Gellman
    Johns Hopkins, 499 pp, $29.95, April 1995, ISBN 0 8018 5083 5
  • Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley edited by Geoffrey Ward
    Houghton Mifflin, 444 pp, $24.95, April 1995, ISBN 0 395 66080 7
  • No Ordinary Time. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War Two by Doris Kearns Goodwin
    Simon and Schuster, 759 pp, £18.00, June 1995, ISBN 0 671 64240 5
  • The End of Reform by Alan Brinkley
    Knopf, 371 pp, $27.50, March 1995, ISBN 0 394 53573 1

On a drive through the family estate in 1935, the married President, Franklin Roosevelt, starts up a romance with his cousin. The two imagine moving after he leaves office into a cottage he is planning to build on what they affectionately call ‘Our Hill’. The President’s secretary, who lives at the White House (and has lived with the President since he was Governor of New York), thinks her boss will be moving into the cottage with her. The President’s wife, another cousin, stays in her own fieldstone cottage on the estate when she is there without her husband. At his Inauguration she wore the ring given to her by the woman with whom she is in love, the woman she will later install in a White House bedroom across from her own. The First Lady’s passionate attachment to her woman friend has cooled, however, supplanted by her feelings for a radical student leader young enough to be her son. When the President’s wife meets her young man at a Chicago hotel during his furlough from the Army, the Counter-Intelligence Corps bugs their adjoining rooms; video technology would have provided pictures of her stroking his forehead while he slept.

The President and First Lady have not lived together as man and wife since she discovered his affair with her social secretary years before they moved to the White House. To save his marriage, inheritance and political career, the future President promised he would never see his lover again. After his own secretary suffered a debilitating stroke, however, he enlisted his daughter (also resident at the White House and the one of their five children closest to his wife) in surreptitious arrangements to meet his onetime lover. The President and his old flame took drives in the countryside together. She dined at the White House when his wife was away on her many travels around the United States. On one of the President’s own train trips from the capital to the West Coast, he invited his country cousin along. She also slept at the White House and stayed with the President at his ‘little White House’ in the South. A believer in numerology and miracle cures, the cousin had the ailing, paralysed President treated by a quack who promised not only to cure the internal afflictions of the head of state but also to have him walking again.

The cousin developed a warm friendship with the President’s first lover; the two women were sitting with the President when he spoke his now famous last words; ‘I have a terrific pain in the back of my head.’ The President had made his dog, Fala, a household word when his joke about Republican attacks on the pet revived his flagging final campaign and dispelled rumours that he was sick and no longer in command. Fala was a gift from the President’s cousin. His will bequeathed her the dog, to his widow’s dismay, and her children had to ask for Fala’s return.

The President’s closest State Department adviser, who lived in a replica of a colonial plantation mansion he had built with his immensely wealthy wife, made overtures to black sleeping-car porters when he had had too much to drink. The Secretary of State, jealous of the special relationship between the President and his own subordinate, was himself secretly ill with an advanced case of tuberculosis that incapacitated him for weeks at a time and left his rival in control of the State Department. Increasingly obsessed by a journalist’s attacks which he imagined his competitor had orchestrated, the Secretary of State used the threat of exposing the Under-Secretary’s homosexuality to drive him from office. The President’s own closest friend and adviser, who also lived at the White House, was malnourished and chronically hospitalised from the effects of stomach cancer. Long-paralysed from the waist down by polio and weakened by a soon-to-be-fatal heart condition, the President made key decisions that affected the conduct of the world war and the shape of the postwar world; these were the men who advised him.

Have the Sun and the National Enquirer, uninvited guests at the party, spoiled the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt’s death? Secret Affairs (the story of Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Under-Secretary Sumner Welles, Franklin Roosevelt and the making of New Deal foreign policy). Closest Companion (Margaret Suckley’s diary and the letters she exchanged with her cousin Franklin Roosevelt, found and edited by Geoffrey Ward) and No Ordinary Time (Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the home front during World War Two) are products of the current obsession with the private lives of public figures. But the books about the President’s women are written in the opposite spirit from the one about the President’s men. Letting the skeletons out of the Roosevelt family closet turns these ‘CPs’(‘Certain Person’ was the code term of affection between Margaret Suckley and FDR) into appealing flesh and blood. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s effort to redeem the Roosevelt marriage was written in entire ignorance of Franklin’s secret affair with his Suckley cousin. But to imagine that the special bond between ‘Daisy’ and ‘F.’ will discredit No Ordinary Time is to get that volume exactly wrong, for its author would have loved to add Daisy to the White House extended family, the ‘intimate hotel’ of residents whose ‘lives revolved around the President and First Lady’.

Winston Churchill cabled Clement Attlee on one of his own stays at the White House: ‘We live here as a big family, in the greatest intimacy and familiarity.’ Closest Companion and No Ordinary Time make us guests at the White House as well, visitors who know a lot more about its secret affairs than did Churchill. We watch the friendship between FDR and Daisy flower into romance, then settle into affectionate, wifely routine once Roosevelt gives up ‘plans for a private life of my own’ to run for a third term. Voters thought FDR was relinquishing a private life with his wife; we wonder if he had made up his mind between Daisy and his secretary, Missy LeHand. We rejoice with Daisy that the President confides to her his planned 1941 secret meeting with Churchill off the Atlantic coast, and grieve with Eleanor that she was left in the dark. We live through the tragedy of Missy’s nervous breakdown, stroke and exit from the White House, and disapprove of Roosevelt’s withdrawal from her pain. We wonder whether Eleanor consummated her love affair with the newspaper-woman, Lorena Hickok (as Blanche Wiesen Cook argued in her Eleanor Roosevelt biography, attacked in a book review by Geoffrey Ward and ignored by Doris Kearns Goodwin), or whether they stopped with intimate touches and avowals of love. Most of all, we come to admire the relationship between Eleanor and Franklin. We get the joke when Franklin, giving Eleanor a bust of Ben Franklin for the bedroom she does not share with him, teases: ‘You can always say I have Franklin with me.’ In the absence of a sexual connection to Eleanor, Franklin makes her his legs, ‘eyes and ears’ around the country; she makes him listen to the plight of the people who don’t live at the White House. Other women – Doris Kearns Goodwin convinces us it doesn’t matter whether they slept with the President – listen to and care for him. We watch Daisy flourish through her relation with her CP, while Hick’s obsession with the President’s wife destroys her own career. Eleanor called Daisy what she could not be, a ‘good wife’; Daisy becomes the President’s good mother as well. Uncannily foreshadowing the final scene of the Academy Award-winning Driving Miss Daisy (only with Daisy in the supporting role), she will spoon bedtime gruel into Franklin’s mouth when he playfully ‘relapses into babyhood’ (her words) near the end of his life.

Roosevelt’s White House was surely no ordinary place: do the private affairs of its residents make any difference, however, for the period Eleanor Roosevelt called ‘no ordinary time’? Can we justify the pleasure we take in these books by the light they shed on public matters? Secret Affairs, the most sordid tale, may seem to have the greatest policy significance. But although the trouble between Welles and Hull sucks in many other foreign policy characters (like William Bullitt, with whom Roosevelt broke over the Welles exposé), it has little political consequence. Welles was closer to the liberal New Dealers, Hull to the traditional Democratic Party, and those demanding action against the extermination of European Jewry thought they had a more sympathetic ear in Welles. But although Welles believed the stories of death camps circulating by late 1942, he told Rabbi Steven Wise: ‘For obvious reasons you will understand, I cannot give these [facts] to the press.’ Welles may have been silenced on the genocide out of loyalty to FDR’s priorities, Hull out of his own White House ambitions and the desire not to call attention to his half-Jewish wife, but if neither shared the active anti-semitism of other key State Department officials (such as the man in charge of refugee policy, Breckenridge Long), the result – inaction and indifference – was the same. (When Eleanor tried to rouse Franklin to the plight of Europe’s Jews, Welles told him to talk to Long.) By the same token, Roosevelt acceded at Yalta to Stalin’s demand for Soviet hegemony in Poland because of the disposition of allied troops in Europe and the desire to get the Soviet Union into the Pacific war, not because he or Harry Hopkins were tired and ill or because they lacked wise State Department counsel.

The political significance of the Welles-Hull debacle lies, for Irving Gellman, in FDR’s ‘divisive management style’, his habit of under-cutting his aides by being unable to choose one against the other. ‘You know I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does,’ the President explained to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau (whose own undercutting we can follow in Alan Brinkley’s The End of Reform). This method of human relations worked, paradoxically, better with the women in the President’s private life than with the men in politics. Whereas the men had their own ambitions and agendas, the women were entirely devoted to FDR, and their shared loyalty bound them to each other as well.

One woman devoted to the President, however, Doris Kearns Goodwin (following Presidential scholars Richard Neustadt and Eric Larrabee), defends the political virtues of Roosevelt’s ‘management style’. By multiplying advisers he broke free of White House insularity, the argument goes, and was put in touch with diverse – conflicting – points of view. To be sure, Doris Kearns Goodwin fails to spin Cordell Hull’s straw into gold: her ‘symbol of dependability, respected by liberals and conservatives alike, the tall gaunt Tennesseean with thick white hair and bright dark eyes’ morphs into Gellman’s insecure, indecisive, vindictive figure, with his ‘high, lean, rasping voice’, ‘dull ... slow and ponderous’ delivery and – the result of ill-fitting wooden dental plates worn from vanity – ‘a slight lisp that turned rs into ws’. But No Ordinary Time can dispense with Hull and Welles, for their exclusion from the intimate Presidential circle signals their lack of political influence as well.

Roosevelt linked the personal to the political; that is what allows Doris Kearns Goodwin to turn no ordinary place into no ordinary time and justify her ‘home front’ pun. Against the American glorification of domestic space as a haven from the heartless world, the Roosevelts made the entire country an extension of their home. Before they married, cousins Franklin and Eleanor shared the name of Eleanor’s uncle, Roosevelt the first, and Franklin may have seen the White House as the family seat. He may have married Teddy Roosevelt’s niece to perpetuate the dynasty, but the Eleanor he fell in love with was the settlement-house worker actively engaged with the plight of the immigrant poor. Franklin’s affair finished off that romance with his wife, and the Vice-Presidential defeat and polio that soon followed might have confined to nightmarish domestic seclusion this outgoing, active charmer with no apparent deep convictions of his own. Instead Eleanor reconnected him to Democratic Party politics in the Twenties and to the Depression and social upheavals of the following decades.

Eleanor’s links to labour, the student Left and the emerging civil rights movement allow Doris Kearns Goodwin to bring the American downstairs into the White House upstairs. It is thanks to Eleanor that United Auto Workers activist Walter Reuther makes an appearance, with his efforts to move production decisions from big business to labour and government. Eleanor forces racial oppression on the attention of a President who did not want to jeopardise Southern Democratic support for his programme; she intervenes to help wring from her husband an executive order barring discrimination in defence employment, and so avert A. Philip Randolph’s threatened mass march on Washington. (Randolph was President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping-Car Porters; here, and not as objects of Sumner Welles’s desire, lies the political significance of these black workers.) The young man with whom Eleanor was intimate, Joe Lash, former head of the American Student Union, brings social-democratic concerns to the White House (and to the readers of No Ordinary Time). By contrast with the wide attachments of the Roosevelt extended family, confinement within the beltway produces the Kennedy parody of the Roosevelt White House (in spite of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best efforts in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys) and the Clinton farce.

Doris Kearns Goodwin turns the unorthodox Roosevelt marital arrangements from sordid scandal into generous love. No Ordinary Time challenges the current right-wing support of ‘traditional family values’, for those who lived at the Roosevelt White House could hardly endorse the Moral Contract with America that Jerry Falwell wants all members of Congress to sign, and which refuses to extend the family beyond the husband and wife couple to ‘gay, lesbian or any other strange combination’. Confinement to the role of wife and mother drove Eleanor to the depression that helped precipitate her husband’s affair. After her last child was born and Franklin had that affair, Eleanor entered a female community. It was the turning-point of her life. She formed friendships with independent women social activists, some of whom lived sexual lives together. (One of these couples co-owned her Hyde Park cottage.) Recovering her vocation, Eleanor Roosevelt gained a self: engagement with the world liberated her from romantic exclusivity and claustrophobic domesticity. When FDR once asked his supper guests to name four outstanding political leaders, himself choosing Franklin, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and an obscure adviser to Oliver Cromwell, Eleanor responded with Anne Hutchinson (the martyred rebel against American Puritanism, accused of believing in free love), Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emily Dickinson and the suffragette leader, Carrie Chapman Catt.

Feminist supporter of minority rights, Eleanor Roosevelt is our contemporary. That is what worries Alan Brinkley. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Eleanor Roosevelt is the representative of social movements at the White House: Alan Brinkley’s is a maternal figure who wants the state to care for people rather than ‘reshape the capitalist world’. Her rare appearances in The End of Reform mark the shift in the later New Deal from a strong state mobilised against capitalist economic and political power to the defensive protection of individual rights. Members of the shrinking group of New Deal liberals, Alan Brinkley and Doris Kearns Goodwin cover identical years, but he transforms her triumphalism into a tale of defeat. No Ordinary Time is a success story; The End of Reform is a story of failure. She supplies the pleasure principle (whose largest gratifications encompass tragedy and loss); he returns us to the reality principle.

New Deal reform continued on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s home front through the efforts of working women and the struggles against Jim Crow. For Alan Brinkley the shift from economic conflict to race and gender entailed accommodation to capitalist class power. No Ordinary Time attends, as The End of Reform does not, to the incarceration of Japanese-Americans, the mistreatment of American blacks and the abandonment of European Jews. Alan Brinkley has a different agenda. He shows how, beginning with FDR’s political defeats after the 1936 landslide and accelerating during the war, New Deal liberalism shifted from challenging corporate power over production to promoting government spending and mass consumption. Although some liberals believed that state action and domestic spending would be encouraged by social insurance programmes and public works, what effected the change was production for war.

Doris Kearns Goodwin recognises the accommodation to big business during World War Two, but her attachment to shared sacrifice and unified national purpose overrides her regrets. She celebrates the break-up of Alcoa’s aluminium monopoly under war production pressures: Brinkley reports the end of the anti-trust action against Standard Oil (which was collaborating with I.G. Farben and resisting participation in war production). United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis is more villainous than any businessman in No Ordinary Time, and although Doris Kearns Goodwin invokes Eleanor’s sympathy for the miners’ grievances, she treats the wartime mining strikes as Lewis’s personal vendetta against FDR. Brinkley emphasises rank-and-file protest against the ‘Little Steel’ formula that would have denied the lowest-paid and most dangerously employed industrial workers any wage increases during the war (as mining profits and the miners’ cost of living rose). She sees FDR’s veto of the anti-labour Smith-Connolly Act as courageous, he as ‘halfhearted’. She praises Walter Reuther’s plans for re-ordering production; he sees a labour movement increasingly dependent on the state. He regrets the defeat of militant shop-floor industrial democracy ‘shaped not by the state but by the workers themselves’; she mourns the passing of Eleanor and Franklin. She celebrates the GI Bill for providing medical insurance and college education for veterans. He stresses its limitation to a single deserving group, its failure (like military pensions after the Civil War) to ‘become a basis for a broader programme of social assistance’.

Studs Terkel’s ironically titled oral history, The Good War, like William Tuttle’s recent Daddy’s Gone to War, demythologises the home front during World War Two. These studies of ordinary people are less inclined than No Ordinary Time to find suffering and dislocation redeemed by noble unity of purpose at the top. Daddy has gone to the White House in No Ordinary Time; The Good War is noticed only to enlist Terkel in grieving over Roosevelt’s death. The romance of the Second World War dies hard, to be sure, sustained by more than Doris Kearns Goodwin’s literary skills. Whatever the memorialising mixture of history, nostalgia and art, the White House Roosevelt continues to cast a long shadow over the United States half a century after the death of FDR and the end of the war.

Roosevelt is the towering President of this century, as Abraham Lincoln was of the last. For two reasons. Roosevelt and Lincoln presided over the two most significant advances in political justice in American history: the end of slavery and the beginning of social citizenship – the public works, unemployment and oldage insurance, and mass trade unions that made the United States liveable. In addition, however, they also led the country into the two wars with proportionately the highest American casualties since the Revolution, arguably the only just wars in the history of the United States. The United States ‘took even greater strides toward social justice during the war than it had during the New Deal’ in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s account. Full employment brought about the only income redistribution downward in American history. Trade-union membership increased dramatically, and the GI Bill propelled worker veterans into the middle class. The Roosevelts’ unfinished work was taken up in the Sixties, in the subtext of No Ordinary Time, by the effort to combine an expanded welfare state with civil and women’s rights. But the failure of reform, from Alan Brinkley’s perspective, had left behind an unholy alliance of militarised government spending and capitalist mass consumption – a welfare state for the military-industrial complex and privatised consumption for the populace. The obstacles to economic justice and racial equality in conflict-ridden, peacetime society, to extrapolate from The End of Reform, underscored the other inheritance from Lincoln and Roosevelt, the requirement of war for Presidential greatness.

The conflicts of the Sixties, generating the counter-revolution that still dominates American politics, did not result simply from the death of John Kennedy and the failure of Lyndon Johnson (subject of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream) to be Franklin Roosevelt. Contemporary politics is also shadowed by the double failure of America in Vietnam, to be just and to win. Inheriting Roosevelt’s injunction to combine welfare spending, civil rights and unifying noble war, Johnson fell as loyal New Dealer. The President who succeeded to Roosevelt’s throne was Ronald Reagan, who voted for FDR four times; practised Roosevelt imitations to improve his performance style; perfected for the visual media FDR’s intimate, anecdotal engagement of the mass public in his fireside radio chats; was supported by the children of the beneficiaries of the GI Bill; presided over the largest peacetime increases in the military budget and largest government deficit spending in American history; and rose to movie stardom by playing a man who had lost the use of his legs. Looked at through the Ronald Reagan screen, the personalisation of politics substitutes the glamour of public lives for the gloom of public problems. The President is an organisational psychologist, as Roosevelt and Reagan instinctively knew, and his job is symbolic reassurance.

Roosevelt’s genius for making Americans feel secure amidst adversity is inseparable from his life and death in war. His hero, Woodrow Wilson, also sent young men to die in war (with Roosevelt as his Assistant Secretary of the Navy), and like Lincoln and Wilson, Roosevelt seems to have felt more and more, as the war dragged on, the fate of the wounded and dead. (He first called public attention to his paralysis by wheeling himself in to visit soldiers in veterans’ hospitals.) Among the stunning pictures in these books, Ward reprints the only two photos FDR allowed to be taken of him in his wheelchair: snapped by Daisy and evidence of their intimacy, these pictures belong to Roosevelt’s private life. Gellman alone reveals the cadaverous, spectral Roosevelt at Yalta, transformed from the affable, reassuring, slightly fleshy figure of the early years of the war.

There were fears towards the end that Roosevelt would finish like Wilson, broken down in office, incapacitated and disgraced. He wound up like Lincoln instead. In his diary entry for 12 April 1945, the former Ambassador to the USSR, Joseph Davies, called Roosevelt ‘the greatest and most costly of war casualties’, ‘the martyred leader of the democratic forces of the world, who actually gave his life for the cause’. Having presided over shared sacrifice, Roosevelt and Lincoln embodied it. Martyrs to their wars, neither had to face the post-war consequences. They metamorphosed instead into longed-for absent presences, as if they alone could solve the problems consequent upon their triumphs. Roosevelt ushered in a new order during World War Two that would incapacitate the presidents who followed him and intensify longings for his return.

Unlike Lincoln, however, Roosevelt is doubly absent, for whereas Lincoln revealed his tragic interior in the greatness of his language, Roosevelt remains opaque – all ebullient, charming surface, committed to everyone and no one, the centre around whom we all revolve, the juggler who alone can keep all the balls in the air. The concluding words of Richard Hofstadter’s American Political Tradition (1948) echo across the intervening half-century. ‘The very lack of confidence in the American future and of a positive programme of ideas increases popular faith in the wonder-working powers of the great man,’ wrote Hofstadter. ‘No personality has ever expressed the American popular temper so articulately’ and his ‘passing left American liberalism demoralised and all but helpless’.