Another FDR Heads for the White House
Though he faces tough and bitter enemies young Frank Roosevelt might become the first Canada-born President
L. S. B. SHAPIRO
IS IT POSSIBLE for someone born in Canada to become President of the United States? It is not only possible, but, if one accepts the judgment of hard-bitten political leaders in New York and Washington, altogether probable within 10 years.
The man in question is Congressman Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., 35-year-old third son of the late President. Although he has been in public life for only one year he has already created a political tradition of his own. He is at once the most popular, the most feared, the most powerfully backed and viciously hated young politician on the American scene. His friends are convinced he will one day occupy his father’s desk in the White House; his enemies are determined he must be stopped. He is a new phenomenon in American life: a young man whose election victory to a comparatively minor political office has unleashed a storm of national controversy.
Young Frank’s lightning struck across the political scene in May, 1949. Until then the Roosevelthaters, a powerful, highly articulate cult which (inexplicably to Canadians and Britons who revered the late President) has grown and spread throughout the U. S., were satisfied that they had seen the last of a Roosevelt in the White House. James, the eldest son, was building a sound political machine in California but was discounted as a national figure. Elliott, the second son, displayed too careless a disposition for pretty women and quick marriages to be taken seriously. Frank, a successful lawyer, lived an obscure life in his Long Island home. John, the youngest son, was an all-but-forgotten California merchant. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, a delegate to the United Nations, had announced that she would never be a candidate for elective office. The Roosevelt-haters, who found their leadership in the Hearst-McCormickPatterson newspapers, seemed content that Washington was safe and concentrated its effort toward tearing apart the great reputation President Roose-
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elt had left as his monument.
Then it happened. Sol Bloom, for „0 years representative in Congress of New York City’s West Side district, died in office in March, 1949. Young Frank Roosevelt, who had been quietly watching for an opportunity to jump into politics, set up a residence in the district and announced his candidacy.
His action was regarded as a joke by the Tammany district leaders who firmly controlled the election machine. In the first place the district was predominantly Jewish and had always elected a Jewish candidate with Tammany-Democratic backing. Roosevelt’s change of residence from fashionable Long Island to this middle-class section was too obvious. He was too young, too inexperienced, and his prewar reputation as a playboy was still too vivid. Tammany ignored his bid and gave the regular Democratic nomination to a popular middle-aged veteran of district politics, Municipal Court Justice Ben Shalleck.
When young Roosevelt obtained the backing of obscure groups of enthusiasts which called themselves the Liberal and Four Freedoms Parties, he defied Tammany and decided to run. The betting was 15 to 1 Shalleck would
For seven weeks young Frank campaigned in the district from 8 a.m. to midnight. He rang every doorbell, ate innumerable corned beef sandwiches in delicatessen shops, flashed the Roosevelt smile which was so remarkably like his father’s at 20 street-corner meetings every day, and on May 17 he confounded the well-organized opposition by winning the seat by a 2-1 margin.
Sensational repercussions flowed from this victory. On the night of his election both the New York Herald Tribune and the New York Times emblazoned the story across three columns of their front pages, overshadowing all other news. Even before the final count was in, the objective, conservative political commentators of both newspapers speculated that young Roosevelt was a strong candidate for the governorship in 1950.
A Divorce at Election Time
Within minutes of the announcement of the result Roosevelt had attracted to himself the most powerful Democratic leaders in the state, men who recognized a vote-getter and a bandwagon, and who saw in this tall, handsome, vigorous politician a vehicle for a trip to the \\ hite Bouse, perhaps in ’56, most certainly in ’60.
One thing they knew: here was far and away the greatest natural votegetter New York State had produced since another Roosevelt moved on crutches to the Governor’s Mansion in 1928.
The Roosevelt-haters reacted as though the ghost of General Burgoyne were marching on Washington at the head of a column of Hessians. The big guns were pulled temporarily from their attack on the late President’s memory and trained on the young man. In a subsequent issue of the New Yorker magazine a cartoon showed a bulbous-faced gentleman reclining un-
easily on an ornate bed, and a doctor beside him saying, “Try not to dwell on it. Remember, ‘that boy’ isn’t in the White House yet.”
Young Frank is indeed a long way from the White House and there are heavy storm clouds gathering across the tortuous journey. He is the only Roosevelt son who was born in Canada, in the family summer home at Campobello, N.B., and certain nervous Republicans have already declared him ineligible for the presidency. The U. S. Constitution states that the President must be “a native-born citizen of the United States.”
Roosevelt’s supporters consider this a hair-splitting point which, in the event that he reaches the stage of presidential nomination, would not be seriously entertained by his party or by his major opponents. The wording of the constitution, as it applies to the circumstances of Roosevelt’s place of birth, would be a matter for the Supreme Court to adjudicate and political leaders are inclined to leave it at that for the time being.
Much more serious is the vulnerability of his personal life. It is traditional that a healthy happy family status is an essential condition for a successful political career. A few months ago Roosevelt was divorced by the former Ethel Dupont, mother of his two young sons, and has since married Suzanne Perrin, member of a socially prominent New York family.
It was a “friendly” divorce and a curious one in this respect: the very political considerations which made a divorce inadvisable for an ambitious young politician also made it inevitable. The sheltered daughter of the Dupont dynasty does not care for politics or for the publicity attending it. She had long tried to dissuade her husband from entering the field. When he made his decision to run they decided that there was an unmistakably clear crossroads in their lives. While Frank was campaigning for this congressional seat Ethel slipped quietly to Nevada and established residence.
Badly Wounded on the Atlantic
The news leaked before voting day. That it did not harm Roosevelt at the polls does not dispose of the problem. It will doubtless rise to haunt him when he reaches the state and national arenas. Nor will the public, so often prodded by the changing marital status of the other Roosevelts, especially by the antics of brother Elliott, quickly forget.
F. D. R., Jr., is no longer a playboy. Whether or not he has outgrown the urge he no longer has the time. Besides his duties as a member of the House of Representatives he is a senior partner in the huge law firm of Poletti, Diamond, Roosevelt, Freidin and Mackay. Speaking engagements take up all of his spare time. But he is handsome, young, vigorous, wealthy, and he has not been seen in a nightclub in many months.
Most serious of all his political handicaps is the solid snarling enmity of powerful factions which he inherited from his father. Men with great followings and wide access to public attention have dedicated their careers to the ruin of the Roosevelt name, and this includes not only the widow of the late President but all his children. These men have formed themselves into a countercult to the millions who revere the memory of F. D. R. The attack is pushed unceasingly in Congress, in the Press, on the radio, and there is no limit to its virulence.
A recent series of articles sought to show, within the wide, shadowy libel laws of this country, that the late President and even Mrs. Roosevelt were of dubious moral character. A substantial part of the current congressional investigation into Communist influences in the State Department was motivated by an effort to discredit Roosevelt. A casual review of these attacks must lead one to believe—preposterous as it may seem—that the ultimate aim of the Roosevelt-haters is to prove that Franklin Roosevelt was literally a Kremlin secret agent during his term of office.
Young Frank is highly conscious of this campaign. He has suffered it a long time. During the war when all four Roosevelt sons were in uniform on combat duty young Frank was executive officer on a destroyer in the North Atlantic. He was critically wounded in one engagement. When he returned to consciousness in the ship’s bay his first words were, “This is going to disappoint a lot of people. They won’t be satisfied until one of us gets killed.”
In spite of these handicaps he has been selected by shrewd practical politicians as a man who is likely to be a Democratic candidate for the White House before he reaches 45. The secret lies in his personality which is hardly less powerful than that of his father and in some respects more engaging.
He is four inches over six feet; he speaks well; his associates describe his mind as “quick and shrewd”; he is ambitious, and having been brought up in an atmosphere of high-level politics, he knows how to accept advice and from whom to seek it.
Most importantly, he recognizes the changes which have taken place in the American scene during the past 20 years, changes which demand a different attitude from that which guided his father to success.
A veteran Democratic leader, one who knew the late President throughout his career, recently told his associates: “Young Frank? Right now he’s a much better politician than his father was at 35—a much, much better politician.”
Mr. Roosevelt With the Beef
I knew the late President as well as a White House correspondent is able to know the President. From autumn of 1939 to summer of 1942 I attended the twice-a-week Press conferences of the grey, handsome, aristocratic Roosevelt. I saw him surrounded by his cabinet, by the regal standards of his great office. I was there when Churchill sat beside him in late December of 1941. I watched him from the gallery of the House when he came to Capitol Hill on December 8 of that year to ask for a declaration of war. I studied the weariness that grew on his lined face in the troubled months of disaster in the Pacific and the Middle East. I felt I knew him.
The first time I met F. D. R., Jr., was on a cold, blustery night in January of 1948. The contrast between father and son both shocked and intrigued me.
It was a Saturday night. I was weekending in the Connecticut country home of a New York friend. Dinner had ended and we were playing gin rummy in the card room.
My host said, “Young Frank Roosevelt may come in tonight. He’s promised me some chickens and beef from his farm. For my deep freeze, you know. Just in case the bomb drops and we’re marooned.”
Presently the butler appeared and said, “Mr. Roosevelt has arrived.”
We went out to the driveway. A oneton truck had been backed against the delivery entrance. A giant of a young man, bare-headed, clad in slacks and a leather windbreaker, was commuting between the back of the truck and the kitchen, carrying great slabs of beef on
his shoulders. He stopped to say hello, breathed on his hands to keep them warm, and shouldered another load of beef.
My host said, “Come on in and have a drink, Frank. The kitchen help can unload the truck.”
“Hell, no,” replied the Roosevelt scion, who had driven the truck 30 miles from his Long Island home. “It’s too damned cold for your hothouse help. I’ll get this stuff unloaded in a jiffy.”
This was late at night deep in the hills of Connecticut. There were no potential voters around, no audience. This was not an act. This was the nature of the man his enemies are trying to label a playboy, a pampered son, an aristocrat.
We stayed up most of that night, young Frank and I. We talked about everything that came to our minds— —politics, the world, Russia, sports, ourselves, and life generally. And when I went to bed hours later I felt I knew the point which made young Frank different from his father, the point which has sparked the meteoric political career on which he has embarked.
In a word it is this: President Roosevelt loved the people. Young Frank loves people.
For all his advanced, often radical, political ideas President Roosevelt was himself a grand seigneur, an aristocrat and historian who recognized the end of one era and the possibilities of a new one and nominated himself to bring reality to that new era. He succeeded, of course, handsomely. He has been likened to George Washington and there is more merit than idle sentiment in the comparison. Washington was an English autocrat who had nothing in common with the rabble that marched against George III, nothing, that is, except a sense of history which the common revolutionaries lacked and which gave leadership and purpose to the movement.
The Roosevelt of 1932 gave leadership and purpose to the new economic yearnings of the discouraged depression-ridden Americans of that year. But until the day he died he remained a grand seigneur, accepting naturally naval capes and band flourishes and all the trappings of office. He loved the people and the great masses of the people loved him but there was always a gulf, clearly visible between them.
It cannot be said that young Frank is trading on his father’s reputation. The name helps, of course; it conjures affection and trust in millions of voters. But young Frank’s personality and actions are a negation of the atmosphere his father created; they are an advance, a new political concept. There is no gulf between him and his constituents. He loves people.
He Knows What He Doesn’t Know
Perhaps unwittingly he pointed up this difference between him and his father last summer when he addressed a convention of the United Auto Workers in Cleveland. His father used to say at such meetings (I had heard him say it many times) : “My friends, I am glad to be here . . .” Before the U.A.W. last summer young Frank got up and began: “I am not only glad to be here. I belong here . . .”
High-level politics in the United States is the biggest, shrewdest, most complicated business on earth. The stakes are enormous, the enmities implacable, and the stab in the back is standard procedure to be used on the unwary. Young Frank has the advantage of knowing how much he doesn’t know about the whole fantastic game.
To advise him on what has already become a colorful and storm-tossed career he has gathered about him a “cabinet” of shrewd practical men. His closest personal adviser, the man who urged him to take the step which brought him into politics, is his senior law partner, Milton Diamond, a brilliant and fabulous figure in his own right. Founder and head of a law office which associates more than 40 lawyers Diamond* has remained in the background by habit and preference although he has masterminded a great many of the most celebrated issues of
On matters of political strategy Roosevelt consults Edward J. Flynn, Democratic Leader of the Bronx, and a member of the late President’s campaign machine from 1928 until 1944. Flynn is a master of machine politics and election tactics. Senator Herbert H. Lehman, who was Lieut.-Governor of New York under Franklin Roosevelt, is another of the young man’s close advisers.
A few weeks ago Roosevelt announced he would not enter for this year’s New York governorship race. This is the treadmill which leads to the White House, but Roosevelt has decided, probably on Flynn’s advice, that the time is not yet ripe. He has a 10year advantage over any other presidential possibility. He has many personal and political handicaps to overcome, and the time to overcome them. He is ambitious but not impatient.
Even if he stands by his decision not to contest the governorship (he may, of course, be drafted as a gubernatorial candidate) Frank Roosevelt must go to the electors again this fall in any event since the whole House faces re-election in November.
If he ever becomes the first Canadian-born President of the U. S. it will be only after a spectacular and vicious fight. In the present climate of the U. S. the great game of politics is no longer a game. ★