They Hated Eleanor, Too

Hillary Clinton has a favorite quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “A woman is like a tea bag. You don’t know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.” With all the criticism of Hillary Clinton these days, let’s remember that Eleanor Roosevelt—who consistently tops polls today as our country’s most-admired First Lady—was a controversial figure in her own day.

AndersonEleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson upon arrival in Japan, May 22, 1953.

A friend of mine who is in her nineties remembers the animosity toward Eleanor Roosevelt. She tells of how in 1939 her mother banned her aunt from their home in Philadelphia for two years. The reason? The aunt supported Eleanor Roosevelt’s resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution in protest of that organization barring Marian Anderson, the internationally renowned contralto and an African-American, from performing in Constitution Hall, which the DAR owned. My friend’s family was one of Philadelphia’s oldest and most distinguished and staunch Republicans.

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As a woman who spoke her mind in support of civil rights, labor, and economic dignity for all, Eleanor Roosevelt made many enemies. Some saw her resignation from the DAR as a rebuke to her own heritage—not unlike the charge that FDR was a traitor to his class—and many took it as a personal insult. We all know the outcome of this famous moment in American history, one that is a direct precursor to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. At the suggestion of Walter White of the NAACP, an outdoor concert was proposed on federal property. Eleanor Roosevelt worked with Harold L. Ickes, secretary of the interior and one of the Roosevelt administration’s strongest advocates for equal rights, who arranged a historic Easter Sunday concert for Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial. He introduced her saying, “Genius has no color line.” Attended by 75,000 and broadcast to millions over the radio, the symbolic importance of a black woman singing “My Country, ”Tis of Thee” before the statue of the Great Emancipator was lost on no one. Eleanor Roosevelt did not just earn the ire of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Her usually high poll numbers—yes, they had polls then—dropped by 10%.

Mrs. Roosevelt’s most vocal critic was well-known newspaper columnist Westbrook Pegler. A 1941 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Pegler was syndicated in 174 newspapers six days a week with a readership of ten million at the height of his popularity. His success in uncovering union corruption and his critiques of the New Deal gave him influence on Capitol Hill. A zealous opponent of the New Deal and the 1935 Wagner Act, he was a vocal opponent of both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, but seemed especially vicious toward Eleanor. “I have been accused of rudeness to Mrs. Roosevelt when I only said she was impudent, presumptuous and conspiratorial, and that her withdrawal from public life at this time would be a fine public service.”

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First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt watches a baseball game between FDR’s White House Purgers (newspaper correspondents) and broadcaster Lowell Thomas’s Nine Old Men, a benefit baseball team, in 1938. She is seated next to Westbrook Pegler. George T. Bye, her agent (and Pegler’s) is at upper right and music critic and music broadcaster Deems Taylor is upper left. Original caption reads “from program for the benefit of the Boys Club of New York.”

Credit: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. Photo id 52288

Eleanor Roosevelt was a major columnist herself. Her six-day-a-week My Day column had a following of four million readers and was syndicated in 62 newspapers. It was a mixture of folksy news about goings-on in the heady world of the Roosevelts, blended with thinly veiled advocacy for New Deal programs and sometimes pointed commentary on public affairs. A proponent of unionism since the 1920s, she did not hesitate to voice her support for the Wagner Act, which established the legal right of most workers (except agricultural and domestic workers) to organize or join labor unions and bargain collectively with their employers. Bitterly opposed by the business elite and many Republicans, opponents such as the American Liberty League encouraged employers to refuse to comply. A series of violent strikes and allegations of Communist infiltration strained public support. And even after the Wagner Act was declared constitutional in 1937, resistance to unions continued.

Pegler used Eleanor Roosevelt’s membership in the American Newspaper Guild (she was a card-carrying member from 1936 until her death) in his anti-union campaign. He ridiculed her work as a journalist, calling her a “diarist and a dilettante.”

After years of masquerading as a rather naïve but always well-meaning amateur fuss-budget, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt lately has been revealing herself as a cunning and indefatigable conspirator against the rights and independence of the individual American citizen and an active proponent of power-government.

Her crime? “ [O]n Thursday she attended a rally of a semi-Communistic Electricians’ Union of the AFL in New York, joined in whooping ‘God Bless America,’ and reiterated the Muscovites’ formula of entrapment which holds that everyone should join a labor organization.”

But Pegler was not her only critic. Eleanor Roosevelt challenged accepted notions of a woman’s “place” and because she had power and did not hesitate to use it, she was a serious threat to the established social order. Her biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook tells us, “There are those who focus on her teeth and voice and other cartoon characteristics, long before they reveal how much they despise her politics, most notably her interest in civil rights, and racial justice, or in civil liberties and world peace.” Cook reminds us that beginning in 1924 (when she worked on behalf of U.S. entry into the League of Nations World Court) and continuing throughout her years in the White House, as a delegate to the United Nations, and ending only in 1961, the year before her death, J. Edgar Hoover kept an FBI file on Eleanor—one of the largest on any individual. Her civil rights activities comprise much of the file and among the allegations investigated was the existence of “Eleanor Clubs,” which were rumored to be organized groups of African-American maids who, under the influence of Eleanor Roosevelt and black leaders, were refusing to work as servants. The charges proved false.

Eleanor’s work to establish Arthurdale, a model community for impoverished out-of-work West Virginia miners, brought heavy criticism since she insisted on quality construction and indoor plumbing for the houses being built. She incurred opposition from business interests when she tried to establish private sector jobs to make the community self-sufficient. As the war began to dilute the nation’s interest in the social legislation of the New Deal, she saw in national defense an opportunity to unify the people and foster a continuing progressive social agenda. FDR agreed and in 1941 issued an Executive Order establishing the Office of Civilian Defense with a broad array of powers designed not only to protect the civilian population, but also to strengthen morale and promote volunteer involvement in national defense.

For a few months, Eleanor Roosevelt eagerly accepted her only official government position, working (without salary) as assistant director of the Office of Civilian Defense. While OCD Director—and New York Mayor—Fiorello LaGuardia focused his attention on preparation for air raids, Roosevelt pushed for “better nutrition, better housing, better day-to-day medical care, better education, better recreation for every age.” The backlash was swift and harsh, as reported in this piece by Mark Sullivan in the New York Times. “Recent developments about O.C.D. have provoked violent criticism. Words and actions of Mrs. Roosevelt have suggested that she would like to use O.C.D. a vehicle for propaganda and organization in behalf of purposes not related to air raids. . . . The answer is up to the President. Won’t Franklin please speak to Eleanor? But a disquieting thought arises—perhaps it is Eleanor who speaks to Franklin.” She resigned soon thereafter.

That she envisioned a better world after the war was controversial. Lynn U. Stambaugh, national commander of the American Legion, charged that Eleanor maligned the veterans of the last war with her statement that “we can’t fight this war unless we are fighting for a changed world.” In response, Stambaugh said, “If Mrs. Roosevelt thinks that America is fighting this war for a ‘changed world’ she is thinking differently than the rest of America. The rest of us are fighting to preserve the world we have known; a world free of Hitlers; free from the attacks of barbarous races.” Echoes of “Make America Great Again” are unmistakable.

But it is criticism of Eleanor Roosevelt’s earnings, now largely forgotten, that have the most resonance when I hear the epithet “Corrupt Hillary.” Eleanor Roosevelt was determined to earn her own money and much of it was donated to her favorite causes. Of course that didn’t matter to Pegler. “It is often said, on what basis I do not know, that Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt gives all of her earnings to charity. . . . And even if it is true that she gives most or all . . . to charity, the question still is not what Mrs. Roosevelt does with the money to but to what extent the Presidential office figures in the calculations of those who pay it.” Earning money was important for Eleanor. The tangled psychology of her relationship with a husband who was unfaithful and a mother-in-law who held the family purse strings no doubt had much to do with it. This was a time when women’s work outside the home was appropriate only for women who “needed” to work for financial reasons. Today the correlation between earning power and self worth for both men and women is well known; it wasn’t so in Eleanor Roosevelt’s day.

Beginning in the 1920s Eleanor Roosevelt literally found herself, her identity, in her work. Her columns, lectures, articles, and commercial broadcasts—activities that would indeed raise serious charges of conflict of interest today—provided her not only a creative outlet, but also fulfilled a sense of accomplishment. Writing to a friend at the end of 1933, FDR’s first year in the White House, she trumpeted, “I’ve done it! I earned as much as Franklin.” She made as much as $1,400 a lecture (almost $25,000 in 2016), $1,000 a month for her column, and thousands more for her books and magazine articles. Pegler accused Roosevelt sons Elliott and James, and Eleanor’s uncle Forbes Morgan, of using their relationship to the president to enrich themselves. He published other pieces that raised questions about the Roosevelts’ payment of taxes, charging that the donation of the Roosevelt home to the National Park Service after FDR’s death was designed to avoid inheritance taxes. In July 1945, with the House still controlled by Democrats, her earnings and those of two of her sons led to an Internal Revenue Service inquiry at the behest of the House Ways and Means Committee.

To us today her activities do seem out of bounds. And, even in that simpler time without today’s government ethics laws, the allegations of Pegler and others found their target. In September 1941, in her monthly column in the Ladies Home Journal (“If You Ask Me”), a questioner asks:

We have read that you and your family have cleaned up a cool two and a half million out of writing, lecturing, broadcasting, fat insurance commissions, and so on, since Mr. Roosevelt was elected President. How can you defend this commercialization of the White House to those of us who have been taught to die for our country, not make money out of it?

Her response to this anonymous inquiry is both defensive and self-serving, and shows that even the First Lady of the World could be shortsighted and tone deaf.

I have no idea on what information this statement which you have read is based. I know that as far as my husband is concerned, he has spent, in fulfilling the obligations of his office as President, somewhat more than his salary.

Where I am concerned, I earned money by working for it before my husband was President and I have gone on doing so. . . .

The demands on anyone in the White House are very great. One could, of course, refuse them all. If one could not do anything to earn money and did not have a large personal fortune, the demands would have to be ignored.

It wearies me a little to hear criticism of what the children do and make. They have to work in any case, or be supported by their families. . . . Because their father happens to be in the White House, they are not commercializing the White House or their father’s position. . . .

I personally do not think that earning a small or large amount is commercializing the White House. . . . When it comes to being taught to die for your country, I doubt if that has been left out of the education of the children in any branch of the Roosevelt family.

The allegations would not go away. The Chicago Daily Tribune, another unyielding critic of the Roosevelt administration, kept the criticism going (as did Pegler) for years after FDR’s death. Tribune writer Walter Trohan called Roosevelt family finances “one of the most fabulous and sordid in American financial history.” Writing “Roosevelt Gravy Train” in 1948, he described a “tale full of robber barons, harsh treatment of labor, tax dodging, sharp practices, contriving for advantage and commercialization of the highest office in the land.” This invective reminds me of another of Blanche Weisen Cook’s observations: “The vigor of contempt and rage elicited by Eleanor Roosevelt continues to frame much of the discourse about women with power, access to power, or the appearance of power.”

Surely it is a measure of Eleanor Roosevelt’s power that the allegations of the Peglers and Sullivans and Trohans and J. Edgar Hoover have been overtaken by the judgment of history. The United States now has as one of its candidates for president the first woman nominated by a major party. It might be good to remember how the Roosevelts handled the abuse thrown their way. “My husband once said to me,” Eleanor observed, “that an individual wanting to go into politics must decide to have a hide like a rhinoceros, and as the years go on I have decided that this is one of the necessities—at least in American politics!” Our great politicians do not have to be perfect, but they have to be strong and resilient if they are to become great leaders.

It’s Time to Return the Summer Olympics to Greece – Permanently

From the Editors:

Every four years the spectacle is the same: vast quantities of resources, both human and environmental, are squandered in the construction of brand new Olympic venues, only to have them lie partially (or totally) unused after the games. Inevitably the contracts to build these facilities are mired in corruption, involving bribes and payouts to local officials and questionable gifts to Olympic dignitaries, while the venues themselves are often so shoddily built that they fail even before the games begin. The latest Olympics in Rio have brought all these problems to the fore once again in an even more glaring light: from athletic housing built on public land later to be sold to wealthy condo buyers to malfunctioning swimming pools filled with sewage water to the 150,000 poor displaced by the new venues and perhaps most insultingly, to the huge colorfully painted concrete walls hastily built to hide the slums from wealthy visitors on the way to the airport — all this, while on the other side of the wall, everyday Brazilians suffer from a dysfunctional government that leaves its citizens in squalor, unable to provide even the most basic services. As one resident summed it up grimly to the New York Times: “The wealthy play, and we die.”

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When the modern Olympic games were first held Athens in 1896, they were a resounding success, and the intention of many of the founders of the new International Olympic Commission (IOC) was that the games would be held permanently in Athens. Certainly George, then King of Greece, thought so, urging the games to remain in speech after speech, even offering financial inducements to the IOC. So did the first ever American delegation, writing in a letter: “The existence of the stadium as a structure so uniquely adapted to its purpose; the proved ability of Greece to competently administer the games; and above all, the fact that Greece is the original home of the Olympic games; all these considerations force upon us the conviction that these games should never be removed from their native soil.” However, Pierre de Coubertin, the French intellectual who had conceived the idea of reviving the games in the first place, was unconvinced. As quoted in a recent article in the Atlantic, Coubertin noted in his memoirs that such ideas were mere “nationalistic fervor” on the part of Greece. “No one could seriously believe for a moment that Athens would be able to go on indefinitely every four years making the supreme effort required for the periodic renewal of the organization and the financing.” Ironically, “nationalistic fervor” is precisely what really motived Coubertin, and rather unsurprisingly the 1900 games moved to his beloved France. Thus the disastrous cycle of changing venues every four years was set in motion, all under the false banner of promoting “peace and international spirit.” This might have made some small sense in an age before television, as it gave citizens of various countries a once-in-a-lifetime chance to view the games. However, today in an era when 99.9999% of the Olympic audience is not physically present at events, the actual location of the games is irrelevant.

Then of course there is the matter of ruinous cost. Russian president Putin spent 50 billion dollars on the winter Olympics in Sochi, the most for any games ever. Much of it was siphoned off into the pockets of cronies, and today the site sits virtually abandoned with many of planned buildings still incomplete. Montreal didn’t finish paying for the 1976 Olympics till 2006, and only two games — both held in Los Angeles — have ever came close to covering the costs for their host cities, and then only because LA reused the Olympic venues from 1932. So murky have the economics become that Boston, proposed for the 2024 games, withdrew itself from consideration after voters wisely woke up to the threat of cost overruns and service disruptions caused by the proposed new construction.

Enough is enough. It is time to return the summer games to Greece permanently. Anyone who has read any news in the last year knows that Greece could desperately use the tourism and international exchange that the Olympic games would provide. Like LA, Athens could profit from the games, as they already possess the venues from the 2004 Olympics, most of which are sitting abandoned and falling to ruin according to a 2014 Daily Mail article. If we truly care about sustainability, if we truly want “peace and international spirit,” then its high time we admit that expending billions of dollars on constructing new venues every four years when so many around the world remain in want is not only criminal but sinful. Let the Olympic flame return to its home in Greece once and for all, reminding us that it is meant to represent the best of human spirit and endeavor, not the fire of human greed and corruption.

The House That E-bay Built

Every morning I find a reminder from E-Bay in my mailbox. “X (being a number) NEW: Harvard!” And sure enough, one click reveals previously unseen items of Harvard memorabilia. Most of the offerings don’t interest me, but occasionally something pops up that either completes the Suite’s collection, or is a better example of an item we already possess. Some days, when my box is particularly full or I’m in a rush, I’m tempted to just delete this email and move on. But I normally don’t, because in the end, The FDR Suite is in fact the house that E-bay built.

Now, granted, there are items in the Suite that didn’t arrive on-line. The furniture, for example was either custom-built for us or found in New England antique shops. The rugs too are local; the draperies were hand-sewn to period designs; the piano arrived by a circuitous 100-year route from Newburyport. However, the majority of the other 2000-odd moving parts in the Suite possess separate provinces, each having arrived at our door via post from places as far away as Hong Kong and originating in more than a dozen countries. It’s really amazing to think about: 20 years ago there is no way that the Suite’s collection of early 20th century antiques and Harvard ephemera could have been assembled in a few short years. It would have taken a lifetime of searching through yard sales and antique shops to find a mere fraction of it. This is truly the power of the Internet — allowing users to find, sift and triage information — and for those of us who remember a day without it, it is an awesome power indeed.

Recent developments in scanning techniques have aided our efforts immensely as well. We have been able to reproduce a large number of original personal pictures both from the FDR Collection at Hyde Park, and from the family albums of FDR’s Harvard roommate Lathrop Brown, that rival the originals and in some instances vastly improve them. And then there is the case of things we simply can’t afford, yet can still possess through the marvels of modern technology. This wonderful signed postcard is a perfect example, sent from the Suite by FDR in his sophomore year. It recently sold at auction for over $1000, but the auction house was kind enough to share a high resolution scan with us before the sale, which we then duplicated for the Suite. A bit of a parlor trick, you object? Not really, because our purpose at the FDR Suite is to interpret, not slavishly duplicate, the Gilded Age at Harvard, which means that the real importance of this card to us is not the authenticity of the signature itself, but rather what it can explain to our visiting guests.

In itself the postcard is a clever Victorian design showing the front page of the Crimson, but what’s really interesting is that these cards were in fact the e-mail of FDR’s Harvard. The post was delivered and taken from the Suite three times a day, and such postcards were the communication life-blood of the University. Club notices, concert announcements, athletic event schedules, even a dreaded summons to the Dean’s office all arrived by postcard, which if mailed by 9PM had every expectation of arriving to its destination the next morning. This rapid movement of the post was considered one of the wonders of the day, and had as transformative an effect on 19th century society as the Internet has on ours today. Given the remove in a mere hundred years of paper post cards manually carried from place to place to electrons zipping through fiber optics then magically reassembled a world away, no doubt tomorrow will bring equally vast changes… What’s next? Perhaps a halo-FDR Suite that can be toured by anyone, anywhere, anytime… Now wouldn’t that be something! (But wait, wouldn’t that make me superfluous? A halo-Suite with a halo-Michael…. Hmmmm. Let’s reconsider that…)

In the meantime though, I remain immensely grateful for E-Bay!

Michael Weishan

Founder and Executive Director

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation

Aiding Information Professionals in Finland

The FDR Foundation Outside the Ivory Tower:
Aiding Information Professionals in Finland

Disinformation is dangerous. In the United States we’ve seen disinformation campaigns denying the dangers of smoking and the existence of climate change. We’ve seen popular, utterly false narratives circulate about the measles vaccine causing autism and the federal government establishing “Obamacare” “death panels.” There are real consequences to disinformation: it can affect policy decisions, distract or disgruntle the electorate, even alter the outcome of elections.

Generally, “disinformation” refers to distributing information that one knows is false. “Propaganda” is an older term that used to mean “propagation of the truth” but lost positive connotations, especially after WWII. Disinformation could be part of a propaganda or “public diplomacy” campaign but is generally a more specific term.

Globally, the past couple of years have seen an increase in systematic disinformation campaigns worldwide. Finns, along with citizens of many if not most countries, are targets of disinformation campaigns. That’s why, in January 2016, the Finnish government partnered with the FDR Foundation to educate more than 100 officials from 20+ ministries and departments in responding to foreign “Information & Influence.”

Welcome to Our New Web Site

We’ve just launched our new web site! We hope it will be a place you return to frequently to check into the latest news related to FDR and the FDR Foundation.

We welcome your suggestions and comments as we continue to improve our site. Please let us know what you think. Is there something missing or something you can’t find? Something we could do better? Have we inadvertently left a ‘bug’ lurking somewhere that disturbs your visit to our site? Your feedback is important to us. You can leave a comment below, or contact us directly by sending an email to:  tech (dot) support (at) fdrfoundation.org

We will continue to restore previous articles and content from years past, until the last piece of information is once again available, so don’t fret about that photo of “John the Orange Man” or the early accounts of restoring the FDR Suite to its present glory – they haven’t gone away forever, just for a very short while!

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Thank you, and happy surfing!

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