On Democracy and the Election


Franklin Roosevelt famously considered General Douglas MacArthur the most dangerous man in America.  Huey Long was number two.   What would he think of Donald Trump?

That got me thinking about what advice he might give us today.  When Roosevelt wanted the American people to face a difficult challenge, he often asked them to look to the past to find strength in the endurance of our forebears and wisdom in the actions of past leaders.  So, in the wake of our recent election, I turned to Roosevelt himself for some strength and wisdom.

Where, then, are the parallels for today? We face an uncertain future with an unproven president-elect whose campaign has stigmatized great swaths of the American public.

First of all, let us remember FDR’s charge to be wary of the hazards of fear.

Second, let us remember a comment from Woodrow Wilson that Roosevelt often repeated when things looked grim for progressive government. “It is only once in a generation that a people can be lifted above material things. That is why conservative government is in the saddle two-thirds of the time” (as quoted in James MacGregor Burns, The Lion and the Fox, 1956, p. 54). Perhaps progressive government in our generation had its moment with the Obama presidency and the pendulum has swung back to the country’s natural center.

But Roosevelt also said in the aftermath of a conservative backlash in 1938, “You have read that as a result of the balloting last November, the liberal forces in the United States are on their way to the cemetery—yet I ask you to remember that liberal forces in the United States have often been killed and buried, with the inevitable result that in short order they have come to life again with more strength than they had before” (Address at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, December 5, 1938).

We are deeply worried today about our populace, which seems hopelessly divided into separate and antagonistic camps. Roosevelt had something to say about that too, and in the aftermath of this election it is a warning that bears serious attention. In 1940, with Hitler’s conquest of Europe complete but for the elimination of Great Britain, the United States was deeply divided—more divided, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. wrote, than he ever again experienced in his long life.

War hovered over all, and the argument between interventionists and isolationists grew each week more savage and despairing. There have been a number of fierce national quarrels in my lifetime—over communism in the later Forties, over McCarthyism in the Fifties, over Vietnam in the Sixties—but none so tore apart families and friendships as the great debate of 1940–41. Though historians have dealt ably with the policy issues, justice has not been done to the searing personal impact in those angry days
[A Life in the Twentieth Century, p. 241].

While the attack on Pearl Harbor put an end to most national discord a year later, Roosevelt warned in his his 1940 Annual Message to Congress that internal conflict—which pits one group against another—is an open door to totalitarianism:

Doctrines that set group against group, faith against faith, race against race, class against class, fanning the fires of hatred in men too despondent, too desperate to think for themselves, were used as rabble-rousing slogans on which dictators could ride to power. And once in power they could saddle their tyrannies on whole nations and on their weaker neighbors.

Roosevelt was warning Americans to unite in the face of an external threat, but he was also speaking to a nation that was tearing itself apart. His deeper message was to strengthen democracy by uniting behind its values, which in 1940 as in 2016 require us to work together to use the tools of our democracy to preserve it.

Our times are not as desperate as those of 1933 or 1940. We are a nation that enjoys many blessings. We have serious challenges and we must meet them, but now is not the time for fear and dissention. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to strengthen our democracy, for what FDR said in 1940 must be reconfirmed in 2016. President-elect Trump used the tools of a demagogue to gain the presidency, but we must not allow the country to descend into autocracy.











FDR’s Last Personal Diplomacy: Ibn Saud and the Quest for a Jewish Homeland

The alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States goes back seven decades, to when King Abdulaziz, the founder of the modern Saudi state, met President Franklin Delano Roosevelt aboard the U.S.S. Quincy at the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal.

New York Times, September 29, 2016

 With Saudi-American relations in the news again, I thought it worth remembering that today’s alliance had its beginnings in one last bit of Rooseveltian personal diplomacy: an attempt to use his redoubtable skills on behalf of European Jews.

The meeting with King Abdulaziz (often known in the West as Ibn Saud) took place immediately following the Yalta Conference in February 1945 when the Big Three—Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and Roosevelt—hammered out the final diplomatic agreements of the Second World War. Besides the conference with Ibn Saud, Roosevelt also arranged meetings with King Farouk of Egypt and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia that are little remembered today.

By scheduling the meetings without Churchill’s knowledge, Roosevelt breached the United States’ longstanding hands-off policy respecting Britain’s sphere of influence in the region. When Churchill learned of the meetings, he hastened to schedule talks of his own. But a change was already under way.

The strategic importance of the Middle East had become increasingly clear during the war, and Roosevelt’s economic and military advisers were anxious to secure America’s military presence in the Middle East—as well as cement America’s budding oil-drilling partnership with Saudi Arabia. These were solid reasons for Roosevelt to meet with Ibn Saud, but there is ample evidence that Palestine was the main purpose of the president’s visit.

In 1944 both Republicans and Democrats vied for Jewish votes with pro-Zionist planks in their campaign platforms. But this statement from Roosevelt, read to the Zionist Organization of America on October 15, confirmed the loyalty of American Jewry to the Democratic Party. “I know how long and ardently the Jewish people have worked and prayed for the establishment of Palestine as a free and Democratic Jewish commonwealth.   I am convinced that the American people give their support to this aim, and if reelected, I shall help to bring about its realization” (quoted in Breitman and Lichtman, p. 259).

Historian Robert Rosen and others point out that Roosevelt had also privately promised his Jewish friends to try to solve the problem of Palestine before the war was over. Before he left for Yalta, he conferred with Rabbi Stephen Wise and told his Cabinet that he would meet Saud and “try and settle the Palestine situation” (quoted in Rosen, pp. 409–410).  Historians Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman recount that after the election he began to make plans for the Yalta trip, stating to Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, “I am going to take a trip [the Yalta Conference] this winter and will see a lot of people. . . . I want to see if I can’t unravel this whole situation [the question of Palestine] on the ground,” leading them to conclude that Roosevelt hoped to use his personal, persuasive diplomacy to settle matters on Palestine (p. 297). In early January, Roosevelt told Stettinius that when he met with Ibn Saud after Yalta, he wanted a map with him that showed the small size of Palestine in relation to the Arab world in order to make the case that “he could not see why a portion of Palestine could not be given to the Jews without harming in any way the interests of the Arabs with the understanding, of course, that the Jews would not move into adjacent part of the Near East from Palestine” (Breitman and Lichtman, p. 299).

 Franklin Roosevelt and Ibn Saud meeting aboard the U.S.S. Quincy, February 14, 1945.

Franklin Roosevelt and Ibn Saud meeting aboard the U.S.S. Quincy, February 14, 1945.

Roosevelt’s translator at Yalta, Charles Bohlen, recorded in his memoirs Witness to History (p. 212) that Roosevelt raised the subject with Stalin during the Yalta Conference in a controversial conversation that contained an unfortunate remark that led some to label Roosevelt anti-Zionist. Breitman and Lichtman interpret the anti-Semitic exchange as an “ice-breaker,” which Roosevelt used to test the waters of Stalin’s potential opposition to a Jewish homeland in Palestine—and found no resistance (p. 301). Roosevelt biographer Frank Freidel agrees, “In actuality Roosevelt was stubbornly pro-Zionist, and had a difficult time with Ibn Saud when he tried to persuade the king to accept 10,000 more Jews in Palestine” (p. 594). Breitman and Licthman also tell us that Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, who worked closely with the president, believed that Roosevelt “like the late Justice Brandeis, thought a Jewish state would become a model of social justice and would raise standards of living in the region. FDR also knew that Saudi Arabia badly needed outside funds for development. Surely a farsighted Arab leader would recognize such benefits—along with the advantages of American aid” (p. 299) Adding to all of these considerations, the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army in late January revealed to the world the horrors of the Holocaust. Thomas Lippman, another scholar of the subject, states categorically that Roosevelt met with Ibn Saud because “the Jews had a claim on the world’s conscience, and on Roosevelt’s” (p. 3).

By all accounts the meeting with King Abdulaziz was extraordinary. Ibn Saud and his retinue of 47—which included an astrologer and food taster—traveled across the Arabian peninsula from Riyadh to Jeddah where they boarded the U.S.S. Murphy for a two-day sail on the Red Sea to Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal. Only once before had the king left the Arabian peninsula. Fitted out for the king’s use, the Murphy’s deck was covered with colorful carpets and shaded by an enormous brown canvas tent. A flock of sheep, brought along for fresh meat, grazed in a corral. Food was cooked on charcoal braziers on the deck. Abdulaziz, 64 years old, a large and imposing black-bearded man dressed in Arab robes, his headdress regally bound with golden cords, was seated on a golden throne. The king was attended by barefoot Arab warriors armed with long rifles, each with a scimitar bound to his waist. One American witness described it as “a spectacle out of the ancient past on the deck of a modern man-of-war” (quoted in Lippman, p. 2).

Roosevelt waited on the U.S.S Quincy, surrounded by his own retinue of admirals and high-ranking diplomats. Ibn Saud was transferred to the Quincy and the two leaders, meeting from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on February 14, 1945, forged an improbable alliance that linked the two nations and shaped the history of the Middle East for decades to come.

I first learned about the meeting between Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz in 2003 when American Counsel to Saudi Arabia, Hugh Geohagan, visited the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park. His purpose was to discuss returning to the Library a collection of objects that had been borrowed a few years earlier for an exhibition, “Gifts of Friendship,” in the King Abdulaziz Archives in Riyadh. Held in 2002, the exhibition commemorated the centennial of Abdulaziz’s rule by displaying the state gifts that he and Roosevelt exchanged in their shipboard meeting in 1945.

DC-3 passenger plane given by FDR to King Abdelaziz.

Ibn Saud’s gifts to FDR included brightly colored camel’s hair robes embroidered with gold, hand-painted perfume bottles, a bottle of granular musk, lumps of ambergris, a gold dagger set with diamonds, and a gold filigree sword and belt set with diamonds. In return FDR famously gave the king a DC-3 passenger plane (fully staffed with a crew supplied by the U.S), which marked the beginning of the Saudi Air Force. When he saw that the king had trouble walking, FDR spontaneously gave him one of his wheelchairs. The gifts were extraordinary, but not as extraordinary as the meeting itself.

Formal talks began after they had exchanged the gifts and enjoyed lunch and Arabian coffee. “Roosevelt came straight to the most urgent point: the plight of the Jews and the future of Palestine, where it was already apparent that the governing mandate bestowed upon Britain by the League of Nations twenty years earlier would come to an end after the war” (Lippman, p. 8).

Memoir of the meeting by Col. William A. Eddy, U.S. Minister to Saudi Arabia and translator of the meeting.

Memoir of the meeting by Col. William A. Eddy, U.S. Minister to Saudi Arabia and translator of the meeting.

An account of the conversation, FDR Meets Ibn Saud, was published by U.S. Minister to Saudi Arabia Col. William A. Eddy, who was deeply involved in the intricate intercultural arrangements for the meeting. Born in what is now Lebanon, Eddy was fluent in Arabic, and as translator, was the only person to hear both sides of the conversation between the two leaders. As quoted from Eddy’s account in Rosen (pp. 412–413), “President Roosevelt was in top form as a charming host, witty conversationalist, with the spark and light in his eyes and that gracious smile which always won people over to him whenever he talked with them as a friend. . . . With Ibn Saud he was at his very best.” Roosevelt said that he felt “a personal responsibility” for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust who had suffered “indescribable horrors at the hands of the Nazis: eviction, destruction of their homes, torture, and mass murder” and asked the king for his advice. The king replied that the Allies as victors should give the Jews and “their descendants the choicest lands and homes of the Germans who had oppressed them.” Roosevelt responded that the Jews had a deep desire to settle in Palestine and were fearful of remaining in Germany. The king said he did not doubt that the Jews did not trust the Germans, but “surely the Allies will destroy Nazi power forever and in their victory will be strong enough to protect Nazi victims. If the Allies do not expect firmly to control future German policy, why fight this costly war?” He lectured the president on the long history of animosity between Arabs and Jews.

Continuing with Eddy’s account as recounted in Rosen, Roosevelt persisted, saying that he counted on Arab “hospitality” and on the king’s help solving the problem of Zionism, but the king repeated his position. “Amends should be made by the criminal, not by the innocent bystander. What injury have Arabs done to the Jews of Europe? It is the ‘Christian’ Germans who stole their homes and lives.” Later Roosevelt returned a third time to the subject. The king lost patience, observing that American “oversolicitude for the Germans was incomprehensible to an uneducated Bedouin with whom friends get more solicitude than enemies.” Ibn Saud’s final remark on the subject reiterated his unalterable position. According to Arab custom, he said, survivors and victims of battle were distributed among the victors according to their number and their supplies of food and water. Palestine, he said, was a small, land-poor country “and had already been assigned more than its quota of European refugees.” Still Roosevelt persevered. “The Arabs would choose to die,” he told the president, “rather than yield their land to the Jews.” Roosevelt offered economic aid, irrigation projects, and improved living standards for the Saudi people who were then poverty stricken by war-time disruptions to their economy (quoted in Rosen, pp. 413–414).

But the king was adamant. Was his confidence shaken? He later told Eleanor Roosevelt that his failure to convince Ibn Saud was his one complete failure. To Rabbi Wise he said, “I most gloriously failed where you are concerned.” To Congress, in his report on the Yalta Conference, he said only, “I learned more about that whole problem, the Moslem problem, the Jewish problem, by talking with Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in the exchange of two or three dozen letters.” He later reported to Wise:

There was nothing I could do with him. We talked for three hours and I argued with the old fellow up hill and down dale, but he stuck to his guns. He said he could see the flood engulfing his lands, Jews pouring in from Eastern Europe and from America, from the Riviera and from California, and he could not bear the thought. He was an old man and he had swollen ankles and he wanted to live out his life in peace without leaving a memory of himself as a traitor to the Arab cause [quoted in Rosen, p. 415].

Roosevelt himself had less than two months to live. Judge Joseph Proskauer later recalled that FDR was frightened now for the Jews in Palestine. He believed that “either a war or a pogrom would ensue” (quoted in Rosen, p. 416).

 Diamond and gold dagger and scabbard given by King Abdulaziz to FDR. Courtesy FDR Library and Museum.

Diamond and gold dagger and scabbard given by King Abdulaziz to FDR. Courtesy FDR Library and Museum.

Why did he do it? This was one of Roosevelt’s last acts. Surely he knew that his life was slipping away. Too ill to endure a fourth inauguration ceremony on Capitol Hill, a swearing in was held at the White House followed by the second briefest inaugural address in history. Yet two days later he began his 14,000-mile journey to Yalta, where he secured his twin priorities of Soviet entry into the war in the Pacific and Stalin’s commitment to the United Nations. It was only Roosevelt’s vision of a secure and peaceful postwar world that sustained him—not only at Yalta, but also to extend his arduous journey and meet with King Abdulaziz.

Many historians have reported on Roosevelt’s supreme confidence, his steadfast belief that through personal diplomacy—by meeting adversaries face to face—he could solve problems that stymied others. Breitman and Lichtman report on a telling incident, “After attending a presidential session on the Middle East, State Department economic advisor Herbert Feis said, ‘I’ve read of men who thought they might be King of the Jews and other men who thought they might be King of the Arabs, but this is the first time I’ve listened to a man who dreamt of being King of both the Jews and the Arabs’” (quoted in Breitman and Lichtman, p. 299).

Despite his own failure at Great Bitter Lake, Roosevelt’s belief in the power of personal diplomacy was intact. It was, after all, the foundational idea for the United Nations—that is, that seemingly intractable problems can be solved in a world organization that brings people together to overcome their differences. A belief fervently shared by Eleanor Roosevelt, for FDR it was the only hope that the world could avert war.

With his health failing, FDR went to Warm Springs on March 30 to attempt to recover his strength. There he would write his “Jefferson Day” radio address, scheduled for April 13. He died on April 12.


With his powers of personal diplomacy failing, Roosevelt bequeathed to all of us the hope that what he knew about “science of human relationships” could be invested in a world organization. The fate of the Jews of Europe, like so much unfinished business of the Second World War, would fall to the United Nations. There has been no end to war, but neither has there been a Third World War.



Bohlen, Charles E. Witness to History: 1929-1969.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 1973.

Breitman, Richard and Allan J. Lichtman.   FDR and the Jews. Cambridge:  Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 2013.

Coppola, John.  “A Pride of Museums in the Desert: Saudi Arabia and the ‘Gift of Friendship’ Exhibition,” Curator 48/1 (January 2005): 90-100.

Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny.  Boston and New York: Little Brown, 1990.

Lippman, Thomas, W. “The Day FDR Met Saudi Arabia’s Ibn Saud,” The Link (April-May 2005):1-13.

Rosen, Robert. N. Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006.


Hillary R[oosevelt] Clinton: Or, Channeling Eleanor and Franklin

When Hillary Clinton was First Lady, critics lampooned her for “talking” to Eleanor Roosevelt, who had been dead for more than thirty years. (Full disclosure: when I was director of the FDR Library, between 1999 and 2010, I regularly did the same thing with both Roosevelts. They give great advice!) The revelation about Hillary and Eleanor caused quite a stir as Hillary Clinton was ridiculed for “talking with ghosts” and other New Age-y things. But Mrs. Clinton was not particularly embarrassed; in fact, she herself wrote in “Talking It Over,” her weekly syndicated newspaper column, “[Eleanor Roosevelt] usually responds by telling me to buck up, or at least to grow skin as thick as a rhinoceros.” “Talking It Over,” which ran from 1995 to 2000, was itself an homage to Eleanor Roosevelt—as Mrs. Clinton explained in her first column:

Some people may wonder whether I am looking to Eleanor Roosevelt for my inspiration. In thinking about this article, I re-read the column that Mrs. Roosevelt wrote nearly every day for the better part of three decades. She called her column “My Day” and covered subjects as varied as her annual picnic for disadvantaged boys, the meaning of religion in our lives and the fuss over a new bob in her hair. Sounds familiar!

My hope is that this column, like hers, will prompt all of us to think more about the human dimension of our lives. In some small way, I hope it will help bridge the gaps in our society so that we can reach beyond stereotypes and caricatures—and respect one another for the unique contributions each of us makes to our country.

irst Lady Hillary Clinton at the dedication of the Eleanor Roosevelt Monument in Riverside Park, New York City, October 5, 1996

irst Lady Hillary Clinton at the dedication of the Eleanor Roosevelt Monument in Riverside Park, New York City, October 5, 1996

My wish too is that it will provide information about problems facing us that people can use to help decide what they think should be done. Mostly, though, this column will give me the chance to talk things over in the hope that some of you will join the conversation.

During my tenure at the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, we were well aware of the Clintons’ admiration for the Roosevelts. President Clinton visited three times while he was president (a record) and again after he left office. Senator Clinton visited the Library for an awards ceremony and on another occasion to ascertain the needs of both the National Park Service and the National Archives, the government agencies responsible for maintaining the Roosevelt National Historic Sites and the Roosevelt Presidential Library. Through the special historic preservation program “Save America’s Treasures” (which she started as First Lady) she took a special interest in Eleanor Roosevelt’s Val-Kill Cottage, a National Park Service site. As senator she was an early supporter of the funding necessary for the much-needed renovation of the Roosevelt Library that was completed in 2013.

And it is clear that Hillary Clinton has not forgotten the Roosevelt legacy in her campaign for the presidency. Her decision to kick off her campaign at the Four Freedoms Park in New York City shone an international spotlight on her commitment to revitalizing the Roosevelt legacy, “To be here in this beautiful park dedicated to Franklin Roosevelt’s enduring vision of America, the nation we want to be.” Located on Roosevelt Island in the shadow of the United Nations, it memorializes FDR’s Four Freedoms speech to a war-torn world to fight for Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom from Want “everywhere in the world.”

In declaring her candidacy for president, Hillary Clinton spoke of the Four Freedoms as “testament to our nation’s unmatched aspirations and a reminder of our unfinished work at home and abroad.” She spoke of her husband and Barack Obama as “two Democrats guided by” Roosevelt’s “fundamental American belief that real and lasting prosperity must be built by all and shared by all.”

President Roosevelt called on every American to do his or her part, and every American answered. He said there’s no mystery about what it takes to build a strong and prosperous America: “Equality of opportunity. . . Jobs for those who can work . . . Security for those who need it . . . The ending of special privilege for the few . . . the preservation of civil liberties for all . . .a wider and constantly rising standard of living.” . . . It’s America’s basic bargain. If you do your part, you ought to be able to get ahead. And when everybody does their part, America gets ahead too.

This past July, as she accepted the nomination of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton faced a new challenge—the vitriol and fear mongering of her opponent. Again she turned to Roosevelt.“[A] great Democratic President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, came up with the perfect rebuke to Trump more than eighty years ago, during a much more perilous time. ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’”

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt believed that hope—paired with a sense of civic responsibility—gave people the courage they needed to counter fear in the midst of the Great Depression and against fascism and totalitarianism a decade later. And as Eleanor Roosevelt described it in her final book Tomorrow is Now, that hope was always linked to a practical appreciation of the worth and obligations of every individual in a democracy.  “We have to work with the people as they are in this country, with all their shortcomings. . . . I remember clearly my husband’s words in his last State of the Union address in 1945:  ‘[I]n a democratic world, as in a democratic nation, power must be linked with responsibility and obliged to defend and justify itself with the framework of the general good’” . Things are not so very different today. Like the Roosevelts, Hillary Clinton must inspire us to act not only in our own best interest but for the general good, which—and this is the genius of democracy—benefits us individually as well.

Dr. Cynthia M. Koch is the Historian in Residence and Director of History Programming at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation. She is also the Past Director of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum at Hyde Park.

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.


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.”


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.