REVIEW That Man: An Insider's Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt
That Man: An Insider's Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt
By Robert H. Jackson
Edited and Introduced by John Q. Barrett
Oxford University Press
by Miles Beller
Biographical history or “the memoir” often arrives more dead than alive; writing writ large with myriad observations but void of transformative insight and emotion.
But now, more than half-a-century since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death on a distant Sunday in April, comes a newly discovered recollection by a Roosevelt contemporary infused with perception and understanding. “That Man: An Insider’s Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt,” culled from a manuscript written in 1950 by Robert H. Jackson as well as from speeches and articles Jackson authored (all superbly integrated and edited in “That Man” by John Q. Barrett) reveals a Roosevelt rife with contradictions and dichotomies. Here is a politician who could lead by seemingly following, a Commander-in-Chief who frequently chose to hang back and let those under him duke it out. In fact, the memoir’s title, “That Man,” slyly references the derisive epithet applied to Roosevelt – “that man in the White House” – hissed by those who deemed the Brahmin-turned-Everyman Democrat duplicitous and devious.
Although a Roosevelt insider and admirer, Jackson’s account is no adoring valentine, no knee-jerk hagiography. Rather, Jackson furnishes a truly telling portrait of the Roosevelt he knew; a man whose upbringing and nature uniquely suited him to meet the challenges history devised. Jackson sees to the core, to Roosevelt’s hidden heart, to the essence of the man. It bears pointing out the obvious, that Jackson knew FDR before the latter’s investiture as DC deity; before Roosevelt’s rises as New Deal saint hovering in a heavenly firmament of alphabet soup relief agencies (FERA, WPA, NRA, CWA), his jaw jauntily out-thrust, ever jutting into immortality.
Contrary to the general impulse toward sanctification for Franklin, Jackson sets down a sure evocation of an actual man. Despite his pal Roosevelt’s devotion to freedom’s cause, the four-term President could be decidedly devious as a power broker, frequently changing the rules to suit his own ends. In chapters headed “That Man in the White House,” ”That Man as Companion and Sportsman,” “That Man as Leader of the Masses,” Roosevelt emerges warts and all. Jackson’s work makes FDR all the more remarkable, given Roosevelt’s foibles. What Jackson says deeply matters. Through him we receive a fresh take on an old icon, are privy to nuance and particulars that together deliver a commanding view of the private life of an outsized public figure.
And, indeed, in Robert Jackson we encounter a giant in his own right. For Jackson, who after the close of the Second World War went on to play a key role in the trials at Nuremberg as America’s appointed Chief Prosecutor, also served as Roosevelt’s attorney general and sat on the Supreme Court. Along with such FDR stalwarts as Harry Hopkins, Sam Rosenman, and Robert E. Sherwood, Jackson was among the President’s closest friends and advisors. Jackson was an insider who saw Roosevelt at his worst and at his best. Moroever, in presenting the inner FDR, Jackson proves himself a fine writer; his language direct and true, his eye for epiphany as anecdote unerringly affecting. In concert with this, Jackson provides discerning observations and cogent perceptions concerning Roosevelt’s motivations and intentions.
Here is Jackson on Roosevelt’s paralysis, its impact on FDR’s psyche and sense of self. “I think much of the President’s self-assurance came from his mastery of his illness. Of course his physical impairment was never more than partially overcome. But the psychological shock of his disability was. Although the limitation was always present and visible, he had adjusted his habits of thought and action to it so perfectly that it seemed forgotten.” In this regard, Jackson opines that Roosevelt’s handicap “caused him no embarrassment or feelings of inferiority to ask that things (sometimes very personal things) be done for him. It was not an invitation to sympathy. That his lower limbs were hopelessly paralyzed, he accepted as fact, like the fact of his Presidency. He went about his work, not ignoring the realities but seeing them in their true proportion.” Jackson goes on to say “Here was a man who had such physical disabilities that there were not many things that he could do, but he could be President. He enjoyed the part.”
At times, the FDR who Jackson introduces us to is flinty and obstinate, though generally able to charm and enchant most of those in his way. “…He did not like face-to-face quarrels with people,” Jackson says of Roosevelt, noting that the President had difficulty firing those he determined were doing a sub-par job. This trait, Eleanor Roosevelt confirms in papers housed at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, was her husband’s “real weakness.” However, in Mrs. Roosevelt’s view, it underscored an attribute, specifically that FDR “couldn’t bear to be disagreeable to someone he liked…and he just couldn’t bring himself to really do the unkind thing that had to be done unless he got angry.” As to the crucible that had formed her husband’s character, Eleanor earnestly explored this in a letter to one of their sons that set out to analyze her husband’s past. “His was an innate kind of reticence that may have been developed by the fact that he had an older father and a very strong-willed mother, who constantly tried to exercise control over him in the early years. Consequently, he may have fallen into the habit of keeping his own counsel, and it became part of his nature not to talk to anyone of intimate matters.” Harry Hopkins, among FDR’s most trusted counselors and one of the administration’s fiercest fighters, had his own theory concerning Roosevelt’s temperament. In his view, FDR sometimes tried appearing “tough and cynical and flippant, but that’s an act he likes to put on…” For Hopkins, the aspect of Roosevelt’s nature that made him so appealing was that “he was a great spiritual figure… an idealist.”
There were those who experienced FDR as a combination of enlightenment and ego, a warring contradiction of ambition and altruism that spurred Roosevelt to alter history’s trajectory. A second-rate intellect but a first-rate temperament is how the esteemed jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, sized-up this blue-stocking officeholder with the common touch. Thomas Mann, the feted German writer who fled his homeland for the United States during Hitler’s push to power, held FDR in high regard but with qualifications. In a letter dated early April 1937, Mann found FDR’s character harboring “dictatorial features,” yet Mann firmly believed that FDR was “a sincere servant of democracy.” Several years later when Mann met Roosevelt at the White House, he summed up his sense of the President’s constitution as “a mixture of craft, good nature, self-indulgence, desire to please, and sincere faith…” Mann concluded that FDR was “…a modern tamer of the masses who desires the good — or at any rate, the better — and who takes our part as perhaps no one else in the world does. Why should I not take his part? I feel strengthened afterward.”
Needless to say, there was no shortage of “Roosevelt haters” and FDR bashers during FDR’s reign; politicians, columnists and pundits who gauged the President’s soul as dangerously flawed and a serious threat to the American Way. Right-wing radio personality Father Charles E. Coughlin called FDR a “scab President” who was “surrounded by red and pink communists” and simultaneously (though not paradoxically according to Coughlin’s conspiracy theory) controlled by “the ventriloquists of Wall Street.” Hell hollerin’ journalist Westbrook Pegler referred to the President as “Old Moosejaw,” and in FDR’s heart glimpsed what he saw as a compulsion to seize power by rumbling down the road to dictatorship. Indeed, Pegler went so far as to say of a failed presidential assassination attempt: “It is regrettable that Guiseppe Zangara hit the wrong man when he shot at Roosevelt in Miami.” Aviator-hero-turned-isolationist Charles Lindbergh, after meeting FDR on a Spring afternoon in 1939, confided in his diary that there is “something about him I did not trust, something a little too suave, too pleasant, too easy.” Lindbergh judged Roosevelt “a very tried man, but with enough energy left to carry on for a longtime. I doubt that he realizes how tired he is. His face has the gray look of an overworked businessman. And his voice has that even, routine tone that one seems to get when one’s mind is dulled by too much and too frequent conversation. It has that dull quality that comes to any one of the senses when it overused: taste, with too much of the same food day after day; hearing, when the music never changes; touch when one’s hand is never lifted.” Toward the end of his rumination on Roosevelt, Lindbergh wrote “Roosevelt judges his man quickly and plays him cleverly. He is mostly politician, and I think we would never get along on many fundamentals.”
Grace Tully, who started as FDR’s key secretary in the early 1940s and was at Warm Springs in April 1945 when a cerebral hemorrhage felled the President, offers one of the more intuitively informed evaluations of the Roosevelt mind. In her memoir of the President, “F.D.R. My Boss,” Tully writes that though much has been said of “Roosevelt’s supreme self-confidence” he never viewed himself as a crusading knight or as a warrior on a sacred mission. Rather, “(he) simply felt that he had been given ‘a good opportunity’ to do something about the problems that beset the nation. He had a keen sense of history, was aware of the fact that he was shaping it, felt sure of his own place in it, but in no sense did he feel himself a Messiah… He was conscious of his own sensitivity to events. He was conscious of his quick sympathies toward the underprivileged and the ‘forgotten.’ But these traits were what he expected of any person – and he asked for no acclaim because they were present in his own character.”
Folksy in outlook, conversational in approach, this outward demeanor masked a shrewd personality often envisioning intrigue beneath the skin of gentility and manners. “He was a difficult man to force into discussion of any subject toward which he wanted to close his eyes,” Jackson affirms. Even such a savvy judge of political performers as journalist Walter Lippmann pronounced FDR “a kind of amiable Boy Scout” prior to the former New York governor’s moving into the White House in the early 1930s. As Jackson reveals, Roosevelt’s lighthearted banter and chipper outlook concealed a far more complicated and complex entity than initially grasped.
FDR’s own appraisal of his inner life provides further insight into the working of his secret soul. In a letter to Jan Smuts during WW II, Roosevelt revealed “I dream dreams but am, at the same time, an intensely practical person.” And to Admiral William Leahy he once profess, “I am a pig-headed Dutchman.” To this one must add Roosevelt’s innate interest in people, particularly as to what made them tick. While in FDR’s company, Jackson invariably witnessed the President delving into his guests’ “minds and seeing what they were thinking. FDR “liked to know the details of their lives and their problems.”
Moreover, Jackson says Roosevelt found himself playing many roles, being “many men” as President. But this behavior acted as polarizing agent. “By 1940, every home regarded him as a household idol or its demon,” judges Jackson, adding that Roosevelt knew this well. “Earlier, I think he found the torrential hate of the upper classes and businessmen baffling, for he looked upon himself as one who was trying to save the system by which they prospered. But he grew to accept their animosity.” Political cartoons of the day visually underscored this severe split. A famous New Yorker magazine cartoon presented a gaggle of old-money DAR types asking neighbors to join them in booing newsreels featuring FDR screening at the local Bijoux. A concurrent newspaper cartoon portrayed Roosevelt as redeemer of the working poor, pulling floundering bodies from a boiling sea of certain economic drowning.
Surely Roosevelt was a challenge to comprehend. Frances Perkins, who served as Secretary of Labor during FDR’s tenure, categorized him as “the most complicated human being I ever knew.” And another FDR cabinet member, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., who was appointed Secretary of the Treasury, volunteered that “Roosevelt is an extraordinary person to describe…weary as well as buoyant, frivolous as well as grave, evasive as well as frank...a man of bewildering complexity of moods and motives.” Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Sherwood, who became an FDR intimate as a speech writer and as one of the founders of the Office of War Information (OWI) battling Axis propaganda during WWII, found it nearly impossible divining the Roosevelt mind. “Being a writer by trade, I tried continually to study him to try to look beyond his charming and amusing and warmly affectionate surface into his heavily forested interior. But I could never really understand what was going on there. His character was not only multiplex, it was contradictory to a bewildering degree. He was hard and he was soft. … He could be a ruthless politician but he was the champion of friends and associates who for him were political liabilities…and of causes which apparently competent advisers assured him would constitute political suicide. He could appear utterly cynical, worldly, illusionless, and yet his religious faith was the strongest and most mysterious force that was in him.”
Winston Churchill, in setting down his personal history of the war years, recalled his feeling for Roosevelt, the sort of man he knew him to be. Indeed, when Churchill heard of his friend’s sudden death it “felt as if I had been stuck a physical blow. My relations with this shining personality had played so large a part in the long terrible years we had worked together. Now they had come to an end, and I was overpowered by a sense of deep and irreparable loss.”
Jackson’s resonate remembrances and astute reflections deliver this visceral kick to us, making us, too, feel we knew Roosevelt. Jackson’s resurrected manuscript of how it was goes far in bringing this Presidential sphinx into focus, powerfully decoding the enigma of a formidable American life. The enduring value of Robert Jackson’s rediscovered memoir resides in its unflinching picture of an archetypal politician as redemptively human. Jackson’s long-lost account of our 32nd president restores a vital sense of an actual person, affording the reader the sincere pleasure of meeting a man instead of bumping up against a graven god. Jackson introduces us to Franklin Roosevelt in vitally human terms rather than palming him off as a perfect prophet from a bygone age. Jackson’s Roosevelt is no distant deity enshrined as sculpture in national monuments or appropriated as the namesake of a bank or a hospital. Rather than the idealized Yankee Adonis engraved in profile on the face of dimes, Jackson restores Roosevelt’s humanity, re-invoking the conflicting impulses and clashing aspirations that gave FDR direction and purpose when the world needed him most.
Miles Beller is a board member of Getlit and is currently working on a novel about translation.