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The Better Half? "Eleanor" (2.9.21)

No president is an island. There were friends, family members and associates who carried them forward and helped share the burdens. But in the history books, those people seldom share the credit.

Eleanor Roosevelt might be the exception. She's the only first lady with her own national historic site. She was the most engaged presidential spouse, working as a publicist, activist and sometimes administrator for a grab-bag of causes. And her public career outlived her husband. Into her late 70s, she still had pull in the Democratic Party, worked as a global ambassador for human rights and was banging out syndicated columns reaching millions of readers a week.

A friend gave me David Michaelis' "Eleanor" for my birthday. It's a cradle-to-grave biography, published in 2020, drawing on a mountain of public and private sources. When I got the book in late December, I was finishing up with Jean Edward Smith's "FDR" -- published in 2007 -- so this turned into a fun (for me) experiment. How do two different authors interpret these intertwining stories? Can we know who the real heroes are in these stories? More important, how do we identify the biggest jerks?

Going in, my general impression of Eleanor was "bad mom, bad spouse." At the very least, "Eleanor" lays out in extensive detail that it was far more complicated. ER had a comfortable financial existence -- she never woke up reasonably worried about money -- but her childhood objectively sucked.

Her mother and father were space cadets; her mom seemed barely interested in parenting, while her father (Theodore Roosevelt's brother) was a disintegrating, mentally unstable alcoholic. Baby ER was desperately seeking the approval of people who incapable of giving it -- at first due to their personal deficiencies, and then because (spoiler alert) they died. Handed off to her mother's family, the Halls, ER spent her teens living in a 19th-century version of "Mean Girls" or Cinderella. She wasn't anyone's primary concern; instead she was shuttled between houses and schools like a family obligation. It was a serious, sad life.

Her relationship with FDR was screwy from the start. He was a relatively sheltered momma's boy. She might have been thrilled by his interest -- she was self-conscious about her looks and felt awkward in many social situations, so having a suitor was a thrill. They had a lopsided marriage, where ER was steamrolled by her mother-in-law and Franklin seemed largely indifferent to her concerns. Later in life, Eleanor believed that Franklin was a great man, but also a user. They were married for 40 years, but she never felt that she was privy to his real thoughts. He kept everyone at a distance.

Beyond that, they didn't really have a functional marriage after 1918, when ER finally had to deal with the fact that her husband was banging her former secretary, Lucy Mercer. She grudgingly stayed married to protect FDR's political career, but they were in no sense in a coordinated, loving relationship from that point until his death.

It's all deeply weird. And Eleanor's personal life just kept getting stranger. She became a close personal friend of a lesbian couple, even living with them at Val-Kill, her home on the Roosevelt estate. At the start of FDR's presidency, she found herself in a romantic entanglement with the most famous female reporter in America, Lorena "Hick" Hickock. Michaelis doesn't mince words: It was a sexual relationship, as indicated by the vast correspondence between the women. It eventually flamed out, and Eleanor moved on to some bizarre associations with younger men. She spent the last decades of her life doting on people who were seemingly fine with being ER's arm candy, but did not return her affection. Meanwhile, while FDR was alive, she looked the other way as his personal secretary (Missy LeHand) stepped in as a de facto wife.

After reading "Eleanor," I am definitely more sympathetic to ER. She might have had a difficult personality, but it was shaped by awful circumstances that were often beyond her control. That doesn't quite excuse her failures as a mother -- her five surviving children found her just as opaque as she found FDR -- but it makes the second act of her life understandable.

FDR's polio and infidelity, among other things, gave ER the opportunity to transform herself. A woman who was deeply uncomfortable in most social situations suddenly was required to be the representative of her crippled husband. She fought against her fears and made a point of personally observing the circumstances of millions of Americans. The last four decades of her life were a non-stop listening tour, while she also tried to organize on behalf of the Democratic Party. She professed to be miserable, having to conform to the expectations of a political spouse. But her lack of emotional attachment to FDR also freed her to be an independent operator, in a way no first lady before or after has managed. Can you imagine Michelle Obama writing 800 words a day, six days a week, in a newspaper column, WHILE her husband was president? ER was on the next level.

My big takeaway for ER is the same as that for FDR: she was deeply flawed, but impressive. She was an anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic bigot who eventually came around to tolerance and civil rights. She was a clueless socialite who eventually devoted her energies to the advancement of human rights for all. She was a racist who eventually became maybe the most prominent advocate for African-Americans in the Roosevelt administration. She was an early opponent of suffrage who eventually became the shining example of female participation in public life. She had almost no connection with her children but a personal connection with a big chunk of the populace.

And what about the experiment? It was fascinating. Among the discrepancies:

Lorena Hickock is mentioned exactly three times in "FDR," only as ER's "friend" -- even though the correspondence between ER and Hick was public in 2007, and Hick actually lived in the White House for a time after leaving her reporting job to work for the government.

In 1921, FDR was censured by Congress for his part in the Newport sex scandal. As assistant secretary of the Navy in 1919, he gave the greenlight to a honeypot operation, where active-duty Navy personnel were used to uncover homosexual activity. In "Eleanor," this is described as a serious rebuke that left FDR depressed and wondering about his political future. It was not mentioned at all in "FDR."

FDR's boss in the Wilson administration, Navy secretary Josephus Daniels, is described in "FDR" as a shrewd operator with a paternal interest in nurturing Franklin's career. In "Eleanor," it's emphasized that he was a virulent racist who, as a newspaper publisher in North Carolina, stoked one of the deadliest race riots in U.S. history.

FDR doesn't come across as a great guy in "FDR," but he's waaaaaay more of a cad in "Eleanor." Similarly, in "FDR," Franklin seems to tolerate ER's political work as the price for her cooperation and silence. In "Eleanor," she's painted as an important team player whose contributions kept FDR politically viable, particularly in the early years of polio.

But I gotta say, I enjoyed both books. The problem with history is that they're always making more of it; getting a fuller understanding of the past requires years of study taking in a lot of viewpoints, and most people don't have the time. There's nothing satisfying about saying "it's complicated," but ... hey, it's complicated. If someone says their version of history is the indisputable truth, don't listen to that person.

Here's the Deal: "FDR" (1.5.21)

As much as I read about the presidents, for years I stayed away from Lincoln and FDR. There are thousands of books about each man, breaking them down on a molecular level from hundreds of perspectives. (Do you wonder if Lincoln was secretly gay? There are books for that!) I didn't know where to begin.

But FDR turns up in a lot in the biographies of other presidents: JFK, LBJ, Truman, Hoover, Eisenhower, Wilson, etc. The public-school version of FDR has him pegged as the savior of America, and maybe even in the world. But contemporaries who worked with or against him found him confusing. There are plenty of anecdotes where he seems to be an arrogant bully, an egomaniac or a ruthless partisan, more than a statesman; at points he squashed people in his way and showed no remorse for his actions.

The contradictions are pretty fascinating, so a few years ago I picked up "The Age of Roosevelt," Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s famous three-volume biography, at a used book store. When I finally got around to starting it, I was dismayed that it seemed more like the work of a publicist, and that it smelled very bad. (When you buy a 60-year-old book for $1, you get what you pay for.) I gave up pretty quickly.

But one evening this summer, after a few drinks, I got totally wild, ordered Jean Edward Smith's "FDR" on Amazon around 1 a.m., then forgot all about it. About a month later a mystery package arrived, and now you get to read about it!

It's a solid biography, first published in 2007. The paperback comes in at 636 pages, which isn't overwhelming for a guy who served three full terms, reinvented the compact with American government AND designed his own wheelchair. The first half covers everything up to Inauguration Day in 1933; the last half is FDR's 12 years as president, ending abruptly with his death. (There is no wrap-up; FDR dies on page 636.)

The first half is fascinating. FDR was more or less raised as an only child (his half-brother was decades older) and a momma's boy. While not mind-blowingly rich, he never had to worry about his personal finances a day in his life. He is renowned for his optimism, but it's probably easier to be optimistic if your bad choices and habits are cushioned by a huge pile of money.

He enjoyed all the trappings of society -- an elite prep school and a Harvard education were a given -- and many of his attitudes were sustained by a lack of consequences. FDR had considerable mental gifts, but there was no driving force compelling him to be an excellent student. Smith offers the fascinating insight that FDR, the architect of the modern American state, struggled with abstract thought and avoided it whenever possible. He also seemed to have very little in the way of regrets, at least when it came to politics. When he made a decision, he didn't agonize over whether it was the right decision.

Smith implies that FDR's career blueprint was cousin Theodore. Franklin was trained as a lawyer and had a pretty cushy Wall Street job, but he was ultimately bored by it. Thanks to Theodore, his last name was a brand that opened the door to public life. TR, 26 years older, had been in the New York Assembly, served as the assistant secretary of the Navy, got elected governor of New York, then finally served as vice president before entering the White House. FDR was a Democrat, but his name recognition and ability to self-fund political campaigns made him a blue-chip recruit for party hacks.

Elected to the state senate, Franklin seemed to be grandstanding for publicity. Many lawmakers in Albany thought he was arrogant and ill-informed, and he did plenty to confirm that bias. But as a Roosevelt he had no problem getting headlines or second chances. As he figured out the game he became less abrasive to fellow Democrats and more selective in the battles he fought. FDR's reward for his work in the campaign of 1912, supporting Woodrow Wilson and New York Democrats in general, was TR's old post in the Navy department. He was following the blueprint.

This is all intercut with his marriage to Eleanor, a woman who was both impressive and, in many ways, socially stunted by a very awkward upbringing. Their relationship seemed odd from the start, with ER backing off of traditional marital roles and FDR doing very little to understand or accommodate his wife. They had six children in rapid succession, and then their marriage fell apart as FDR starting to bang ER's secretary. By the time he contracted polio in 1921, they had a functional political partnership instead of a real marriage and were barely serving as parents. (The five children who survived to adulthood had a total of 19 marriages; they were hot messes.) They were, ultimately, very selfish people who supported each other for mutual benefit.

Polio tweaked FDR's worldview a bit, as his unsuccessful attempts to recover use of his legs took him to a spa in Georgia where he spent a lot of time with "regular" people. Or at least, that's the narrative that plays out for Smith.

My beef with this book is that it's a little too uncritical. From the introduction, Smith establishes his belief that FDR did in fact save the world, and that he was a sincere champion of the common man. It's debatable. He was not the first mean politician, but he did elevate personal attacks and partisanship to a whole new level. Lots of jerky presidents managed to work through proxies; FDR was extra political and made himself the mouthpiece. His management style often involved pitting subordinates against each other, then opportunistically backing one in the moment; people working in his Cabinet sometimes felt confused or betrayed when FDR would big-foot them.

And the numbers suggest that you can be skeptical about FDR's success in fighting the Great Depression. An explosion in federal spending and programs didn't do all that much to erase unemployment and stagnant growth. FDR's cheery attitude supposedly bolstered the nation -- and there are absolutely millions and millions of people who swear by that fact -- but FDR also very aggressively manufactured that narrative and used the resources of the federal government to parrot it.

As a result, the chapters on the presidency aren't particularly compelling, and they read more like a summary than a biography. Battles over New Deal programs, in which FDR was mainly negotiating with his own party (thanks to sizable Congressional majorities), are reduced to a few pages. Most of FDR's lieutenants don't get particularly detailed portraits and there's not a great sense of FDR's quarterbacking.

Smith does devote a chapter to the court-packing fiasco and accuses FDR of hubris, but doesn't particularly dwell on what it illustrated about his overall, politics-based approach to governance. And when we get to World War II, there are lots of unanswered questions. We now view WWII as a moral cause, but FDR avoided using his immense political capital to involve the United States, since it wasn't a political winner in the early going. As Europe begged for assistance, FDR didn't attempt the hard sell to the American people. Japanese internment and the relative silence on the Holocaust get a few pages, but that's it.

So: Smith does a pretty brilliant job setting up FDR's personality and style in the first half, but once he's in the White House there's not much of a payoff, in terms of analysis. I wanted more about FDR the person instead of the FDR the myth.

In other words, I avoided an FDR biography for years because there was too much to read. When I finally settled on a book that wasn't ridiculously long, my major complaint was that it wasn't long enough.

History is great!

Song of Solomon: "12 Years a Slave" (11.25.20)

Lots of people are bummed about missing out on family this Thanksgiving. Not to diminish that suffering, but Solomon Northup has them beat.

A few weeks ago I was walking on Independence Avenue and stopped to read a historical marker planted in front of a federal building. It noted the former location of one of Washington's most notorious slave pens -- in plain view of the Capitol. And it pointed out that this particular slave pen was integral to the narrative of "12 Years a Slave."

I haven't seen the movie, but the book version, first published in 1853, is very readable, not too long and totally free. SOLD!

As a bonus, it's riveting. Northup was a free black man in upstate New York; he had a wife and three kids. In early 1841, while his wife was working out of town, he was approached by a pair of white travelers who convinced him to join their traveling "circus" for a few weeks. (He was a talented violin player.) When the trip took them to Washington, the capital was consumed by the funeral of William Henry Harrison. Northup was persuaded to stick around a few extra days, and the rest is awful history.

The first part of the narrative relates his abduction: He was likely drugged, then sold by his traveling companions to a slave dealer. His first attempts at demanding his freedom were met with severe beatings and outright denials of reality; within weeks he was frightened off the notion of asserting his true identity. Before long he was shipped South, first through Richmond, then to New Orleans. He was renamed "Platt," and sold into the world of Louisiana plantations.

The second part -- the bulk of the story -- is narratives and observations from the 12 years that followed. Northup gets philosophical in one or two spots, but his primary motive is documenting the reality of "the peculiar institution." He walks you through the daily routines for cotton and sugar plantations, tells you the living conditions and punishments he dealt with every day, and paints portraits of the slaves working alongside him.

When he describes particular episodes, they're usually tied to a specific master. Northup speaks kindly of his first owner, William Ford, but winds up being sold to an abusive drunk carpenter named Tibeats. When "Platt" resists Tibeats' attempts to kill him, and even escapes into the woods for a few days, he's sold to Epps -- who is slightly less homicidal but still plenty awful. Northup and his fellow slaves are tortured and abused on a daily basis; Epps sometimes forces them to dance for his amusement. Northup regularly draws the task of whipping the other slaves; he got so good with the whip that he could make it look convincing while missing by a few inches and sparing his friends.

There's a matter-of-fact quality to the narration, and Northup even musters some understanding for the white people around him. Considering Epps' son, he realizes that any boy who sees slaves treated worse than animals on a daily basis could never grow up to see him as a human. There are also a few passages that are downright heartbreaking, including Northup's liberation. When he finally finds a trustworthy ally to deliver letters to his family and friends in New York, an appointed agent of the governor shows up to take him home. He has brief goodbyes with the slaves who he has lived with for a decade -- and then leaves, never seeing them again. He goes home, but they have no recourse.

At the time, a slave narrative like this was eye-opening to readers. "12 Years a Slave" was published a year after "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and many people took the real-life memoir as evidence of the authenticity of the fictional narrative. (Both stories take place in the same part of Louisiana.) Frederick Douglass had published his first memoir in 1845, but unlike Douglass, Northup was enslaved in the deep South.

It's less hard-hitting today, since the brutality of slavery has now been well documented. But reading it in 2020 really does drive home the ways that slavery dehumanized an entire race. To get your head around post-emancipation history, it's worth it to read in detail where so many people were starting from.

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