Wednesday, Jun. 24, 2009

The Relentless Mrs. Roosevelt

When Eleanor Roosevelt learned that her husband was going to run for President in 1932, she fell into a deep depression. "I knew what traditionally would lie before me," she said later, "and I cannot say I was pleased." Eleanor was not First Lady material; of this she was certain. She'd barely survived the agony of her own debutante ball at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City 30 years before. She felt self-conscious about her buckteeth and her quavering voice. She laughed at inappropriate times. She had no patience for banter.

Now in middle age, Eleanor had finally built a life that fit her — filled with teaching, traveling and talking with friends. It was a constellation revolving near but not around her husband, the governor of New York. She dreaded the idea of giving up everything for a ceremonial life in Washington. On the eve of Franklin's nomination, Eleanor wrote a letter to a confidante, explaining how the White House would suffocate her. A friend, worried that the letter might come back to haunt her, tore it into tiny pieces. That would turn out to be exactly the right metaphor.

Forget First Lady; Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the master politicians of the 20th century, period. F.D.R.'s legacy cannot be understood apart from hers. While some First Ladies are remembered for redecorating the White House, Eleanor was the first to hold press conferences (more than 300 of them), to visit — alone — U.S. soldiers at war overseas and to shrewdly maneuver her agenda through the back corridors of the White House for 12 years, chipping away at segregation, poverty and injustice. She may be the only First Lady ever to have had a Ku Klux Klan bounty on her head.

How did she do it? Modern First Ladies would recognize almost nothing about Eleanor's life. She declined Secret Service protection and carried her own gun (and permit) when necessary. She kept an apartment in New York City's Greenwich Village — in a house owned by a lesbian couple with whom she was good friends — and spent much of her time there when her husband was President.

Eleanor enjoyed tremendous influence largely because she lived a double life — playing gracious First Lady in public and relentless power broker off camera. "She lied," says historian Allida Black, the author of four books about Eleanor. "She covered her tracks with the efficiency of a CIA agent." Eleanor insisted she did not shape F.D.R.'s policy; she was merely a "spur," if anything. She was a master of self-deprecation.

In 1940 her husband was looking to run for a third term, but he was reluctant to personally ask for something so brazen. So he asked Eleanor to go to the nominating convention in his stead. She recoiled at the idea. Never before had a First Lady spoken to a convention, and she worried that she would be seen as meddling. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin in No Ordinary Time, she responded to the idea by telling Franklin, "No, I wouldn't like to go! I'm very busy and I wouldn't like to go at all." But Franklin knew how to appeal to her sense of duty. "Well, they seem to think it might be well if you came out," he said. "Perhaps it would be a good idea." Eleanor boarded a plane to Chicago.

When she arrived, the crowd was belligerent; the delegates perceived the President's absence as a slight. But when Eleanor got up to speak, she did what she was best at: she appealed to conscience. "This is no ordinary time," she said. "No time for weighing anything except what we can best do for the country as a whole." The applause was overwhelming, and the delegates supported F.D.R.'s ticket.

Eleanor's humility worked because it was genuine. She did not think she was particularly special. In fact, she'd spent the first half of her life feeling inadequate. Her beautiful mother was openly disappointed in Eleanor's looks; she died when Eleanor was 8. Her father's alcoholism prompted his relatives to put him in an insane asylum, and he died when Eleanor was 9.

In boarding school in England, Eleanor began to find her voice. There she was valued for her ideas and her passion. Soon after she returned to New York City, she began dating Franklin, her fifth cousin once removed. "He was young and gay and good-looking," she said later, "and I was shy and awkward and thrilled when he asked me to dance." In Eleanor, Franklin found someone unlike the debutantes he knew: someone who taught children in the slums of the Lower East Side in her free time.

Once they were married, Eleanor spent more than a decade unconvincingly acting the part of society matron. She had six children but never felt confident as a mother. She didn't know how to play with them, having had little experience playing as a child herself. Her mother-in-law installed herself next door, calling herself the children's "real mother."

Everything changed in 1918 when Eleanor discovered that F.D.R. had been having an affair with Lucy Mercer, her social secretary. Eleanor was unpacking his suitcase when she discovered Mercer's love letters to him. "The bottom dropped out of my own particular world, and I faced myself, my surroundings, my world, honestly for the first time," she later wrote to a friend. The man who had asked her to dance had broken her heart, and their relationship would never be the same. She suggested they divorce, but Franklin knew that it would mean the end of his political career. Instead, he agreed to forever after maintain separate bedrooms and to stop seeing Mercer.

With the illusion of normality shattered, Eleanor was strangely free. She became active in the League of Women Voters and the social-justice causes she had cared about as a young woman — but had abandoned as a wife.

Three years later, Franklin lost the use of his legs. After the immediate crisis subsided, Eleanor found that she had an even bigger portfolio. Because it was difficult for him to travel, she started inspecting hospitals, mines and slums on his behalf. She began writing a newspaper column six days a week. To be sure, the Roosevelts paid a price for Eleanor's activism, careful as it was. She was under surveillance by her own government because of her friendships with young radicals. Her FBI file ran to almost 4,000 pages. She suffered significant policy failures too. She fought for universal health care, yet here we are. In 1940, when Germany was still allowing Jews to leave, she could not persuade Franklin to admit large numbers of refugees to the U.S. Her son Jimmy called this her "deepest regret."

After F.D.R. died in 1945, Eleanor stopped writing her nationally syndicated column — for four days. She packed her suitcases and left the White House. Eight months later, President Harry Truman asked her to be a delegate to the U.N.'s first session in London. She accepted — and immediately began to cram. "I knew that as the only woman, I'd better be better than anybody else. So I read every paper," she said later. "And they were very dull sometimes, because State Department papers can be very dull."

The delegates elected her to chair the committee drafting a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She worked 18-hour days and traveled the world. She joined the board of the NAACP, and right-wing newspapers dropped her column because of her views on civil rights.

In 1962, Eleanor, 78, died of tuberculosis in her New York City apartment. She'd stopped writing her column just six weeks before. Her last dispatch contemplated the problems of poverty, education and housing. After more than three decades in public life, she still held out hope.