One of Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite poems was Kipling’s If, which presents life as a continuous test. Roosevelt too had passed through endless tests of endurance, of waiting, of repeated disappointment, of triumph and disaster, certainly since summer 1921 when he was stricken by polio. He came to feel truly at ease only among the world’s castoffs, as his wife, Eleanor, observed.
Only four people served at the top echelon of Roosevelt’s presidency from the frightening early months of spring 1933 until he died in April 1945 and, in their different ways, they were as wounded as he. This was no coincidence.
Himself “crippled,” Roosevelt had overridden the prejudices of that era toward those who were thought to be damaged. These three men—and, unprecedentedly, one woman—were peculiar outsiders rather than actual castoffs. He could sense their despairs even as they built the great institutions being raised against the Depression, implemented most of the projects and reforms known as the New Deal that remade their country, and proved themselves vital to victory in World War II.
They were his key lieutenants—the tough, constructive, enduring core of his government. In an era when unmatched concentrations of power gathered in Washington, they rammed their priorities through—FDR willing, of course.
Up to 1933, none of these four would ever have been considered for high office. Yet each riveted the nation during the celebrity-crazed 1930s and towered as world figures when, a long twelve years later, the adventure ran down. They called one another friends, if often through gritted teeth, and were bracketed together by the press and by their swarms of enemies. Their suffering intensified the relationships among themselves, and with their president. Like Roosevelt, each had much to hide, and all lived on the edge of calamity, as did their country.
The best way to come to terms with Franklin Roosevelt, I believe, as well as to penetrate the maze of his presidency, is to take the synoptic view that arises from examining their lives. To this end, my book sheds new light on Roosevelt and on his dangerous times, and now is the moment to do so. The 2020s raise uncomfortable parallels with those most world-changing of years during the last century: social upheavals, climate extremes (the Dust Bowl), an urge to rebuild, and furious politics (the cry of “America First” in both epochs), while world disorder threateningly increases.
Harry Lloyd Hopkins, son of an itinerant harness maker from Iowa, was forty-one when Roosevelt took office. He lends himself to fiction, as do all the others, but only Hopkins has figured in a novel—the Pulitzer-winning dramatist Jerome Weidman’s Before You Go (1960)—as the thinly fictionalized Benjamin Franklin Ivey, the sickly, self-promoting assistant director of a settlement house who ascends ruthlessly from the Lower East Side to the peaks of decision-making in Washington. Such had been Hopkins’s path in real life as he leapt from running boys’ baseball games to being called the nation’s largest employer as the New Deal fought overwhelming joblessness—and, even more surprisingly, to then becoming the president’s “Number 1 adviser.”1
Yet Hopkins’s self-destructive habits tore through his life; he also suffered from ulcers and the complications of a major cancer operation. Much of his death-defying agony could have been avoided. Nevertheless, his illness cast him as a grievously wounded hero who refused to leave the field. This became a source of power, and it drew him closer to FDR.
Harold Ickes, fifty-nine at the start, was the abused son of an alcoholic father. He had worked his way through law school to become a “people’s counsel” in Chicago for causes such as the newly founded American Civil Liberties Union and the city’s Indian Rights Association, which he organized. He had sought to be a kingmaker in progressive Republican politics, and failed humiliatingly. A long, wretched marriage to a rich divorcée only turned worse after he seduced his stepdaughter. By 1932 he was describing himself as a loser, continuously self-medicating a torturous insomnia and constant headaches with Nembutal and whiskey, his moods swinging between rage and unrestrained joy. Some days he literally could not speak. A white-shoe Wall Street lawyer he had never been. Roosevelt appointed him from nowhere to be secretary of the interior. This position merely became his base as he accumulated so many responsibilities—not least, as the country’s unrivaled builder of public works, its “Secretary of Negro Affairs,” its energy czar, and czar as well of all U.S. territories, such as Alaska—that he functioned basically as the chancellor of an ever-watchful monarch. He was the first U.S. official to be denounced by Hitler, in 1939, and he itched for war. Once it erupted, he proved a formidable war administrator, and central to Allied victory.
Frances Perkins, fifty-two, had known Franklin Roosevelt in the days when, she remembered, he could vault casually over a chair, like a “beautiful, strong, vigorous, Greek god king of an athlete.”2 She reinvented herself as a Boston Brahmin, dedicating herself to God, to workers’ rights, and to putting an end to the horrors of child labor. She brought Hopkins into Roosevelt’s orbit and, in Washington, served as FDR’s far-ranging secretary of labor. She was an essential force behind Social Security, minimum wage laws, unemployment insurance, and the rights of workers to organize. Less known are the terrible mistakes from which she saved the Administration and, because she also headed the Immigration Service, how hard she fought on behalf of refugees. As hostilities loomed, it was she who provided FDR with the sharpest assessments of the crumbling European balance. Then, often working closely with Ickes, she became pivotal to the war effort.
Her husband, Paul Caldwell Wilson, was a cameo version of Franklin Roosevelt: handsome, upper-class Episcopalian, Dartmouth, delightful in manner, and a rising star in New York progressive politics. They had a daughter, and Perkins yearned for more children. However, Paul was gripped by manic depression, as bipolar disorder was known in his lifetime, and he squandered his inheritance. Finally she had to institutionalize him, at enormous expense to herself, at “the Haven,” in Westchester County. The time would come when her daughter also had to be hospitalized, and the money drained away.
Perkins was ever moved by a deep sadness. Several times she tried to escape Washington for “a proper place in life,” as she told FDR, who would not hear of it, and she “suffered pain” even from seeing her picture in the news. Ultimately, her sacrifice left its enduring marks, including commemoration by the feast day of Frances Perkins, “Public Servant and Prophetic Witness,” in the calendar of the Episcopal Church.
Henry Wallace, a crisp forty-five, was driven by an intellect The New York Times would describe as “freakish.”3 Surely, he was the foremost agronomist in the Western Hemisphere, though his vibrant intellect was of a sort that left little room for human intimacy. He embodied intellectual strength but often failed to comprehend where that might take him, or the costs of his decisions.
For three generations, Wallace’s staunchly Republican family had run the important weekly Wallace’s Farmer out of Ames, Iowa. The Depression drove this paper into the hands of creditors while he was struggling simultaneously to keep alive what today would be called a biotech startup.
Any man who combined brilliance, lonely idealism, involvement with the land, and being trapped was likely to appeal to Franklin Roosevelt. Wallace became secretary of agriculture at a time when nearly 30 percent of the nation made its living from farming. Then, in 1940, FDR told the Democratic Party Convention, in words conveyed through Frances Perkins, that Wallace would be his third-term running mate. For several years Wallace was a uniquely influential vice president as he rallied the country for war and then illuminated the vision of a postwar world worth fighting for.
Throughout, Roosevelt wanted those upon whom he depended most to be able to “take it.”4
Unlike other statesmen, as Cabinet officers were considered in those days, each of the four arrived in Washington with well-crafted plans and all had primary, hands-on responsibility for executing what they had largely conceived. Along the way, they would come to see FDR close-up, and indeed acutely, for a dozen years, and they often pooled their impressions.
To be sure, Roosevelt was watching them too. He understood them in ways that proved crucial to making real the “action, and action now” that he demanded of every specific New Deal initiative and that, when war began, cut through the disarray caused by his approach to ruling.
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Within months of his inauguration in 1933, our four were taking shape as a group. This cadre was utterly political and versatile, phenomenally visible, yet composed of individuals who were God-given targets for their enemies. They were by no means a unified board of directors. Roosevelt was incapable of tolerating any such consolidation of power. Besides, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., notes, so lonely a man as Roosevelt could best find “the intimacy of exchange” with a single person, or—in this case—in varying combinations of two or three, less often with all four.5
To be secretary of the interior or of labor, or to be the president’s special assistant, meant far more in American life during the Depression and the Second World War than those offices do today. Roosevelt did not mind the prominence these four received from newsreels, magazine profiles, and books. Quite the reverse. Had his own face instead been plastered on every enormous program, he would indeed have looked like Mussolini—as Republicans charged anyway. Mere ubiquity might fade his aura, and no one doubted who made the final decisions.
He never avoided having strong, uninjured presences around him: he would face plenty in his military circle, but he took the deference of the brass for granted. When it came to high civilian authorities, he preferred those whom he could shape, and he knew that Hopkins, Ickes, Perkins, and Wallace would each soar yet remain loyally in hand. It would have been exceedingly difficult for Roosevelt to have mastered Washington’s turbulent and centrifugal system without them.
Several prominent men served at the heights for nearly as long as these four, including Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. Several White House aides in fact stayed straight through from 1933 to 1945, along with speechwriters and counselors—many of them eloquent and shrewd—who served for intermittent periods. Yet none were the Administration’s big, long-standing operators.
Early on, Roosevelt had identified the large established government departments that he believed vital to recovery: Agriculture, Interior, Labor, and Treasury. That meant counting on Wallace, Ickes, and Perkins, and then largely on Hopkins as de facto “Secretary of Public Welfare.” For the Treasury Department, he came to have other uses. And the confidence he developed in each of these four during the valiant struggle for recovery carried over into the intensities of war.
If the Roosevelt Administration had an “inner cabinet”—meaning the center of power, not necessarily those gathering around a long mahogany table—it consisted of Hopkins, Ickes, Perkins, and Wallace. They held power over a far longer and more transformational epoch than did President Lincoln’s famous “Team of Rivals,” including years when the life of the Republic was equally in peril. Unlike Lincoln’s “team”—his secretaries of state, treasury, and war, and his attorney general, none of whom could abide one another—our four were strange outsiders. Nor did any of them look down on FDR, or think they could do a better job, as did Lincoln’s subordinates. In different ways, Hopkins, Ickes, Perkins, and Wallace each stood in awe of Roosevelt until the end—despite, by then, having been exposed to most every chilling defect of his character.
Myths abound about the Roosevelt years, against which I offer many new findings. Just to begin, two big misconceptions must first be cleared away.
One is that “no two members of the Roosevelt cabinet were ever real friends.” Such was the opinion of FDR’s office secretary, Grace Tully, in her ghostwritten memoir of 1949; and she added, “The contacts between cabinet members were largely of an official character.”6 Tully had neither the stature nor the range of access to look more closely, yet Roosevelt’s biographers have repeated this mistake ever since.7
Another fallacy is that the Cabinet itself was insignificant at the start and thereafter did not “serve any good purpose.”8
For us, a pattern will emerge—a strong, wounded, large-hearted core of builders (Ickes, Perkins, Wallace, and essentially Hopkins) with others in the room for the most part being politically necessary placeholders, at least until 1940. As for the Cabinet’s usefulness overall, this assembly will prove indeed to have been quietly significant.
Today, left and right alike insist that America is changing irrevocably, though such has always been the case in this most proudly changeable of nations. Calls for “a New Deal” arose in the plague years of 2020–2021, and the president who came to office citing FDR as a model for uniting this troubled country will be the last born in Roosevelt’s lifetime. Above the fireplace in the Oval Office presides the portrait of a somber FDR. But to invoke the New Deal is implicitly to summon larger-than-life saviors—surely not how America at its best should work.
Meanwhile, an unyielding opposition is distinctly less interested in heroizing FDR. Still, he towers over the nation, although not far below him, in terms of lasting achievement, come Hopkins, Ickes, Perkins, and Wallace. As we shall see, they grappled in their curious ways with issues that confront us today. Some were existential, such as the yawning gaps between rich and poor, and the racial violence that, during the Roosevelt presidency, ran pretty much unchecked from state to state, highlighted by lynching. Other issues were structural, such as how to handle a politically asymmetrical Supreme Court. Yet still more might as well come from headlines of the 2020s: healthcare, a minimum wage, the nation’s infrastructure, anguished choices on immigration, Lend-Lease, and America’s altering role in the world.
Overlying these comparisons is the fact that our nation’s breadth and diversity provide rich terrain for brushfire fears of conspiracy. At the time, many of Roosevelt’s foes—who also singled out Hopkins, Ickes, Perkins, and Wallace for attack—discerned the hidden hands of un-American interests underway. Primarily it was the red fist of “socialism,” which, we again hear, endangers our fractious land.
During those years, the peril of revolt—whether from left or right—was far graver than is remembered. Like today, a president spoke to his intimates of losing the country to violence.
Yet, by the time Roosevelt and his four lieutenants completed their journeys, America had largely been made anew, and with it much of the world. An index of what occurred may be found by simply recalling how we once commonly referred to our country.
A morning service at St. John’s Episcopal Church, across from the White House on Lafayette Square, preceded the inauguration ceremonies of 1933, Roosevelt’s old headmaster, the Reverend Endicott Peabody, offering a closing prayer. He sought God’s grace for “Thy servant, Franklin, about to become President of these United States,” using the plural in a then familiar way for the Republic.9 When Roosevelt’s presidency ended, the adjective would be dated, and the United States stood triumphant in 1945.
1 STEPPING FORWARD
From Inauguration as Governor, January 1, 1929, to the October Crash
There never was a nicer man to work for.
Irvin McDuffie, Franklin Roosevelt’s valet
Those attending Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration as governor of New York that New Year’s afternoon saw an enviable man. Standing six feet two inches, the handsome new chief executive, nearly forty-seven, took his oath on a 240-year-old Dutch family Bible—matters Dutch being close to his heart out of a long Hudson Valley bloodline. He could indeed carry on a simple conversation in the language, though this came from his study of German. Also, he was fluent in French, and read Spanish easily.1 People sensed a cosmopolitan air about him.
Observers would have noticed the impeccable cut of his morning dress; his suits and jackets covered the well-muscled shoulders and flat belly of an athlete. Old friends in the chamber could remember him racing ice yachts down the frozen Hudson.
His youthful presence had equally dazzled Washington during Woodrow Wilson’s administration, in which he had served from 1913 to 1920 as assistant secretary of the navy. And together with Eleanor—President Theodore Roosevelt’s niece, whom Franklin married in 1905—he had brought glamour to the nation’s still provincial capital. In fact, T.R. was Franklin’s fifth cousin, and both sides of the Roosevelt family enjoyed the quiet authority that accompanies a century or two of wealth. Everyone knew that Franklin Roosevelt possessed a 1,500-acre estate along the Hudson at Hyde Park, which he occasionally opened to political receptions. He was also known to receive lawmakers in his neo-Georgian town house on East Sixty-Fifth Street in Manhattan when he was not spending summer months on Campobello Island, off the New Brunswick coast.
Roosevelt had walked to the microphone while leaning on a cane and supported by the arm of his eldest son, James, a student at Harvard as had been his father (Class of ’04). His other four children sat whispering with a radiant Eleanor on the dais. At forty-four, and five feet eleven inches tall, Eleanor was athletically fit with a long neck and sloping shoulders, and still wore her long blond hair in great coils or braids. Her detractors could only snipe that this prevented her from donning stylish hats.
The inaugural address took less than half an hour, even allowing for frequent applause. The new governor wore a pince-nez as had T.R., but, unlike the former president’s memorable squeak, he spoke in a rich tenor.
His listeners knew of the courage it had taken for him to overcome polio, or largely so, since being carried off Campobello in agony in August 1921. His return to politics appeared heroic, and he still visited often with his fellow sufferers at Warm Springs, the polio rehabilitation center he had founded in 1926. His physical therapist, Helena Mahoney, had received her own gold-foil invitation and had traveled north with other staff from west Georgia.
Throughout the ceremony, onlookers could feel the charm for which Roosevelt was already famous. His credentials sparkled. While at Navy, during the World War, he had visited the most exposed of bloody front lines in France and returned from Europe sick on a stretcher. Soon thereafter, in 1920, he was the Democratic candidate for vice president when only thirty-eight. Four years later, after being stricken, he riveted his party’s convention in New York City with a truly powerful speech, from crutches, in which he endorsed his state’s governor, Al Smith. At the 1928 convention in Houston, he then thrillingly placed Smith’s name once again in nomination. That time, Smith had indeed gotten the nod—only to lose to Herbert Hoover.
Rarely before had the chamber been so filled on such an occasion by assemblymen and state senators. They were a motley crowd—hundreds of beefy men, roughnecks, merchants, and farmers from places like Lowville, Bath, and Buffalo. Given all the deplorables being drawn to the trough, Louis Howe, fifty-seven, was not entirely out of place. He had been Roosevelt’s innermost adviser since 1912, when his hero was just a state senator, and followed him to Washington the next year as his secretary. This former newspaperman from Saratoga had become obsessed with the success of “his Franklin.”
Howe was sickly, with hollowed cheeks, a scarred face, and brown protruding eyes. He grew bent with age and never weighed more than a hundred pounds, which is why the Boston American, for instance, styled him a “medieval gnome.”2 Slowly dying—very slowly, as it was to prove—he seemed to distill the enfeeblement that the new governor had overcome. He chain-smoked Sweet Caporals, drank hard, and hacked out asthmatic coughs while playing a ruthless political game—the pieces of which included large stacks of cash from who-knew-where. Still, when even Roosevelt had doubts about himself, as he could not avoid having after 1921, there was Howe, ready by his side with plans to carry them headlong to the White House.
Viewing this gray eminence, as he slouched in the back, makes it clear that something far more complicated was under way that day in the Assembly. Little was as it seemed about this new governor.
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Copyright © 2023 by Derek Leebaert