Eleanor’s Call to Duty

Image result for eleanor rooseveltGood morning, it’s Thursday, July 18, 2019. On this date 79 years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for the third time. His reelection wasn’t assured, and even running for a third term was an extraordinary break with American history. But the times, as one beloved Democrat reminded Americans, were not ordinary.

The United States was in the 11th year of the Great Depression, war raged in Europe, Africa, and Asia — and storm clouds gathered in the Pacific. In running again, however, FDR spurned a precedent set by none other than George Washington. Republicans were enraged, and even some Democrats who supported Roosevelt were disconcerted.

But in for a dime, in for a dollar, as the old saying goes. By that I mean that Franklin Roosevelt didn’t back into it. Not content to spurn the “Father of Our Country,” the president also roiled the Democrats’ Chicago convention by insisting on Henry A. Wallace, disliked and considered too liberal by most delegates, as his running mate.

The president had broken with the past and was setting course for an uncertain future. But this was a man with unparalleled political instincts: to settle the restive convention and unite his party, he sent for a Democrat who possessed the presence and rhetorical skill to remind them what they had in common.

He sent for Eleanor.

As Great Britain fought desperately for its very existence — and the survival of freedom in Europe — Franklin D. Roosevelt was circumventing the U.S. Neutrality Act by instituting a policy of “cash and carry,” which required the British government to pay for war materiel and transport it in their own ships.

Yet, even by mid-1940, the unfolding horrors of World War II had not extinguished the siren song of isolationism in America, most especially in the U.S. Senate. The Japanese would do that themselves at Pearl Harbor, but in the meantime, President Roosevelt was convinced of two things. First, his public promises notwithstanding, Americans would be drawn into the fighting. Second, the longer the war went, the stronger Nazi Germany would become. So it was that FDR convinced himself that exceptional circumstances, not personal ambition, dictated he run for a third term. “Dictated” is a cognate of “dictator,” however, and that was the word used by Roosevelt’s many critics. If eight years was enough for George Washington and every other two-term president who followed, why wasn’t it good enough for Franklin Roosevelt?

It was a reasonable question, and the Republicans who nominated Wendell Willkie in Philadelphia put it to good use. A look back at 1940 campaign buttons reveals a colorful and hard-fought presidential campaign. “No Franklin the First,” read one. “Dr. Jekyll of Hyde Park,” read another. Some of the slights were funny (“No Man Is Good Three Times”) and some were ugly (“Third International, Third Reich, Third Term”).

Progressive first lady Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t escape GOP barbs, either. “Eleanor Start Packing, the Willkies Are Coming” read one button. “‘My Day’ When I Vote for Willkie,” read another, which was a reference to the first lady’s popular newspaper column.

But if Eleanor galvanized Republicans, she did the same thing for Democrats. Her husband’s third-term gambit had led to some dissension on the convention floor; FDR’s insistence on Henry Wallace had soured many delegates even more (John Nance Garner, Roosevelt’s veep for eight years, was himself running for president this time). Monitoring events from the White House, FDR asked his wife to make the trip to Chicago. She agreed, and gave a political speech that unified her party, and still reverberates through the decades.

“You must know that this is the time when all good men and women give every bit of service and strength to their country that they have to give,” she said. Speaking from only a single page of notes, Eleanor Roosevelt continued:

“We cannot tell from day to day what may come. This is no ordinary time. No time for weighing anything except what we can do best for the country as a whole, and that responsibility rests on each and every one of us as individuals.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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