The Book Club

ER: Authoritarian and Aristocratic

Dear Marjorie,

At the risk of letting you lure me into a very old argument, I’d say Eleanor was a force for ill. Not great ill, and not unmixed ill, but ill–mostly in that she helped establish the modern social compact under which citizens trade freedom (or, as Cook puts it, ” ‘freedom’ “) for security. The balance sheet gets complicated if you think, as I do, that a lot of her most noble goals (such as racial integration) would have happened anyway, and consider that a lot of her least noble ones (such as disarmament on the verge of World War II) were never achieved.

What tips the balance for me is that Eleanor was a far more authoritarian figure than Cook lets on. Granted, paternalism was in the air. Churchill, too, urged that we “treat the jobless man like a patient in hospital.” Cook says Eleanor resented it when people compared Roosevelt to a dictator and treats all complaints about Franklin’s dictatorial ambitions as cynical rabble-rousing meant to protect private interests. Maybe at times. But Frank Freidel says that, in an era that saw the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, fears of Roosevelt as an elected dictator–while ultimately misplaced–were understandable, even healthy, in a democracy. He adds that during the Hundred Days, “Mrs. Roosevelt lamented that the nation lacked a benevolent dictator to force through reforms.”

Ninety percent of what politicians do is self-actualization. Some make things better, some make things worse, most do both–but that’s a secondary project. And that’s why I don’t exactly fault Hillary for her bad luck in ruling in good times, which makes a lot of her rhetoric, as you say, inappropriate. She would have been more Eleanor-like during a depression and Eleanor would have been more Hillary-like during a boom.

What makes Eleanor’s growing love of power so fascinating–and troublesome–is that it had to be wielded with either extreme ingenuousness or extreme disingenuousness, and it’s hard to figure out which. Eleanor’s instincts were aristocratic. She ushered in (or, more accurately, restored) an era in which political power was seized not through backroom deals and exchanges of money but through cause-based kudos-accumulation. The fact that she gave to charity the millions she made as a radio star does not, to my mind, exempt her from the charge of Gingrichian buck-raking.

You cannot lament, as Cook does, “America’s stingy attitude toward the nation’s neglected and rejected people” without asking Eleanor to open up her own books. You cannot carp, as Eleanor did, about privileges of race and gender without begging the question of your own megaprivileges: land, family, connections, fame, not to mention having a husband who’s president. The latifundium on the Hudson, the Astor and Morgan relatives Eleanor enlisted to bankroll her schemes, the yearly visits to Newport (to which Eleanor was hardly, pace Cook, dragged kicking and screaming), the government and charity connections that allowed her Val-Kill furniture company to break even–what would Eleanor have been without them?

As for money, Eleanor said, “If you could give it all where it would do the most good that would be grand but we can’t always do that!” I’m with her, I’m with her! But the moment she berates the “privilege” of those who couldn’t afford to make a down payment on her carriage house, or invokes the “greed” of those making 125 percent of the mean per capita income, I’m with Hick, who said to Eleanor during a White House dinner, “God damn it–none of us ought to be wearing velvet dinner gowns these days.”