The Book Club

The Quiet Revenge of Vile Food

Dear Chris,

Fourteen volumes of Rosalynn Carter! Now there’s a dreadful thought! Which reminds me to say, on Eleanor’s behalf, that she is at the very least extremely interesting. In general, the whole school of first-lady journalism bores me to tears, and I think ER’s tenure misled subsequent journalists and popular historians into thinking that the firstladyship, or whatever you call it, would go on being a noteworthy role. The truth is that almost all writing about first ladies chews more than it bites off–including, I think, nine-tenths of the ink we’ve all spilled over HRC.

Because the first lady is obviously something of a freak in this day and age–a woman who is famous chiefly for being a wife; and in most cases, a woman whose life has been hideously warped by the fact that her spouse chose a career in politics. Such a life has very little to offer other women in the way of exemplary lessons, and we’re right to feel a bit queasy over a first lady who promises (or threatens) to accomplish anything very substantive on the strength of who she’s sleeping with. (Note: The major exception to the boredom rule was the revelation of Nancy Reagan’s all-powerful astrologist. Now there was a good story.)

But thanks for taking me up on that question of how first ladies have sometimes served their husbands as useful camouflage. You chose great examples of the benign and malign forms of this phenomenon, in citing FDR and ER’s tag-team response to the Bonus Marchers and ER’s later cover for FDR’s neglect of the refugees. I agree that the problem isn’t gender stereotyping; it’s the sleight-of-hand the arrangement encourages. This used to drive me crazy about the Bush White House, when everyone was writing mistily about how deeply “Bar” cared about Head Start funding, and how she was secretly pro-abortion-rights, and how, in effect, she represented Bush’s moderate domestic-policy impulses. He seemed, over time, not to bother having much of a domestic policy himself, and Barbara was a huge part of the cover. None of this is ER’s fault, as you say, but to some degree it is her doing. All you’ve got to say to promote the power-behind-the-throne theme (as either participant or observer) is, Why, look at Eleanor Roosevelt. Surely this is why Hillary was communing in the solarium with ER’s spirit. (An interesting question to consider is whether this legacy is more useful to Republicans–who can use it, as Bush did, to mediate their constituents’ ambivalence toward government action–than it is to Democrats. Don’t you suspect that, when push comes to shove, George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” is going to consist, in very large part, of Laura Bush?)

I’m with you on being mystified about why Hick thought ER might leave her husband; I do think it’s a symptom of the way that Cook’s focus on the marriage sort of wavers in this volume. However, I can’t let our last day of discussion pass without praising Cook for one of her neatest insights into ER and her marriage–concerning the passive-aggressive behavior by which she punished Franklin and others. ER apparently avoided confrontation, but kept two nasty dogs, who snapped at journalists and senators; the larger of them actually bit the Canadian prime minister. And when the Roosevelts moved into the White House, ER carefully employed as cook and housekeeper the dreadful, inexperienced Henrietta Nesbitt, who barked at the president and sneered at foreign dignitaries and made sure the White House served the worst food in America. Poor FDR, properly chastened, had to flee to Hyde Park to eat the good food he loved. (Shades of Hillary banning smoking in the White House?)

I liked Cook for giving Eleanor’s Revenge a nice fat chapter near the start of this volume. But I fault her for not quoting the best thing I’ve read on this subject, a passage I came upon in Joseph Alsop’s centenary memoir of FDR. “The drink, being the President’s department, was not actively repellent,” wrote Alsop. But the food!

The salads were especially deplorable; for they tended to be complicated and decorative, and might even conceal bits of marshmallow in their dreadful depth … What [Nesbitt] perpetrated was only part of the story, moreover. Scrambled eggs are not an easy dish to cook in such a way that hungry men turn away in discouragement, yet the scrambled eggs Eleanor Roosevelt always made in a chafing dish for Sunday night supper were undeniably discouraging.

Eleanor, he wrote:

was never against quiet revenges with a moral excuse. She equated plain living with high thinking, so it was moral to eat badly. And if her husband did not like eating badly, why there were passages in their joint past she had not liked either.

Reading this did make me wish, in hindsight, that ER’s biographer were a little less admiringly sober. Now that I’ve said my piece on behalf of the New Deal, I can admit to having found Cook’s prose clear and readable but not especially memorable. I guess there’s not much hope that she can kick up her heels a bit in Volume III, what with World War II just over the horizon.

But when that next book does hit the shelves, I’ll pick it up and remember this exchange with pleasure.

All best,