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America's First Family- The Roosevelts
AMERICA’S FIRST FAMILY- THE ROOSEVELTS
With the distinct possibility that Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush might square off in the 2016 presidential election, another family dynasty could be created or continued. Unfortunately, multiple members of the same clan occupying the White House for the most part has not been very beneficial to the United States. John Adams, and his son, John Quincy, provided excellent service to the country, but not while Chief Executive. Both of their presidencies were lackluster at best. William Henry Harrison, and his grandson, Benjamin Harrison, employed military exploits to win the nation’s highest office, yet neither left any substantive mark. William Henry died 41 days into his term after contracting pneumonia from delivering his two hour inaugural address in pouring rain without a hat or coat. Benjamin was representative of the mainly do-nothing, ineffectual presidents who served between Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Of course, George H.W. Bush, and his son, George W., are remembered for waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with very little to show for the effort.
The brood which breaks this negative mold contains two men who were only distant relatives, the Roosevelts of New York. Theodore and Franklin were cousins, many times removed, from distinct branches of the family tree. Teddy came out of the New York City/Long Island segment, while Frank hailed from the upstate, Hudson River portion. The pair are considered among the best presidents we have had, and their impact on U.S. and World History incalculable. Their early lives and careers followed amazingly similar paths before diverging at the vice-presidency, and then the critical juncture of how to conduct foreign policy. That difference perhaps allows FDR to occupy a higher perch in the pantheon of presidents.
Theodore Roosevelt was born in 1858 to wealthy parents in New York City. His father made a fortune by manufacturing glass for the buildings ever increasing the city’s skyline. TR’s poor health and bouts of asthma during childhood are well known, as is his strict regiment of exercise, including boxing, to conquer them. Franklin, born 24 years after his cousin in 1882, would not endure physical hardship until an adult, and of a variety much more severe than Teddy faced. Both boys experienced the pampered upbringing common among the rich at the time. Each liked to collect animals; TR doing his own taxidermy, while Frank sent his specimens to a professional for stuffing. FDR also collected stamps, a hobby the more high-strung Teddy did not share. In addition, the two lost their fathers somewhat early in life, TR when he was 19, FDR at age 18.
The parallel roads mostly continued for the cousins as they grew up. Both attended Harvard, with an eye toward a career in law and maybe politics. In a slight hiccup, TR never finished law school or practiced it; FDR did not complete law school, but passed the bar exam, and joined several law firms during interludes in his public service. Teddy got elected to the N.Y. State Legislature at age 23, and quickly won a reputation as a feisty reformer, battling the extremely corrupt politicians in Albany. He suffered a life-altering tragedy in 1884, when his wife and mother died on the same day and in the same house. Leaving his infant daughter in the care of his sister, TR buried his grief by heading west to become a cowboy on a ranch he bought. The rigors of the outdoors further toughened his body and provided invaluable insights into the “common” people he would one day lead as president. Upon his return east, Teddy remarried and had 5 more children.
TR’s first foray onto the national political scene took place in 1889, when President Benjamin Harrison appointed him to a commission charged with investigating corruption in the federal government. He proved too good at the job, uncovering foul play in the postal service, which embarrassed the president, and helped cost him the 1892 election to Democrat Grover Cleveland. The new president asked Teddy to stay on, but the energetic Roosevelt yearned for another challenge. He served as police commissioner of New York City, becoming famous for walking the streets at night, making sure officers were not asleep at their posts. TR went back to Washington in 1897 to be President McKinley’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He joined those shouting loudly for war with Spain over Cuba, and fumed that McKinley had “the backbone of a chocolate éclair” when the president wavered over beginning hostilities. Teddy backed up his bluster by resigning his position when the conflict started, and charged up San Juan Hill to fame as a member of the Rough Riders.
Republican leaders employed TR’s newly found celebrity to get him elected governor of New York in the fall of 1898. To their dismay, however, the Colonel (as he know liked to be known after serving in the Spanish-American War) would not bend to the party machine which dominated N.Y. politics at the time. They frantically searched for a way to jettison the man many called “that damned cowboy!” The perfect solution appeared to present itself by placing Teddy as McKinley’s running mate for the 1900 election. Everyone knew the vice-presidency was a meaningless, dead-end job, and the Colonel balked at accepting. Party loyalty changed his mind, and he campaigned vigorously for the ticket, which won handily. In September, 1901, several months into McKinley’s second term, the nation learned to its horror that the president had been assassinated at a fair in Buffalo, N.Y. Perhaps most shocked were the Republican Party brain trust, whose well-crafted plan of permanently putting Theodore Roosevelt on the political sidelines had backfired terribly. That damned cowboy now held the highest office in the land.
Franklin Roosevelt’s road to the presidency would contain personal and political travails like his cousin, as well as several detours. The first difference was one of party, Franklin being a Democrat, like his father before, not a Republican in concert with TR. He also served in the N.Y. State Legislature, though a Senator to Teddy’s Assemblyman, and then became Woodrow Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913. In addition, FDR clamored for U.S. entry into a war, this time World War I in 1917. He offered his resignation to Wilson, so as to enlist, but got turned down. A still pugnacious Teddy, though 58 and in poor health , showed up at the White House as well to ask the president if he could raise a regiment like he did in the previous struggle. He too received a negative response from Woodrow. Franklin did travel to France to inspect naval installments and visited the front-line trenches, in lieu of participating in the actual fighting. In 1920, Democrat leaders tried to cash-in on the legendary Roosevelt name by having Frank run as vice-president with standard-bearer James Cox. The pair lost to Republican Warren Harding, leaving FDR’s political career in limbo. A year later, all hope seemed to vanish when personal calamity struck.
The family life of Franklin was a bit more tumultuous than Teddy’s, mainly because of his own foibles. He married TR’s niece, Eleanor, in 1905. The couple had 6 children, but never a close or intimate relationship, which only became more estranged over time. The marriage appeared to crumble completely after FDR’s affair with his wife’s appointments secretary came to light. Eleanor agreed to a divorce, but Franklin’s mother, Sara, stepped in and threatened to cut off his inheritance if they split. The two remained together until Franklin’s death in 1945, but it became strictly a professional union, as each lived almost completely separate lives. Eleanor, of course, turned her sorrow into a brilliant career, and is widely regarded as the most industrious First Lady ever.
In the summer of 1921, Franklin contracted polio while visiting a Boy Scout encampment in Westchester, N.Y. 39 years old, young and vital, he would never walk again. The illness did not diminish his considerable charm or eternal optimism, but awakened a depth of compassion and sympathy for the downtrodden which had been conspicuously absent before. The battle to re-enter the political arena after being struck down also revealed a tremendous inner fortitude. FDR spent a good portion of the 1920’s seeking a cure for his ailment, but never found one. In his journeys, however, he discovered Warm Springs, Georgia, and its mineral waters, eventually creating a resort there for fellow polio victims. Franklin’s mother wanted him to retire to their Hyde Park Estate, on the Hudson River, just north of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and live out his life as an invalid country squire. Perhaps surprisingly, Eleanor encouraged him to take up his career again, and kept his name before the public, while he rehabilitated.
A handicapped politician being unheard of in the 1920’s, FDR had to present the appearance of “walking.” Wearing heavy steel braces on his legs, holding a cane, and gripping the arm of a strong person, often one of his sons, he learned to swing one leg forward at a time, while pressing down with the opposite arm. This movement caused agonizing pain, and took long hours of practice to become comfortable with. Every public event Franklin attended, needed to be very carefully planned, to minimize the distance he had to traverse to the stage, and draw as little attention as possible to the action. After delivering nominating speeches at the 1924 and 1928 Democrat National Conventions, party leaders wanted to run FDR for N.Y. Governor in the fall of the latter year. He initially refused, feeling his health could not stand the rigors of the office, but reluctantly acquiesced. Winning a notable triumph, Franklin found the governorship reinvigorating.
He won renown as being the first governor in the nation to take pro-active measures when the Great Depression hit in late 1929. By 1932, his enthusiasm and optimism had struck such a cord with the country; he seemed the natural choice to run for president against the droll and lifeless Herbert Hoover. FDR broke with tradition and went in person to accept the nomination at the Democrats’ convention, reinforcing the urgency of the dire economic situation. With his campaign slogan, “Happy Days Are Here Again!”, he won a landslide over the hapless Hoover. Franklin Roosevelt faced a daunting challenge as he prepared to become the 32nd president in March of 1933, just as had Theodore in 1901, though of a somewhat different nature. Both men embraced the presidency with a zeal their immediate predecessors did not possess in any way. TR brought hurricane energy to the White House, that blew the staleness out the windows, which had permeated the office since Lincoln’s assassination in 1865.
The American economy was booming in 1901, but contained growing inequities between rich and poor, often dangerous working conditions, and mammoth monopolies crushing out competition. Teddy did not think all corporations were bad, only those that had grown too big, becoming unresponsive to the people. He believed the government needed to step in and break up these giant companies into smaller, competitive businesses, and did so, thus earning his moniker “trustbuster.” TR was also the first president to become involved in labor-management disputes, and consumer protection measures. In addition, he championed conservation by greatly expanding the national park system. Teddy understood changing conditions required a more active government role in the economy. Many of the ideas he espoused would be brought to fruition by his cousin 30 years later, while advocating universal health coverage put him about 100 years ahead of his time. TR’s blunt, straight-forward style, moralizing from the bully pulpit, antagonized a lot of people, especially Big Business.
In battling the Great Depression, FDR increased Washington’s involvement in the economy to unprecedented levels for good or bad, where it has remained ever since, with Social Security and Unemployment Benefits, among other things. He, too, provoked the well-to-do, who considered him a traitor to his class. The main criticism you hear today from conservatives and FOX News pundits concerning New Deal Programs is that they did not end the Great Depression and may even have prolonged it. Their condemnations conveniently forget that it was Big Business run amok in the 1920’s, with government encouragement no less, that caused the economic collapse in the first place. Franklin not only needed to get people back to work, but restore their faith in capitalism, democracy, and the federal government, which had been severely shaken by what happened. A big fear of TR’s became a very real possibility in the 1930’s – class warfare, anarchy, and the disintegration of society. FDR’s inspired leadership prevented that from happening.
One can only wish that Theodore had adopted Franklin’s approach in foreign affairs. TR possessed a militaristic and imperialistic streak, which can perhaps be traced to his father hiring a substitute to fight in his place during the Civil War. A purported stain on the family honor Teddy spent the rest of his life attempting to live down. TR accomplished monumental feats- the building of the Panama Canal- but his methods were sometimes not to the highest American ideals. He ran roughshod over Colombia to acquire the land for the canal. The neighborhood policeman stance the U.S. took toward small nations in the Caribbean did not engender good will among the people there as well. In addition, the brokering of secret power deals with Japan concerning Asia is not something a president should really be doing.
FDR came to realize that if the hope for enduring world peace had any chance, those two things which partly drove his cousin, militarism and imperialism, had to become relics of the past. He made Churchill and Great Britain sign the Atlantic Charter before the U.S. even entered World War II, promising a post-war era free of colonialism. His insistence on unconditional surrender for Nazi Germany and Japan was intended to give pause to other fascists and dictators who might use force to increase their tyranny. Franklin also made sure a world organization, the United Nations, to promote peaceful solutions to international problems, was in place before the war ended, correcting a mistake Woodrow Wilson committed with the League of Nations during World War I.
The Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin, provided what all presidents should, and has been sadly lacking in recent occupants of the White House- bold and assertive leadership. Their attitude can be summed up by this pronouncement of FDR’s before taking office in 1933, “The country needs and unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” Amen to that. Hillary, Jeb, and all other presidential contenders for 2016 would do well to take note, please.