Sixty years after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the national news is full of tribute to America’s longest-serving President—and the chief executive who probably did the most to enhance the role of the federal government in the everyday lives of Americans. Life magazine now has a special FDR issue available at most newsstands and, in April of this year, the Biography Channel ran a four-hour, two-night special on this most complex man who occupied the presidency for a dozen years. HBO ran a recent dramatic presentation featuring British actor Kenneth Branagh as FDR during his battle with polio.
As often as newsreels and photographs show a haggard and obviously ailing Roosevelt in his twilight years as a World War II leader, it is somewhat surprising for many to realize that he was a very attractive candidate in his first bid for the presidency. At 50, he was only four years older than Bill Clinton and seven years older than John F. Kennedy when they entered the White House. Given the long-time lionization of FDR in the media and the godlike status he holds within the Democratic Party, it is stunning to learn that he came perilously close to losing the nomination for President when Democrats held their national convention in 1932.
So that’s why Steve Neal’s Happy Days Are Here Again is “must” reading for the complete saga of Roosevelt. Published after the death of veteran Chicago Sun-Times political reporter Neal last year, Happy Days (named for Roosevelt’s theme song at the ’32 convention, which would become a staple at quadrennial Democratic gatherings until Clinton replaced it with Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow in 1992) brings to life the party convention held amid sweltering Chicago heat and record unemployment during the Depression.
Indeed, so disliked was Republican President Herbert Hoover and so much did the fall election appear “in the bag” for the opposition Democrats that no fewer than a dozen candidates vied for the Democratic nomination.
New York’s Gov. Roosevelt was the long-presumed Democratic front-runner. He had won most of the dozen-or-so primaries (most states at the time selected delegates by caucus or convention), and actually entered the convention with a majority of delegates. But rules at the time required a nominee to have two-thirds of the delegates. FDR’s campaign team stumbled badly at the close of the nominating season.
He had entered the Massachusetts primary and lost decisively to former New York Gov. and 1928 nominee Alfred E. Smith, who remained tremendously popular among fellow Roman Catholics. Moreover, Roosevelt was upset in California’s winner-take-all primary by Speaker of the House John Nance Garner of Texas, whose endorsement by his onetime U.S. House classmate William Randolph Hearst meant powerful support from the publisher’s large newspaper and radio station chain in the Golden State.
So, the damaged Roosevelt bandwagon arrived in Chicago for the Democratic convention. Major rivals for the nomination—Smith, Garner and former Secretary of War Newton D. Baker—and various favorite sons—among them Maryland’s Gov. Albert Ritchie, a divorced bachelor, and former Virginia Gov. Harry Byrd—all attempted to thwart the front-runner through four exciting convention ballots. (At different times during the convention, Neal points out, the Roosevelt campaign attempted to go over the top by offering the second spot on his ticket to Ritchie and then to Byrd.
“Among the reasons that Roosevelt, a polio survivor, had not gone to Chicago [before his nomination],” noted Neal, “was that he would have had difficulty moving through crowds and standing in reception lines.” Using contemporaneous reporting, the author demolishes the widely believed story that FDR successfully hid the fact he was unable to walk unassisted. Colliers, Time and numerous periodicals of the day wrote extensively about the candidate’s polio affliction and resulting difficulties. But there was no television coverage to speak of and photographers and newsreel cameramen respected his wishes not to be pitied, so Roosevelt was almost never shown in his wheelchair or being lifted by staffers to an upright position in braces.
Eerily Like the Present
As a big-state governor and heir to a powerful political name (only a dozen years after his death, Republican cousin Teddy was a still-loved figure), Franklin Roosevelt was the George W. Bush of his day. A mediocre student at Ivy League schools, Roosevelt was often underestimated by political opponents. Overseeing political chores for Roosevelt was his own Karl Rove—Louis Howe, a brainy, eccentric political operative who had devoted years to making the friend he called “the boss” President.
If Roosevelt was the Bush of his era, then Al Smith was surely its Ronald Reagan. Having unsuccessfully sought the nomination twice before and then won it only to lose to Hoover in 1928, Smith was, by 1932, a vindicated hero to the Democratic grassroots. Had the modern system of widespread primaries been used to choose delegates that year, wise-cracking Irishman and onetime stage actor Smith would almost certainly have won the nomination. But a large number of the delegates were controlled by Democratic organizations, and the pols felt that Smith was yesterday’s news and that the party needed to be led by a fresh face.
Baker, civilian head of the armed forces during the war, was almost universally regarded as the brightest of candidates. If positive editorials could have nominated someone, it would have been the former secretary of war. Baker’s drawbacks, almost identical to Dick Cheney’s in modern times, were his private sector association with major companies, his reserved personality and history of heart trouble.
Speaker Garner led his party to rule in the House for the first time in a dozen years, sort of the Newt Gingrich of his day. A canny, cigar-chewing Texas pol, Garner was also the father of some creative legislation, including a proposal to scrap the graduated income tax in favor of a national sales tax. In 1931, the speaker guided this revolutionary tax reform measure from the Ways and Means Committee to the House floor, where it lost on an up-or-down vote.
Against these and other candidates, Roosevelt held onto first place for three ballots, but never reached the magic two-thirds. Finally, the deadlock was broken on the fourth ballot when Garner, sorely wanting a Democratic return to the White House, agreed to settle for second spot on a Roosevelt ticket. At the urging of friend and Roosevelt fund-raiser Joseph P. Kennedy, Garner man Hearst OK’d the release of California’s delegates, which, coupled with those of Texas, put FDR over the top.
The rest, as they say, is history.