Tuesday, February 05, 2013

How FDR Did it, and How He Did Not

Maury Maverick Jr., the (you know) maverick Democratic newspaper editor from  Texas, liked to remember the last words of his father, Maury Maverick Sr., once a Congressman.  “C'm'ere,” the old man grunted, motioning his young namesake to lean close to the death bed.

At least you weren't a horse's ass …
… like Jimmy Roosevelt.

Oh sure, it's probably a fiction, but it came back to mind today as I pressed on with Jean Edward Smith's biography of FDR and in particular the period in 1937-8 when the master communicator seems to have lost his magic; when just about everything went wrong. 

You might remember that that was the period when FDR tried and failed to pack the Supreme Court.  Unless you are a serious political junky (I'm  not), you might have forgotten that it was also the year when the conservative southern Democrats made nice with conservative Republicans and almost stopped the late New Deal dead in its tracks. And when Roosevelt, in a spasm of tactical folly, threw himself into Congressional election politics to try to purge his party of the disloyal.

And Jimmy?  He was the de facto chief of staff.  It's no easy to imagine a man more ill suited for the job.  He was young; he was callow; he had a massive sense of entitlement and his only serious purpose in life at this point seems to have been to turn his Presidential connection to his personal advantage.   

Maverick lost his seat in that '38 election. This is an irony: he was a Roosevelt loyalist but he got caught in the undertow of a conservative backlash against the Roosevelt purge.  He's not around to confirm or deny but I wouldn't be at all surprised if he blamed young Jimmy for his fate.

How, you may ask, did so artful a manipulator as the President wind up in such a clusterschtupp of bad choices?  The evidence converges on one name: Louis Howe,  the eyes, ears and yes, brains of the Roosevelt political operation from the time they met in New York State politics around 1909.  He was at Roosevelt's side, almost (as it seemed) every waking hour; he strategized all of Roosevelt's political campaigns.

Until his death in August 1936.  And while Smith makes no point of it, the evidence is stark: before Howe's death, Roosevelt made almost no mistakes.  In the couple of years afterwards, he made a lot (including the selection of Jimmy to step into the Howe vacuum).

This insight set me to thinking: there is a trope here, not so?  About the political leader who is disclosed on close scrutiny to have been the sock puppet of a shadowy figure, preferably saturnine and emaciated like Howe, who provides the clarity and focus?

I find this seductive, and I'm sure there are other examples.  Yet at the moment, I can't think of any.  No one has this kind of centrality in the life of any later President.  More precisely: they all had advisers, some powerful and some (sometimes the same ones) great fonts of clear thinking and ability. But no matter what the folklore may suggest, it's hard to think of anyone who played quite the role that Howe did, and whose absence proved so dramatic.

Afterthought:  I met Jimmy Roosevelt for a moment just once.  That would have been in 1955--a year after Maverick died--when I was working as a copy boy for the Associated Press at the House of Representatives.  I had to carry some kind of message into Roosevelt, now a Congressman in his own right.  He was genial, radiating at least a bit of his father's charm.  Perhaps he had even learned a bit about politics along the way.

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