Saturday, February 09, 2013

More Roosevelt: Self-Sacrifice

More FDR,once again on a topic that I suspect the specialists have done to death but I never noticed it before.  

Here's point: who were FDR's most devoted aides?  I suspect almost anybody wold name one, maybe two, maybe all three of the following (alphabetical): Harry Hopkins,  Louis Howe, Marguerite (Missy) LeHand.  

Hopkins was, of course, the Iowa social worker who morphed into a sensational relief administrator, and then into a globe-girdling diplomat.  Howe was the eyes, ears and brains of FDR's early political career, his James Carville and his Nate Silver and a half dozen others all rolled into one (he performed the same role for Eleanor).  Missy was his secretary for nine years, but more: she occupied the bedroom next to his so she could be there to serve him night and day (my guess is that they were not lovers but it is almost a detail: either way she was there to attend to his every wish).

And the common thread is?   I suppose there are several.  One, dazzling, almost effortless, competence at their job.  Two, unstinting devotion to the boss.  And three (but you knew)--they all died in (or perhaps "of")  his service.

It's tempting to say that "Roosevelt killed them" but I think it is more complicated than that.  Howe and to a lesser extent Hopkins appear to have been virtual catalogs of bad health practices (I know less about Missy).  And Hopkins actually outlived the President (by about 14 months)--indeed there are those who say that it was Roosevelt who kept him alive: he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1939, and his indispensability around the White House seems to have given his life a sustaining purpose.  Still, it is hard to avoid the fact each of the three lived out their lives in a program of selfless devotion, of a sort that left them bereft of sinew for any other task.  But  they weren't,  as one might say,  slaves: they weren't chained to the wrought iron fence.  If the President used them, and then used them up, you could just as well say they that they volunteered for the duty.

A piece of the puzzle here would, of course, be the President's physical incapacity.  It led others to serve him ways that other Presidents do  not need to be served.  His "wife" Eleanor--actually, better his "political collaborator"--functioned as kind of a kind of one-woman intelligence service, going places and meeting people and seeing things that he could not possibly have understood so comprehensively on his own.  Admiral William D. Leahy became his personal military adviser at the beginning of World War II but evolved into a kind of Hopkins-like presence as Hopkins sickened and the war drew to its close.

Another factor has to be the legendary Roosevelt personal charm: his capacity to keep almost anybody (at least as long as they were in his presence) on his side. And a third would have to be the sense of entitlement that comes from being the scion of two great houses--a man who, when he became Assistant Secretary of the Navy, brought no more experience than his few years as a law clerk.

Other presidents have been served loyally and others have been admired but it is hard to think of any other record of so much heroic devotion.   Am I forgetting anything important?

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