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Think you know FDR? Dick Moe’s new book filled with surprises

Moe’s “Roosevelt’s Second Act” focuses on the period of 1939-40, the bridge between the New Deal and the World War II eras.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933
Library of CongressFranklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933

If you know any U.S. political trivia at all, you likely know that only one president served more than two terms (before that practice was banned by the 22nd Amendment). It was Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected to a third term in 1940 and then a fourth in 1944 (although he died very early that term, which is how we got Harry S Truman).

I knew that it was controversial, and that supporters of 1940 Republican nominee Wendell Willkie printed up buttons that said “No Third Termer,” (to which wise-guy Democrats responded with a very crowded button that said “Better a Third Termer than a Third Rater.”)

In his recently published book, “Roosevelt’s Second Act,” long-time Washington insider Dick Moe argues that FDR’s decision to seek a third term was not preordained, but also that the third Roosevelt term changed history in colossal ways. Moe focuses at full book-length on the period of 1939-40, the bridge between the New Deal and the World War II eras, when FDR was mulling the unprecedented third candidacy.

Moe seems to believe (I’m not completely sure I buy it) that FDR would have preferred to retire, if he could be sure he would be succeeded by a Democrat who could win, who would be committed to preserving the New Deal and who would steer U.S. foreign policy away from the isolationism that had characterized it for much of its history to an active role in saving Britain and making sure that Hitler wouldn’t take over Europe.

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In the end, FDR couldn’t recruit a satisfactory successor (or perhaps didn’t really want to) and ended up birthing the modern American military superpower and leaving the larger federal government with its New Deal safety net intact.

Richard Moe
National Trust for Historic PreservationRichard Moe

Back when I did my scribbling within the norms of daily newspaper journalism, piece like this had to have both a “news peg” and a “Minnesota angle.” Believe it or not, this piece has both. To wit:

Dick Moe is a Duluth native and U of M Law School grad who spent much of his adult life working for Walter Mondale during the Senate and vice presidential years, and then as an aide to President Jimmy Carter (whom I guess we could call Mondale’s running mate). In his later career, Moe presided over the National Trust for Historic Preservation and has written some history books of his own, of which “Roosevelt’s Second Act” is the latest. Moe had been scheduled for a trip to his native state to lecture about the book at a dinner honoring the late distinguished historian Paul Nagel (who, full disclosure, was a source and friend of mine). The dinner was to have been last week (news peg) and I was to have interviewed Moe in advance, but he fell ill and all of that has been postponed. (Oops, there went the news peg. Also, I understand that Moe is recovering.)

Notwithstanding that run-on paragraph, there were so many things in the book that took me by surprise, I beg leave to mention a few of them. They are mostly in the category of how much things have changed in our political practices since 1940. For example:

  • FDR tried to recruit several members of his administration, especially his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, to run for the Democratic nomination, but they all turned him down. (Is it possible that he asked only the ones who he knew would turn him down?)
  • On the other hand, his own vice president, John Nance Garner of Texas (who is remembered mostly for his famous remark that the vice presidency “is not worth a warm bucket of spit”) did announce as a candidate to succeed FDR and campaigned for the job without FDR’s support. Can you imagine a modern vice president trying to crowd out his boss from renomination?
  • The other announced candidate who wouldn’t take the hint from FDR was Big Jim Farley, who had managed FDR’s campaigns in 1932 and ’36, and was simultaneously serving as postmaster general and chair of the Democratic Party, a combination of partisan and public responsibilities that would be unimaginable today.
  • During 1940, FDR had at least one heart attack that caused him to turn pale and slump over into unconsciousness during a dinner gathering, a fact that did not become known to the public. How should we feel about FDR starting a third term without disclosing the condition of his heart? (Roosevelt did die suddenly of a stroke in 1945.)
  • While his own former running-mate and his own former campaign manager actually announced their candidacies, FDR managed to get all the way to the time of the Democratic nominating convention without answering the question of whether he wanted or would accept nomination for a third term. He gave vague answers to reporters who kidded that FDR was a sphinx.
  • And when I say that FDR got all the way to the convention, I don’t mean to imply that he was physically there. Not at all. While the delegates gathered in Chicago, FDR stayed in Washington and stayed publicly silent. He never went there at all, but his wife Eleanor Roosevelt did make an unscheduled visit when things were getting out of hand, although she certainly did not clarify that her husband was a candidate.
  • In fact, FDR was so anxious, for reasons that make little sense in today’s political world, to do nothing publicly to appear anxious for another term, that he had one of his allies at the convention read a statement from him announcing that any delegates who felt committed to support Roosevelt’s nomination were thereby released from any such commitment. According to Moe’s account, most of the delegates had come to Chicago fully intending to renominate the absent sphinx-like incumbent. But this announcement confused them and a moment of panic ensued until the leather-lunged superintendent of the Chicago sewer system (miraculously) gained control of the convention sound system and bellowed “We Want Roosevelt” repeatedly until the chant caught on with the whole convention yelling that the delegates wanted him too. Moe did not explain how the sewer-master managed this trick, but the mayor of Chicago was a huge FDR ally. When the chanting ended and the balloting began, FDR was renominated by a huge first-ballot margin over Farley and Garner. FDR still did not head to Chicago for any kind of acceptance speech.
  • Roosevelt's Second ActUntil this time, presidential candidates did not choose their own running-mates. The convention delegates truly controlled that choice (as they still do, but only as a formality). FDR decided to change that in 1940, and his lieutenants let the convention know that FDR wanted Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace to be nominated for vice president, which was a highly controversial choice. Wallace was a brainy, enthusiastic New Dealer (although a former Republican) but he was viewed (accurately) as far left on the ideological spectrum and there was a weird scandal about his admiration for and relationship with with a non-Christian Russian-born guru named Nicholas Roerich, who looked a little bit too much the “mad monk” Rasputin who caused some trouble for the family of the last Russian czar. FDR didn’t care, he wanted Wallace, but many of the delegates did not. And when Wallace was trailing early on the first ballot, Roosevelt (who was listening to proceedings on the radio) drafted a letter to the convention saying that if he couldn’t have Wallace, he would decline the nomination. (Seriously, did you know any of this stuff, because I sure didn’t.) The letter wasn’t sent, Wallace was nominated and this was the beginning of the new normal in which the presidential nominee chooses his own running mate (although that system wasn’t fully complete for several more cycles).
  • FDR’s premise that only he could save the country from entering the perilous world war period under the leadership of a Republican isolationist turned out to be wrong. The Republicans nominated one of the all-time dark horses, Wendell Willkie, a former Democrat who had never held public office and who was a staunch internationalist. The isolationist mood of the country was so strong that both candidates pandered to it to some degree. FDR, who was doing every politically possible thing he could to keep Britain afloat under Nazi attack in 1940, nonetheless crafted an oft-repeated statement that “we will not participate in foreign wars unless attacked.” Willkie, despite being an internationalist who seemed to have very similar foreign policy impulses, nonetheless warned the country that under FDR the nation would end up in the European war. FDR replied by dropping the “unless attacked” from his standard statement, which caused some Democrats to complain that he was now promising an isolationist policy. FDR’s private explanation was that if one of the belligerents attack America, it would no longer be a “foreign war” and of course the U.S. would respond. Hmmm.

Well, as you already knew, Roosevelt beat Willkie, and by an Electoral College landslide at that. Willkie returned to his internationalist roots and publicly supported Roosevelt’s foreign and war policy and, of course, while Roosevelt was able to “lend-lease” enormous amounts of military aid to the Brits to keep them afloat, the United States eventually got into the war without requiring FDR to break his pledge because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.