Book Reviews

From Eleanor to Hillary

How two first ladies, nearly a century apart, faced so many of the same obstacles.

By Irin Carmon

Tagged Eleanor RooseveltFeminismHillary Clintonpolitics

Eleanor Roosevelt: The War Years and After; Volume Three, 1939-1962 by Blanche Wiesen Cook • Viking • 2016 • 688 pages • $40

Her biographer calls her the “most controversial First Lady in United States history.” And though her life is defined by her husband’s triumphs and betrayals alike, her energy for self-reinvention seems endless.

Eventually, she comes to tolerate her husband’s infidelities and flirtations, the constant churn of women around him. She knows everyone knows—her husband hardly bothers to hide his indiscretions—but often seems to choose denial anyway. She also occasionally blames herself. “He might have been happier with a wife who was completely uncritical,” she writes. “That I was never able to be, and he had to find it in other people.”

And, yet, they stay together. The peculiar dynamics of her marriage prompt differing diagnoses. Here is one: that it “represented the best possible alliance of independence and deep connectedness. They both grew within it, while drawing closer and farther apart.” The paradox works for them, it is said: “To the end, they confided in and trusted each other, even as they increasingly traveled separately.”

At certain junctures, even her fiercest critics begrudgingly admire her, mostly for her determination. But she is also lambasted for her keenness to earn money giving lectures, among other activities. She’s called a “money grubber.” An early biographer is among those who defend her: “She has given hundreds of thousands of dollars for projects to improve health, education, and working-capacity of people in depressed areas.” Her stamina and international globetrotting become the stuff of legend.

In the early years of her public life, Time recalls, she was “viewed by large portions of the U.S. public with some degree of derision if not alarm. They caricatured her, joked about her. . . . They couldn’t believe that any woman could sincerely embrace the multiplicity of interests which she added to being a wife, mother, and White House hostess.” Her indifference to domestic and social niceties rankled other women, as well as men. Not that she didn’t try to make herself more palatable, sometimes: She “consulted a speech teacher to improve the placement of her voice during public lectures.”

The first lady’s outspoken, left-leaning politics infuriate the pragmatists in her husband’s Administration. Outsiders mock the President for having a “petticoat government.” Still, amid all the jockeying for power inside the White House, she has less political influence than she wishes for. She keeps close her own loyal circle of women, both inside and outside the White House, who protect her until the end.

When a war divides liberals and the left, and when some of her former allies accuse her of being a “warmonger,” she responds by saying that it is “‘self defense’ to be ‘concerned about what is happening in the rest of the world.’”

Historians still debate what her husband could have done to stop a genocide, and whether he could have avoided violating his core principles when confronted with bitter congressional opposition to his priorities. The President sometimes makes a point of sternly distancing himself from the left, haranguing a gathering of them on one occasion to avoid subjects “which you have not thought through and on which you cannot possibly have complete knowledge.”

The parallels between Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton have been long noted, even overdetermined. The comparison was made both by Eleanor’s admirers and Hillary’s detractors—people who sought to use ER as the moral high-water mark Clinton could never hope to match. But Hillary herself played up the association, describing her own spiritual communing with ER’s ghost in the White House. “She usually responds by telling me to buck up, or at least to grow skin as thick as a rhinoceros,” Clinton wrote.

The first two volumes of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s decades-in-the-making biography came out, respectively, at the dawn and dusk of the Clinton administration. Reviewing the second book in The New York Times, Maureen Dowd invoked ER’s 1936 exhortations for women (“You cannot take anything personally” and “You have to take defeat over and over again and pick up and go on” among them) to scold the sitting first lady. “Are you listening, Hillary?” Dowd taunted. Seventeen years later, as Cook’s final volume appears on the heels of a Hillary Clinton loss, no one could argue in good faith that Clinton didn’t take ER’s advice.

And yet, there were significant differences between them, most of which track with women’s progress. ER often lamented that she had never gone to college; Clinton went from Wellesley to Yale Law. “For ten years I was always just getting over having a baby or about to have another one, and so my occupations were considerably restricted,” ER wrote. She gave birth to six children. Hillary, perhaps enjoying the benefits of the modern birth control technology ER herself championed, had only one child and rarely stopped working.

It remains extraordinary to revisit ER’s rebellious political independence even when her husband capitulated.

Hillary once disastrously swore in another context she wasn’t simply standing by her man, but on the matter of her husband’s policies, ER was the pluckier of the two. First lady Hillary Clinton defended, with overcompensating zeal, even those policies of her husband that she had seemed to abhor. It remains extraordinary to revisit, on the other hand, ER’s rebellious political independence and commitment to progressive ideals even when her husband capitulated. FDR told Henry Wallace, only half-jokingly, that the FBI file on ER “would make her appear to be the worst enemy of the United States.” She did not hold her tongue when FDR signed into law the Alien Registration Act, also known as the Smith Act, stripping noncitizens and dissenters of civil liberties and threatening deportation for anyone who advocated for “the violent overthrow of the government.” That same day, ER published a column condemning the policy. “I think it is time we stopped and took stock of ourselves,” ER wrote, calling the act “dangerous” and a “historic departure.” While her husband coddled Dixiecrats, she met with NAACP leaders, fought for anti-lynching legislation, and openly protested segregation.

Perhaps to soften the edge of this rank autonomy, ER could affect humility and self-deprecation to the point of disingenuousness. She repeatedly denied any political influence over her husband. “A president’s wife does not see her husband often enough to tell him what to do,” she demurred. By the time Bill Clinton became President, he was foolish enough to think the country was ready for a package deal, and would even welcome it.

Even in her most ingratiating moments, Clinton has never pretended to like the reporters who have covered her regularly. ER cultivated the press, including during her famous press conferences exclusively for women reporters. But it was a different world back then. The press never tore away the delicate veil of privacy around the Roosevelt marriage and FDR’s disability. To keep herself sane, ER kept her own apartment and her Hyde Park cottage. She even drove herself around.

Clinton never had such a respite. But even if she had, let’s not kid ourselves about why it’s easier for so many to like the ghost of Eleanor Roosevelt but not the woman who announced her presidential run in Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island: Only one has ever admitted she would like to be in power. “Nothing would induce me to run for public office or to accept an appointment to any office at the present time,” ER announced after FDR’s death. She famously said she would rather be “chloroformed” than run. When she left the White House in 1945, Harold L. Ickes tried and failed to convince ER to run for Senate; about a half-century later his son, Harold M. Ickes, helped Clinton do just that instead.

Perhaps ER simply liked her freedom and the relative purity that comes with pushing others to be better. But, maybe, the longtime Democratic Party activist and “the first wife of a president or nominee to address a major political party” simply intuited she could push only so far. She followed, then departed from, generations of first ladies who had silently retreated under the sheer weight of their husband’s job. (The first ladies ER admired the most, brilliant and accomplished before their husbands’ presidencies, all seemed to take mysteriously ill when they moved into the big house.) She had seen up close what it meant to be in charge and, having done so, she passed. Clinton tried to push further than that; she lost.

Nearly a quarter century after the first volume was published, Cook’s third installment picks up in 1939 and takes ER through the war years, her husband’s passing, and, a bit hastily, everything that followed until her own death in 1962. Cook, a professor of history and women’s studies at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, initially contravened the portrayal of Roosevelt as a “saint without desire, an aristocratic lady without erotic imagination.” Her Eleanor grew from a shy and neglected, if privileged, girl into a woman who surrounded herself with fabulously independent women, many of them lesbians.

As famously laid out by Cook in the collection’s first volume, the record strongly suggests that ER had affairs with at least one woman, journalist Lorena Hickok, and one man, her bodyguard, Earl Miller. “She protected their secrets and kept her own,” Cook wrote then. “Women who love women, and women who love younger men, have understood for generations that it was necessary to hide their love, lest they be the target of slander and cruelty.” The swaggering, cigar-smoking Hickok, assigned to cover ER during her husband’s first campaign, would come to address the first lady with intimacies like, “Most clearly I remember your eyes, with a kind of teasing smile in them, and the feeling of that soft spot just north-east of the corner of your mouth against my lips.” ER wrote her, “I wish I could lie down beside you tonight & take you in my arms.” To Cook, the affair represented the kind of mature and mutually satisfying, if at times tempestuous, love that FDR never offered his wife.

The War Years and After, as the third book is subtitled, cannot compete with such saucy revelations. The late Eleanor is not the one passionately described in Hickok’s letters, the one who raised the eyebrows of the White House staff when they disappeared into the bathroom together, or the one photographed with her hand on the knee of the lithe and protective Miller. She is a woman who is muzzled by her husband’s wartime priorities, infuriated by his shredding of civil liberties, and increasingly marginalized in his White House. She is also torn between her pacifist inclinations and her horror in the face of Hitler.

Her most frequent role is to act as moral conscience for her husband, his Administration, the women of America, and well, everyone else. As anti-interventionist fervor blocks the United States from entering World War II, Eleanor wonders, “I wonder whether we have decided to hide behind neutrality? It is safe, perhaps, but I am not sure it is always right to be safe.” She tried to understand where American hostility toward refugees came from: “The years of depression have made us less sure of ourselves, over-suspicious and, overcautious.” Even so, she warns against how other countries “in their fear of ideas, of people and of groups, resorted to restrictive measures which resulted in the loss of liberty for all.” As for those displaced by Hitler, ER wrote, “We must, of course, use caution, but we need not be cautious to the point of going back entirely on our traditional hospitality to political refugees.”

In 1938, she had sat with Mary McLeod Bethune to kick off the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in Birmingham, Alabama, outraging segregationists. Only the threat of Bull Connor’s police force (yes, Bull Connor, even then!) could get her to agree to push her chair into the aisle between the white and black sections of the room. She lobbied in support of black combat pilots, “called by some, with derision, Eleanor’s n—rs,” and even took a ride with one at the helm. Her anti-racism can sound fresh even by today’s standards: “Today what concerns us most deeply is the necessary change in attitude on the part of the white race.” Yet despite ER’s best efforts, FDR sanctioned segregation of the troops. Cook notes that even German prisoners of war on military bases were welcomed into dining areas and movie halls that were off limits to black service members. Thurgood Marshall called her “Lady Big Heart” and told his biographer, “Eleanor Roosevelt did a lot; but her husband didn’t do a damn thing.”

Cook writes that ER was “stunned” by FDR’s decision to issue Executive Order 9066, interning Japanese Americans. It was “a violation of everything she understood about her husband’s commitment to law and justice, and everything she believed represented America.” It was a “turning point in their relationship.” A visitor to the White House in 1942 observed, “At the White House Eleanor and Franklin are hardly on speaking terms. She criticizes his policies . . . and he snubs her whenever he can. It is all tragic.”

Even moral heroes can disappoint or perplex, though, and Cook does not stint on ER’s failings. “One searches in vain for [her] reaction” to the 1950 turning away of a ship of elite Jewish refugees. In what Cook calls “one of history’s most curious anomalies,” ER wrote an astounding letter in response to her “former friend” Carola von Schaeffer-Bernstein’s defense of Nazism. “I realize quite well that there may be a need for curtailing the ascendancy of the Jewish people,” ER wrote, “but it seems to me it might have been done in a more humane way by a ruler who had intelligence and decency.” The disproportionate presence of Jews, she continued, “in certain professions which leads inevitably to resentment,” among other factors, meant that Jews could “be in part responsible for the present situation, [but] they are not as responsible as the other races who need to examine themselves and grapple with their own fears.” Still, ER concluded of Europe’s Jews, “If they perish, we perish sooner or later.”

She later became a Zionist, though Cook explores this only fleetingly. FDR’s death, and the preceding “denial” ER was mired in about his failing health, comes and goes quickly. The last 17 years of ER’s life, those in which she was the freest to live outside of her husband’s shadow and speak her mind—devoting herself to human rights and the United Nations and reform of the Democratic Party to take power away from the old machine bosses—are relegated to a brisk epilogue. “An almost frenzied level of work enabled her to overcome, or at least repress, her depression,” the intermittent bouts of what ER called her “Griselda moods,” and she “wrote ever more forcefully about the need to end bigotry, discrimination and poverty.” In 1948, she urged the Democratic Party to repudiate the Dixiecrats and embrace anti-racism. The party did that on civil rights and voting rights law, but not on other issues like criminal justice. It would really take until Hillary Clinton’s time for that mutual abandonment to be complete.

In sum, Cook writes, Eleanor Roosevelt was a “practical idealist,” a feminist and progressive stalwart who inspired millions and died beloved. Thus concludes her life, and her biography. Her younger acolyte—well, we’ll see. Having demanded much more, Hillary Clinton instead was defeated. But like Eleanor was, she is a woman used to being disappointed.

Read more about Eleanor RooseveltFeminismHillary Clintonpolitics

Irin Carmon is the co-author of The Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a reporter at NBC News and MSNBC.

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