On Sunday, September 25, the FDR Presidential Library and Museum and the Roosevelt Institute will present "FDR's INNER CIRCLE: DOMESTIC POLICY," a program that will examine the historical impact that FDR's circle of close advisers had on the president and the New Deal. Panelists, who will include Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Ellen Chesler, will also discuss to what extent modern presidents can and do rely on close confidants in an era of expanded government and more complex society. Online participants are invited to view the event and join the conversation here. I got the chance to sit down with Ellen ahead of her remarks and talk about one of FDR's closest advisers, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the changing role of the modern-day first lady.
Bryce Covert: How did Eleanor Roosevelt develop into the strong force in Franklin's presidency that she eventually became?
Ellen Chesler: Eleanor Roosevelt came of age in a laissez-faire era when responsibility for addressing poverty was at best accepted as the obligation of privileged elites. Churches were at first the preferred venue for this charity or "noblesse oblige," but then came an assortment of voluntary institutions, including the settlement houses on New York's Lower East Side, where Eleanor went to work. It was there that she opened her eyes to the harsh realities of poverty in this country and to the vast disparities of wealth and opportunity as a result of the circumstances of one's birth: social class, race, ethnicity, and, of course, gender.
Orphaned and terribly sad as a young girl, Eleanor was predisposed to sympathy for the suffering of others. Later, as a young wife, she found herself burdened with the demands of five young children and bored with the conventional preoccupations of women of her social class. Reaching out to help others less fortunate in their personal circumstances became her special calling. It also served her husband's career.
But then, as is well known, their life together unraveled with Eleanor's discovery of the love affair between Franklin and her young social secretary, Lucy Mercer. The marriage survived, but only as a union of two people committed to advancing Franklin's political aspirations. That bond strengthened as a result of his paralysis after he contracted polio at the age of 39. Through the 1920s, as he struggled to regain his strength, Eleanor kept herself up-to-date on matters of public policy and also gained sophistication in the machinations of electoral politics. By the time they came to Washington in 1933, she had earned herself a secure place among his inner circle of advisers, many of whom came with them from New York.
During Franklin's 12 years as president, Eleanor traveled endlessly, serving as a witness for a president who only occasionally left the White House. His disability undoubtedly made him a far more compassionate man in his own right, with a rare sympathy for human suffering. But whatever his own predilections, Eleanor was always hectoring him to do more and to fight harder for basic social justice. She was famous for leaving notes on his morning breakfast tray about something or other that was troubling her and needed his attention. She was often berated by his staff and by their own children for never giving him a moment of peace.
Together, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt helped transform the basic discourse of politics in this country. Out of the turmoil that enveloped capitalism and democracy during the Great Depression and World War II, they created a new paradigm of an activist state whose fundamental obligation is not only to protect the basic civil and political rights of its citizens, but also to provide for minimum standards of social security and economic wellbeing.
In what I think was the last article she published before her death in 1963, Eleanor used the example of Sarah Delano Roosevelt to invoke a world that had been transformed by Franklin's innovative leadership. She wrote that even his own mother, a woman of solid Christian values, could never fully accept the radical principle that had defined her son's presidency -- his belief that citizens in a democratic society are worthy not just of private charity or public assistance, but have fundamental rights as human beings. They are entitled to speak and worship and assemble freely, as the U.S. constitution requires, but also, as she put it, they are entitled to "the right to a job, the right to education, the right to health protection, the right to human dignity, and the right to a chance of fulfillment." As a living legacy to her husband, Eleanor embodied these principles in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, forged under her genial leadership as chair of the Human Rights Commission in 1948.
BC: How does Eleanor's role in her husband's presidency compare to presidencies in the modern era?
EC: They are really not comparable. The White House today is so much bigger and more professionalized. Presidents have phalanxes of advisers beyond their formal cabinets and departments. This professionalization has actually complicated the role of the first lady, making it more difficult for her to serve openly as an informal adviser.
Perhaps ironically, the many challenges to traditional patriarchal households and the many educational and employment opportunities now available to women in their own right also hobble the lives of first ladies who are, after all, volunteering their services. Remember that Eleanor had no formal education beyond boarding school and had never held a job beyond some teaching at a Manhattan private school. Options for women, and particularly for married women, were sufficiently limited that no matter what she did or how controversial many of her views became, most Americans still saw her as Franklin's agent -- perhaps a bit outspoken at times, but still carrying out his objectives, not the other way around.
She also got special dispensation because of his polio. It's hard to imagine a president today essentially confined to the White House or to campaigning from the back of a train. Can you contemplate a first lady today with her own daily newspaper column (or blog), communicating to the public directly without a filter of any kind? Or try to imagine a situation where a president running for reelection would send his wife to the convention to put his name in nomination, while he stayed in Washington, mixing martinis before dinner, accompanied by his secretary and assorted friends?
Hillary Clinton had a tougher time in part because she entered the White House as an accomplished professional with a distinguished career in her own right. The balance of power between men and women, and the traditional economic and social arrangements of households, was also shifting for all Americans right under her feet.
The Clinton White House became a mirror in which everyone seemed to see their own reflection and onto which they projected their own (perhaps unacknowledged) anxieties. I remember polling my own friends to discover with no surprise that women who did not work and their husbands all tended to dislike Hillary. But I also often found that the ones whose wives were out-earning or out-performing them were just as uncomfortable with her. Eleanor did not face that hurdle. And of course once Hillary held a job in her own right, as senator or as Secretary of State, she became immensely popular across the board, even among conservatives.
BC: What other comparisons can we make between Eleanor and Hillary as first ladies?
EC: Hillary Clinton strongly shares Eleanor Roosevelt's conviction that the state has an obligation to advance the social and economic wellbeing of its citizens. I would credit her for urging her husband as the first act of his presidency in 1993 to sign the Family and Medical Leave Act. It was a landmark piece of legislation because it recognized the profound changes in family structure that have occurred as a result of the revolution in women's work and formal employment. It was an important breakthrough in American thinking about the appropriate role of government in helping men and women balance obligations to work and family.
Like Eleanor, Hillary also spent the better part of her years as first lady on the road, meeting as often with the powerless as with the powerful. She had boundless enthusiasm for that. She also had an understanding that the modern welfare safety net created by the New Deal was not fulfilling the vision of the Roosevelts for a temporary government subsidy that would help build personal capacity and self-reliance.
Others may disagree, but I would argue that Hillary Clinton, as first lady and later as a senator, helped ameliorate some of the shortcomings of the compromised 1996 legislation to reform welfare by providing a better integrated program that combines economic subsidies with social supports. She also was a player in helping to win increases in the minimum wage, rewarding work through the expansion of the earned-income tax credit, widening opportunities for education and job training, widening access to Head Start and daycare, and protecting reproductive choice. Incremental changes in healthcare provisions, which she also championed, resulted in a substantial broadening of the population of working families eligible for insurance. Among these was S-CHIP, the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which covers young people through the age of 18 and was an important model for further expansion of health insurance under the Obama administration.
BC: How does the relationship between Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt compare to Obama's presidency?
EC: I heard Michelle Obama deliver a powerful speech in New York on Tuesday -- an impassioned call to action for Democratic women that drew a very vivid comparison between her husband and his conservative opponents. Her defense of her husband was elegant and powerful and was distinguished as much by its passion as by its content. As so many pundits have observed, Michelle Obama, a forceful advocate for her husband during the campaign, has been something of a prisoner in the White House, her attention focused only on matters that could not possibly provoke controversy, such as elementary education, child obesity, military families, and of course, fashion. I know all the arguments about why this was necessary and how threatening a tall, strong, brilliant, and beautiful African-American woman would be to many Americans, especially if she seemed "uppity." I realize that she was encouraged to appear devoted to her daughters and family and essentially to take an "un-Eleanor, un-Hillary" approach to her position. But after hearing her speak this week, I think this has been a mistake and would send her out on the road 24/7! It's still not too late, and she may yet turn out to be one of her husband's best assets.