“I've Got This Thing Simplified”

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To observe Franklin D. Roosevelt across the barrier interposed between the President and the press was often to have the impression of a brilliant and accomplished actor meeting the challenge of a critical audience. He took pleasure and pride in his own performance and, with his mastery in later years of the difficult technique of the press conference, he seldom missed his cues.

It was a rare privilege to step across the barrier and observe the great man from, as it were, the other side of the footlights. Thanks to his able and devoted press secretary, Stephen Early, I had that privilege on April 7, 1944. It was at the time when speculation about a fourth term was acute. Yet because the critical phase of the war was still to come and the President was after all commander in chief, the prospect of a fourth term did not stir quite the same anger and vituperation that the third term had. It was in a sense as though a war-weary public had resigned itself to continuing this man in office at least until the ordeal was ended.

Yet it seemed to me then that Roosevelt was highly sensitive to the charge that he had broken one of America’s oldest political traditions. For he was in many respects a traditionalist, strange as that may seem in view of his reputation as innovator. The habit of power had grown on him. He wanted to remain as commander until the war was won. But at the same time he would have liked the public to credit his expressed longing to retire.

This was probably the real reason he consented to see me for half an hour of his precious time—to convey through a friendly column something of his dilemma as he viewed it, torn between the desire to step down and the further call of duty. He would have no responsibility for whatever I might write since I could only suggest that the views I presented were his views.

Immediately after our talk I typed out an account of it as I remembered it. I did not, of course, make notes since it has always seemed to me that note taking inhibits free and frank conversation. But I do have a trained memory and what I put down is, I believe, close to a transcript of what he said. It is printed here just as it comes from my files with only a few additions to explain certain points.

There is one other reason he may have consented to see me. He had long since become keenly conscious of his place in history and of any shadow of criticism on his reputation. What mattered was not so much criticism itself, since he could laugh off the blunderbuss attacks of the isolationist press. What mattered was the source of the criticism and, as Early’s remarks show, he had not forgotten that in an article I had written about Wendell Willkie I had pointed out how in press conference Roosevelt had deliberately made fun of Willkie. In a letter to the man whom he had defeated in 1940 the President denied any intention of ridicule. But those who heard him had no doubt that the roar of laughter he produced when he imitated Wendell Willkie’s pronunciation of the word “reservoir” in a dig at Willkie’s one-world peregrination was just the result he had intended.

Seeing him close up was not essentially different from seeing him across the barrier that kept the press at a formal distance. He was still the finished performer, grown a little careless and slack in this latter day with the habit of power taken so completely for granted. This habit was a garment he had worn so long as to be hardly aware of its existence. Or it may have been that his assumption of the role of destiny’s anointed agent reflected the gnawing weariness that was to grow on him in the months ahead, a desire to make over the world quickly and have clone with it while there was still time. As it turned out, he had only one more year in which to fulfill the sense of mission that is reflected with an almost arrogant casualness in the following conversation.

The Interview

After the regular Friday morning press conference I went into Steve Early’s office. He said he had told the President that I had just come back from a trip around the country.

“You know that elephant memory of his," Early said. “He remembered a piece you had written about Willkie and he wrote Willkie about it. He remembered that book of yours, too.”

As we were talking, a buzzer sounded twice in rapid succession and then, after a pause a third time.

“There he is,” Early said. “He’s ready for us.”

We went out through a door to the left, down a corridor, and then directly into the President’s big oval office. He was seated behind his desk just ending a talk with Lauchlin Currie, who had turned to go. I shook hands. Early told him it had been a good press conference; then said he had warned me about his “elephant memory.”

“Oh, yes,” said the President, more or less in a joking tone, “you wrote the piece about Willkie and I had to write him a letter … you didn’t check.”

“You know,” he went on, “I thought of sending him a telegram. A telegram that would have said, ‘If you don’t at first succeed, try, try again.’”