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“I've Got This Thing Simplified”
A private interview with F.D.R. April 7, 1944
April 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 3
“Now you take my friend Wilhelmina. I’ve always been afraid of her. She’s very formidable. But lately things have been going very well. The Dutch have worked out a plan for bringing self-government to the people in the Dutch East Indies. Eventually they will become part of a federation, a Dutch federation.”
He seemed to hesitate and I supplied, “More or less like the British Commonwealth of Nations.” He assented. I said, “But sir, why can’t you tell people something of all this? I found people out in the country, your friends, who are in doubt as to your intentions. They think that possibly you’re only interested in buttressing the British Empire.”
“Yes, I know that, I know that. But how can I say anything without unsettling our relations with Great Britain?”
I mentioned the kind of letters I got from readers on the fourth term—the feeling that all he wants is to keep power; no recognition of the burden under which he labors.
“I wouldn’t say burden. You see I don’t work so hard any more. I’ve got this thing simplified. People are doing their jobs. It isn’t necessary for me to do so much.
“I imagine I don’t work as many hours a week as you do. I’ve cut down the night work. It used to be five nights out of seven. Now it’s only one. That makes a difference. Why, here you are. That wouldn’t have been possible before. And,” gesturing, “there’s my appointment list.” The typed list showed only “Luncheon” filled in.
“I’ve worked it out. In the morning before I’m up, my chief of staff, Admiral Leahy, comes in with all the news that’s accumulated. Of course, if there’s been a dispatch overnight from Churchill, the original comes to me. Then on my way over here, I stop in the map room.
“I want to tell you that I’ve got a dandy map room. It’s better than Churchill’s although I haven’t told him that. He began before I did, of course, because they were in the war earlier. But mine is really fine. I’ve got a half dozen young men in there—army and navy men—and I have a look at things on my way over.
“Then I see people here, people who have to see me. After lunch I take a nap on that sofa over there. [Gesturing.] I never used to take a nap but I do now every day.”
“What I was thinking of, sir,” I said, “was the burden of responsibility.”
“That has never been hard for me. You see I’m a snap-judgment man.”
“You mean, sir, it is not difficult to make decisions, not ever difficult?”
“No, I should say no.”
I do not recall the transition, but he began to talk about his future.
“Of course, I didn’t want to run in 1940 but the world situation took such a course that I was more or less compelled to. I have a lot of things I want to do. You know I’ve got two or three rich friends with boats and I want to go out and fish. Oh, take five or six weeks right away.
“Then I want to travel. I want to go to the places I’ve never seen before.”
“But,” I said, “that would have to wait on the war, wouldn’t it?”
He was vague in answer to this. “Yes … but … well … not too long….
“I want to do some writing. The other time [presumably 1940] Tom Beck [Thomas H. Beck, president of the Crowell-Collier Publishing Company] came down and we talked about it. I asked him how much he would pay me and he said, ‘The same as you’re getting now.’ Well, that was all right. The tax takes most of it over $75,000 anyway. There isn’t any point in making $100,000. He said he wanted a page a week. I told him that was too often. I would do twenty-six a year. But I would want to set my own time. I might do them all in a month or all in three months.
“Then the other man … what’s his name [I supplied William Chenery, editor of Collier’s, which was correct] came down and we talked about it some more. I told him I might want to write about chickadees and he would have to take it. I happen to be a great bird lover and I might want to write about the long-tailed heron. He said that was all right.”
At considerable length he talked about Calvin Coolidge and the concept of the presidency at that time. He agreed with my suggestion that most people still had the same concept, that it was a position of power and reward, and that they overlooked the responsibility it implied.
“You know there was something curious about old Cal. He had a very good side which went along with a … well, that little New England … meanness. When Woodrow Wilson came back to Boston from Europe for a stay of two weeks, Coolidge welcomed him. He had written out some words on some little cards and he read them off. [Here the President imitated Coolidge’s nasal intonation and New England accent very successfully.] ‘It is an honor to extend you welcome. We join in greeting you….’ Then he apparently realized it was not enough because he began to speak without the cards. He said that Wilson was doing a great thing in Europe and that the country ought to appreciate it. And then I’ll be darned if he didn’t come over and shake hands with him.”
He told me at some little length the story of Coolidge’s nap and the general alarm bell. Twice it went off and Coolidge, awakened, was indignant. Finally the secret service stationed a man in such a position that he could observe the button just outside the door of the President’s office.