- Historic Sites
America Was Promises
An Interview With Archibald MacLeish
August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
He made no pretense of caring about them, painting in particular. He loved the theater but complained that “they will never give me a funny play. I want to laugh.” He said this after being taken to Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine . He was widely read. His care for the Navy—he had been, of course, Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson—led him into a close study of American history. He kept on with his reading in those endless, endless months and years when he was incapacitated. He probably was the best-trained historian who ever was President.
I take it that you knew him much better by this time.
Mr. Roosevelt was a charming companion. Wonderful company. Wonderful conversational company. Occasionally on Sundays Ada and I would be invited to sail on the bay, on an old Coast Guard rig that he used. The President’s idea of the way to deal with that free time was to haul out his stamp collection, pick a comfortable chair way aft, and get Ada to start knitting and wisecracking. I’ve never seen anybody who had anything like his…what they now call charisma. He was just the most attractive human being who ever lived.
It’s hard to keep track of all the jobs he had you doing in those years.
He had a way of giving me new organizations to run, even while I was still at the Library of Congress. At one time I had charge of three of them. He wasn’t very considerate.
In 1944 you were named Assistant Secretary of State for Public and Cultural Relations. Why did Roosevelt shift you to that position?
I can’t tell you. He was taking over the State Department in that last year of his life. He put in Ed Stettinius as Secretary of State. If Mr. Roosevelt was running something, he wanted his own people in it. By this time, perhaps he considered me as part of his night life. I think that was it. I had expressed no desire to go to the State Department. I didn’t worry about it at the time. What was the point? I knew I had to do it.
You had trouble getting confirmed, didn’t you?
In 1944 we were still at war, very much so, and Assistant Secretaries of State were much more important than they are now. Today there are too many of them, something like eighteen or twenty; we were only five or six. Also, Mr. Roosevelt’s popularity was not as great as it had been. There was a real attack on me in the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate. I’d been badgered at the hearing because I was for the liberal government of Spain. A lot of unkind things were said about me.
Finally, toward the end of the afternoon, Senator Champ Clark from Missouri, who didn’t belong to the committee, came in. He had in his hand a little volume which I recognized immediately. It was a copy of a book of verse which I had published early in my career, called The Happy Marriage . The chairman of the committee spoke to Senator Clark and asked if he wanted to address the committee. “Well, I hadn’t thought of it, Mr. Chairman, but since you mention it, perhaps I might ask whether Mr. MacLeish knows—” and the senator cited a poem by such and such a name. “Yes, I wrote it,” I said. “You admit it,” he said. Then he turned to the chairman to ask, “May I read this poem?” It was a poem written to Ada, a love poem. And Senator Clark said, “I would like to ask the members of the Committee whether they feel that the evidence I’ve just put before them indicates that Mr. MacLeish is qualified for the job of Assistant Secretary of State in time of war ?”
There was a book of verse I published early in my career, called The Happy Marriage . It was a poem written to Ada, a love poem.
There was a stir, and giggles from the press boys, who hadn’t been very kind to me down to this point. I didn’t know what was going to happen next. But one member of the committee was Senator “Happy” Chandler of Kentucky. He said, “Mr. Chairman, may I ask Mr. MacLeish a question? Mr. MacLeish, it is true that you once played the position of left halfback on a Yale football team?”
“Yes, it’s true.”
And Happy Chandler said, “I just thought it might be of interest, Mr. Chairman.” The room broke up.
Mr. Clark left with his tail between his legs.
Where were you when Roosevelt died?
Was it a shock?
I knew he was going to die. I was in the upstairs office one day toward twilight in the spring of 1945, before he went down to Warm Springs. He told me to wait for him. He went off to see his doctor. Then the door opened, and there was some light in the window in back of me. I saw that light in his face, and I knew he was dying. It was just not possible that he wasn’t. He did, and it was a terrible personal loss.
When you left public service, was it of your choice?