- Historic Sites
F.D.R: The Last Journey
Roosevelt, like Lincoln and Wilson, died fighting for his ideals.
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
It was no easy task, for even those who knew Roosevelt best agreed that he was a man infinitely complex and almost incomprehensible. On such a relatively simple matter as his behavior toward fellow human beings he oscillated; like all men, he was both generous and vindictive, but it was Roosevelt’s mixture of the two qualities that was so baffling. Even now, friends of Al Smith were remembering how Roosevelt had befriended him during the war years and tried to bail out his Empire State Building, even though the “Happy Warrior” had scathingly attacked the New Deal. And Henry Luce, who had not treated the President ungently, was suddenly and arbitrarily barred by the White House from touring the Pacific Theater; he would hate Roosevelt to his dying day. The President could get along with anyone he wanted to, from Stalin to MacArthur to Huey Long to the man in the street. People in Warm Springs remembered the time he was driving his little car through the town and had stopped and waved over a Negro walking by; how the “colored man was scared, scraping his feet and all. … Then, first you know, he was leaning on the President’s automobile, throwing his arms around like he was talking to anybody.” Yet people as different as Jim Farley and Dean Acheson felt that he condescended—that he conveyed, Acheson felt, much of the attitude of European royalty.
South of Gainesville, Georgia, black women in a cotton field saw the train coming and fell to their knees in supplication. It was remarkable, this human touch of the President’s, but sometimes his charm had an edge of coquetry and pretense. Marshal Sir William Sholto-Douglas, of the R.A.F., remembered how Roosevelt had greeted him with a lecture on Scottish history and the achievements of the Douglases, told how he had a Scottish grandmother himself, and so on. Douglas sensed an indefinable flaw in his manner; he felt that he was witnessing some kind of performance—still, he was moved to the point of tears, and Roosevelt, he confessed later, nearly had him eating out of his hand. Jesse Jones, just fired from the administration, told a reporter that the President was a hypocrite and lacking in character but “you just can’t help liking that fellow.”
Along with all his democratic manner and instincts he had that curious interest in royal and noble personages and doings. He told a friend, rather improbably, that he had been hurt in England after the first war when he had not been invited to Buckingham Palace. In a different vein, and most curiously, he allowed and even encouraged Adolf Berle to call him “Caesar” in addressing the President in private. Berle, who was always bemused by the irony of power, was still calling him this the last time he saw Roosevelt, just after Yalta. Did the President derive from the term some curious satisfaction that outweighed the risk of his enemies’ discovering it and gleefully publicizing it—or did he tolerate Berle’s fun because he enjoyed imagining what they would do if they did find out about it?
Night came, and the funeral train—blacked out except for the ghostly, half-lit rear coach—wove slowly back and forth through the Carolina piedmont. Looking out from her berth at the countryside her husband loved, Eleanor Roosevelt glimpsed the solemn faces of the crowds at the depots and crossroads. The train would arrive in Washington eighty years to the day after Lincoln was shot. Eleanor remembered Millard Lampell’s poem “The Lonesome Train”:
A slow train, a quiet train,
Perhaps it was in Roosevelt’s home that the main clues to his character lay. William James, borrowing from Cardinal Newman, at one time spoke of the “once-born,” those who easily fitted into the ideology of their time, and of those “sick souls” and “divided selves” who went through a second birth, seizing on a second ideology. Roosevelt was one of the once-born. His identity was formed in a harmonious and stable family; he moved securely and surely from the pedestal of the only child of doting parents into the wider but equally untroubled environments of Hyde Park, Groton, and Harvard friendships. If his loving references to his Hyde Park home were not revealing enough of his sense of identity and of roots, his habit all through his Presidency of reducing policies and programs to terms of home and family would have betrayed his thinking: thus the Good Neighbor policy, the Big Four constables or policemen, the Lend-Lease “garden hose”; his idea that new institutions like the United Nations must toddle like a child for a few years before gaining strength; his repeated references to heads of state sitting around the table like members of the same family, or like neighbors; and his suggestion on at least one occasion that the best way to keep peace in a family—he was referring to de Gaulle and the other Frenchmen—was to keep the members of the family apart.