Re-examining Roosevelt

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He confided in her, too, his exasperation at the limitations polio placed on him—something his wife said she had literally never heard him mention during a dozen years in the White House. “Some day … you must see this country,” he wrote to Daisy while on a train journey through the West in 1935. “It has been a successful trip—really happy crowds of people—even bigger than last year—and there is no doubt of the great great gains in prosperity. My difficulty is in having to keep on my ‘braces’ from early morn till nearly midnight—because at every stop—even a water tower—a crowd surrounds the rear platform & I cannot disappoint them by refusing to go out and say ‘Howdy.’”

Daisy’s journals show also that Roosevelt’s vaunted inner serenity was not as unshakable as we had thought. “The President] had an awful nightmare last night,” she noted at the Maryland retreat he called Shangri-La in October of 1943. “I woke out of a sound sleep, to hear him calling for help in blood curdling sounds! When he appeared at 10 A.M. he told us he thought a man was coming in “through the transom” & was going to kill him, & then sat down on the edge of his bed. It all happened in a minute, I suppose, & quiet settled down again. … I wondered why the [Secret Service] didn’t rush in, but he says they are quite accustomed to his nightmares!”

What astonished me most is the emotional candor in the letters. Roosevelt could confide in Daisy when he could not in his wife.

There are other surprises scattered through Daisy’s papers. FDR did not tell either his wife or his Secretary of State in advance that he was sailing to meet Winston Churchill off New-foundland in 1941, but he did tell Daisy, and then sent her long chatty letters from aboard ship: “[Churchill] … in many ways is an English Mayor La Guardia!” he wrote after their first meeting, “Don’t say I said so!” In 1944 he toyed with the notion of resigning the Presidency once the war had ended, to become Secretary-General of the brand-new United Nations. His inability ever to admit to himself that his paralysis was permanent turns out to have extended all the way to the final months of his life when, with Daisy’s connivance, a self-proclaimed healer was regularly slipping into the White House to give him massages meant somehow to put him back on his feet.

For me, the most surprising—and the most poignant—passages come at the very end of Daisy’s journals and confirm more clearly than anything else I have ever encountered the continuing paramountcy of the President’s mother in her son’s emotional life, even after she was dead. “That big [Hyde Park] house without his mother seems awfully big & bare,” Daisy noted shortly after Sara Delano Roosevelt’s death in 1941. “She gave him that personal affection which his friends & secretaries cannot do, in the same way—He was always ‘my boy,’ and he seemed to me often rather pathetic, and hungry for just that kind of thing. His wife is a wonderful person, but she lacks the ability to give him the things his mother gave him. She is away so much, and when she is here she has so many people around—the splendid people who are trying to do good and improve the world—‘up-lifters,’ the [President] calls them—that he can not relax and really rest.”

Providing the kind of relaxation and rest FDR’s mother had always insisted upon for him became Daisy’s mission. At Warm Springs in early April of 1945, when even Roosevelt seems to have understood his life was ebbing, his doctors prescribed a daily bowl of sweetened porridge in hopes of keeping up his weight. He couldn’t bear the stuff, and so it fell to Daisy to spoon it into him. After his valet had put him to bed, she wrote, “I took him his gruel … and he put on his little act of helplessness! It amuses him to be fed, and I love to feed him. …” During the last evenings of his life then, with the help of his adoring friend, the dying President found solace in willing his mind back to the happiest moments of his life and pretended to be a little boy once again, being cared for by the mother who always meant everything to him.