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The Wartime Cabinet
Cordell Hull’s feud with a brilliant subordinate; a trick cigar for General de Gaulle; how a Supreme Court justice is chosen; the silencing of Father Coughlin; the rage of Harold Ickes—in his autobiography, the former Attorney General describes calm and crisis among F.D. R.’s lieutenants
June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
After the President had died I asked Grace Tully if she had ever heard him speak of the book. She remembered that he had given it to her and told her she must put it away carefully in his library where no one would find it, and she was not to look at it, it was very naughty, and now and then she might remind him where it was—Jesse Jones had given it to him after a Cabinet meeting. Thus is history writtenl I hope the book is preserved in the Hyde Park library. …
I tried never to bother the President with anything that was not essential, and to wait until a substantial number of problems—many of them appointments had accumulated. I would call “Pa” Watson, the President’s appointment secretary, and was often summoned for lunch with the President in his study, where we had solid food—an omelette or fish or chops, with plenty of coffee. When he would lean back in his chair and take the first long, deeply inhaled pull at his cigarette, I would get down to business, sometimes submitting a brief memorandum or directive for initialing. In this way I could get in a comfortable hour, except during the last year of his life, when he began to resent such accumulating burdens, and to postpone them.
His training had made him cautious; he knew that everyone who saw him was in a hurry to get quick approval; he had come to practice the procrastination that brought him a sense of relief. Yet when he wanted to act, particularly where the war called for speed—and war decisions almost invariably did—he would hound the responsible official, often calling him more than once personally.
He rarely queried me about department problems, but frequently asked what I thought of so-and-so. He liked to relax in reminiscence, and I would ply him with questions about his own life, about Cousin Theodore, or about the war. Once I remember suggesting that there were those—I was not one of them—who thought him too pro-British, too much led by Churchill, who had recently been staying at the White House. I hoped he fought back now and then; the British understood that, and always respected a show of opposition. He agreed, nodding his head. He told me of a proposal—half serious, half jocular—that he had made recently to “Winnie,” one of several “after-the-war” arrangements, like the internationalization of Hong Kong, about which his lively imagination used to play without coming to rest on them. Why not, when the war was over, F.D.R. had said to his guest as they relaxed together over brandy after dinner, why not give the Elgin marbles back to Greece? It would be a wonderful gesture of international friendship; the whole Near East would applaud at the sight of the British lion disgorging. “You know you stole them and you ought to give them back. You could announce that you had been cleaning them and putting them in proper shape.” “How did he take it?” I asked. “Take id” he answered. “He almost went through the roof.”
FD.R. took his time about appointing judges and never considered there was any particular hurry about filling a vacancy. While I was in office there was only one on the Supreme Court, caused when James Francis Byrnes resigned on October 3, 1942, to become Director of Economic Stabilization. For ten months Byrnes had been on leave of absence from the Court, working with the President in the war effort.
Several times I suggested to F.D.R. that the Court was shorthanded, that Byrnes ought to resign, and that the President should appoint a successor; but he waved me aside a little impatiently, saying, “Let’s keep it open for Jimmy, they can get along.” But when the 1943 term of Court opened, there were several mildly critical editorials. For nearly two years the Court had felt the burden of the extra work, a load which is always great and which at times, when each member is not pulling his weight, may become intolerable. Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone asked me if I would speak to the President, and I took it up with him again, urging him to make the appointment as soon as he could find the right man. He nodded an unwilling assent—he supposed I was right, he would think it over.
Eventually I convinced him that we could not keep the position open for Jimmy Byrnes any longer. Well then, he asked, could we not appoint some old boy for two or three years who would agree to retire when he had reached seventy, so that Jimmy could be brought back? I replied that this would not quite fit in with his often avowed intention to put younger men on the high tribunal. I suppose not, he acquiesced without enthusiasm. I suggested that I might talk to Chief Justice Stone again, and he assented. “See if you can’t get me a nice, solid Republican,” he said as I left, “to balance things a bit, preferably someone west of the Mississippi, and not a professor.”
When I saw Stone early in November, he said at once that he wanted someone who would “stick.” He wanted a man of broad legal training and experience—a judge from one of the Circuit Courts would fit in admirably. I said I thought the Circuits had little material of first-rate caliber. “Nonsense, Biddle!” he said, and pulled out a volume of the Circuit Court reports containing a list of the judges. This he read carefully; then looked up. “By gum,” he said, “you’re about right.”