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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
The President was getting a good deal of mail complaining about the “softness” of his Attorney General. After two weeks during which F.D.R.’s manner when I saw him said as plainly as words that he considered me out of step, he began to go for me in Cabinet. His technique was always the same. When my turn came, as he went around the table, his habitual affability dropped. He did not ask me as usual if I had anything to report. He looked at me, his face pulled tightly together: “When are you going to indict the seditionists?” he would ask; and the next week, and every week after that, until an indictment was found, he would repeat the same question. Of course I felt uncomfortable. I told him when we were alone that there was an immense amount of evidence; that I wanted the indictment to stick when it was challenged; and that we could not indict these men for their naked writings and spoken words without showing what effect they had on the war effort. His way of listening made my explanation sound unreal. At the Cabinet meeting a day or two after the return of an indictment ∗ he said, now in his most conciliatory manner: “I was glad to see, Francis, that the grand jury returned a true bill.” I cannot remember any other instance of his putting pressure on me. He never tried to interfere with any decision I made, even if he thought it might have serious political repercussions.
∗ On July 29, 1942, twenty-six native Fascists were indicted under the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Criminal Conspiracy Act of 1940. It was a case beset witast of which was the violent conduct in court of the defendants. Their trial dragged on for more than a year, and was eventually dropped after the death of the judge. Though none of the accused was ever convicted, their seditionist activities had been throttled.
There were a great number of memoranda about appointments. “Tom Connally wants Keating for Judge. Has been Attorney General of Texas—just over age. Can we do?” The age limit for federal judges, to which the President referred, was sixty—an arbitrary measure he had fixed on when he was trying to enlarge the Supreme Court, and which he disregarded when it suited him. Or again in longhand: “F. Biddle: Bill Cole of Md. for Customs Ct. in N.Y. Speaker [Sam Rayburn] and John [McCormack, Democratic majority leader of the House] say O.K.???” Sometimes, if the suggestion seemed without enthusiasm and the candidate unpromising, I would table it, and often the President would not mention it again—he had done his bit, and could say to Tom or Sam or John that he had taken it up with the Attorney General.
Now and then I would send him something that I thought might amuse him. When his old friend Ed Flynn, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was accused of using WPA work in connection with a private road that he was building at about the same time Errol Flynn of movie fame was engaged in more romantic adventures at sea, a little verse by Thomas Hornsby Ferril appeared in the Rocky Mountain Herald . I sent it to the President:
F.D.R. didn’t like it—he was a little hurt or angry or indignant when his professional friends were under attack; after all, he was the most professional of all of them. He rejoined curtly—“You must think you’re quite a poet.”
But if he did not like this verse about the Flynns, he unreservedly enjoyed a book I sent him, not long before he went to the fateful conferences at Yalta. It was Mark Twain’s famous 1601; or Conversation at the social fireside as it was in the time of the Tudors . It was hard to get, too ribald to send through the mails, and my copy from some anonymous publisher in Canada had been sent years before by express. Roosevelt once told me that when he was librarian of the Fly Club at Harvard he had tried unsuccessfully to obtain a copy of this description of Sir Walter Raleigh’s unseemly behavior at Queen Elizabeth’s court.
Finally a friend of mine secured one for me. I took it over to Cabinet and gave it to him after the meeting —everyone had gone except Jesse Jones, who seemed determined to be the last and evidently had something of importance to take up that he did not wish anyone else to hear. The President picked up the book eagerly, began to thumb through it, and called to Secretary Jones: “Come here, Jesse, and listen to this—how little Willie wet the bed”: and in his strong resonant voice he began to read to us Eugene Field’s poem, which was included in the book, while Jesse, who did not like anything, particularly humor, to come between him and the President, listened with a dark, patient look to a man who at times could be so inappropriately boyish.