A (white) House Divided

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The quarrels between the Roosevelts were sometimes acrimonious, and toward the end, when Mrs. Roosevelt proved oblivious of the precipitous decline in her husband’s health that was perfectly plain to everyone else around him, continuing doggedly to press him to take on brand-new tasks when he was barely able to perform routine ones, it is hard for even her most ardent admirers not to lose sympathy with zeal so badly misplaced.

Serious questions of substance and tactics accounted for some of the tension between the Roosevelts, and it had been Eleanor’s understandable bitterness over FDR’s early dalliance with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, that had been the catalyst for their having decided to sleep—and, for the most part, live—apart long before they moved into the White House; she once claimed to have forgiven but not forgotten his transgression, but in fact, she had been unable to do either. Still, the root cause of the difficulties between them lay deeper. Sara Delano Roosevelt, not Eleanor, was always the most important woman in FDR’s life, and it had been his wife’s bad luck that from the first she echoed too vividly the element in his mother’s personality he resented most—her ceaseless exhortations to do the right thing—while being incapable of supplying the unqualified adoration that was among his mother’s most precious gifts to him. “He might have been happier with a wife who was completely uncritical,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote after his death. “That I was never able to be, and he had to find it in other people.” During the war years those other people included Crown Princess Martha of Norway, his daughter, Anna, his cousins Margaret Suckley and Laura Delano, and, in a final irony a novelist would have been reluctant to concoct, Lucy Mercer herself.

It was virtually impossible to remain close to both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt simultaneously.

Through all their difficulties the Roosevelts retained mutual affection and respect. As Goodwin reminds us, their arguments were almost always over the pace at which the country could be made to move rather than the direction in which it should be going.

FDR never entirely abandoned the New Deal, promising in 1944 an economic Bill of Rights to guarantee a job, education, decent housing, medical care, and old-age security to every American.

For her part, Eleanor Roosevelt stood ready to defend her husband from attacks by outsiders. When a young black woman wrote to her angrily complaining that FDR’s 1940 Republican opponent had been more forthright than he about civil rights, she minced no words in her response: “I wonder if it ever occurred to you that Wendell Willkie has no responsibility whatsoever. He can say whatever he likes and do whatever he likes and nothing very serious will happen. If he were to be elected President, on that day, he would have to take into consideration the people who are heads of important committees in Congress . . . people on whom he must depend to pass vital legislation for the nation as a whole. For one who must really have a knowledge of the workings of our kind of government, your letter seems to me one of the most thoughtless I have ever read.”

In the terrible hours after Pearl Harbor it was Eleanor Roosevelt, not her husband, who first rallied the country to resist. “Whatever is asked of us I am sure we can accomplish,” Eleanor Roosevelt told her weekly radio audience on the evening of December 7, 1941; “we are the free and unconquerable people of the U.S.A.” In large part because of the complicated Roosevelt partnership, we were.