April 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 3
A private interview with F.D.R. April 7, 1944
To observe Franklin D. Roosevelt across the barrier interposed between the President and the press was often to have the impression of a brilliant and accomplished actor meeting the challenge of a critical audience. He took pleasure and pride in his own performance and, with his mastery in later years of the difficult technique of the press conference, he seldom missed his cues.
It was a rare privilege to step across the barrier and observe the great man from, as it were, the other side of the footlights. Thanks to his able and devoted press secretary, Stephen Early, I had that privilege on April 7, 1944. It was at the time when speculation about a fourth term was acute. Yet because the critical phase of the war was still to come and the President was after all commander in chief, the prospect of a fourth term did not stir quite the same anger and vituperation that the third term had. It was in a sense as though a war-weary public had resigned itself to continuing this man in office at least until the ordeal was ended.
Yet it seemed to me then that Roosevelt was highly sensitive to the charge that he had broken one of America’s oldest political traditions. For he was in many respects a traditionalist, strange as that may seem in view of his reputation as innovator. The habit of power had grown on him. He wanted to remain as commander until the war was won. But at the same time he would have liked the public to credit his expressed longing to retire.
This was probably the real reason he consented to see me for half an hour of his precious time—to convey through a friendly column something of his dilemma as he viewed it, torn between the desire to step down and the further call of duty. He would have no responsibility for whatever I might write since I could only suggest that the views I presented were his views.
Immediately after our talk I typed out an account of it as I remembered it. I did not, of course, make notes since it has always seemed to me that note taking inhibits free and frank conversation. But I do have a trained memory and what I put down is, I believe, close to a transcript of what he said. It is printed here just as it comes from my files with only a few additions to explain certain points.
There is one other reason he may have consented to see me. He had long since become keenly conscious of his place in history and of any shadow of criticism on his reputation. What mattered was not so much criticism itself, since he could laugh off the blunderbuss attacks of the isolationist press. What mattered was the source of the criticism and, as Early’s remarks show, he had not forgotten that in an article I had written about Wendell Willkie I had pointed out how in press conference Roosevelt had deliberately made fun of Willkie. In a letter to the man whom he had defeated in 1940 the President denied any intention of ridicule. But those who heard him had no doubt that the roar of laughter he produced when he imitated Wendell Willkie’s pronunciation of the word “reservoir” in a dig at Willkie’s one-world peregrination was just the result he had intended.
Seeing him close up was not essentially different from seeing him across the barrier that kept the press at a formal distance. He was still the finished performer, grown a little careless and slack in this latter day with the habit of power taken so completely for granted. This habit was a garment he had worn so long as to be hardly aware of its existence. Or it may have been that his assumption of the role of destiny’s anointed agent reflected the gnawing weariness that was to grow on him in the months ahead, a desire to make over the world quickly and have clone with it while there was still time. As it turned out, he had only one more year in which to fulfill the sense of mission that is reflected with an almost arrogant casualness in the following conversation.
After the regular Friday morning press conference I went into Steve Early’s office. He said he had told the President that I had just come back from a trip around the country.
“You know that elephant memory of his," Early said. “He remembered a piece you had written about Willkie and he wrote Willkie about it. He remembered that book of yours, too.”
As we were talking, a buzzer sounded twice in rapid succession and then, after a pause a third time.
“There he is,” Early said. “He’s ready for us.”
We went out through a door to the left, down a corridor, and then directly into the President’s big oval office. He was seated behind his desk just ending a talk with Lauchlin Currie, who had turned to go. I shook hands. Early told him it had been a good press conference; then said he had warned me about his “elephant memory.”
“Oh, yes,” said the President, more or less in a joking tone, “you wrote the piece about Willkie and I had to write him a letter … you didn’t check.”
“You know,” he went on, “I thought of sending him a telegram. A telegram that would have said, ‘If you don’t at first succeed, try, try again.’”
He tipped his head back, laughing. He and Steve exchanged one or two more remarks about the press conference and then Steve left the room. I sat on the President’s left. It seemed very still in the room. There was no sound of traffic. A policeman walked back and forth on the gravel drive beyond the windows at the President’s back. Across the drive, Fala, the black Scottie, was in his pen.
The President offered me a cigarette from the flat silver case open on his desk. He used the word “cig” instead of cigarette. I took one. He fitted one into his discolored ivory holder and I lighted it. I began by telling him that I had been out into the country, and that many people wondered why he hadn’t gone on the air and told them something about the hopes for the future, the peace, etc.
“It works both ways,” the President said. “Some people would have me go on the air at least once every two weeks, while another set of people work just as hard to keep me off the air altogether. I think I will make a radio talk in which I will say that my one real desire is to go back to Hyde Park.
“We can look at this in a detached way. We can know what history will say fifty years from now. On the other hand, I wonder if we can afford to take that point of view.”
Implied in this was his responsibility, although he did not say that in so many words. This implication ran through much of what he said. It tempered the detached attitude he seemed to be deliberately assuming. He talked about what he could and could not tell the public.
“Now you take Poland, for example. What if I had said a year ago that the boundary should be here,” he marked with his forefinger on the brown desk pad before him, “or here?” marking again. “The Russians are in Poland today. They might not agree. Then what could I do?
“We are not going to fight Russia over the boundary of Poland. I told Stalin that at Teheran. I said, ‘We’re not going to go to war with you over Poland.’” He laughed hard at that.
“Or take France. What can be said about France? People come out of there and tell me that all of France feels this way, or all of France feels that way. How do they know? I don’t think that anyone going into France today could tell. You take Pete Brandt’s question at the press conference today. [Raymond P. Brandt, chief Washington correspondent of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, had put a question about General De Gaulle and American support for the Free French once France was liberated.] I can’t give a final answer. No one knows.
“I remember in 1918 I was in the Château-Thierry sector, up where the Germans had been pushed out and the country had been reoccupied. There was one particular man—the name eludes me—who had done a magnificent job. He had resisted the Germans from the very beginning and effectively. Now what if someone had come in there and had said, ‘No, we are going to overlook this man and select, for political reasons, old M. Labouis to be mayor or to take over the administration.’ How do you think the other man would have felt?
“Or take the Balkans and Greece. We can’t go ahead and talk about what will be done there. We might arouse their hopes far beyond anything that can possibly be fulfilled. That would be a mistake.”
Just how he got onto the question of the Far East I do not recall but his talk went more or less like this:
“We have to be extremely careful there. The white man is more and more in disfavor. His position is becoming increasingly difficult. I know that Churchill is very concerned about Burma and what is going to happen there. We are going to have to take some positive steps or find ourselves pushed out completely.
“Some time ago I worked out a form of trusteeship for French Indochina. You know that colony was governed very badly. For every dollar the French put in, they took ten dollars out. Those little people had a culture of their own … Cambodia … their kings. But they were badly treated.
“Now my idea is for a trusteeship to administer Indochina. I put this up to old Chiang … of course, he isn’t really old but he looks old … he isn’t as old as I am, as a matter of fact … and he was strong for it. The idea is to have one Chinese trustee, one Philippine trustee, one French trustee, one British, and perhaps one American.
“It would work out just as it does with a woman whose husband has died and left some property, let’s say. She knows nothing about money. Perhaps she hasn’t ever signed a check … there are women like that, you know. So her property is put under a trustee for her use. That’s exactly what we’d do with Indochina.
“At Teheran I asked Stalin about it. I said, ‘Mr. Marshal, what would you think of such a trusteeship?’ Well, he thought it was excellent. So then I asked Churchill what he thought. He didn’t like it. I said, ‘I suppose you have Burma in mind.’ He said, ‘Yes, yes, thinking of Burma.’”
I put in here: “Of course, they would regard this as a very unhappy precedent.” The President assented and went on.
“But I said to him that after all there were three votes against one and he had better look out. He didn’t like that at all.
“Now you take my friend Wilhelmina. I’ve always been afraid of her. She’s very formidable. But lately things have been going very well. The Dutch have worked out a plan for bringing self-government to the people in the Dutch East Indies. Eventually they will become part of a federation, a Dutch federation.”
He seemed to hesitate and I supplied, “More or less like the British Commonwealth of Nations.” He assented. I said, “But sir, why can’t you tell people something of all this? I found people out in the country, your friends, who are in doubt as to your intentions. They think that possibly you’re only interested in buttressing the British Empire.”
“Yes, I know that, I know that. But how can I say anything without unsettling our relations with Great Britain?”
I mentioned the kind of letters I got from readers on the fourth term—the feeling that all he wants is to keep power; no recognition of the burden under which he labors.
“I wouldn’t say burden. You see I don’t work so hard any more. I’ve got this thing simplified. People are doing their jobs. It isn’t necessary for me to do so much.
“I imagine I don’t work as many hours a week as you do. I’ve cut down the night work. It used to be five nights out of seven. Now it’s only one. That makes a difference. Why, here you are. That wouldn’t have been possible before. And,” gesturing, “there’s my appointment list.” The typed list showed only “Luncheon” filled in.
“I’ve worked it out. In the morning before I’m up, my chief of staff, Admiral Leahy, comes in with all the news that’s accumulated. Of course, if there’s been a dispatch overnight from Churchill, the original comes to me. Then on my way over here, I stop in the map room.
“I want to tell you that I’ve got a dandy map room. It’s better than Churchill’s although I haven’t told him that. He began before I did, of course, because they were in the war earlier. But mine is really fine. I’ve got a half dozen young men in there—army and navy men—and I have a look at things on my way over.
“Then I see people here, people who have to see me. After lunch I take a nap on that sofa over there. [Gesturing.] I never used to take a nap but I do now every day.”
“What I was thinking of, sir,” I said, “was the burden of responsibility.”
“That has never been hard for me. You see I’m a snap-judgment man.”
“You mean, sir, it is not difficult to make decisions, not ever difficult?”
“No, I should say no.”
I do not recall the transition, but he began to talk about his future.
“Of course, I didn’t want to run in 1940 but the world situation took such a course that I was more or less compelled to. I have a lot of things I want to do. You know I’ve got two or three rich friends with boats and I want to go out and fish. Oh, take five or six weeks right away.
“Then I want to travel. I want to go to the places I’ve never seen before.”
“But,” I said, “that would have to wait on the war, wouldn’t it?”
He was vague in answer to this. “Yes … but … well … not too long….
“I want to do some writing. The other time [presumably 1940] Tom Beck [Thomas H. Beck, president of the Crowell-Collier Publishing Company] came down and we talked about it. I asked him how much he would pay me and he said, ‘The same as you’re getting now.’ Well, that was all right. The tax takes most of it over $75,000 anyway. There isn’t any point in making $100,000. He said he wanted a page a week. I told him that was too often. I would do twenty-six a year. But I would want to set my own time. I might do them all in a month or all in three months.
“Then the other man … what’s his name [I supplied William Chenery, editor of Collier’s, which was correct] came down and we talked about it some more. I told him I might want to write about chickadees and he would have to take it. I happen to be a great bird lover and I might want to write about the long-tailed heron. He said that was all right.”
At considerable length he talked about Calvin Coolidge and the concept of the presidency at that time. He agreed with my suggestion that most people still had the same concept, that it was a position of power and reward, and that they overlooked the responsibility it implied.
“You know there was something curious about old Cal. He had a very good side which went along with a … well, that little New England … meanness. When Woodrow Wilson came back to Boston from Europe for a stay of two weeks, Coolidge welcomed him. He had written out some words on some little cards and he read them off. [Here the President imitated Coolidge’s nasal intonation and New England accent very successfully.] ‘It is an honor to extend you welcome. We join in greeting you….’ Then he apparently realized it was not enough because he began to speak without the cards. He said that Wilson was doing a great thing in Europe and that the country ought to appreciate it. And then I’ll be darned if he didn’t come over and shake hands with him.”
He told me at some little length the story of Coolidge’s nap and the general alarm bell. Twice it went off and Coolidge, awakened, was indignant. Finally the secret service stationed a man in such a position that he could observe the button just outside the door of the President’s office.
“It was all quiet, nothing stirring. And then the first thing he saw was that New England nose sticking out through the door. And then little CaI tiptoeing into the corridor to press that button.”
The President leaned back, laughing. He continued to chuckle.
I told him that he would have to send me away when it was time.
“In three minutes some of the Cabinet are coming in to see me before I go away. It’s quite casual. I don’t work so hard any more.”
I told him I had seen his “old friend” Colonel McCormick in Chicago. He laughed and shook his head as though despairingly.
“You know I had a dream the other night. I dreamed that it was at a press conference … just like today. Someone said that Hearst was dead. I said, ‘Well, that must have been very recent.’ They said, yes, it was a flash that had just come in ten minutes before. Is there any comment? The question was put again. I said, ‘De mortuis nil nisi bonum.’ I would say nothing more.”
I stayed about ten minutes after that. Finally I apologized and left, expressing the wish for a good holiday, sun and rest. I went out through the door that goes into Grace Tully’s office.
Throughout this interview the President spoke in a firm voice without hesitation. His face was sallow but he appeared in good health. Around his eyes were innumerable fine lines; they added to the appearance of puffiness about his eyes. Otherwise his face was little marked. His hair was thin, a thin, straggling gray. He wore a double-breasted coat of very soft flannel. While I was there he smoked two and perhaps three cigarettes. He was quite deaf. Several times I had to repeat what I had said.
I had an impression of the man’s curious aloneness. (Steve had spoken about what a “prisoner” he was in the White House.) It was so quiet in the room you could hear the faint purring tick of the electric clock on his desk. The innumerable animals marched in a triple row almost up to the blotting pad. I knew the impression he wanted to give was of a man detached, serene, confident; able to accept another term in the White House or put it aside. How much of this was the actor—the consummate actor—and how much the real man I certainly could not tell.