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Fdr And The Errant Publisher

March 2024
3min read

Roy Howard, head of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, had once been in FDR’s camp but was now supporting Willkie. On Friday, September 6,1940, Roosevelt discussed with unidentified aides Howard’s activities and what the White House might do about them behind the scenes.

FDR : Now, what do we do about this ? [The President begins to read aloud from a telegram sent by U.S. Minister Hugh G. Grant, in Thailand, to the Secretary of State, September 2, 1940.] “Roy Howard, newspaper publisher, stopped in Bangkok last night between planes en route to various points in the Far East, including Chunking, Manila, and possibly Tokyo. [Aside: ‘Of course he’s going to Tokyo.’] Accompanied by the leading American businessman in Siam, Howard called to see me at the legation and launched into a bitter attack on the President, accusing him of bad faith in inviting him, Howard, to go on a mission to South America, alleging that he, the President, was down and out physically and mentally, that he had made a mess of our foreign affairs during the crisis, and that he is desirous of leading the country into war. Apparently Howard is out on a political junket to discredit the administration among the political and business leaders in the Far East and at the same time to collect data for a subsequent attack on the administration’s Far Eastern policy.”… Now , what do we do about a thing like that?

AIDE : Mr. President, I just think that the best thing to do with that would be to put it into the speech-material file along with the other letters on record. [ FDR : Yeah’p.] I don’t see that you can do anything else with it…. It ought to be made a part of that record… .

FDR : Now here’s one other thought: Who’s running the U.P.? [The United Press was part of the Scripps-Howard empire]… Deak Parker?

AIDE : Yes sir, Deacon….

FDR : Now, I’m wondering if it isn’t the best and most honorable thing to do, not to quote that it came from an American minister, but [let it be known] to the effect that we have received advices—we’re not going to say the place—from the Far East that Howard is going around and saying in effect—then paraphrase it—and that we know about it.

AIDE : No sir, I wouldn’t tip him off. I wouldn’t tip him off… because he in turn will tip Howards [sic] off. I’d rather let Howards carry on for a little while.

FDR : M’mh’mm. He may do an awful lot of harm though out there….

AIDE : It’s the harm that he’ll do after he’s getting back, because undoubtedly if this is a political junket trip, as Grant says, what he’s doing is … getting this material for Willkie. There’s no doubt about that. [ FDR : Sure.] But … what I believe is that there’s no chance whatever of stopping Howards. [ FDR : No.] And to—ah—tip him off that we know about it—ah—I think might operate to his advantage. [Yeah’p, yeah’p.] At the present time, I’m afraid it would….

FDR : Yeah’p … [to Grace Tully] Grace,… I’ll need that in the Cabinet today….

AIDE : And later on, Mr. President, we can make a paraphrase of that. [Yeah’p.] We can hand it to Harold Ickes or somebody…. That’s what I’d do. [That’s right.] [Apparently the idea here was eventually to let someone like the voluble Ickes leak the story to the press so that the administration could rebut Howard’s charges. The accusation that the President was “down and out physically and mentally” was on the mind of someone else who was present, but his remarks are mostly unintelligible, except for a reference to “that physical stuff.”]

FDR (laughing): I’m willing to admit my mentality is slipping, but that’s all right!

At this, everyone in the. room laughed.

In January, 1941, the substance of Grant’s telegram was called to Howard’s attention. Howard denied in a letter to FDR having said anything at the American legation that the President “would have construed as unfriendly or unfair.” He wrote: “Any statement by this man [Grant], or any other man, that I ever stated, or intimated, that there had been any impairment of either your mental or physical strength, is an unmitigated lie . I have never entertained such a thought; and the idea that I would voice such a belief to a perfect stranger, of whom I knew nothing except that he owed his position to you, is, I believe, absurd on its face.”

The 1940 election safely won, FDR bore no grudge. When he learned in July, 1941, that Howard was ill, FDR sent him a “Dear Roy” letter in which he said he could not believe what the doctor had reportedly told Howard. “There couldn’t be anything wrong with your heart,” the President wrote. “That always has been in the right place. It has just been your head, Roy.”

—R.J.C.B.

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