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FDR Discusses the Uses of Political Scandal

July 2024
5min read

The following is perhaps the most intriguing—and certainly the most frustrating—of all the recorded conversations. It took place sometime between August 22 and 27, and in it, Roosevelt and his aide Lowell Mellett discuss the most sensitive sort of political maneuvering, the spreading of political rumors.

Late that summer, FDR had learned that the Republican National Committee had obtained a cache of potentially embarrassing letters written some years earlier by his running mate, Henry A. Wallace, to Nicholas Roerich, a White Russian painter, explorer, and mystic, and to one of Roerich’s female disciples. At least two of the letters were addressed “Dear Guru.” It was too late to drop Wallace from the ticket and, since GOP operatives were known to be showing copies of the letters to friendly publishers, the problem Roosevelt faced was how to counter or blunt their effect. The Democrats had a secret weapon of their own: they knew that Wendell Willkie had mostly lived apart from his wife for a number of years, while having an affair with a woman prominent in New York literary circles.

The whole subject of political scandal reminds Roosevelt of two stories from his own past. The first concerns the 1920 presidential campaign, when the James Cox-FDR ticket was soundly defeated by Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Rumors of Harding’s alleged Negro ancestry had indeed been widespread during the campaign—though FDR’s belief that they were orchestrated by Harding’s own campaign manager, Harry Daugherty, in an effort to win sympathy for his candidate seems to have been unique with Roosevelt.

The “trial” to which Roosevelt later refers was the 1932 hearing in which Governor Roosevelt, already his party’s nominee for President, was faced with the prickly problem of deciding whether or not New York’s flamboyant—but staunchly Democratic—mayor should be removed from office. (Walker finally solved the problem for him by resigning.)

Here is the conversation:

FDR : Uh, Lowell, on this … ah … thing. I don’t know if you remember, we were talking about the story… and so forth and so on. There was a fellow once upon a time who was named Daugherty, and he helped to run Harding’s campaign against the Democrats. He was slick as hell. He went down through an agent to a Methodist minister in Marion, the town where Harding’s mother and grandmother came from. This friend of Daugherty’s got hold of the Methodist minister and told him the story about Harding’s mother having a Negro mother. In other words, Daugherty planted it on the Methodist minister, who was a Democrat, and showed him certain papers … that proved the case. The Methodist minister, who was a Democrat, got all upset and he started the story all over the place. The press took it up, and it was the most terrific boomerang against us .

Now I agree with you that there is… so far as the Old Man [presumably F.D.R. himself] goes, we can’t use it…. [Here the tape becomes momentarily—and maddeningly—unintelligible.]

[We can] spread it as a word-of-mouth thing, or by some people way, way down the line . We can’t have any of our principal speakers refer to it, but the people down the line can get it out [he rapped on his desk]. I mean the Congress speakers, and state speakers, and so forth. They can use the raw material…. Now, now , if they want to play dirty politics in the end, we’ve got our own people…. Now, you’d be amazed at how this story about the gal is spreading around the country….

MELLETT : It’s Out….

FDR : Awful nice gal, writes for the magazine and so forth and so on, a book reviewer. But nevertheless, there is the fact . And one very good way of bringing it out is by calling attention to the parallel in conversation…. Jimmy Walker, once upon a time, was living openly with this gal all over New York, including the house across the street from me…. She was an extremely attractive little tart…. Jimmy and his wife had separated—for all intents and purposes they had separated. And it came to my trial—before me was Jimmy Walker, nineteen hundred and thirty-two, and Jimmy goes and hires his former wife, for ten thousand dollars, to come up to Albany on a Saturday—Jimmy was a good Catholic and he hadn’t been to church in five whole years—and he paid his wife ten thousand dollars to go up there, to Albany, on a Friday afternoon, after my trial had finished for the week—we were to go on on Monday. Jimmy had never spent a Sunday in Albany in his life, but Mrs. Walker comes up to Albany, lives with him ostensibly in the same suite in the hotel, and on Sunday the two of them go to Mass at the Albany Cathedral together. Price? Ten thousand dollars ….

Now, now Mrs. Willkie may not have been hired , but in effect she’s been hired to return to Wendell and smile and make this campaign with him. Now, whether there was a money price behind it, I don’t know , but it’s the same idea….

MELLETT : Doesn’t have to be a money price. It’s a nice place to live [chuckles]…. I never heard of Daugherty planting the Negro story.

FDR : He planted it on us ….


FDR : Did you know that?

MELLETT : I didn’t know he planted it. I knew the story, of course. I know it was a very unwise story to disseminate.

FDR (now returning to the 1920 campaign): Here’s another interesting… sidelight. After we got licked that November, Cox and I, Van-Lear Black came to see me in…. Oh. I guess I went to see him in Baltimore, right after the election when I was going down to recuperate and shoot some ducks down in Louisiana, and I stopped off in Baltimore. And Van Black, whom I’d known rather slightly, he said, “Look, we want to make you the head of New York, New Jersey, and New England of the Fidelity and Deposit Company as vice-president.”


I said, “Van, there are two … considerations. I don’t want to give up my law practice entirely, want to keep my hand in. I will do this, if you wish, I’ll make a contract to spend from one o’clock every day with the F&D. But up to one o’clock—noon—I’ll be doing my law work. Your job with the F&D is partly giving out glad-hand stuff, so I’ll spend my lunch hour for you.” I said, “The other condition is that you let me look over your list of officers and vice-presidents. I’ve got to pick ‘em. They may be all right, but I’ve got to pick ‘em myself .”

He said, “That’s fair enough,” and went out. And there on the list was Daugherty, in charge of Ohio for the F&D.

I said, “Mr. Black, I can’t do that.”

“Well,” he said, “he’s been our agent there, he’s handled all our legislative work in Ohio … and I can’t let him go. Well,” he said, “I think he’s going to the Cabinet.”


I said, “I think so, too, but I can’t work for a company that Daugherty remains in.”

So, in order to get me for the F&D, the F&D fired Daugherty outright!

When Roosevelt talks about “spreading] it as a word-of-mouth thing,” it is not clear from the tape whether spreading “it” means spreading the Willkie story in order to hurt Willkie or, on the supposed model of Harry Daugherty and Harding, spreading the Wallace story in order to coin sympathy for Wallace.

In any case, the letters were not released during the campaign. Samuel Rosenman, a close Roosevelt adviser, credits Willkie with a high-minded decision to keep the campaign on a lofty plane; on the other hand, Joseph W. Martin, then the Republican national chairman, recalled the decision had been his, made for fear the letters would somehow make Roosevelt “the beneficiary of fair-play sentiment.” Perhaps no one will ever know the truth.

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