Franklin D. Roosevelt chuckled at talk of him as a “sphinx,” but in the summer of 1940 he more than lived up to the label. At the Democratic Convention in July, he phrased so ambiguously his pronouncements about seeking an unprecedented third term as President that the delegates in Chicago “drafted” him. But that same ability to impose his will on events and men so sorely strained feelings at the quadrennial meeting that he put out an SOS to his wife and political partner to make her own break with tradition: the first First Lady ever to speak at a political party’s convention.
The speech by Eleanor Roosevelt was not merely successful—it also staved off what many close to the First Couple dreaded would be an outright revolt among a sizable number of delegates sore at the President for manipulating the balloting and for getting his very liberal Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace, as his running mate. Far from the kind of bland testimonial expected and offered by nominees’ wives over the past generations, it was so effective because Eleanor had special appeal for the party’s progressive wing and could mollify those alienated by her often self-centered husband.
The Roosevelts left with a party still held together. They needed cohesion as much as possible. They faced more than a charismatic “dark horse” opponent with few negatives. They were also running against the full weight of nearly 150 years of the American Presidency, and at a point when another “draft”—the first American military draft in peacetime—had the potential to awake fears among the still-dominant isolationist element of the American electorate that FDR would drag the nation into a ruinous foreign war. (Indeed, in the same month the convention was being held, Hitler’s Air Force bombarded Great Britain and the German navy blockaded it in preparation for a planned invasion.)
Following a profoundly weary George Washington’s rejection of four more years past the eight he had already served, the custom against a third term for Presidents increasingly hardened. Even Ulysses S. Grant, savior of the Union, and FDR’s immensely popular cousin and political archetype, Theodore Roosevelt, were unable to win third terms after four years out of office.
At this stage, given his close-to-the-vest, confounding style of dealing with men, it’s difficult to determine at what point FDR decided to break this custom. At some level, he may have felt he had one task remaining from his Presidency that he could not leave to others to solve: the need to face down Fascism before it was too late.
The Democrats had several figures widely viewed as Presidential prospects, but none had the broad-based support of Roosevelt—and some had defects so significant as to be disqualifying:
*Cordell Hull: The Secretary of State was widely respected in the party and, as a former Senator from Tennessee, a proven vote-getter. But he simply wasn’t interested in becoming President.
*Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.: The patriarch of the future foremost Irish-American clan had a personal fortune at his disposal and the firm belief that he would make a good President. But rumors about alleged stock manipulation and bootlegging during Prohibition dogged him. As Ambassador to the Court of St. James, he had become associated with the “Cliveden set” of influential British appeasers, and he was already isolated from FDR because of his belief that Britain was doomed in its fight against Hitler. Additionally, Al Smith’s dismal showing in the 1928 election convinced Kennedy that, if a Catholic were to succeed in a run for the Presidency, it would be someone from the next generation—one of his children (at this point, eldest son Joe Jr. was most likely) rather than himself.
*John Nance Garner: FDR’s Vice President had been loyal and, at least initially, quite helpful in using his old contacts on Capitol Hill to move New Deal legislation. But he disapproved of both FDR’s scheme to “pack” the court with new, younger, more liberal appointees and any attempt to break the third-term custom. He had made no open bid to defy the President, let alone seek office for himself. But his disaffection could make him a rallying point for more conservative Southern Democrats—and, on the eve of the party’s convention in Chicago, he was one of only two people not named Roosevelt with a solid slate of delegates committed to him.
*Jim Farley: FDR’s fellow New Yorker had helped him win two races for governor of the state, then, in 1932, the Presidency itself. For the past seven years, as both Postmaster-General and party chairman, he had controlled crucial patronage and had guided the President to a landscape reelection. Now, he wanted the Presidency himself, and had ready answers why his perceived liabilities (Catholicism, lack of appeal to the southern wing of the party, no foreign-policy experience, and no electoral experience in his own right) didn’t really amount to much. But he perceived, correctly, that FDR was giving him no definitive answer on his feelings about a third-term bid.
One of these men, if fortunate enough to emerge from the convention as a bruised nominee, would face a fresh Republican face and a party that, for all its differences, was united in its desire to recover the White House after eight years out in the cold. Their standard-bearer was Wendell Willkie—a successful business leader who, because he had never held elective office, could not be tied to the failed policies that had produced the Great Depression.
It’s a difficult thing to understand nowadays, when conventions are scripted down to the minute, but in those days they were much like 14-inning baseball games: the longer they ran on, the more likely anything could happen. It would be hard to beat for drama the Republican Convention, where Willkie had come out of nowhere to beat Senator Robert Taft and New York prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey, but FDR, with his flair for drama, would come close.
By early July, Roosevelt had complicated matters immensely by not forthrightly declaring his intentions. Worse, he had actually encouraged candidates—notably Farley—to explore their own bids. On a personal level, that was the worst possible outcome: veteran politicians who might never have found themselves in opposition to the President’s wishes now ran that very danger because he would not state frankly what those wishes were.
The anti-FDR forces hoped to make the case for their respective candidates, keep the balloting close, then hope for momentum to break their way. They were enraged to find that the pro-FDR group had the convention under tight, behind-the-scenes control, with Harry Hopkins, the Secretary of Commerce, reporting from a hotel to the White House via a direct phone line.
Not that everything was going smoothly. Many delegates were peeved at the untenable situation in which they found themselves—unhappy with a President doing something so controversial as breaking the third-term tradition, and even more so over the absence of any viable alternative.
At this point, another combustible element was added to the mix: an amendment to the party platform, backed by a quartet of isolationist Senators, “We will not participate in foreign wars and we will not send our army or navy or air force to fight in foreign lands outside of the Americas.”
FDR managed to squelch that threat by successfully arguing for the conclusion of the words, “except in case of attack.” But now, a sizable contingent of the delegates were vehemently protesting FDR’s selection of a running mate to replace Garner: Wallace. FDR, with his renomination in hand, was now insisting he would reject the draft he had spent months craftily laying the groundwork for.
Loyalists closest to the situation—Hopkins, along with Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins—were sending frantic telegrams to the White House, warning that, unless the President himself came to Chicago, open revolt might break out on the convention floor.
FDR would not budge from his insistence that he stay in Washington, above the fray, too busy attending to the nation’s needs at a time of peril to bother with mere politics. He came up with a counterproposal: Why not ask Eleanor to go in his place?
Right then, the First Lady was listening from her summer cottage in Hyde Park, Val-Kill, to a radio broadcast of the events in Chicago. She received a call from Perkins in Chicago, floating Franklin’s suggestion that Eleanor fly to the convention immediately. Eleanor then called FDR directly herself. According to her later recollection, the conversation went like this:
HE: "Well, would you like to go?"
SHE: "No, I wouldn't like to go. I'm very busy, and you told me I didn't have to go."
HE: "Well, perhaps they seem to think it might be well if you came out."
SHE: "But do you really want me to go?"
HE: "Well, perhaps it would be a good idea."
It would probably take A.R. Gurney, the dramatist of WASP reserve, to bring alive the nuances of this especially critical scene in the couple’s lives. She was not at Springwood, her husband’s birthplace, because she associated it with her domineering mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt. Val-Kill, built with her husband’s blessings in the late 1920s, furnished her an independent personal and even political sphere, a place to salve the wounds from a house where she felt little love, particularly after her discovery of her husband’s affair with her secretary in WWI.
A marriage had evolved into a remarkable political partnership, but the relationship remained, at heart, one of patchwork intimacy. Eleanor had, by necessity, became her husband’s “legs”—an emissary to different groups, someone trained by the inquisitive President to report back on what she had seen and heard. But she had developed her own base, as the more liberal, less pragmatic Roosevelt. She wanted her sphere, and while she would support him in his major decisions, there were limits in what she would do.
She would not, then, simply hop to any suggestion by an intermediary, even a trusted one such as Perkins. She was forcing FDR, directly, to ask her to go to the convention. She would make him know it was not convenient for her (“I'm very busy, and you told me I didn't have to go"). Even his long-established conversational tick of subtle misdirection (“they” thought she should go to the convention) didn’t work with her, so she asked him again: “Do you really want me to go?” His response still lacked directness—he couldn’t simply say, “Yes, I would”—but “perhaps it would be a good idea” was saying, in his understated manner, “Listen, I need you there. Please do this for me, okay?”
Eleanor’s role, then, was not either to rally the female voting bloc or to testify that her spouse was a considerate, loving male, as more recent First Ladies have done in addressing convention delegates. It was to prevent considerable free-floating unrest from turning into a wildfire that could damage her husband’s prospects.
Eleanor’s first order of business in her convention speech was soothing over the still-resentful Farley: “For many years I have worked under Jim Farley and with Jim Farley, and I think nobody could appreciate more what he has done for the party, what he has given in work and loyalty. And I want to give him here my thanks and devotion.”
(In her attempted rapprochement with Farley, the First Lady was only partly successful. The Cabinet officer remained on good terms with her personally, and he did not endorse Willkie. But his relationship with FDR was irretrievably broken, he would not join the reelection team, and Eleanor herself thought her husband had treated Farley shabbily.)
But in her wider aim, Eleanor succeeded admirably. In the most widely quoted part of the speech—in a phrase that would furnish the title of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer-winning account of the Roosevelts' relationship in wartime—she warned the delegates that patriotic rather than political considerations must govern their votes: “This is no ordinary time. No time for weighing anything except what we can do best for the country as a whole, and that responsibility rests on each and every one of us as individuals.”
Eleanor’s speech wasn’t long—only one page of notes—but it worked. The delegates listened to her respectfully, and, in the balloting that followed immediately, acceded to her husband’s wishes and nominated Wallace for Vice-President—though, even at this point, the new VP choice was not allowed to deliver his acceptance speech, lest he be booed.
With his party’s nomination now in hand, FDR pivoted toward foreign policy in August. The dire events occurring abroad, even as they inflamed fears of American involvement in the conflict, also led others to mount a preparedness campaign. Key to that effort—and to FDR increasingly dropping any attempt to placate the isolationist element in American politics—was the Selective Training and Service Act, which established the first peacetime draft in United States history. The legislation, debated in Congress over the summer, was signed into law by the President in September.
One week before the Democratic Convention, Roosevelt had rejected Farley’s blunt (if self-interested) advice that he issue a preemptive, categorical rejection of any draft by the delegates, noting: “If nominated and elected, I could not in these times refuse to take the inaugural oath, even if I knew I would be dead within thirty days.” It was an extraordinary statement, illustrating at once the President’s recognition of the grave health risks he was incurring and his resolve to defy the dangers.
Only five months before the convention, FDR experienced at dinner what he shrugged off as indigestion but what his assistant Missy LeHand and diplomat William Bullitt believed was a minor heart attack. That should have been a loud warning that he needed not only to reduce his workload, but even retire. Instead, the President cut back on his sleep and on the swims each week that eased his polio.
In few other ways is the complexity of Roosevelt illustrated more strongly than in these physical and mental exertions involved with the third-term bid. He constantly felt the need to ward off any suggestion that he was a lame duck, and his frank enjoyment of power must be figured into any assessment of his wish for four more years.
At the same time, it is almost to dismiss completely the President’s justification in his own acceptance speech by radio to the Democratic Convention, that duty dictated that he had to see his foreign policy tasks through. Ever since his first few months in office, when FDR had confided to family and a few close aides his belief that Adolf Hitler was crazy, he had come to believe that, less than a generation after WWI, Germany was fanning the fires of international conflict again.
Now, even with the redoubtable Winston Churchill in charge, Britain remained in a desperate fight for its life. Fate had made the United States the island nation’s best chance at survival—and, if FDR scanned the American political scene, fate had also made him the one U.S. politician with the experience and communication skills to rally his countrymen against the evil from abroad.
The toll that Roosevelt’s reelection campaign and maneuvering against Hitler took on the President’s health was enormous. Four years later, as the Democrats gathered for another convention, photos of the President made it increasingly impossible for delegates to ignore the chance that he might die in office. That perception—borne out by events less than a year later—led to a more powerfully organized effort to force Wallace off the ticket—a move that FDR this time was powerless to quell, and which made Harry S. Truman his running mate—and, eventually, successor.