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"This Is No Ordinary Time"

Eleanor Roosevelt's words from the 1940 Democratic convention echo loudly today.

11:00 PM, Mar 7, 2004 • By JOEL ENGEL
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FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT was completing his second term and wanted a third one, but the unwritten rule written by George Washington said that presidents serve only two terms--and FDR's own patrician code said that it was unseemly to let ambition show so nakedly. So he did what was like him to do: He decided to wait for the 1940 convention to run out of alternatives and draft him as the apparently reluctant nominee who would govern only at the people's pleasure. Not until he heard a resounding chant of "We want Roosevelt" from those delegates in Chicago would he agree to run.

It seems quaint now to think that presidential candidates actually used to be chosen at conventions, which were not pre-scripted television commercials but bare-knuckle free-for-alls with half a dozen contenders and their supporters throwing political elbows at each other. FDR wasn't even in Chicago--he was back in Washington--but his giant invisible presence blotted out any light from shining on other candidates. What a strategy. After three days and nights, the convention bordered on chaos. Imagining how irritable those delegates were is possible only if you ever spent a summer week crammed beside thousands of others inside the stifling old Chicago Stadium (where Michael Jordan would later play) while wearing a wool suit and starched color, with the whole world either at war or on the verge of it.

What seemed horribly possible, as the hours and then days passed, was that the Democrats might lose the White House to Republican Wendell Willkie, a fierce New Deal critic. The fear reached a crescendo late Tuesday night--then burst a moment later to become the acclamation FDR needed. Out of nowhere, an amplified voice began chanting "We want Roosevelt! We want Roosevelt!"--and the throngs, as if on cue, joined in. This led to celebrations and parades in the aisles, not all of them peaceful, and the nomination was now a formality.

No matter that Chicago mayor and Democratic party boss Ed Kelly had sent his superintendent of sewers into the basement armed with a microphone and instructions to begin the mantra at just the right moment; if there hadn't been just such a moment, the ploy would never have succeeded as wildly as it had. What did matter is that the delegates woke the next morning with an emotional hangover and an uh-oh feeling. They realized they'd been used. And to get back their sense of dignity and independence they insisted on choosing FDR's replacement for vice president John Nance Garner; "Cactus," as they called him, was retiring from politics to his Texas ranch.

There were two problems, though. The first was that the delegates could not agree on their choice; half a dozen potential veeps trotted out without a clear leader among them. The second, and uglier, problem was that FDR demanded his own running mate--Henry A. Wallace--and let it be known that if he couldn't have Wallace, they couldn't have him. Period.

Under other circumstances the delegates probably would have gone along with Wallace, a leftist who as secretary of Agriculture during the height of the Depression had saved millions of people from hunger, possibly even starvation, by establishing a granary, which guaranteed adequate food supplies and stabilized farm prices. In fact, the delegates might have embraced him as the anti-Willkie. Willkie had been born a Democrat, Wallace a Republican; and where Willkie championed big business, Wallace backed the little guy. But because they needed to show FDR that this was a republic, not a monarchy, the delegates said no to Wallace. And they said it loudly--loudly enough for Roosevelt to hear in Washington, a thousand miles away. He heard them, all right, but he didn't respond--and that angered the delegates. They asked why he wouldn't come to address them himself. Who did FDR think he was? Through his emissaries he told them exactly who he thought he was. He was the president of the United States who'd refuse their nomination if they rejected his guy.

Now the chaos of the previous days seemed like harmony. This was anarchy, and it wouldn't have taken much to start a riot. Which is when the president called on his secret weapon.

His wife.

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT was not with the president in the White House. She'd been spending the week at Val-Kill, the stone-faced cottage he'd had built for her in the woods, alongside a stream and pond, across the road from the Roosevelt family estate in Hyde Park, two hours north of New York City. Val-Kill was the only place she ever called home, the place she escaped to, whether that escape was from the pressures of politics or from the discomfort she'd felt at the Roosevelt home, where FDR's mother, not his wife, had sat beside him at the table and in front of the hearth. Eleanor had sat elsewhere, with the children.