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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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Like FDR, she'd listened to the convention on radio. He asked her if she wanted to go there and speak on his behalf. No, she said, she didn't want to speak. (She may not even have wanted to be First Lady anymore.) Then FDR hinted that it might be a good idea if she spoke, and Eleanor asked if he needed her to speak, and finally he had to admit that, yes, he did want her to speak; she now couldn't refuse him and agreed to fly out the next morning.

FDR didn't suggest to her what she might say. He didn't have to. Besides, this was new territory both for them and for history. No first lady had ever addressed a national political convention of any major party. She knew that because she'd been attending them for 28 years (since before women could vote), never liking them, thinking them crude and somehow barbarous, though she dearly loved the adrenaline of politics.

Eleanor Roosevelt's plane touched down in Chicago early Thursday evening. A welcoming delegation led by Democratic National Committee chairman James Farley (who was also postmaster general) greeted her on the tarmac. The odd thing was that Farley had earlier placed his own name in nomination for the presidency because he believed that a three-term president was wrong, even if that third term belonged to Franklin Roosevelt. But Eleanor climbed into Farley's car, and they were escorted through the hot night to the stadium by a small army of Chicago police. Few outside of FDR's political advisers knew she was coming.

She later used the word "pandemonium" to describe the scene as she arrived. Everyone seemed to be shouting at once, and the smell of suppressed violence hung in the air. But as she appeared in the aisle and walked toward her seat in the gallery, rising half a head taller than most of the delegates, the crowd quickly noticed her. To the last man, the delegates stood--and began cheering.

It took Eleanor a long time to realize that the shouts had turned to cheers, and longer to accept that they'd turned for her. She then stopped, smiled, and waved. This brought louder applause. Now she took her seat--next to Mrs. Henry Wallace--and waited her turn to speak; it would come after the last of the nominating speeches given for the candidates.

Just like that, pandemonium returned. It was as though the delegates were kindergartners who'd found their manners when teacher walked in the room, and then lost them the minute she left.

The first speech was on behalf of speaker of the House William Bankhead. It drew loud applause from every corner, as did most of the others. The message being sent to the president was that the delegates would accept any candidate but his, because only the speech for Henry Wallace drew jeers and catcalls and angry fist waving. Hitler, who'd already knocked over Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, and Denmark, and who was then bombing England, might have been better received. Mrs. Wallace turned to Eleanor. "I don't know why they don't seem to like Henry," she said, shouting to be heard above the ugly din.

Thursday night had almost become Friday morning when the last of the speeches ended. Now it was Eleanor's turn. FDR's presidency rested on her success or failure.

Cheers accompanied her to the microphone. But they were fewer and less loud than before, and couldn't drown out the grumbles that rolled across the hall like menacing thunder. Would they stop? If they didn't, the cause was lost.

She began with a brief preamble, thanking James Farley for his selfless service to the party. Delegates cheered her act of graciousness, but when the cheers died there was still hostile murmuring. FDR, some felt, had sent a woman to do his job. Anticipating this, she stated that she was not bringing them the president's message; that would be up to him. The room quieted. Nothing competed with her voice.

"I know and you know," she said, "that any man who is in an office of great responsibility today faces a heavier responsibility perhaps than any man has ever faced before in this country. Therefore, to be a candidate of either great political party is a very serious and a very solemn thing. You cannot treat it as you would treat an ordinary nomination in an ordinary time."

The speech was not much longer than the Gettysburg Address, and like Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt appealed to the better angels of their nature. She'd of course written and rehearsed the words on the long flight to Chicago, but she spoke them as though she were hearing them, along with her audience, for the first time. Applause interrupted her several times, and her voice soared and struck its target.