The Magazine

FDR's "indiscretions," McCain's "gaffe," etc.

Mar 31, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 28
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Defaming FDR

The silver linings in any scandal, or so THE SCRAPBOOK has learned, are the more-in-sorrow-than-anger essays by friends and admirers of the person who's been caught with his hand in the till or sneaking out of the bedroom. Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer's affinity for prostitutes, and spectacular exit from office, has been no exception.

Here's Martin Peretz, editor in chief of the New Republic: "Eliot Spitzer is a friend of mine," he writes. "Not a close friend but a friend, nonetheless. He has written for TNR and TNR has written about him. I knew relatively little about his personal life until .  .  . " Can't wait to see where that one's going! By contrast, Harvard Law School's ubiquitous Professor Alan Dershowitz, writing at Forward.com, offers a more-in-anger-than-sorrow perspective: "When Eliot Spitzer was my research assistant in the 1980s," he says, "he was a young man of great brilliance, high integrity, conservative demeanor and enormous promise. It pains me deeply to see him brought down so far, and so quickly, by private sexual misconduct."

According to Dershowitz, Spitzer was publicly humiliated not by his appetite for $5,000-an-hour whores while prosecuting prostitution rings but by the fact that "our nation, unique among Western democracies, is obsessed with the private lives of public figures." This is followed by various Dershowitzian assertions that "we are a nation of hypocrites" that has never learned "how to distinguish between sin and crime, between activities that endanger the public and harm only the actor and his family."

Of course, reasonable people will differ as to whether the loss of a man of "great brilliance, high integrity, conservative demeanor and enormous promise" like Spitzer is a tragedy or comedy; but there's no doubt where Dershowitz stands on public and private morality in hypocritical America.

THE SCRAPBOOK's main beef with Dershowitz, though, is that he clinches his case with the following two sentences: "Throughout our history, men in high places have engaged in low sexual activities. From Thomas Jefferson to Franklin Roosevelt to John Kennedy to Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton, great political figures have behaved like adolescent boys in private, while at the same time brilliantly and effectively leading our nation in public."

We'll leave the defense of Bill Clinton, LBJ, JFK, and Thomas Jefferson to their respective admirers. But the notion that FDR behaved like an adolescent boy in the White House-"engaged in low sexual activities"-is an appalling urban myth which, like J. Edgar Hoover's cross-dressing, has achieved the status of historical fact.

It is true that Franklin Roosevelt had an affair-possibly sexual, although no one really knows-with his wife's social secretary, Lucy Mercer; but it took place in 1918, more than a dozen years before FDR was elected president. And far from behaving like lovesick adolescents, Roosevelt and Mercer (who married someone else shortly thereafter) quickly went their separate ways when Eleanor Roosevelt offered FDR a divorce and Roosevelt's mother threatened to disinherit him. Roosevelt chose his responsibilities to his wife and five children over the pursuit of happiness with Lucy Mercer.

It is true that, as president, the paraplegic FDR invited Lucy Mercer to the White House on several occasions during World War II (always when Eleanor was out of town) but such visits were entirely chaste, in the presence of his daughter Anna and innumerable friends over cocktails and dinner-and, in spirit and practice, could not have been more different from Bill Clinton's furtive encounters with Monica Lewinsky, or Eliot Spitzer's transactions with Ashley Alexandra Dupré, alias "Kristen."

McCain's Non-Gaffe

Last week in Amman, Jordan, John McCain said he was concerned that Iranian agents were "taking al Qaeda into Iran, training them, and sending them back." McCain went on to say that "al Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and .  .  . coming back into Iraq from Iran. That's well known, and it's unfortunate." Whereupon Joe Lieberman, traveling with McCain, leaned over and whispered something into the presumptive Republican presidential nominee's ear. After which McCain said, "I'm sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al Qaeda."