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.
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.
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.
"You will have to rise above considerations which are narrow and partisan," she said. "You must know that this is the time when all good men and women give every bit of service and strength to their country that they have to give. This is no ordinary time, no time for thinking about anything except what we can best do for the country as a whole, and that responsibility is on each and every one of us as individuals. No man who is a candidate, or who is president, can carry this situation alone. This is only carried by a united people who love their country and who will live for it to the fullest of their ability with the highest ideals, with a determination that their party shall be absolutely devoted to the good of the nation as a whole, and to doing what this country can to bring the world to a safer and happier condition."
WHEN SHE FINISHED, the convention had been healed. The delegates stomped and clapped, and FDR soon had his man in Wallace. Four years later the Democrats overlooked FDR's increasingly frail health and nominated him for a fourth term. They did however insist that Wallace be replaced on the ticket by Senator Harry Truman, who'd earned himself a national reputation as the chair of a Senate sub-committee investigating government waste in war.
The Republicans ran Tom Dewey against FDR, but it was more of a place-holding nomination for 1948. Campaigning against a wartime president who never failed to remind the public that they were at war was like Sisyphus rolling a boulder uphill. Two of their campaign issues were FDR's wasteful use of taxpayer funds to transport his dog Fala with him around the country and his obviously poor health. The health charge was nonsense, Roosevelt insisted--a lie sworn to by his own physicians and everyone else in his inner circle. He won in a walkover, but died less than three months after his inauguration.
Amid the outcry over President Bush's use of September 11th in campaign ads, both sides would do well to recall FDR and Eleanor if only as a reminder that politics, as Bismarck noted, is the art of the possible--that is to say, successful persuasion through word, deed, and image. This, too, is no ordinary time.
Joel Engel is an author and journalist in Southern California.