Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Part II: Mrs. FDR Comes to St. Cloud, Minnesota and Submits to A One-on-One Tutorial

[The finishing segment in the memoir for my kids and grandchildren].

Once alighted from the small plane: There she was, at 69, the ex-young girl who was called the ugly duckling by her own mother who said when she was a girl, “Eleanor, you and I know you aren’t as pretty or as vivacious as the other girls and so, my darling, you must make up for it with boundless energy and charm in order to get what you wish in this world!” Who conquered shyness to marry the most impossibly handsome young swain to whom she was improbably linked; who stood by him in his state senate campaigns, his abortive vice presidential run in 1920, through his infantile paralysis which paralyzed him from the hips down, through the ineffable sadness of his infidelity to her with her longtime social secretary, through the campaign for governor of New York, then the presidency, through the years when he crafted a new corporate state that spared us a revolution, through World War II, through visits with Winston Churchill whom she disliked intensely, through her own bitter unpopularity and attacks from chunks of the media, past FDR’s death and into her own career as diplomat, culminating when she received the only standing ovation ever given to anyone, including various Popes, at the UN General Assembly. And here she had to be greeted by a dunce like me who said:

“Mrs. Roosevelt, I would very much like to interview you for a wire service but I have been stuck in the city room of my newspaper doing local news and I don’t have the faintest idea of what to ask you.”

Her eyes widened with mock surprise as her friend, Ambassador Eugenie Andersen, doubled in laughter: “You haven’t? Well, we’ll fix that right now! Can you wait, Eugenie?” The gracious ambassador agreed to be the guest of the airport manager for coffee while the pilot who was in great need of finding a washroom, jogged into the terminal.

So we sat down, me with my pad and suffused with humiliation.

Well, she said, as you may know I am not representing our country with the UN anymore.

Why not?

Well, there was, as you remember, a change in administration earlier this year and the President, General Eisenhower appointed someone else. But I didn’t want to serve anyhow. Frankly, I was relieved that Mr. Eisenhower didn’t reappoint me so that I would not have to resign in protest against the administration’s position on the United Nation’s Covenant on Human Rights. As you know—with a gracious smile—the Covenant came as result of my labors and those of others as members of the UN Commission on Human Rights, work quite apart from my other service on our delegation.

As I listened to the tutorial, sipping my coffee in a Styrofoam mug while a mega-millionaire ex-ambassador cooled her heels, I got a glimmer of the controversy that surrounded it—a controversy that continues to this day with conservative objections to liberals on the Supreme Court citing international law as precedent, a step Justice Scalia thinks is impossibly imprudent and improper.

Being a Roosevelt, niece of Theodore as well as the wife of Franklin, human rights were very important to her and she approached her membership with great energy. She was immediately elected chairman of the UN Commission on Human Rights and she went to work characteristically of a Roosevelt, crafting whole new guarantees for human rights, instituting both a Declaration and a Covenant. The Declaration went, as you would imagine from this senior citizen idealist, far beyond our own view of human rights. As she told me, Article 24 specified that “everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay” I can only add: !!! She was in immediate trouble with American constitutionalists of all stripes, causing trouble for even the Truman administration and Secretary of State George Marshall.

Due to this elderly lady’s work, the State Department had to go to work to craft a federal-state clause in order to us to ratify it and she was frequently called to Washington to fight not only with the Republicans in the Senate like Robert A. Taft but the Democrats like Dean Acheson who despaired of such idealism. No ex-First Lady including Hillary Clinton was ever, ever in such a welter of controversy—yet always smiling, always gracious, always hip-deep in alligators. There was something horribly impractical yet hopelessly inspiring about her idealism. The UN always rejected the federal-state clauses which was bad enough but when the Republicans came in, Sen. John W. Bricker of Ohio, concocted the Bricker Amendment which swept the country—much as the Ports issue does today—with Americans shouting that no old retired ex-First Lady will water down our sovereignty.

Make no mistake: I agreed on hearing her telling it with them, not her as I agree with threats to sovereignty now—but there was something to be said for hearing it first-hand from the one who crafted the idea. By the time she finished with me, Ambassador Andersen was standing at her side and Mrs. Roosevelt said, “There’s something very sad about the Eisenhower administration’s abandonment of the cause of human rights” with a sad smile. Ambassador Andersen said: “I can tell you, young man, you have a story.” And off they went.

Indeed I did. I wrote to thank her but never heard back. And back at home in Chicago, my conservative father who had despaired at one time that “the socialists may get to Bob Taft” felt that indeed they got to his son first.

[Thanks for listening.]

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Tom for such a wonderful story. Your kids and grand-kids have much to be proud of in you. The richness of your life is so much more intereting than politics.