Friday, February 9, 2007

Flashback: The Late Mrs. Farley Told Jim He Was Being “Used.”

[Memoirs from more than fifty years of politics for my kids and grandchildren].

What led to the breakup of a superb political team—Franklin Roosevelt and the man who managed his major campaigns…for governor, for the presidential nomination…for the 1932 presidency…for the 1936 reelection to the presidency? Notice that almost unconsciously, his reference to Roosevelt changed after election to governor and president. Before that, Roosevelt was “Frank.” After, he was “the Chief.”

“It was Mrs. Farley,” said Jim of his late wife, during our lunch. “She always had the feeling that without me, the Chief would have remained just a famous name, an obscure cousin of Theodore, but not governor nor president. She exaggerated because she loved me but her words had some effect. Every day she’d begin at breakfast by saying I was being used. I loved her dearly but now I regret having listened to her. Part of it was my ego. She thought I was sidelining my political career for his; she thought I should be running for president. Because I listened to her, I fought the third term and missed out on being at his side during the most fascinating period of all—the second World War.”

That’s a kind of tragic story, I said, if in fact you supported him all the way and were led to resign because of her belief and not your own.

“No,” he said. “I did disagree with him—mightily, but I still would like to have been around for the war. Let me explain about the economics. My background has been that of the son of a businessman and one who lived and worked with corporations. I don’t believe in onerous taxation; I believe the private sector is the reason why we are a great country, not government. My construction company helped build the Empire State Building; I had to deal with labor and all the attendant modern contrivances that bedevil business but I was more like Al [Smith] and less like the Chief. Hell, I didn’t want a revolution; I wanted a part of the American dream. At the outset, I thought the Chief agreed with me. He comes from a family that made it big in business—at least the Teddy Roosevelt offshoot did. They owned damn near all of the major properties in east Manhattan. But as time went on—especially when he became president—the people I call Bolsheviks moved in: the Harry Hopkins type: social workers with an axe to grind against business; Rex Tugwell who was damn near a Communist.”

Mrs. Roosevelt?

“I liked her. Let me tell you, that was another kind of problem. Eleanor was largely ignored and when a woman is ignored—especially a wife—she has to resort to a number of things to establish her own identity. She became a Bolshevik but it was because the Chief couldn’t imagine she had any political sense. She did—I can tell you. She was, well, I hate to say it, she was unloved. Here she had given up everything for the guy. Their kids—with one exception, Jimmy—their kids were in the wild blue yonder because during the Chief’s recuperation and all she devoted so much time to him she had little—very little—for them and it showed.

“Elliott was a wild card, always trying to be something he wasn’t—novelist, business entrepreneur, a job for which he was very ill-suited. John was the Republican, rather hostile to his father and identified early in his adult life with people who disliked his Dad. Franklin, Jr. was a drunk and playboy who wanted to be a politician but who didn’t have the discipline. Anna was a morose one and remote who married Colonel McCormick’s cousin’s New York Daily News Washington correspondent. Jimmy married a lot of women but of them all he was the most dependable, always at his father’s side, literally, holding him up while he stood up and tried to walk.

“Getting back to her. She was ignored so she developed a life for herself which was far more creative, if I can use that word, than his. The Chief was a great guy to react, take someone’s ideas and polish them up—or get someone to polish them up—and sell them. Eleanor, if used correctly, could have been really something—something far better than she was.”

Was his having been unfaithful to her at one time do it—and was he unfaithful continually?

“I’ve always thought that part of it was greatly magnified. I don’t know what the Lucy Mercer event was—probably just a flirtation that went too far. But as for the other women after he was afflicted with polio, I’ll ask you to be the judge. I’ve always doubted the stories that he was intimate with Missy LeHand [his devoted confidential secretary] and others because of the enormity of his paralysis and more than that. My god, if you’re president during the greatest Depression the country ever had and then president during the greatest war the nation ever faced, if you’re paralyzed from the hips down and you have all the attendant illness byproducts that this thing brings—the inability to exercise properly which causes heart trouble—and you still can conduct a physical affair with a woman, well that’s something I could never imagine. He died at 63, I’ll remind you: totally worn out. Grey, exhausted, seriously enlarged heart, in terrible physical shape. And you tell me that because when he died he was with Lucy Rutherford or whatever her name was, that they were engaged in something physical?

“ What it was—between the Chief and Missy—was two people who spent hours a day together to the point where she knew every single thing that was on his mind and could anticipate it. There was a real fondness there; but that had to be all.”

You told me you regretted breaking it off with the president because you were influenced unduly by Mrs. Farley…


…but you also said that there were real differences between you and the president. Did they touch the subject of the economy?

“Yes, most definitely although the main reason I left was the third term. Because I’m a businessman by training, I was very, very dubious of central planning, the intrusion of government into the economy by means of the NRA [the National Recovery Administration]. That, of course, was not my province. I wasn’t asked a damn thing about the economy; I was regarded as a political mechanic while some midgets were advising him, frankly. My jurisdiction was to keep the political team together, to see that the deserving faithful got jobs, that certain projects that were important to the major cities were recognized. I would have appreciated having more to say but I didn’t because the Bolsheviks, Hopkins, Tugwell—and to some extent Morganthau—felt I was too conservative.

“They were right about that although I thought the Chief could have used some conservative backing-up. The combined influence remaining from Louie Brandeis [who served on the Supreme Court] that came down from Felix Frankfurter who though on the Court exerted a terribly—I say terribly—pernicious influence…Rex Tugwell, Tommy Cork [Corcoran] all believed to a man that private business was the cause of the Depression. The NRA established hundreds of—what I would call cartels, industry-wide cartels—which were supposed to set minimum prices, standard wages, even working hours to prevent anybody from underselling each other. One bad apple was Adolph Berle who believed that if free markets were left to themselves monopolies would be created—a ridiculous view. Another was Louie Howe whom the Chief relied on for political advice far more than he did me: he saw in me a manager. In Louie he saw an intellectual; why, I don’t know. He saw in Sam Rosenman a damn good speech-writer which he was. I guess I thought after I handled his election very well for governor—and particularly his first nomination for president--I’d have some kind of say in how he governed. Shortly after I got to Washington, I learned that was not to be. Then Mrs. Farley started working on me.

“Getting back to the NRA, it was easy to see that artificially high prices set in this way by the cartels would have to…just have to…restrict employment. Mrs. Farley who was a very bright lady—and a Republican, I might add—saw through it just as I did. What bothered me was that it came the closest I ever imagined to duplicating the work patterns of the Soviet Union. And that was frightening.”

The Supreme Court ruled the NRA unconstitutional.

“They made which was the right call, I believe. Let me say that there were days when I was around where I was really tearing my hair—not that there was that much of it then, not much more than there is now.

“With the NRA it turned out to be a crime to increase your production or cut prices! There was a dry cleaner in Brooklyn who, believe it or not, went to jail for charging 35 cents instead of 40 cents to press a pair of pants! I met with the Chief and told him this was the next thing to Mussolini’s fascism. It didn’t go over very well. Now there were some things we did that I wholeheartedly approve of. One was the Wagner Act [the National Labor Relations Act]. It is important and was important to put a thumb on the scale on the side of organized labor because business’ thumb had been on the scale solely up to then. Unionized labor earned on the whole in the first year or so after Wagner about 15% higher than nonunion.”

The farm bills which passed—largely the work of Rexford Tugwell…

“Well, you have to recognize that farmers were hurting and that under Hoover—and Coolidge, I believe—there were some attempts to remedy the situation. Henry Wallace’s father had been secretary of agriculture under Coolidge and came up with ideas which Coolidge vetoed. Frankly, I probably would have done the same thing the Chief ended up doing; he was something of a farmer, at least he was in closer touch with them than was I. When you look at what he did, he proposed to pay farmers for cutting back on production—which was not perfect but which was a kind of standard operating procedure even before he took over. The decrease in supply would, he believed, raise prices. Well, he was right to a degree in that this was pretty sound economics on supply and demand.”

Were you bothered by the destruction of surplus food?

“Not really. Like everyone else, I wished there was a better distribution system to distribute it to needy people. We did a lot of that, though. Later there came along in another administration—I think Eisenhower--Public Law 480 which used surplus food as commodities to be sent abroad—where farmers over there seemed to object since it depressed their markets!”

What are your views about the one significant contribution that historians say was made—Social Security?

“Good but better things could have been done to achieve the samew end. One of the first things the Chief did was sign the Railroad Retirement Act which was a government-run retirement program for rail employees. Then he set up a committee for a retirement program. The committee he had appointed was stacked—Mrs. Perkins [secretary of labor] the chairman; Morganthau [treasury secretary] Wallace [Henry Wallace, agriculture] and of course Hopkins (wherever he was and he was everywhere was a bad mistake). I wanted to get on that committee but was vetoed: too conservative. I wanted to push some tax changes to help expand private insurance, annuities and pension systems but no—that group wanted big government to take over, just like Russia. It had workers’ comp, unemployment comp, health benefits, disability, old-age, survivors and maternity benefits. The Chief wanted a government-run retirement program that would be paid by a payroll tax which—I remember him extolling the concept—would involve pay-ins by employers and employees. I opposed it, not that it did any good.”

Why did you oppose it?

“The payroll tax was regressive, everybody knew that. It took a bigger bite from the pay of lower-income people than higher. But the Chief wanted a payroll tax because it would look like it was self-financing. As you realize, Social Security isn’t an insurance plan because insurance—real insurance—has people paying premiums based on several factors, assumed life-span, health with the insurance company collecting the premiums like an investment fund that would pay off the policy eventually. He kept selling it like legitimate insurance. But he had a cunning to him about the payroll contributions, said the employer kicks in one dollar for the benefit of the worker and the worker kicks in a dollar with the dollars held by the government for the worker’s old age. The employees contribution seals it so no one would ever scrap the program politically, telling the voters that there was a right for contributors to collect these pensions.”

But it must have pleased you as a political strategist to see how it was sold—and still is being sold.

“Sure. But it was specious. Private plans would have been a better deal. And it was far from perfect. We faced the political problem that arose when the payroll taxes began to really cut into the size of paychecks when the Fed began to build up a recession.”

Would you say Social Security hiked the cost of hiring people through the payroll tax and kept unemployment relatively high?

“Some say that—but again you have the factor of symbolism. It showed that the government had the interest of the little guy at heart. I don’t mean to be cynical. It was an important component.”

Still, in all these things you had misgivings. Yet you stayed on even though you were disturbed about some aspects of the New Deal. Why?

“Well, I could see no alternative. There was one saving grace through all of it. We didn’t solve unemployment but by pitching in and doing things—innovating, even when the end-product wasn’t very good—the American people seemed to gain hope and by drawing hope they themselves were inspired. We spent an ungodly lot of money, we implemented unwise regulations. But the Wagner Act and Social Security were excellent symbols even if they didn’t work perfectly. I would have preferred a private option for Social Security but unless you were there—and you weren’t—you didn’t know how important it was to give people some hope. And we did.”

I’m surprised to learn that the number one populist wasn’t on that Social Security committee—Harold Ickes [secretary of the interior].

“Don’t get me started on him. He had the reputation of being a Republican—from your neck of the woods. He was a Teddy Roosevelt Republican but thoroughly disreputable. Harold was a smart guy, got a law degree from the University of Chicago but he always resented people who got rich. He got rich by marrying a very rich woman—wife number one. . How he got anybody to marry him is beyond my comprehension. He was, short, fat, disheveled with a flat nose, hair or what remained of it standing up like it was driven up by electric shock. He always looked to me like he was either going to cry or break out in laughter, I don’t know which.

“He thought he was a devil with the women and the women who worked for him stayed away from his reach I can tell you that. After his wife died he married a very-very young woman: what she saw in him beats me and they had a kid when he was well up in his seventies—at least they said it was his kid. Probably was. [That kid was Harold L. Ickes, Jr. who was one of Bill Clinton’s top political operatives and is thought to be running the Hillary Clinton presidential effort today].

“I’ll tell you a story about Ickes. Those were in the 1930s when the phones weren’t what they are now. Stand-up phones mostly. I had one on my desk and after a while I noticed that every so often when I was on the phone the power would go up and the power would go down and the guy on the other end would say: Jim! Jim! Can you hear me? This went on for a week or two. Finally, I asked maintenance to send me a guy to look at it. He looked at it, followed the wire around the room and then looked out the window where he saw a guy on the telephone pole. He didn’t say anything to me but later on he came back. He said, the trouble with your line is that there was a guy hanging on a telephone pole near your window who had inserted a jack in the line for somebody to hear. I watched him for a while. He put in a jack and climbed down from the pole and started to go away.

“`I went over to him and said, what have you been doing? He said nothing. I said, weren’t you putting a jack on the telephone line? He said, yeah, something like that. I said how many times have you done this? He said, a jack is only good for a day or two and then I have to come back and put another one in. I said, who are you and why are you doing this? He said, I work for Interior and the reason I’m doing this is because I have been told to. Who are you? I said, I’m from the Post Office Department. He said, should I quit? I said no—keep on doing it; that’s fine; in fact, I don’t want you to tell anyone I asked about it. He said, okay and went away. Now, Mr. Farley, I checked on my own through the Interior bureaucracy and find that guys like him are all over town plugging in jacks because the secretary of the interior is very interested in finding out what his fellow cabinet officers are saying on the phone.”

That’s amazing.

“Let me finish. So I did and said nothing. The next week we had a cabinet meeting and I waited until the Chief said something like this: It’s very important that you guys share views with each other. I find that too often you don’t. Cordell [Hull, the secretary of state], you ought to share your views with Bill [Woodin, the secretary of war]. And he went down the line. When he came to me, I said, `Chief, let me tell you something. I find that we are indeed sharing our views and ideas with one in our group but the only bad thing is that he isn’t sharing his ideas with us. I refer to Mr. Ickes who has been sticking a jack in my phone line. I discovered it because when I was talking the power went down and the power went up so I find a guy on a pole outside my window fixing it to Mr. Ickes could listen!

“Then Morganthau said, `Is that what it is? I’m having the same experience. When I’m on the phone the power goes down and the power goes up!’ Then Ickes got up and stomped out of the room with a red face. The president called after him angrily, `Harold! Up to your old tricks again? I won’t have it! I tell you I won’t have it!’ That told us that Ickes had been doing it to Roosevelt as well. That’s the kind of guy he was.”


Tell me about your management of the 1932 Democratic convention in Chicago that nominated FDR.

“It wasn’t me alone but me with Louie Howe, who was in his `60s and sick. I was 44. The Chief lobbied for Chicago to get the convention at the Stadium and it did, although it didn’t do him as much good as he thought it would. He thought Cermak, the mayor, would return the favor which he never did. Despite what everybody thinks, we were no shoo-in although we were ahead and one of the front-runners since the Chief was governor of New York. The rules were that you had to have two-thirds to win the nomination. As I recall, with a total of 1,154 votes we had about 660 but needed 770 to win which meant that only 358 votes could cause a deadlock which was a great worry of mine. Roosevelt, as a front-line contender, wasn’t going to be at the convention because that was the routine in those days: you didn’t show up. Beyond that, it was practical for Roosevelt not to show up because he was paralyzed and moving around for him on the floor would be difficult.

“I set up a somewhat intricate system of phone communication for the times at our headquarters at the Congress hotel. We had an amplified system so that when we brought delegates—not just delegations but at times single delegates or a few of them--into our headquarters at the Congress hotel. Before they got there I’d tell him that Joe Doakes from Iowa was coming in and you had met him at such-and-such. Then he would come in and the Chief could talk to them on the phone from his office in Albany, calling him by first name. He was terrific.

“We thought Cermak would be the key to it all as the host mayor but he wasn’t; he was secretly for Smith. One part had to do with repeal of the Prohibition amendment which Cermak wanted so he could make a fortune as a liquor distributor; the other had to do with religion and Smith was the wettest guy around. Another was this: Cermak was a Czech and there were more Czechs in Chicago than in Prague—but while everybody has the idea that Czechs are all Catholic, they’re not and Cermak was not. He was really nothing, a Protestant free-thinker. But in order to court the Catholics, he stayed very close to the Catholic Al Smith. By being for Al Smith, Cermak figured he would solve any Chicago Catholic problem he had. We really didn’t know that was his thinking at the time; we thought at the outset he’d be for us.

“Getting ahead of my story, that was why Cermak went to Miami to meet the Chief when he was president-elect in 1933—to make amends for the past. Then Cermak got shot instead of Roosevelt and ultimately died. Walter Winchell who was in Miami at the same time believed the syndicate wanted to get rid of Cermak. I doubt it. Why would they kill him in the most public way which would bring down the federal government on their heads? Ridiculous. I have always had the idea that the bullet was meant for the Chief and Cermak got in the way. When the guy testified, he showed the world he was mentally incompetent. The syndicate wouldn’t operate in that way.”

. [To be continued].

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