Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Flashback: Tugwell Talks About the Marvelous Openness of FDR.

[More than 50 years of politics for my kids and grandchildren].

Sitting at dinner following a bravura performance at the Wharton School from which he was summarily fired as a professor more than fifty years earlier, Rexford Guy Tugwell, former counselor to FDR, said that the high-point of his eighty-plus years was his ability to stroll into the Oval Office almost unannounced (the president had given orders that whenever Tugwell showed up he should be admitted within reason) and engage in witty and deep-rooted commentary about how the nation could survive the Depression.

“He had a marvelous openness,” he said. “But the best time to visit—and I soon learned that—was during what he called the `Children’s Hour’. That was after 6:30 p.m. when he would wheel himself up to a cabinet and pour drinks for us. To be there with Harry Hopkins and a cabinet favorite or two—especially Tommy the Cork—was the highpoint of my life. I have always thought that if more presidents had operated like this…with participants allowed to challenge him or bring him uncensored news from the battlefront that did not have to be ventilated through echelons of staff…the governance of this country would be immeasurably enhanced.”

At the “Children’s Hour” far more than the customary limit of adult beverage imbibing was allowed. On one occasion House Speaker Sam Rayburn gave the president a refined but nevertheless Texas-style dressing down for his liberalism. FDR grinned and hugely enjoyed it, said Tugwell to me.

“My job was largely that of research and writing memos,” he said, “and I would be closeted over at the Library of Congress many, many days. But the best thing I could do for myself is to gain a flavor of the real world by hearing elected officials sitting around in `Children’s Hour’ telling me how cockeyed I was by relying on strict research instead of testing ideas with them. Of course testing ideas is what I was doing by drinking with them—but the average politician is hopelessly conservative and leery of trying new ideas. We were polishing up new ideas all the time…Social Security, farm subsidies, soil bank, unemployment comp, the Wagner Act which gave unions power in the marketplace. I even spent the better part of one whole evening at Children’s Hour testing an idea I had which caused Roosevelt a great deal of interest.”

What idea was that?

“You’ve heard of the concept of the Guaranteed Annual Wage, a level below which the government was not to allow anyone’s earnings to fall. As a farmer I came up with the idea of the Guaranteed Minimum Diet…a level of nutrition that everyone has a right to…a level that would be guaranteed by the government in any number of ways. It never got off the ground because I had the bad fortune of springing it at a time when Henry Morganthau was there. Morganthau was, as you know, an unregenerate conservative.”

That I didn’t know.

“He was. And that was that.”

Do you think a current president could duplicate the informality that existed then? [It was 1975].

“No. Absolutely not. You have to remember that Roosevelt had a number of things going for him that most other presidents didn’t have. He was at a high-point of popularity, having been elected when the country was down on its haunches with a Depression. The country gave him a big Democratic majority in Congress. The media—well, not the newspaper and radio network owners exactly—but the media was wholeheartedly for him. People had ceded to him certain trust that he would lead them through and he took advantage of it by turning the White House into an experimental laboratory for new ideas. He was the right person to do it but under no circumstances would a president ever have that repository of trust from the people except then—either then or in a terrible war. And I am not sure a president should have that repository of trust in normal conditions. But he had it in his first and second terms.”

Did you ever see any hint that he was having an affair with either Grace Tully or Missy LeHand, two secretaries who by rumor were linked with him romantically?

“Not in the slightest and I have pondered this many times. How could this happen when the Children’s Hour people were so intimately close to each other and would have to pass this salacious news on. I have concluded that it didn’t happen. Oh, Franklin had an eye for a pretty ankle—all of us men do, I guess. But you must remember that he was not a normal man; he was severely paralyzed. I cannot envisage how and when this would have occurred.”

Were either Tully or LeHand with you at Children’s Hour?

“Usually Tully was—as a sort of oh what would you call it, female valet? Pushing him in and out of the room in his wheel chair on occasion when the servants weren’t there and he wanted to get something. I saw this happen once. But usually the servants were about..”

Did you notice any virulence or bitterness of animosity in FDR?

“I did. I remember he told me that he had no use whatsoever for Herbert Hoover—not because of the problems that Hoover caused with the Depression before FDR got there. But there was a time when FDR as governor of New York was called to the White House along with other governors to meet with the president on problems of the Depression. Hoover took a few of the governors in at one time so as to sub-committee it and not be overwhelmed with 48 governors all trying to yowl at the same time. Roosevelt was with other governors standing in the anteroom. There were no chairs. He felt sure that Hoover had arranged it that way so as to make it damned inconvenient and uncomfortable for him to stand, as he was weighed down with many bounds of steel braces. Then an attendant at the White House came up to him and asked if he could bring a chair to Franklin could sit down. FDR said stiffly no thanks…and he took it, standing up with two canes and a son or two—I think it was Jimmy—at his side.

“He told me later that Hoover had planned this. I thought it was just that no one had taken into account Franklin’s condition—but he carried that impression of Hoover as a cold fish, cruel almost, which I thought was inaccurate.”

Did you tell him?

“I did not. Once Franklin had his Dutch danger up and had made his mind up, you didn’t tell him.”

More at some future time.

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