Miss Perkins Looks at f.d.r


SMALL men have now succeeded great men in the United States, but small problems have not succeeded great problems. Those who were used to taking their cue from Roosevelt fill the gap by wondering what Roosevelt would do if he were alive, and those who aspire to his role as leader of American liberalism invoke his memory in order to strengthen their own cases.

The problem which agitates too many liberals, of course, is whether Roosevelt would have backed the policy of Mr. Byrnes or the policy of Mr. Wallace. In a fundamental sense this is a mischievous question, not just because it poses a false alternative, but because responsible people have no business making up their minds on such a basis, Yet anxieties have created the need, and pamphleteers rush in where historians fear to tread.

The reports, needless to say, are widely divergent. Louis Adamic, employing his own special form of extra-sensory perception, assures us in Dinner at the White House that Roosevelt could not but have supported Russia in its unequal struggle with that overshadowing world menace, the British Empire; and Elliott Roosevelt’s As He Saw It adorns this thesis with a profusion of direct quotations which few are in a position to deny.

Yet, for all its positiveness, As He Saw It raises delicate questions. Elliott was not just the Roosevelt who didn’t go to Harvard; he was also, of all the sons, the one who played the most equivocal role in New Deal days and who showed least sign of sympathizing with his father’s reform program. On the record he appears an unlikely repository of his father’s political testament; and the very different stand taken by the New Deal members of the family increases one’s misgivings. Where Elliott’s book ends with a play-by-play endorsement of the current Communist line on foreign policy, Anna and Franklin, Jr., have publicly denounced the whole party-line racket, James has resigned from the Communist-tinged Independent Citizens Committee for the Arts, Sciences and Professions, and Eleanor Roosevelt has been active in repelling Communist high-handedness in the American liberal movement as well as in the United Nations.

Roosevelt himself looms massively in the background; but the smoke and fury of the political battle obscure his lineaments. One fact remains clear: only a man of remarkable capacity and complexity could have held together the people who compete so bitterly for his memory. The intensity of their falling out is a measure of the many-sidedness of his leadership. F.D.R. managed to comprehend the differences among his followers. From each he drew what he needed; and conflict enlarged his resourcefulness, expanded his flexibility, and gave his decisions imagination and authority.

Frances Perkins in The Roosevelt I Knew provides by far the best portrait of Roosevelt up to now. The very title of the book makes an instructive contrast with Elliott Roosevelt’s easy assurance: As He Saw It — The Roosevelt I Knew. The humility is not only becoming but indispensable. There were many Roosevelts. Different people and different situations elicited different versions of that protean personality. But Frances Perkins’s account of the Roosevelt she knew has so much maturity, discernment, and wisdom that it affords essential clues for anyone’s Roosevelt.

Miss Perkins has no delusions about the completeness of her understanding. “Franklin Roosevelt was not a simple man. . . . He was the most complicated human being I ever knew.”Drives and compulsions sent him off on a dozen different tacks; his imaginative sympathies made it possible for him to identify himself with widely different people and situations. Yet this centrifugal dispersion of energy “did not result in neurotic stagnation, but in life and movement in many directions" and in “a capacity for living and growing that remained to his dying day.”

Frances Perkins recalls the Roosevelt of 1910, that unpromising young man with high collar and pince-nez whose somewhat priggish air of superiority infuriated most of the Democrats in the New York state legislature. She watched him grow through the Wilson administration and the campaign of 1920. She saw illness purge him of his arrogance: “the man emerged completely warmhearted, with humility of spirit and with a deeper philosophy.” Al Smith talked him into running for governor in 1928, and the unhappy but necessary break between the two men provided the next step toward psychological maturity. Miss Perkins comments with characteristic insight: “If Governor Al could only have realized that Roosevelt, because he had been a sick man, needed more than most men to demonstrate that he could and would do it alone, he would not have attempted to handle him by remote control.”

The lively and informative chapters on the early days of the New Deal make somewhat wry reading. The fertility of ideas and resource with which America attacked the depression stands in such melancholy contrast to the weariness and sterility which pervade Washington today in face of more urgent problems. Miss Perkins has, of course, an inescapable vested interest in many of the transactions she describes; and others who look part in the development of NRA or the Wagner Act or the wages-and-lmurs legislation will occasionally quarrel with her emphasis. But she is neither pleading a case nor paying off grudges.

Hugh Johnson, that restless, dictatorial, neurotic figure, emerges with special vividness. He gave Miss Perkins a copy of Viglione’s The Corporate State, and dreamed of NBA not just as an emergency agency but as “a permanent regulatory function of government” which would absorb the Departments of Labor and of Commerce and perhaps others too. Miss Perkins eventually began to wonder “whether he might be moving by emotion and indirection toward a dangerous pattern.”But she estimates NR A more highly than some of its critics, valuing particularly the influence it had in educating the country to the feasibility of government regulation and in educating personnel (Winant, Leon Henderson, Hillman, Harriman, Stettimus, William H. Davis, Max Gardner) to the responsibilities of government service.

The book has less to say about labor than one might expect, but it does suggest the enormous strides that have taken place since 1933. In that year the great steel magnates, led by Taylor and Grace, Girdler and Weir, meeting at Miss Perkins’s office for a session on the steel code, found themselves in the presence of William Green, whom Miss Perkins had brought in as general representative of the then unorganized steelworkers. The result was catastrophic. Confronted by this dynamic and revolutionary labor leader, “they backed away into a corner, like frightened boys. It was,”Miss Perkins recalls, “the most embarrassing social experience of my life.” On the other side, she provides glimpses of John L. Lewis which illustrate the consistency of robber baron operations, whatever the field of endeavor.

The years of the second New Deal and the war are sketched hastily in comparison with the treatment of the early 1930’s. But the cumulative effect of the book is to draw a picture of Roosevelt’s mind in operation, a picture unsurpassed elsewhere in detail or perception. It confirms the absence of intellectual rigor and of elegance of taste which one has always suspected. Here is a man who “was not very familiar with economic theory.” Keynes observed cautiously to Miss Perkins after a chat with Roosevelt that he had expected the President to be “more literate, economically speaking.” He knew little about the great social philosophies. For all his traditional concern with churchgoing, “he had little, if any, intellectual or theological understanding of the doctrinal basis of ihe major religions.” His reading was scattered and impressionistic, His taste even in painting, food, and movies was undiscriminating.

Yet these are all the standards of the intellectual, and Miss Perkins is too wise to regard them as decisive. Roosevelt simply “did not enjoy the intellectual process for its own sake.” When he thought about a subject, he used all his faculties — emotions, intuitions, moral bias, sense of right and wrong, as well as cold reason. He operated best on concrete cases; his mind always returned to the specific incident. He learned from conversation and experience, not from study and abstract analysis. When sickness and later the Presidency deprived him of the opportunity for direct contact, he relied on his wife, who extended her husband’s experience by her own reports from the field.

In short, Roosevelt, remained peculiarly American in his intellectual operations — pragmatic, sentimental, experimental, indifferent to metaphysics, mistrustful of pure logic, impressed by anecdote and fact. “The common people understood Franklin Roosevelt,” Miss Perkins writes, “and he understood them, largely, I think, because their processes of looking al things and coming to conclusions were almost the same.”

It is this fact which lends the final note of futility to the debate over what Roosevelt would do about the Russians. Nothing he might have told his son Elliott or anyone else in 1945 would necessarily dictate his altitude today. Miss Perkins warns against “a rigid ‘Roosevelt legend.”The whole point of Roosevelt was that “he was essenlially adaptable to new circumstances, always quick . . . to vary his action to meet changing situations.”

Roosevelt had no magic formula. The best we can do is what he would do: make up our minds ourselves on the basis of the facts as we see them. Death ought to have released F.D.R. from current politics. He belongs to history now, and the pamphleteers should leave him alone. Frances Perkins has discharged her obligation to historians with grace, fidelity, and insight. The temper and purpose of her book should serve as a model to the others who plan to write about the Roosevelts they knew.