FDR’s winning ways – Franklin D. Roosevelt – Cover Story

Ron Faucheux


Most Americans of today only know Franklin Roosevelt by newsreels and photographs, by the books of historians and the stories told by friends and foes on filmed documentaries.

That’s unfortunate. From all accounts, he was one hell of a politician – somebody who politicians of today should study carefully. He was a master strategist, a brilliant communicator, an instinctive coalition-builder, and a leader in the true sense of the word.

As a candidate, he achieved something that, for one reason or another, presidential giants Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, and even his cousin, Teddy, never achieved: he won presidential elections not once or twice, as others have done, but a third and fourth time – something only he has done. One hell of a politician, indeed.

It was with amazement that newly triumphant congressional Republicans in January of 1995 heard their champion, conservative revolutionary Newt Gingrich, pronounce that FDR was the greatest politician of the 20th century. Roosevelt, after all, had constructed the federal power apparatus that modern Republicans were hell bent on dismantling. But Gingrich had a sense of history that dug deeper than the partisan conflicts of the moment. As a keen student of trends and strategies, the new GOP Speaker could well appreciate the skill of the man who had been the architect of the vaunted New Deal coalition – a grand partisan realignment which made the Democratic Party the dominant force in American politics for over a half century.

What was it about Franklin Delano Roosevelt that made him such a great vote-getter and an enduring figure in the nation’s psyche?

Winston Churchill said it best, as he often did, when he explained that meeting FDR for the first time was like uncorking your first bottle of champagne. That one comment captured the sparkle and presence of the man who led America through its severest economic depression and its most costly foreign war.

Like all human beings, Roosevelt was far from perfect. He made plenty of mistakes, policy blunders, and had his share of shortcomings. He had attributes of both the “lion and the fox,” as historian James MacGregor Burns put it; he could wield power with skill, but he could also overreach; he could play his hand deftly – whatever the cards he held – but was also capable of sleight-of-hand to get his way.

Love him or hate him, the peerless Roosevelt left us with instructive examples that are applicable to modern politicians of widely varying talents and backgrounds – lessons that can be practiced by Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, women or men, incumbents or challengers.

By his words and deeds, his life and travails, FDR taught us about overcoming extreme adversity with powerful determination. He was a past master at employing “inoculation” as a campaign strategy, and at structuring his entire persona and platform in a way that would render inherent weaknesses irrelevant. He also taught us about the need for clarity in mass communication and the importance of personal dignity in the pursuit of electoral victory.


Franklin Roosevelt was a patrician who lived a pampered and sheltered early life. He grew up on a serene Hudson River estate in Hyde Park, New York, a close emulation of an English manor. The Roosevelts were American aristocrats with wealth and social prominence.

From age three, Franklin summered in Europe where he and his parents would often spend time with royalty; when he was five, he was introduced to an embattled and weary President Grover Cleveland, a family friend, who expressed a strange and ironic wish that young Franklin would never become President; at 19, distant cousin Theodore became President, making the Roosevelt name the best known and most popular in the nation; at 23, he married Eleanor, a fourth cousin and also a Roosevelt, a remarkable woman who would become a major political player in her own right.

Franklin’s primary education was conducted privately by tutors, at home. For preparatory school, he went to Groton, an elite boys’ academy in Massachusetts. From there, it was on to Harvard. Other than a few stabs at practicing law, and efforts at turning Warm Springs into a rehabilitation center for polio treatment, FDR had little private sector work experience.

Roosevelt’s domineering mother, Sara, nicknamed “The Duchess” because of her imperious formality, doted over her only child. She created for him a protected existence, insulated from the struggles of ordinary life. Any time he needed something, as a child and even as an adult, “mah-mah” would simply write a check.

Through his early political career, he was regarded a lightweight and a “genial glad-hander.” He was labeled a “sissy” and a “mama’s boy” by, not surprisingly, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, a gossipy cousin who is remembered for once telling a dinner party guest, “If you can’t say something nice about anybody – sit next to me.”

FDR won his first public office at 28, a New York State Senate seat. Running as a reform Democrat in a big Democratic year, he carried a rural Republican district that the GOP had held for a quarter century. He did so by only 1,100 votes out of over 30,000 cast.

Three years later, he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson, who wanted an association with the Roosevelt name.

In 1914, FDR left Washington to make an impetuous race for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination in New York. His opponent, Ambassador James Gerard, the handpicked candidate of the Tammany Hall bosses, didn’t even campaign; he remained at his diplomatic post in Germany. In a short but vigorous campaign, Roosevelt failed to make much of an impression. One newspaper criticized his inability to show “the great personal force and magnetism necessary to push forward great national issues.” On election day, his absentee adversary whipped him three-to-one.

In 1920, again largely due to his name, Democratic presidential nominee James Cox picked the 38-year-old Roosevelt, sight unseen, as his running mate. But the Cox-Roosevelt team was smashed in the general election by the Warren Harding-Calvin Coolidge ticket in the largest popular vote landslide in the nation’s history up to that time; the Democratic slate didn’t even carry a single county in New York, Roosevelt’s home state.


The year after his vice presidential run, Roosevelt was stricken with polio. This was the defining event of his life. He would never walk again or be the same physically, emotionally, or mentally; he would also never lose another election.

During the days after the affliction had halted his previously easy-going life – a lonely period that biographer Ted Morgan called the “seven lean years” – Roosevelt went through painful rehabilitation and introspection. He knew that after two electoral losses, and the polio catastrophe, it would now take supreme determination to achieve his lofty ambitions. Most political observers thought he was finished, but they were unaware of the extent to which he was hardening his inner spirit and exploring innovative tactical gambits.

In 1928, New York Gov. Al Smith won the Democratic presidential nomination and wanted Roosevelt to seek the governorship. After another short but vigorous campaign, five weeks in duration between nomination and election day, Roosevelt won – though the margin was thin: 25,000 votes out of a total of over four million cast. Despite its size, Roosevelt’s victory gave him entry into the presidential arena of 1932; he could now go for the prize he’d always wanted.

The enormous role played by Eleanor Roosevelt in sustaining her husband’s political viability between his contracting polio and gubernatorial election has been given too little attention. During the years when FDR was laid up, his wife shed her personal insecurities and blossomed into a hard-driving political operative. She crisscrossed the state, over and over, and built the organizational foundation that set the stage for his post-polio comeback.

The mutual respect shared by Eleanor and Franklin overcame the strains of their hollow marriage – the legacy that lingered from 1918 when Eleanor found out about her husband’s affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Often operating independently, but for consistent goals, they were the most effective husband-and-wife political team in American history. Little wonder Hillary Clinton would want to talk to her late ground breaking predecessor.


During Roosevelt’s “seven lean years” and his four years as governor, he reinvented himself. No longer a shallow dilettante, the struggle to walk again had toughened him. He developed a new sensitivity for people, an appreciation of the human condition, and – as historian Richard Hofstadter observed – a new set of antennae with “the most delicate receptivity.”

He artfully crafted a political posture with human and strategic dimensions; one that would inoculate him from potentially injurious campaign maladies; one that would carry him on a roll of historic electoral victories.

Running for President as a paraplegic was not an easy task. First of all, there were appearances. Would a troubled, impoverished nation entrust its leadership to a man who was himself so helpless?

Then, of course, there was the ability to actually campaign. How could he travel the length and breadth of a nation if his bottom-half was paralyzed and immobile? How could he subject himself to the rigors of making speeches, shaking hands, kissing babies, donning funny hats and eating indigenous foods – if he couldn’t even walk in a parade, move unassisted to a podium, or wade into a pulsing crowd? How could he restore public strength of spirit during a ravaging economic breakdown if his own vulnerability – with its accompanying leg braces, crutches, and wheel chairs, things that were particularly menacing in the 1930s – would cause so much public discomfort?

His physical handicap and patrician background were Franklin Roosevelt’s chief obstacles to electoral triumph in 1932. He would recast his public agenda and recraft his approach to handling life’s daily chores to remove them both.

The key to Roosevelt’s daring strategy was to fashion for himself an image as a man of action.

Think about it. After the first few years of his presidency, years he led the nation through the worst days of the Great Depression, what was the big criticism of him?

It was that he was moving the nation too fast, that he was doing too much, that he was making too many changes.

Cartoons of the day illustrated him as a boxer in a ring, or as a leader running swiftly with followers in tow.

An immobile man, who couldn’t dress himself or easily get around his own bathroom, was being criticized for moving a nation – a mammoth, distressed, unwieldy nation – too far, too fast.

What a glorious triumph of positioning!

But that was only part of it. The rest of the FDR strategy involved his own upbringing and social status. He invented the “poor-man’s rich-man” inoculation to deal with it.

In a nation with 25 percent unemployment, bread lines, failing businesses, and hungry children, is it likely that voters in these terrible times would turn to a leader who never had to work for a living, who never had to worry about meeting a payroll, who was a pampered “mama’s boy” of wealth and privilege?

Roosevelt understood the political downside of his personal background, and went about turning it inside out. Presenting himself as a fighter against “economic royalists,” as a protector of the poor, the elderly, and “the forgotten” masses – he pushed the notion of noblesse oblige to the limit. He did it not with plaid shirts or pork rinds – inauthentic gimmicks – but with vision and policy substance. This rich man made no apologies for his own status; he didn’t have to; he was the poor man’s best friend and his fellow-aristocrats unwittingly reinforced that image as they smugly pulverized his policies as a betrayal of their class. FDR relished these attacks the way an experienced hunter springs the trap he has set after his oblivious prey takes the bait.

Nothing better illustrates this point than the New Yorker cartoon in which a bevy of decked-out millionaires are headed to a picture show so they can hiss Roosevelt newsreels.

This “poor-man’s rich-man” strategy has not been lost on a long line of wealthy, post-Roosevelt politicians. The Kennedys learned well, and they, too, presented themselves as fighters for average people, the underclass, and the disadvantaged. Republican Nelson Rockefeller practiced it in his winning gubernatorial races, often to the chagrin of conservative party brethren but usually to the delight of working class New Yorkers who elected and reelected him four times. Nephew Jay Rockefeller, who went to West Virginia not as a hot-shot tycoon but as a social worker fighting for abused coal miners, did not miss the point, either.

Ross Perot is also a student of this strategy. A self-made billionaire, Perot has taken a decidedly populist, anti-establishment stance. His enemies may attack him as a nut or an egotist, but few have ever accused him of being an uncaring, silk-stocking swell or an apologist for corporate America.

These are lessons that Averell Harriman and Pete DuPont should have learned, not to mention George Bush in 1992 or Michael Huffington in 1994 – who spent $28 million of his fortune on an unsuccessful Senate race in California – or Steve Forbes – who invested over $35 million in a losing bid for the Republican presidential nomination they should have paid more attention to history before they hit the hustings.


Roosevelt understood the power of words. He spent considerable time on his speeches, writing passages himself and editing those written by first-rate speech-writers such as Sam Rosenman.

He had a good sense of what would sell; he intuitively grasped the basic rule of mass communication: perfect the medium that reaches the biggest numbers (in those days, radio), use it better than the opposition, and talk to people in simple language.

His use of the fireside chat was an example of media mastery.

He could deliver those chats in the security and controlled comfort of the White House – no ramps, no awkward climbs, no snapping braces, no risk – and do it in a conversational tone that was geared to the medium.

Pre-broadcast era politicians were trained in the art of arm-waving, high-blown oratory. But with the advent of radio, booming rhetoric and grand gestures no longer worked. Roosevelt knew that.

Listen to the way he opened his first chat; it was on the intricate banking crisis facing the nation:

“First of all, let me state the simple fact that when you deposit money in a bank the bank does not put the money in a safe deposit vault. It invests your money in many different forms of credit -in bonds, in commercial paper, in mortgages, and in many kinds of loans.”

To make doubly sure it was clear to the many who did not understand “the mechanics of banking,” he added: “In other words, the bank puts your money to keep the wheels of industry and of agriculture turning round.” He went on, laying the factual foundation for the predicament at hand: “A comparatively small part of the money that you put into the bank is kept in currency – an amount which in normal times is wholly sufficient to cover the cash needs of the average citizen.” Again, to make sure the audience was with him, he added: “In other words, the total amount of all currency in the country is only a comparatively small proportion of the total deposits in all the banks in the country.”

After his short course in banking, he went to the crisis itself: “What, then, happened during the last few days of February and the first few days of March? Because of undermined confidence on the part of the public, there was a general rush by a large portion of our population to turn bank deposits into currency or gold – a rush so great that the soundest banks couldn’t get enough currency to meet the demand.”

He continued by answering the question he posed, not leaving to chance the public’s conclusion, “The reason for this was that on the spur of the moment it was, of course, impossible to sell perfectly sound assets of a bank and convert them into cash at panic prices far below the real value.”

He would then build on that explanation, justifying a “bank holiday” – itself a well-chosen phrase signifying something good, a “holiday” is something that can restore and refresh – and the legislation he got Congress to pass that would reopen the banks, describing the stages of the solution in a simple one, two, three style.

Ending his chat, Roosevelt hit on his underlying theme: “After all, there is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people themselves.”

FDR moved in for the close by wrapping stark reality within the context not of ideology or partisanship but of personal bonding between himself and the citizenry: “It is your problem, my friends, your problem no less than it is mine. Together, we cannot fail.”

Roosevelt knew that clear words, alone, weren’t adequate. Clear action was also needed to give the words meaning and credibility.

As a candidate in 1932, his message was change – the same campaign pitch that had elected many before him and would elect many thereafter. In office, action plus confidence became his message.

The first test of his ability to clarify issues was his refusal to allow Herbert Hoover – the man he had defeated in 1932, the man who had become a sad symbol of inaction to draw him into a post-election period of partnership and cooperation.

Hoover tried to get Roosevelt’s support for the sound initiatives he wanted to take before his failed presidency came to an end. But his cunning successor wouldn’t play. Instead, he would sail around on Vincent Astor’s yacht and keep mum about his plans.

Always a risk-taker, FDR had a dead-serious political motive: he would give America what it so desperately wanted, a clean break. He knew that by getting involved with Hoover, the lines between the two administrations would have been blurred and the chance to offer the change that he hart promised would have been lost. “It took cool nerves to watch the country slide farther into trouble, knowing he would have to pick up the pieces,” wrote Garry Wills in his superb book, Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders.

Wills also recounted the attempted assassination of Roosevelt that took place in Miami in early 1933 to show the “iron control of his own reactions” that FDR had cultivated since polio. Even as the assailant fired at him five times from twelve yards away – he missed, but did hit Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak – Roosevelt “stared at the man, unflinching” and then, when it was over, instantly proceeded to help Cermak, who eventually died from the wounds. FDR’s “calm command of the situation came from over a decade of sitting in judgment on the passing scene, ready to make the proper moves to keep people from panicking at the sight of his helplessness,” writes Wills.

Simple words, clear action, calm command – these were the vital components of Roosevelt’s political style.


In his monumental effort to overcome the barriers of his physical condition, FDR went further. Concealment and distraction became instruments of his strategy.

In FDR’s Splendid Deception, a fascinating book written by Hugh Gallagher, the lengths to which Roosevelt went to project ambulatory vibrancy were detailed. The story Gallagher tells is as much about determination and dignity as it is about deception – splendid or sordid.

Gallagher explains how FDR’s bodyguards, both big men with strong arms, learned how to provide solid support for their boss as he “walked” with a cane:

They knew how to lift him out of cars. They even developed a technique for carrying him up flights of steps. FDR would walk to the base of the steps…. The two men would each take an elbow and lift the governor up the stairs in a standing position. To all but the closest observers it looked as though Roosevelt himself was climbing the stairs.

To appear to be walking, and to do it “without scaring everybody to death,” Roosevelt perfected a technique in which he’d use one hand to tightly hold onto a large man’s arm – usually badly bruising it – with the other hand gripping a cane. As Gallagher describes, FDR would hitch up “one leg with the aid of the muscles along the side of his trunk, then placing his weight upon that leg, then using the muscles along his other side, and hitching the other leg forward – first one side and then the other….his arms served him in precisely the same manner as crutches.”

It was a dangerous technique. A slippery spot on the floor could mean a nasty fall, something that would be intolerable in public view.

During these strenuous maneuvers – suit soaked in sweat, cane hand shaking violently – Roosevelt would distract those around him by endless joking and cheerful chatter. It was absolutely essential that he made others comfortable – voters rarely elect people with whom they feel uncomfortable – which is why he had to keep smiling. It’s also why he went for props that were genuinely in keeping with his sunny disposition and aristocratic bearing: his pince nez eyeglasses, the cocked head, the jaunty angle of his cigarette holder, the crumbled hats.

Nearly a half century later, the way Ronald Reagan bantered with emergency medical personnel after he was shot by John Hinckley (“I hope these doctors are Republicans”), using self-deprecation and wit, was straight out of the FDR Crisis Management Manual for Politicians.

The Roosevelt and Reagan examples call into question why more modern politicians don’t have that sense of form. After all, if Roosevelt could have maintained it sprawled on the floor, helpless and sweating after a humiliating fall, and Reagan could have kept it stretched out on a hospital gurney, bleeding and stuck with needles after being shot, then why can’t the candidates of today have it when sitting in a TV studio, or behind a radio mike, or at the podium? It is a question that hangs in the air, begging for a good answer.


A memorable Roosevelt campaign move came in the final days of the 1944 presidential race, his last election. Sick and wan, he figured the only way he could reassure the nation that his health was up to the task of another term was to dramatically demonstrate resilience in the flesh. Against the advice of doctors and campaign staff, Roosevelt put on his “lucky hat” and cape and rode through the streets of New York’s five boroughs in an open-car during a cold rain storm. This four-hour ordeal would have been difficult for a younger, healthier candidate; it was an extraordinary feat for this older, dying one. But it was made possible by something neither the press nor the public saw.

According to Gallagher, the Secret Service commandeered garage space along the route; when the motorcade passed one of the garages, the president’s car turned out of the parade for a pit stop. Agents quickly lifted the 62-year old Roosevelt from his car, stripped off all his clothes, and stretched him out full length on blankets laid on the floor. He was toweled dry, given a rubdown and a shot of brandy, and dressed in fresh garb. He was back in the parade, smiling and waving, in no time. It was quite a performance.

Much of what FDR did to conceal the true extent of his physical condition was made possible by a pliant press. At the time, no photos were allowed of the President in awkward movement. Of the thousands of pictures on file at the Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, only two of them show him in a wheel chair.

Clearly, the press of today would not play by these rules. If FDR were running this year, Inside Edition would surely do an expose on his inability to walk; Geraldo would likely break from his O.J. sentinel duty to do an entire show on whether a paraplegic could be President, complete with expert testimony from medical examiners, pop psychologists, and authors peddling books; Hard Copy would no doubt air video tape footage showing the President’s lifeless legs splayed widely apart as he attempted to move about.

Maybe these “splendid deceptions” couldn’t be pulled off again. But that’s not the point.

The point is that Roosevelt knew how far he could go, and operated within the conventions and strictures of his day. His strategies of inoculation, his emphasis upon clarity of message, and his demonstration of personal dignity and determination, are all models that live on – examples and lessons that are still relevant and adaptable.

In a world with few political role models, it is unfortunate that we have to reach back to the 1930s to find a really shining one. But history always has its treasures and Franklin Roosevelt’s zest for the politics he played so skillfully is one of its best.

In a larger sense, beyond the campaign tactics and the landmark policy initiatives, thrilling as they were, FDR was an American original.

No candidate in today’s climate could hope to replicate Roosevelt’s incredible career. Few could count on the lucky breaks or benefit from the unusual combination of colossal circumstance and historic moment. Nevertheless, there’s much to learn from how he endured his painful struggles, survived his significant setbacks, and won his stunning victories. The way he handled himself through it all – the verse and vitality, the showmanship and statesmanship, the techniques and devices – offers a model of comportment and carriage for the contemporary leader to use; if not to imitate, at least to inspire.

It was once said that FDR had “a second rate intellect but a first rate temperment.” Perhaps. But second-rate is something that doesn’t come to mind when discussing Franklin Roosevelt. On the other hand, there is something that does. Style.

Boy, did he have it!

COPYRIGHT 1996 Campaigns & Elections, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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