If You Ask Me by Eleanor Roosevelt

If You Ask Me
by Eleanor Roosevelt

July 1960

 

You must have many exciting recollections of past political conventions in which you have played a part. What particular events stand out in your mind, and do you believe that our present convention system is the best way to choose a candidate?

1912: The first convention of which I have any recollection was the one in Baltimore, when Woodrow Wilson was the hero of a group of young Democrats, who worked hard in the hope that they could get him nominated and elected. I knew nothing about politics in those days, but my husband agreed to take a house in Baltimore with some friends, and we had a large back room on an alley.

It was unbearably hot, and my husband was busy every minute, meeting people, talking, trying to arrange a hundred and one intricate political maneuvers. We had seats in a box in the gallery for the regular sessions, but I watched without any understanding of what was going on. Then I would go back to our little house, and since I did not know very well the charming ladies who were sharing the abode with us, I felt that I was far from well occupied. Though it meant a great deal to my husband, it did not make much difference to me who was nominated. There was much excitement and many banners and people marching around the floor. After three days, I decided that no matter what was going to happen, I was going home to my children. I told my husband the heat was too great and my interest too cold to stay any longer, and I took a train home.

From that day to this, I have never had any great love for conventions, but I have seen a number of them.

1920: I was not in San Francisco when my husband was nominated for Vice-President with James M. Cox, so I got the news of that convention when I was sitting comfortably at Campobello Island, New Brunswick, with the children.

1932: I did not attend the convention proper, but in 1932, I did go with my husband, who broke all precedents and flew to Chicago to be notified of his nomination for President and to make his acceptance speech then and there. On our arrival, Tom Lynch, who had been one of my husband's adherents through the years, produced a bottle of champagne, which he had saved for this nomination. All the hard workers were gathered together, and with a thimbleful of champagne apiece, they drank to success at the polls in November.

Louis Howe had been the strategist back of every move that had taken place in that convention, lying, as he told me, flat on the floor with a pillow under his head and the telephone close at hand. Ed Flynn and Jim Farley had done all the floor and contact work. They were two remarkably able people, and, thanks to them, the results were thoroughly satisfactory.

Up to that time, I was totally ignorant of all the maneuvering going on behind the scenes—how one possible candidate for the Vice-Presidency could be played off against another and how carefully calculated the votes that each could bring must be, in order to swing the final vote. Mr. John Nance Garner was only a name to me until he was nominated as my husband's running mate.

1940: The next convention I remember having anything to do with was the one when my husband had finally agreed to accept the nomination for a third term as President. He had been so reluctant to commit himself that I really did not know whether he was going to accept or not. I did not want to influence him in any way, so I simply asked him, quite a little while before the convention, if he had any intention of going, if he wanted me to go with him, or if he thought there was any reason for me to go alone. He said he had no intention of going to the convention and there was no reason I should go. So I told him then that I would leave him in Washington to watch the proceedings, as I knew Franklin, Junior, would be with him and would enjoy it very much, and that I would go to Hyde Park and stay at my cottage with Miss Thompson, my secretary, getting it in order for the summer. I must admit I was not particularly interested in the convention and was comfortably enjoying the summer weather when I received an agonized telephone call from Frances Perkins. She said she had talked to my husband and that his nomination was going through. But she was not sure Henry Wallace could be nominated for Vice-President, and she felt certain my husband wanted him on the ticket. If my husband would not come out (and he had told me he would not), she felt I must come. I replied that my husband had said there was no need for me to do so. Later, my husband called me and said sweetly, "Of course, if you would like to go to the convention, I am perfectly willing that you should go." I said I would go only if he really thought it was necessary. Whereupon he said he was not sure, but evidently Miss Perkins and Mr. Farley thought it was necessary. In a short time, the phone rang again, and Mr. Farley was asking me urgently to go to the convention.

We had a good flight out, and there at the airport was Jim Farley to meet me, and a flock of newspaper people. I asked Mr. Farley what I should say, and he replied that I should say nothing—just try to get by and be pleasant. He and I drove alone into Chicago. Mr. Farley had not been consulted as to whom my husband wanted for Vice-President, and he felt left out and badly treated by the man to whom he had been loyal and whom he had served so successfully and well. From headquarters, I called Washington, and for the first time during the convention, my husband and Jim Farley talked to each other and Jim Farley understood that my husband wanted Henry Wallace for the Vice-Presidency. This meant quick action, for other arrangements had been made. In fact, my son Elliott was just about to nominate Mr. Jesse Jones. So Mr. Farley and I went to the convention hall, and I was seated on the rostrum, with Mrs. Wallace next to me. All seemed to be pandemonium. There were catcalls and shrieks from the gallery; bells were ringing, and no one could possibly have been heard making a speech of any kind. In the midst of all the pandemonium, Mr. Frank Walker came over to me and said, "You will have to speak to the convention, or we will never have quiet."

This was a shock, but I saw that the situation was desperate. So, cold all over, I went to the speaker's stand, where Jim Farley was rapping for order. I stood there, feeling completely alone. I have no recollection now of what I said, but it must have been very simple and to the point, because it held the audience. On the next roll call, Mr. Wallace was nominated. As soon as the nomination was over, I asked to go back to the airport, where a plane was being held.

We got into the plane and had started to taxi down the field when someone waved us back. It was a phone call from Washington, and my husband was on the wire, saying I had done a fine job. I had no idea whether it was good or bad. I had felt all the time like someone who was walking in her sleep.

1952: Mr. Truman was kind enough to ask me to go to this convention in Chicago and speak on the United Nations. But that was all arranged for and planned beforehand, so there was no element of surprise. I stayed a very short time.

1956: During this convention, I found myself playing a part I had not expected or dreamed was possible for me to play. I had intended to go abroad with my two grandsons, but when I announced that I was not going to attend the convention, some of Mr. Adlai Stevenson's friends said, "Why, you can't do that. If you do, people will think you are not interested in Adlai's nomination." I had never thought it made much difference whether I was interested or not, but I did not want anything I did to seem to show indifference, when I felt so strongly that if anyone could win against Mr. Eisenhower, it would be Mr. Stevenson and that he was the only person who could make a good President. So I sent my two grandsons on a ship by themselves, promised to join them by air in Amsterdam, and flew to Chicago.

The first thing that confronted me on arrival was a press conference. Mr. Truman had just come out for Mr. Averell Harriman, and it was felt I would be of some service in counteracting this if I said something in favor of Mr. Stevenson. I had already told Mr. Stevenson I was for him. In fact, I had urged him to run. So I had no difficultly in appearing before the press conference and just repeating my convictions. Later, Mr. Stevenson and I went to various state headquarters, and I visited the platform committee twice, at their request, to speak for certain sections of the platform. Before I left to fly to Holland, we were sure of Mr. Stevenson's nomination.

I am afraid I do not really enjoy the intrigue, the heat, and the confusion of conventions. I suppose this is the democratic way to choose candidates for the Presidency and Vice-Presidency, but I wish there could be a quieter and more deliberate way and that one could feel people really gave thought to getting the best qualified men for the Presidency and Vice-Presidency. Of course, if everything is cut and dried and a President is going to be renominated and has no opposition, it can all be done in a much more orderly and dignified fashion. But this does not happen very often, and I don't wonder that people who are thrown, for the first time, into one of our really fighting conventions think this is a strange way to choose a leader.

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About this document

If You Ask Me, July 1960

Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962
[ ERPP bio | VIAF | WorldCat | DPLA | SNAC ]

McCall's, volume 87, July 1960

Digital edition created by The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project

Digital edition published 2014, 2016 by
The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project
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