A REPORTER LOOKS BACK FDR'S LAST ELECTION -- 1944
They had run Tom Dewey's special campaign train onto a railroad siding for the night and the big political roadshow waited, like a village on wheels, pulsing with expectation.
Radios across the nation -- including those on the Dewey train -- were tuned to hear President Roosevelt. Till now he had refused to campaign. He stayed in the White House, save for "nonpolitical" inspection trips. Reporters filled columns with speculation as though it were a kind of sporting event: everything except the issue -- competency. But now, suddenly, all would change.
Franklin Roosevelt in September 1944, running for a fourth term, was making his first avowedly political speech. This would set the tone. Was he still the man to control the war, and the peace afterward? The public would judge. . . .
It is first war election in 80 years. Thomas E. Dewey, at 46, is young and vigorous. He won the governorship of New York two years earlier; now he plays the role of fearless young reformer who smashed racketeers at home and wants the chance to straighten out things in Washington. He has a clear, deep voice (once he planned to be a singer); his speeches are sharp and effective; he is relying on radio and almost spurns rear-platform appearances.
Republicans had met in Chicago in June with minimum hoopla because of the war. The Old Guard still resents the gallery demonstrations in Philadelphia that helped nominate Wendell Willkie four years before, and they don't even invite him to address the convention.
Isolation is gone, but there is stil FDR to fight. Some fear him and his expanding government -- the man who tried to purge the Supreme Court, who might toy with dictatorship. Some positively hate him. Naming Dewey is easy. his running mate is handsome US Sen. John W. Bricker of Ohio -- not an intellectual fireball, maybe, but a vote-getter from a key state. Dewey's acceptance speech rings the bell. They leave Chicago hopefully.
Now it's the Democrats' turn; they, too, meet in Chicago. No question about Roosevelt's renomination. The platform is easy, too -- one of the shortest in history at 1,360 words. Running mate? FDR has characteristically half-promised it to several people. It is his devious way of letting delegates eliminate Vice-President Henry Wallace if they want. Delegate Harry Truman is there, the little-known senator from Missouri; he is the one who managed the low-keyed, valuable war-production investigation which everyone praised. He is so sure his friend Jimmy Byrnes will get the nod for second place that he agrees to make a nominating speech. When picked himself he is flabbergasted. Time magazine condescendingly dismisses him as "the gray little junior senator from Missouri," consigning him by inference to a footnote in history like Tom Marshall or Charlie Dawes.
Now comes the campaign clash. Only it delays; each side spars. Republicans indirectly attack Roosevelt's physical infirmities and age (62). They refer to "the tired, old men" in Washington. And FDR is silent. His physicians publicly say he is well; but nobody knows.
That's the setting for Saturday night, Sept. 23, and America adjourns after supper to the radio. Governor Dewey waits and listens in his special train. I am in the glittering hotel ballroom in Washington where Roosevelt will speak, watching the guests assemble for the annual convention of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, AFL, under the leadership of "uncle" Dan Tobin. They are direct, brawny men and some are showing convention conviviality already.
Satire and derision are powerful weapons in American political history. Four years before, in 1940, Harold Ickes called Willkie the "barefoot boy of Wall Street," and Roosevelt at Madison Square Garden had them chanting "Martin, Barton, and Fish" in rhythmic cadence. Politics should, of course, be conducted on a lofty plane, but ordinary people like their emotional torchlight parades as well as their Lincoln-Douglas debates.
This is the celebrated "little dog Fala" speech -- as successful a political speech as has been heard in the century."Well," begins Roosevelt genially, after the tumult quiets, "here we are together again -- after four years -- and what years they have been!" He is off touching old chords of memory, ignoring personal adversaries (Hoover, Landon, Willkie, Dewey) and recalling the shared experiences, the depression, the bread lines and failed banks, the recovery, and the legislative efforts for a new order. He walks the tightrope between the hilarious immediate audience and the radio audience listening to him in the homes across America.
His voice takes on a mocking quality. He has been attacked, he says, and doesn't mind. But now:
"These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks upon me, or my wife, or my sons -- they now include my little dog, Fala. Unlike the members of my family, he resents this. Being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers had concocted a story that I had left him behind on an Aleutian island and had sent a destroyer back to find him -- at a cost to the taxpayers of 2 or 3 or 20 million dollars -- his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since."
The Teamsters in the aisles are slapping each other in merriment, beside themselves. Roosevelt winds up with exaggerated concern:
"I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself -- such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to object to libelous statements about my dog."
The nation chuckles, but a pall falls on the listening special train of Tom Dewey, parked on a siding. Among the reporters on the train is Roscoe Drummond, head of the Washington bureau of The Christian Science Monitor. He has told me many times of the funereal gloom that descended. The speech causes Dewey to recast his whole campaign.
All very well for American politics, but world statesmen are no more certain than before of FDR's lasting capacity as a global leader.Dr. McIntyre, his personal physician, issues reassuring statements. Reporters compare his wan and ravaged appearance with his buoyant manner: At the annual White House correspondents' dinner, for example, doubts disappear as he suddenly acknowledges salutes with the old familiar gesture -- the smile, the head tossed up, the hand uplifted in ebullient greeting.
Roosevelt knows the doubts and takes dramatic action to counter them. In drenching rain, in an open Packard, he leads a four-hour, 20-mile motorcade from Ebbets Field in Brooklyn through Queens to the Bronx, Harlem, Manhattan, and down Broadway to the Battery. I am in the press car that immediately follows, warm and enclosed, with two other reporters. All our papers lean to Dewey. But as we see him go through the freezing ordeal -- hatless, waving his fedora -- we exchange shrugs of admiration. He stops twice for quick changes of clothes and rubdowns. Next week in Philadelphia, he repeats the show in similar weather. Doubts disappear from the press.
Roosevelt knows the importance of physical presence. Once, after a war conference in Hawaii, he asked to be wheeled through a hospital for combat amputees. He said nothing. But there he was -- a man who could stand only with braces and who had known the bitterness these men were feeling. "Be of good cheer," his gesture says. "You, too, can lead productive lives."
The story of the 1944 election does not really end with the ballot. FDR won by a landslide: 53.4 percent to 45.9 percent of the popular vote, 432 to 99 of the electoral vote. But the strange inaugural continued the uncertainty about the fourth term. I have my penciled notes of the scene as our little crowd looked up at the south porch of the White House, Jan. 20, 1945. The wartime ceremony was held here instead of at the traditional location, the steps of the Capitol.
"Snow in the big magnolia," I jotted down. "Snow in the clefts of trees. . . . Wafer of sun under clouds. . . . Sodden flakes."
That isn't really what I remember. It was the instant when he must rise and repeat the oath and make his address: With a gasp we saw Jimmy Roosevelt and a guard heave him up -- the leader of the free world -- as inert and helpless as a sack of potatoes. It was an appalling flash, over in an instant, and obscured from the millions listening on radio by his buoyant and confident voice. But it could not be forgotten. We went back to our typewriters wondering.
Two weeks later he met Churchill and Stalin at Yalta with the war all but won. Historians debate the result, but there was one giant miscalculation. It was assumed that FDR would be around for the next four years to preserve the three-power accord.
Not so. The vice-president, the previously little-known senator from Missouri, who had not even been told the secret of the A-bomb, was called by telephone on April 12, 1945. He was in Speaker Sam Rayburn's hideaway. It was five months after the 1944 election. Come at once, the voice said. The White House. . . . Urgent!
He guessed when he saw Eleanor Roosevelt's face what had happened. He was nonpulsed, this former haberdasher; he did not know what to say. He stammered a question: Was there anything he could do for her?
She replied steadily, "Is there anything we can do for you?m You are the one in trouble now."
. . . Seventeen minutes later Steve Early alerted the press.