William Rusher on Eleanor Roosevelt
American Experience interviewed political strategist and columnist William Rusher, in 1999. Below, read excerpts from his interview.
The Political Partnership of Eleanor and Franklin
Talk about the political partnership between Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Well, at the time, we certainly regarded them as partners. We did not know what has since come out about the difficulties of their marital life, or the problems that Franklin gave Eleanor and his mother gave Eleanor, in many respects. We didn't know much about that. They seemed like a team. And I think it is fair to say that Roosevelt was the consummate politician and that Eleanor was the socially conscious activist. It gave them a nice combination of yang and yin, which they took advantage of. And I think it worked very well for them politically.
What did you think about Eleanor's political skills and insights?
I think she was a shrewd politician, and very good in public relations, although she had the usual media help in this. As a Republican and a conservative, I can say ruefully that the Democrats and the liberals tend to get it; that when she said something, it was put in a nice way and highlighted properly by the appropriate media, so that it sounded good. And if something came along that didn't sound so good, it perhaps didn't always get out there as it should have. But given the fact that she had the help, nonetheless she knew how to use it. And she used it very effectively.
FDR, Eleanor and civil rights
Her work with civil rights issues: how did FDR use her there?
Well, you have to remember that until 1948, when Hubert Humphrey and others forced the Democratic Party to adopt a new policy on civil rights, the Democratic Party was the party of the old solid South. All of the racists, all of the Cottonhead Smith types and so on were Democrats, allies of Franklin Roosevelt -- because of their seniority -- of all the major committees of the Congress. And he got the votes of every southern white voting state in the country and wouldn't have been elected president once, let alone four times, if he hadn't. Now, at the same time he acquired over the years a reputation for being sympathetic to blacks, and he got their votes, heaven knows. And I think that it is true that Eleanor Roosevelt, by being so active on that front, contributed to that impression very substantially. And it's to her credit that she was interested in this, let me say. But once again, I'm not sure the extent to which Roosevelt -- I guess he did use her really, particularly on the civil rights front. No question about it, because she was well identified out there, and brought a good many blacks into the Administration, into the White House, into his presence and so on.
What did you think about her books and My Day?
Well, I didn't read My Day very carefully. I was away during a lot of that, in the war and so on. She was not all that good a writer. She was a little bit on the banal side, and you know, what happened, and then this happened, and then that happened… But I will say this. She got very well paid for it. This was another subject of criticism. She was being paid, as I recall, during the 1940's, what was then a princely sum, something like a dollar a word. I don't say that for the column, but for articles that she would write and things like that. And she made lots of speeches. These were in the days before anybody thought to criticize Congressmen, let alone first ladies, for making money on speeches. So Eleanor raked in quite a bit of cash that she may have put, for all I know, to good uses, or maybe not. I just don't know. But I don't think she was any great literary breakthrough.
Eleanor's Social Conscience
That was a general impression that one got, that, as I said, she was always flitting around the country and descending on some place in the Ozarks that she decided was disadvantaged, and announcing that something had to be done. And she had a very active social conscience, which I think in general is to her credit, although it tended, as many people thought, to just be overdone to the point where it gave rise to this crack that she regarded the whole world as one vast slum project. One has to say that they were pioneering to some extent. They didn't know that some of the housing projects that they were putting up for the poor were going to turn into crack dens and rapists' bowers and things of that sort, which they have since become. But you can't always foresee the future. I'm sure their intentions were the best.
Admirers and Detractors
She had so many supporters.
Well, Eleanor Roosevelt had both her admirers and her detractors. And they admired her and detracted from her for many of the same reasons. People who liked her social activism, who thought that she was calling attention to problems that needed solving, were all for her. People who thought that she was busy going around trying to stir up difficulty where there was none or less than she imagined, were quite critical of her. She was, we must never forget, a public figure. And in democracies, public figures tend to attract criticism as well as praise. The most dangerous thing would be if anybody were regarded as above criticism. And Eleanor Roosevelt is, in recent years, getting there.
Did she attract more than her share because she was a woman?
I think the fact that she was a woman probably in those days would have been an additional criticism, although first ladies by definition in those days were women. There's always been a problem and still is, about the role the first lady should play, of course. Everybody's seen it in Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan and, heaven knows, Hillary Clinton. So the problem has not been solved.
Investigations of Communism
In the late 40s and early 50s, she was never called before House Un-American Activities Committee.
Yes. Westbrook Pegler suggested that in the period, I think the late 40s, when the investigations of Communism were opening up during the Cold War, that she ought to be called and required to testify about what she knew. I remember he said, "Would the world vanish in a blast of flame if this old woman were subpoenaed and compelled to tell what she knows about the Communist Party's activities in the United States?" I think she never was called because she probably didn't know an awful lot. The whole burden of the criticism of her on the subject of Communism is naiveté, not participation. And again, being a public figure and our representative at the UN, there was nothing Communist about her, certainly. And at the UN she took the advice -- she had to take the advice -- of the State Department and the Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations. They keep our UN representatives on a very short leash. She did as she was told, and voted as she was told.
Eleanor's Work at the UN
Is she due any special credit for her work at the UN?
She was obviously useful at the UN because she had a public persona before she ever got there. She was well known. She was a spokeswoman for many important things. When she got there, what she said was paid attention to, undoubtedly much more than would have been if just Joe Blow had been made our representative to the United Nations. In that sense, I think it was useful to have her there. I don't think she ever had a single initiative at the United Nations that was not previously [vetted] by the people at the State Department, approved of, and authorized. She did manage to get around the world an awful lot, and find other parts of her vast slum project that needed repair. But I don't think that that was the main point. The main point was that she, after all, connoted Franklin Roosevelt, who by then was long dead, and had a certain prestige and power on that account.
The Japanese Internment
Can you talk about the sense of threat that people might have felt during the Japanese internment?
I think the important thing to remember about the Japanese internment is the situation. We had been attacked. Maybe Roosevelt expected it -- I rather think he did. I don't think he expected an attack on Pearl Harbor. I think he expected an attack on Southeast Asia. But we were attacked at Pearl Harbor. Our Navy was very largely sunk. And we were at war in no time at all. I share, in retrospect, the distress we all share at the internment of the Japanese American citizens of the United States. It was not our finest hour. But the Supreme Court had it before it at the time, and justified it and upheld it. And Eleanor's husband was the man who did the interning. And I think they -- Governor Warren, who was later to become such an impassioned Chief Justice on all sorts of human rights issues, was very big in the internment process. And I think that we simply sometimes tend not to understand or remember how people felt. These people looked Japanese, were originally Japanese, were numerous. We had no way of knowing to what extent they had been infiltrated. To their great credit, it seems not to have been very much at all. But I can understand why. And I rather respect Eleanor for standing out against the tide at that point. But it certainly was a tide. And I'm not going to say it was unjustified.
Why did Eleanor become quiet about it?
I have no idea why she quieted down on the subject. Maybe she was told to. I can imagine that it wasn't a very popular position in the Administration, with her own husband having ordered by executive order the internment. Maybe she was just told: "Look, we're in a war now. Turn off your social conscience."
Some people today say she's one of the most influential women of the 20th century. What do you think?
One of the most influential women of the 20th century? Well, that may be overdoing it. When one thinks of really influential women, my mind turns to Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, ... some of the true political leaders in their own right. In terms of legacy, I'm not sure that I see some great historic deposit there, as a result of her passing our way. She heightened the sense of social conscience in the New Deal generally. To her great credit, she was early on the side of the blacks in their fight for civil rights. She had a tendency to participate, which easily oozed over into meddlesomeness. You know, you can't always criticize without somebody being at the end of the stick. And she perhaps did not always grant credit to her opponents for their motives, any more than they granted credit to her for hers. Most of her participation in the United Nations, which [??] history, as I say, I don't take too seriously, because I know how that UN operation works, and it is essentially a facade in which the work is done back in Washington and in the capitals involved, and the people up front are just going through the motions.