In early September 1912, with an election just two months off, the nascent political career of New York Democratic State Senator Franklin Delano Roosevelt teetered on the verge of disaster. Elected to his first term the year before, Roosevelt endeared himself to reformers by daring to oppose the Tammany Democratic political machine. Now, with Tammany aligned against him, Roosevelt was struggling against a bout of typhoid. Defeat seemed certain, until an Albany newspaperman named Louis Howe stepped forward.
Roosevelt and Howe had met during Roosevelt's stand against Tammany, in January 1911. The bosses supported William F. Sheehan for U.S. Senate, but Roosevelt and about 20 other Democrats refused to give Sheehan their votes. The rebels held out until March 31, when Tammany bowed, withdrawing Sheehan and substituting Judge James A. O'Gorman, who quickly won the election.
Howe interviewed Roosevelt about the Sheehan uprising for the New York Herald. The newspaperman left the interview with a story, and with a sense of Roosevelt's political potential. Howe, it seemed, impressed Roosevelt as well. The men became friends, and FDR called on Louis Howe to help his campaign. Mutual respect aside, they made the oddest of couples.
Rich, handsome, charming, and eloquent, Franklin Roosevelt was raised in the manner of an English gentleman on the family estate at Hyde Park, New York. His late father, James Roosevelt, had managed interests in mining and transportation, and traveled on business in a private railroad car. Franklin's mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, wrapped her son in a warm and sometimes suffocating cocoon of motherly affection, dominating nearly every aspect of his life. He had escaped from his mother only twice -- first during prep school at Groton, and later at Harvard. Although Franklin was now married and the father of three children, Sara held her son's purse strings and governed his home.
Louis Howe came of age with ink and politics in his veins. Short, skeletal, and by his own admission "one of the four ugliest men... in the state of New York," Howe seemed like he might die at any moment -- an opinion his physician shared. A heart murmur, asthma, and bronchitis plagued Howe, but he chain-smoked Sweet Caporal cigarettes and seldom backed away from an editorial fight. At 17, he had covered the political beat for his father's Saratoga Sun. Later, he worked as a stringer for the New York papers and as an operative for the Democratic political machine of Thomas Mott Osborne. Howe earned his reputation as a relentless, talented reporter, but he earned little else. Now 40, he scrapped for every penny and lived at poverty's edge.
Howe and Roosevelt mapped out a plan to save the ailing Roosevelt's career. If Roosevelt could not campaign in person, Howe reasoned, he would have to campaign in print. Focusing on Roosevelt's rural constituency, Howe took out newspaper advertisements promising FDR's support of better prices for farm products, a rollback in license fees for fishermen, and the standardization of apple barrel sizes, which would prevent apple growers from being cheated by buyers.
Using newspaper ads in a state legislative campaign was revolutionary -- as was Howe's skillful use of direct mail advertising. Howe hired printers to create multiple copies of campaign letters from Roosevelt to voters, using a printing technique that made each letter appear to have been typed by Roosevelt himself.
The bedside campaign of 1912 succeeded famously. FDR won reelection and began a journey with Louis Howe that would take them to the White House. In the years that followed, Howe taught Franklin Roosevelt how to be a politician's politician. He helped a shy and halting Eleanor Roosevelt to become an effective public speaker and skilled political operative, a transformation that kept her husband's career alive while FDR struggled with polio. He led Roosevelt to the White House and stood resolutely by his president's side. Were it not for Roosevelt's decision to reach out to a grimy, chain-smoking Albany reporter one day in August 1912, one of America's greatest politicians might never have had a chance to serve.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?