April 12, 2008

April 12 | Franklin Roosevelt

January 30, 1882 - April 12, 1945: Age 63

"I wish I could keep war from all Nations; but that is beyond my power. I can at least make certain that no act of the United States helps to produce or to promote war."

FDR was and is one of the best-loved presidents of the United States. He was elected for four terms in office (this was before the two-term limit was ratified in the twenty-second amendment), and took the country through two seminal events of the 20th century: the recovery from the Great Depression, and World War II. He and his wife, Eleanor, were two of the greatest American liberals of the last century.

Trained as a lawyer, Roosevelt grew up in a wealthy family. He married Eleanor against his mother's wishes. Overall, they were well matched, but Roosevelt was a philanderer, and Eleanor found this difficult to tolerate, especially when she discovered he had been having an affair with her own secretary. She proposed a divorce, but Roosevelt's mother — the same one who had opposed the match in the first place — threatened to disinherit him if he went through with it. The marriage settled into a reasonably amicable and successful partnership that left the other aspects of marriage in the past. As part of the arrangement, Roosevelt promised to break off the affair with Eleanor's secretary, and never to see her again.

In 1921 he contracted an illness that left his legs paralyzed. Although Roosevelt was the first US President to use broadcast media extensively to communicate with the public, its primitive nature and the dominance of radio meant that he was able to perpetuate the fiction that his paralysis was temporary and that he was on the road to recovery. He used a wheelchair, but never allowed himself to be seen with it in public, staging public appearances so that he was standing upright or using a cane. People simply didn't think much about it.

He took office in March 1933, when the world was in the depths of economic depression. Credited with turning the US economy around through his aggressively liberal policies, and was re-elected by a wide margin in 1937. When war erupted in Europe in 1939, he began to steer the country toward intervention, and a year after his re-election for an unprecedented third term, in December 1941, the US entered the war. In 1944 the US was in the midst of war on two fronts, and re-elected him for a fourth term.

Roosevelt's health was declining due to the strain of office, his paralysis, and years of chain-smoking, high blood pressure, and heart disease. When he addressed Congress in March many were surprised to see how ill and old he looked. On April 12 he was sitting for a portrait when he complained of a "terrific headache" and broke off the sitting to go to bed. A doctor's visit revealed that he had had a massive stroke. He died later that day, leaving Harry Truman, his Vice-President, to finish out the term. The portrait, seen right, was left unfinished.

With him on the day of his death was Lucy Mercer: the same woman who, years before, he had promised Eleanor he would never see again. He had not kept the promise, but continued to see Mercer discreetly over the years. In his latter years, his daughter Anna had even helped arrange visits between the two. Although the continued contact was apparently news to Eleanor, and must have been a shock, it is worth noting that the 1918 marital showdown was a very positive turning point in her life. From that point on she steered her own course in life, becoming an influential figure in politics, diplomacy, and civil rights: so much so that she was proposed as a running mate for Truman in the 1948 election (she declined). She had a close and loving relationship with another woman which, viewed through the lens of her now-public letters, was very likely a full partnership in every sense.

Source: Wikipedia

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