ER to HRC–Come in, Dear!

ER to HRC–Come in, Dear!

Hillary Dear,


Hillary Dear,

I was so touched when I heard you’d told Lucinda Franks in an interview that you found it a “mystical experience” to visit out-of-the-way places around the country and find guest books that I had signed. You even quoted to her my remark that women in public life have to have “skin as tough as rhinoceros hide” [see Talk magazine, September]. I didn’t go in much for mystical experiences, but it’s certainly true that you resemble me more than any of the First Ladies who came between our husbands’ presidencies. Like me, you’re energetic and independent and you step beyond the traditional boundaries of a woman’s role. Like mine, your relationship with your husband is a partnership, and political talk is at its center. And like me, you attract vicious caricature and real hatred. Oh, it was something, dear, the way people made fun of my looks and my accent–but you know all about that. Some men just can’t abide a strong woman; it makes them crazy. And it’s got nothing to do with politics–men on the left can be the worst. If you read The Nation, you know what I mean. But I guess there’s no accounting for people’s psychosexual makeup, is there dear?

Since you’re channeling me anyway, Hillary darling, I thought I would save you some trouble and write you a letter. There are some experiences I’d like to share with you that will point out the differences between us as well as our similarities. Most of what I have to say can be found in the second volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of me, which was recently published. (In form it’s a conventional academic biography, based on thorough archival work and a range of interviews. But, as she did in the first volume, Professor Cook focuses not on “Eleanor and Franklin”–the title of Joe Lash’s classic biography–but on me. It’s a feminist account, with particular attention paid to my women friends and our political project. Cook’s strength is her ability to show the relationship between my life and my work. This came off somewhat more successfully in the first volume, which told how I shed the expectations of me as a daughter, daughter-in-law and wife and became my own person. By the time of Franklin’s first and second administrations–the period covered in the second volume–the coming-of-age story was finished, and I was who I was. Besides, with the Depression and the looming European war, the world was on fire. So there’s more small-p politics and less big-L life.)

Both of us, Hillary, are perceived as being well to the left of our husbands. It’s easier to test the perception in my case because I had my own political life in organizations like the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Committee, the National Consumers League and the Women’s Trade Union League in the years before Franklin became President. Your independent political life was limited to the years of your youth–that law school summer when you worked for Bob Treuhaft, Jessica Mitford’s husband; your connection with Marian Wright Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund; your work on the House Judiciary Committee’s Watergate inquiry. After you moved to Arkansas and married Bill, your politics tended to get folded into his. When he was governor you worked on projects for his administrations in areas like education reform, although even that reform was less than it seemed to be, wasn’t it, dear?

Within Franklin’s administration, I staked out my own territory. I had what Professor Cook calls my own court, and Franklin had his, and most of the time I made it fairly clear when I disagreed with him. In 1936, I began writing my newspaper column, “My Day,” and that became an important vehicle for making my views known. For one thing, I was way out in front of Franklin on the question of racial justice. From the first, I fought (with limited success) to get blacks and women included in New Deal programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration. (Despite my efforts, blacks benefited from our programs much less than whites–80 percent of black women and 60 percent of black men were not covered by Social Security, for example, and our agricultural programs were disastrous for black tenant farmers in the South.) I reached out to black political leaders like Walter White of the NAACP and Mary McLeod Bethune, and they entered the White House through the front door. I hired a black household staff for the first time. And I spoke out in favor of a strong, enforceable anti-lynching bill, which Franklin would not support publicly. As you know, it never passed.

I differed with Franklin on other issues as well. At the time of the Spanish Civil War, I urged him to end the arms embargo that left the Spanish Republicans without American aid in their fight against fascism. I supported the emerging Congress of Industrial Organizations more strongly than he. I was thrilled by the student movement of the thirties and lent my support to the American Youth Congress and the American Student Union. I was no Communist, but rumors of Communist involvement didn’t scare me away from groups whose work I admired. I also developed my own projects and devoted a great deal of time to Arthurdale, a model community in the coal country of West Virginia. I thought all Americans should have decent housing, decent schooling and a chance at decent jobs.

My politics had its origins in a tradition of upper-class social service. As a young woman, I was an early member of the Junior League. But, perhaps because as an orphan I was myself an outsider in my parents’ families, I always cared deeply about those in need. When I taught at the College Settlement on the Lower East Side, I insisted on riding the streetcar there and back, refusing a friend’s offer of a lift in her carriage. (At that point Franklin was still at Harvard, and we were engaged. One day I brought him with me to visit a student’s home; it was the first time he’d ever seen such a tenement. That was merely the first time I served as Franklin’s ambassador to the world outside the privileged circles in which we grew up.) When we returned to New York State in the twenties, I became involved with a circle of women reformers who were concerned with child and maternal health and the condition of women workers. Along with Frances Perkins, whom Franklin appointed as the first woman Cabinet member, at my urging, I was a conduit into the New Deal for those ideas, which today are called social feminist.

With your law school interest in children’s rights and your work on issues like government-funded vaccination and extended health insurance for children, you look like a social feminist too. But Hillary dear, I can’t understand how you could have promoted that complicated health scheme instead of appealing to the American people to support universal healthcare in the name of justice for all our children. That’s what I would have done. And that welfare reform bill–how could you let Bill agree to that? Even if he had to do it, why didn’t you insist that he include much more money for education and childcare? How can you let children suffer because poor women can’t get jobs that pay enough to support their families? I know that your nice friends, the Edelmans, parted company with you and Bill over that. And you, dear, parted company with the social feminist tradition.

Some of this has to do with the nature of your partnership with Bill as compared with mine and Franklin’s. I did everything I could to influence Franklin. He had a little basket by his bed that I kept full of memos and reports. Some of them were mine, based on my own extensive travels and what you might call listening tours, and some came from friends of mine like Lorena Hickok, an experienced journalist who spent years on the road for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. I wasn’t afraid to argue with Franklin, either, even though there were times I had to keep my mouth shut in public, like during the election cycle in 1936. And when Franklin wasn’t doing what I wanted–for example, in making sure that women were eligible for Social Security–I turned as cold as ice. I didn’t always get my way, and especially after the death of Louis Howe, who served as a bridge between our two camps, I felt more isolated from the power center. I had much less influence after that.

The point is, I was always separate from Franklin, with my own views and my own power base. Besides making me his sounding board, he used me to float trial balloons as well as to make the fact-finding trips he couldn’t manage. It’s indisputably true that my progressive positions and my genuine sympathy for the poor made it possible for Franklin to get away with pretty centrist positions on many issues. I say “get away” because Franklin would have been harmed by desertion on his left flank. Things are very different today, I know. Bill was never concerned about losing the votes of the left–except in one or two states, they’re not worth worrying about. Besides, money matters more than votes now. Do you know, Hillary, that in 1936 I invited a delegation from the Women’s Trade Union League to stay at the White House, and I gave the Lincoln Bedroom to a New York dressmaker named Feigele Shapiro? Autres temps, autres moeurs, I suppose.

Another difference between our husbands’ presidencies, of course, is that Franklin’s followed an economic collapse, while Bill’s occurred at a time of capitalist triumph. I may have been to the left of Franklin, but Franklin was well to the left of Bill. Can you imagine Bill giving Franklin’s 1936 campaign speech about how “government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob”? Certainly what Bill could accomplish was limited by having to work with a Republican-controlled Congress. But it was the same way with my Franklin. Because of the seniority system that prevailed in Congress during his time, all the powerful committees were chaired by conservative, racist Southern Democrats. Franklin had to be careful not to alienate them. That’s why he never supported the anti-lynching bill. He said he was afraid of putting the entire New Deal program in jeopardy. A President’s relations with Congress are rarely easy. That’s why it helps to have influence outside Congress, to appeal to public opinion and to work with civil rights organizations and with unions, as I did. Your politics are more like Franklin’s and Bill’s–focused on the art of the possible. I suppose you could say that I tended to exercise influence from outside the system, while you try to play the game from within.

You and Bill certainly followed a very different model of a President/First Lady partnership than Franklin and I did. Early in his Administration, Bill used to talk about you as a co-President. You were in charge of what was arguably his Administration’s most important initiative, that healthcare-reform business. We didn’t hear so much about “two for the price of one” and co-Presidents after that. Now, I could never have been Franklin’s co-President. I never went to college, much to my regret–although I read widely and spoke several languages and was probably better educated than most college graduates today–and you are a brilliant lawyer. Certainly the second wave of the women’s movement had a lot to do with the change. It’s interesting, though, isn’t it, that you became generally popular only after Bill was caught lying to you about that silly girl. I can’t quantify how popular I might have been–polling wasn’t such a science in my day. But one might ask, Which of us had more power? I had my own base and my own voice. You had a “co-presidency” with a man whose closest adviser was Dick Morris, a woman-hater if there ever was one and the antithesis of everything I believe.

Was he the antithesis of everything you believe too, dear? You see, I can’t tell. You’ve said very little about your husband’s policies and seemed to support his re-election–what’s that expression?–by any means necessary. I thought I might hear more about what you actually think when you ran for Senate, but, so far at least (and I know you’re not a declared candidate), you’ve said almost nothing. All you’ve done is pretend to be a New Yorker. Claiming to be a lifelong Yankees fan and boasting about your Jewish step-grandfather–really, dear, I worry about you. The way to handle this is to talk about the issues you care about that resonate with the people of New York. You’re not a New Yorker and there’s no point pretending to be. That’s a big difference between us: authenticity.

You see, dear, I really was rooted in the beautiful Hudson Valley and in New York City itself, in our state politics, in the organizations with which I worked. And I was rooted in my class. I’m not talking about money now, although we had plenty, but about family. Did you know that not only was my uncle Teddy (on my father’s side) the President, but my mother was descended from the New York Livingstons? (Just like that horrid man who had to resign from the House last year!) If my grandmother had married a Jew, I never would have mentioned it. I was a bit of an anti-Semite as late as the thirties, even though I had Jewish friends like Elinor and Henry Morgenthau and Bernard Baruch. I transcended my background in many ways, but that wasn’t one of them. It’s a complicated story, as Professor Cook reveals.

The important thing about class, though, is that it gives you a sense of security in who you are. My friend Lorena Hickok once took me to task for wearing my beautiful blue velvet dress to a Democratic Party dinner in 1934. “None of us ought to be wearing velvet dinner gowns these days!” she wrote me. “Darling,” I told her, “if we all stopped wearing velvet dresses there would be worse times than they are…. Of course if you could give it all away where it would do the most good that would be grand but we can’t always do that.” I did a lot of good work for poor people, and I wanted them to have comfort and beauty in their lives, but that didn’t require giving up my own comfort. I don’t mean to suggest that middle-class people can’t have a sense of identity–I’ve met many lovely middle-class people, and I’m sure their identities were intact. But middle-class people can get too caught up in ambition and self-creation. Not that upper-class people aren’t ambitious. Goodness, Hillary, do you remember how much trouble you got into by complaining during your husband’s first campaign that you could have just stayed home and baked cookies? Can you imagine how much truer that was for me? I worked anyway, but I have these exquisite manners, you see, and this voice, so my ambition wasn’t as obvious.

There is one way in which we’re very similar, unfortunately, and that’s our taste in men. We both fell for handsome, good-natured mama’s boys with an eye for the ladies. Finding out about Franklin’s affair with Lucy Mercer broke my heart, and I had to put myself and my life back together. I know you went through something similar. I can’t say that I completely stopped caring about Franklin’s relations with other women, but after a while I came to accept him the way he was. In my book You Learn by Living I wrote that when you cannot meet the need of someone you love, “you must learn to allow someone else to meet the need, without bitterness or envy, and accept it.” I always treated Missy LeHand (don’t you love the name?) well, and allowed her to be the hostess at Franklin’s retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia. Professor Cook says my public attitude toward her was like that “of first wife to second wife in the culture of extended ruling families.”

Granted, it was easier in my day, when the newspapers didn’t cover the President’s private life. I was spared the public humiliation of knowing that everyone was reading about Franklin’s affairs, to say nothing of hearing them discussed nonstop on television. Of course, Franklin chose a little more wisely than your fellow, didn’t he? Missy wasn’t sending the details of their most intimate moments to a dozen friends around the world. And it never occurred to Franklin’s enemies to use his weakness for the ladies to entrap him.

Still, like you, I stayed in the marriage. To some extent, as it must be with you, there was still some affection, and the partnership still worked. I hope that you have your own friends, as I did, and that you spend time with people who love you. I don’t know what went on between you and Vince Foster; you don’t know what went on between me and Earl Miller, the New York state trooper who was Franklin’s bodyguard and became my lifelong friend. Professor Cook insists that I had an affair with Lorena Hickok. Maybe I did–all my life I wore a ring she gave me–and maybe I didn’t. Read my letters to “Hick” that Professor Cook reprints in her book. You might conclude that I kept Hick at a distance and liked writing to her more than spending time together. There was certainly a time when I was very close to Hick, but it may be a stretch to see the relationship as central to my life through the decade.

And so now you’re running for the Senate. You know, our friend Louis Howe thought that one day–I think he had in mind the forties or fifties!–a woman could be elected President. He even thought that I could be! I disagreed, though. “Well, I’d have to be chloroformed first!” I told Hick. In 1935 I wrote in an article that women weren’t ready to hold high office, that they “should come up from the bottom and learn their jobs in public life, step by step, and above all, they must learn to take other women with them.” But things are very different now, and I am happy to see women representatives and senators. I would only hope, dear, that, succeed or fail, you find your own voice, and that you raise it in defense of women and children and the poor. I asked in my column in 1938,

Are you free if you cannot vote, if you cannot be sure that the same justice will be meted out to you as to your neighbor,…if you are barred from certain places and certain opportunities?… Are you free when you can’t earn enough, no matter how hard you work, to feed and clothe and house your children properly?… There are lots and lots of things which make me wonder whether we ever look ourselves straight in the face and really mean what we say when we are busy patting ourselves on the back….

Well, what about it, Hillary dear?


Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy