October 10th, 2009
08:17 AM ET

Eleanor's Day

Jamie Holmes
The New America Foundation

Fifty-five years ago this weekend, Eleanor Roosevelt - described by President Truman as "First Lady of the World," by Vanity Fair as White House "reporter-at-large," by her son as "the writingest woman alive," and by contemporary historians as the "conscience of the New Deal" - was offered a basket of knitting materials.

The occasion was her 70th birthday – these items would be useful, the label ribbed, if she "decide[d] from 70 on to sit in a rocking chair." The former First Lady savored the joke, detailing the "hilarious evening" in her syndicated daily column, "My Day."

Roosevelt often wrote her "My Day" columns – which ran from 1935 to 1962 – in bed, after exhausting, eventful days. Conversational and wide-ranging, they provide a glimpse of an empathetic, curious, independent patriot.

In 1954, at the age of 70, Roosevelt had recently resigned as United States Delegate to the United Nations, where six years earlier she had chaired the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1955, she crisscrossed America and the globe, traveling to France, Italy, Israel, Indonesia, Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Thailand.

In the remaining years before her death in 1962 she kept up her busy scheule, campaigning for Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy, Jr., returning briefly to her former UN role, and chairing presidential committees on women's and civil rights.

Most poignant today are her columns about the 1930s. During the depression, she met with farmers in the Dust Bowl and visited factories and ghettos; her columns dealt directly with unemployment, government intervention, and the success of the New Deal.

She seemed to be everywhere. One 1933 cartoon from The New Yorker pictured two coal miners staring into the darkness. "For gosh sakes," one says, "here comes Mrs. Roosevelt!" That same year, after FDR's inauguration, she visited hard-up WWI veterans encamped in DC. Where Hoover had sent troops to break up a similar camp, Eleanor Roosevelt sat with the veterans, leading them in war songs like "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag." The episode prompted the famous comment, "Hoover sent the army, Roosevelt sent his wife."

Her lifelong motto was, simply, "Go out and see for yourself."

In one West Virginia community where miners had been out of work for eight years, a girl told her how her little brother had run off with his pet rabbit because, she told the First Lady, the family might have to eat it. In one column, Roosevelt wrote of a 65-year-old woman who could now light her house for the first time because of the rural electrification project. In another, she pointed modestly to the success of the Home Owners' Loan Corporation of 1933, a New Deal program that refinanced over 1 million homes, saving four of every five borrowers from foreclosure at a time when 1,000 foreclosures were occurring each day. (The HOLC, she noted, made the government $14,000,000).

Roosevelt understood very well the dangers of economic short-sightedness. Farmers' poor land management in the Dust Bowl showed yet again that government could not expect all markets to function smoothly without regulation. As she wrote in 1936 about farmers in the afflicted region: "They are suffering of course because as a nation we haven't expected our government to show foresight in the development of the land. We have allowed individuals to do as they thought best and they could hardly be expected to have an altruistic attitude on the future." President Roosevelt would frame the idea more starkly at his second inauguration: "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals. We now know that it is bad economy."

On the 125th anniversary of her birth, Eleanor Roosevelt may be remembered, principally, for the depth of her empathy and the persistence with which it informed her patriotism. She stood up for minorities, refusing to allow misunderstandings to obstruct obtainable progress. She defended, with good sense and determination, the expansion of Americans' access to the American dream.

Resonant in our time, too, is Roosevelt's gentle rebuke on Labor Day, 1948, to critics who complained "that the New Deal after the depression...started us on a socialist road."

"Perhaps what we are really doing," she wrote, "is to save capitalism."

Editor's Note: Jamie Holmes is a Research Associate at the New America Foundation.

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