Magazine article The Nation

Eleanor - Loves of a First Lady

Magazine article The Nation

Eleanor - Loves of a First Lady

Article excerpt

The cold war is over and it has come down to this: There is nobody left to hate but our own. The religious right has set the agenda for America's own ethnic cleansing. With racism still rampant, the rainbow at risk, we are in the process of shredding our body politic. We inhabit a hate culture as vicious as any on earth. School boards and schoolbooks are under attack. Every victory faces backlash. On this the twenty-fourth anniversary of Stonewall, all our celebrations are embattled. From state to state, we are at war.

As a historian and activist, I was originally drawn to Eleanor Roosevelt because of her vision and the direction of her heart; her capacity to recognize and fight for people without power, to take responsibility and remain courageous in a lifelong struggle against abuse and mockery. None of the issues she faced are settled. The controversies of her time are the controversies of our time.

As First Lady elect, E.R. astounded a New York Metropolitan Opera audience when she appeared between the first and second acts of Simon Boccanegra to appeal for money for Depression-ruined Americans and said: "When you come face to face with people in need, you simply have to try to do something about it.... After all, this is the richest country in the world. We cannot allow anyone to want for the bare necessities of life."

Eleanor Roosevelt's first public act after the 1933 inauguration was a personal inspection tour of Washington's "alley slums," where thousands of residents lived in the most appalling circumstances, without running water or sanitation facilities. She initiated a campaign to provide decent housing for all in Washington, and throughout America. Her work on behalf of affordable housing became a lifelong crusade. In 1934 she called for indoor plumbing and toilets in every new home, which astounded F.D.R.'s advisers. How, one asked, would anybody be able to tell the rich from the poor if E.R. had her way? E.R. replied: In matters of such simple dignity and decency, we should not be able to tell the rich from the poor.

During the 1930s, Eleanor Roosevelt championed civil rights before any Administration official, frequently despite her husband's opposition. She made the connection: segregation here, fascism there. E.R. was outraged by injustice; her style was personal and direct. But her efforts were partial efforts, limited by a century of accepted custom. Discrimination and fascism remain the determinants of the twentieth century.

For all of her efforts, E.R. was for decades redbaited and reviled. Her F.B.I. file, which J. Edgar Hoover kept on her every activity from 1924 until her death on November 7, 1962, eventually contained more than 3,000 pages--one of the largest individual files compiled. The largest single subject in her F.B.I. files involves her efforts on behalf of racial justice, followed by her later efforts against cold war excesses and nuclear weapons.

In 1940, when she was most fiercely denounced for her activities, E.R. wrote her friend the novelist Fannie Hurst: "I am sorry that all these attacks against me are causing so much grief to my friends. But in these troubled times I intend to go right on saying and doing what must be said and done. And I intend to provide lots of ammunition for attack in the future."

It is that kind of courage we long for today. Instead, liberals are in denial and disarray over the gay issue. Recently at a party for Eleanor Roosevelt's statue in New York City, a writer dedicated to human rights was eager to tell me that she would not read such a vile book as mine, which--she said--besmirches her hero, Eleanor Roosevelt. How does it besmirch her? …

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