The White House Looks South: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Lyndon B. Johnson

By Skidmore, Max J. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2006 | Go to article overview

The White House Looks South: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Lyndon B. Johnson


Skidmore, Max J., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


The White House Looks South: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Lyndon B. Johnson William E. Leuchtenburg. Baton Rouge, LA: State University Press, 2005.

Leuchtenburg has been producing scholarship of extraordinary quality for more than a half century. The range of his subjects is wide. The majority of his works deal broadly with American culture, but he has become known specifically for his work on political history, and on the American presidency.

Although he now bears the title "emeritus" and is well into his eighties, Leuchtenburg continues to produce volumes that mark him as one of America's academic treasures. This study of three of the most significant presidents, their ties to the South, and the aftermaths of their presidencies is extraordinary in its insights. No student of the presidency-or of the effects of the South upon modern American culture-can afford to ignore it.

The choice to study presidents who each had "one foot below the Mason-Dixon line, one foot above"-rather than the more explicitly Southern Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton-was a careful one. F. D. R., not generally thought of in connection with the South, spent considerable time in Georgia before and during his presidency. He participated in local affairs, and came to be accepted as an adopted Georgian, "someone whom the South need not fear." In short, the South could perceive him as one who had migrated from a national figure to a regional one. Truman, from a border state, alienated "neither North nor South," and could find "acceptance in national politics." L. B. J., who had been informed that his identification as a Southerner would make it impossible for him to become a national figure, "tried on a new persona as a westerner, liberated from a Confederate past." Leuchtenburg, himself, as an urban New Yorker who has lived in the South for a quarter century, came to his project with an empathy generated by his own experience.

"For Harry Truman, place was destiny," Leuchtenburg says. He makes it clear, though, that this applied as well to his other two subjects. Place is also explicit in the six premises upon which his book rests:

(1) Historians tend to be preoccupied with race, class, and gender and thus pay too little attention to place.

(2) Homogenization is increasing, but "section is still salient."

(3) Although the vogue is for social history, "political history is of abiding importance."

(4) Despite the huge influence of social forces, "individuals continue to be changemakers." (As an aside, the accuracy of this comment should be starkly clear, but the most obvious points may upon occasion escape notice. Regardless, can any person with a modicum of political understanding, from the most enthusiastic supporter of George W. Bush to his most fervent opponent, fail to recognize that the world would be a vastly different place had there been a President Al Gore?)

(5) The state is more than a mere superstructure; it profoundly affects people's lives.

(6) "Certain American presidents have made a difference." (Here again it is astonishing that any person of discernment could doubt this, but some do.)

F. D. R., Truman, and L. B. J. stand out as forces for civil rights. F. D. R. did not speak loudly for equality, nor did it rank high upon his public agenda. Nevertheless, his appointments, his programs, and the actions of New Deal agencies-with constant prodding from his First Lady, Eleanor-brought improvements to the lives of the Southern poor, black as well as white, and began to undermine the stability of the South's elaborate system of discrimination based on race and class. Southern leaders soon recognized the threat, and many began to react against F. D. R., and especially against Eleanor.

Lurid rumors of "Eleanor Clubs," in which black maids would resign if they heard disparaging comments about the Roosevelts, would insist on using the front door, or would otherwise act "inappropriately," swept the South. …

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