Man: An Insider’s Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt
No sooner did Bob Jackson resume his seat on the Supreme Court after prosecuting at the Nuremberg trials than he set about preparing his place in history. He gave interviews to a biographer, Eugene Gerhart; and started on an autobiography. In the midst of this, in 1953, he began a study of Franklin Roosevelt. Then a heart attack warned him that he was running out of time. He barely completed a lengthy oral history for Columbia University before he died in 1954.
Fifty years later a family closet yielded the study of Roosevelt he had started. He called it That Man, a term applied to Roosevelt by people so outraged by him that they refused to utter his name. John Barrett has taken on the task of completing That Man, using the Justice’s notes and other of his writings.
This is a lucky find since Jackson is a first-class, fairly impersonal observer with an enviable prose style. He gives us a piece, which easily outshines most of the books by presidential intimates, avoids the worshipful, and provides a realistic view of FDR in action. No telling how much head-scratching it would have saved scholars had it appeared a half-century earlier.
Born on a farm in the New York-Pennsylvania borderland that had already produced a Democrat of conscience in David Wilmot (he of the Anti-Slavery Proviso) Jackson came to know Roosevelt well. They were allies in New York politics in Woodrow Wilson’s time and early in the New Deal Jackson migrated to Washington. FDR groomed him for New York governor in 1937. There was talk of his being the Heir Apparent, but his lawyerly temperament was a handicap. He rose from Solicitor General to Attorney General and in 1941 went on to the Court. Thus he saw less of FDR during the war and the years of the Chief’s declining powers.
That Man is a report card on Roosevelt, with seven headings: politician, lawyer, commander–in-chief, administrator, economist, companion and sportsman, and leader of the “masses.” As to FDR’s eventual place in history, Jackson returns a dusty answer. He insisted that he was merely giving testimony and not rendering judgment, which should await the fullness of time. He is somewhat less of an FDR fan than Barrett or William Leuchtenburg, who has written a foreword to the book.
“That Man as Politician” is the most interesting and perhaps the most consequential chapter. FDR sometimes irritated Jackson, by keeping him on the string with hints about the Chief Justiceship. But no bitterness surfaces in the narrative and Jackson’s account of how he and Frank Murphy came to be sworn in on the same day is not only good humored but high comedy. Amiably discussed are the Third Term, FDR’s attitude towards the Congress, the ill-begotten Court-packing proposal, the Cabinet, and the fading of Jackson’s presidential hopes. In all this Jackson displays a wry understanding of American politics.
In “That Man As Lawyer” Jackson shows his colors. No one has ever contended that FDR was much of a lawyer. He said that the law, with its delays, bored him. He thought in terms of right and wrong. In 1940 he was spooked by the Fifth Column, and worried about alien spies and saboteurs. On the other hand, Attorney General Jackson, along with his predecessor Frank Murphy, worried about civil rights. They resisted transferring the Immigration and Naturalization Service out of the Labor Deportment. On the Court they were to dissent in the litmus Korematsu case on Japanese exclusion, (322U.S.214, 1944). FDR’s feelings about wiretapping were predictable.
Under “Commander-in-Chief,” Jackson describes a poker party FDR organized on the evening of September 2nd because he was tired of the talk of war. After taking a call from Ambassador Kennedy, he sadly announced to the table that war would be declared on the morrow. But the poker continued for an hour or so. There was some confusion about whether Canada was bound by London’s declaration of war, which FDR cut short by picking up the phone and asking Mackenzie King.
At this point Barrett has added an unpublished document from Jackson’s files—his account of the destroyer-bases deal. This paper, which was worked over by his son William Jackson, and E. Barrett Prettyman, his last law clerk, gives insight into FDR’s political skills as well as his sensitivity about issues posed by any cession of British colonies. FDR knew enough about the Caribbean to realize that British colonies would be a burden to the United States. As Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Wilson he had been involved in the occupation of poverty-stricken Haiti. He called Puerto Rico a poorhouse. Congress was opposed to acquiring any further “native” populations. So, leasing of bases was acceptable, but no transfer of sovereignty. Roosevelt’s opinions about British colonies were mightily strengthened after he contracted a fever in British Africa; he told Churchill Bathurst was a “hell-hole.”
Publisher Alfred Knopf advised his friend to keep That Man on the light side. He needn’t have worried. Jackson wrote easily in the vernacular: “I went and had lunch with so-and-so.” He shares the jokes. FDR enjoyed jokes, even bad ones, and used them to avoid unpleasant subjects.
If Jackson flunked Roosevelt on some aspects of his performance—namely, lawyer, administrator, and economist—he thought him more than the sum of his parts. He liked him personally and identified his power as an immense personal following. If he adds little to the present-day assessment of the thirty-second president, you can say that he had him right all along.
That Man is a good, if somewhat sardonic read, full of little surprises such as the need to convert Jackson into “America’s Sweetheart.”
FDR and the politicos realized that he just didn’t have political sex appeal. None of the presidents Jackson knew enjoyed the job like FDR. It was something he as a handicapped person could do and there is a smell of blarney about his protestations that he longed to get back to squirehood on the “lordly Hudson” and write his reminiscences. There are, however, a number of predictions one can make about Roosevelt reminiscences: one, that they would be stylishly written, for FDR could write, and, two, be not short on embellishment, for like many lovers of history he was inclined to take liberties with the Muse.
With a navy at his disposal, another thing FDR could do was fish. Jackson entertains us with a junket to the Dry Tortugas where the presidential party trolled off the redbrick ruins of Fort Jefferson. Built in the 1840s to deny an anchorage to a hostile fleet, the place had already been designated a national monument by Roosevelt. But as part of a practical joke, he complained that he hadn’t received any salutes from the garrison and fired off a message advising the time of his arrival.
Barrett is Professor of Law at St. Johns University in New York and Fellow of the new Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, New York. He was entrusted by the family to edit the manuscript because he was, and is, contemplating a biography. He tells the steps he took to flesh it out and provides notes and biographical sketches because the men and events are now long gone. A bibliographic essay provides a shortcut to the huge literature on Roosevelt and a list of commentaries on Jackson’s jurisprudence. A fine scholarly performance.