In the third of our excerpts from The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image, historian Burton Peretti looks at FDR as the consummate public performer. You can read the first two excerpts here and here.Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s personal qualities and story helped to invest the diverse relationship between Hollywood and the White House with a special resonance. This resonance in particular would enhance the figure of the president in certain cinematic terms—in other words, in terms that reflected the publicizing of heroic male figures in mass culture. As the theater provided Lincoln with emotional and philosophical guides to leadership, movies provided FDR with a mirror in which he could perceive and evaluate the deeper meanings of his life and his presidency. The fundamental reason for this deep bond lay in Roosevelt’s unprecedented employment of performance (as dramatic artists understood the word) in service to his presidency.
While Lincoln mined Shakespeare to enrich the music and the tragic weight of his prose and pondered melodramas (as well as Shakespearean tragedy) to elucidate his career-long fascination with tyranny and its consequences, Roosevelt, in keeping with his times, strove for a lighter touch. Through his effective use of radio in the Fireside Chats, he built on his cousin Theodore’s efforts to transform political speech from orotund Victorian practice to casual conversation suited to the age of mass media. He consciously confined the vocabulary of the Chats to about a thousand of the most common words, and always broadcast to a small group of guests in the Oval Office to create the feeling of an actual conversation.
To be sure, Roosevelt proved equally effective, especially during election campaigns, at booming and occasionally portentous oratory before huge crowds, but here too he showed his mastery of the microphone, adjusting his voice to the space and its echo and providing a novel new variety of temperaments, extending to effective uses of humor. Through his skilled introduction of light and humorous speaking qualities to presidential oratory, as well as the general buoyancy of many of his public appearances, Roosevelt conveyed his appreciation for comic acting and monology, in the style of Will Rogers and similar performers of the time.
The president’s most important performance by far was the deception with which he masked his physical disability. While every citizen knew about Roosevelt’s bout with polio, which afflicted him below the waist in 1921, almost none of them ever saw it literally paralyze him. In public the president walked, stood, smiled, and confidently led the nation. FDR was brazen enough in his first inaugural address to characterize fear as “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance,” apparently unworried that his passing reference to paralysis might diminish his own image at the very moment he was attaining power.
From the time he contracted polio FDR spent virtually waking hour of his life battling the image of the invalid, first to restart and to advance his political career and then, as president, to project the traditional image of the national leader—a Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, or Theodore Roosevelt “running” for office and “marching” the people forward. In the age of movies, this expectation was heightened. As the art historian Sally Stein has observed, “today’s mass media intensifies the popular impulse to scrutinize the bodies of leaders and would-be leaders for signs of the[ir] abilities.” Even in the electronic age, while “absolute monarchs may sit . . . politicians dependent on popular mandate are expected to demonstrate quite literally their ‘good standing’ by rising to present themselves to their constituents.”
For Roosevelt, confronting such expectations was an unyielding physical and psychological challenge. His campaign led him to acquire a spa in Warm Springs, Georgia; experiment with quack medical remedies; devise steel leg braces and paint them black so that they would not be detected against his socks; and feign walking, falling forward while a strong man grasped his arm.
He even assumed the traditional leader’s pose by mounting a horse during his campaign in 1928 for the governorship of New York. Since his legs could not grip the horse’s flanks, this was a dangerous stunt; a slight movement by the animal likely would have thrown him to the ground. These efforts were only part of his ordeal, though. As one biographer, H. W. Brands, has put it, FDR
had determined, not long after contracting polio, that he would deny its effects on his life and dreams. The sheer physical effort of standing in his braces, of staggering forward, step by lurching step, of smiling through the sweat and the clenched hands gripping the lectern for dear life, would have exhausted anyone. But the emotional effort was at least as great. He couldn’t show his anger at his lost athleticism, his vanished virility, his physical dependence on others. He couldn’t be discouraged or despondent….The result of all this was that the actor never left the stage.Even during times of relaxation such as his “children’s hours”—afternoon cocktails usually in the company of his adoring female secretaries and cousins —FDR projected an air of insouciance and buoyancy, mixing drinks while seated behind the liquor cart. In the dark first days of his administration, as the financial system hung in the balance, his adviser Raymond Moley found him to be almost unreal, “unmoved” by turmoil as if he “had no nerves at all.” Earlier, at the inaugural ceremony, the pioneering motion picture actress Lillian Gish—who was perhaps uniquely qualified to render evaluations of an individual’s “star quality”—marveled at Roosevelt, exclaiming that the new president seemed “to have been dipped in phosphorus.”
Coupled with this, as Brands perceptively notes, was the fact that Roosevelt was by nature a devious and misleading personality. “He had been emotionally isolated since boyhood. His close relationships had always been with persons not his equal. He had no close friends as a boy or young man, no one at Groton or Harvard in whom he genuinely confided.” Decades before he fell to polio, he enjoyed fooling people with verbal misdirection and his befogging brand of charm. Voters heard the young FDR boast about achievements that were entirely the work of others; election opponents, lulled into complacency by his genteel demeanor, learned only later of his ruthless campaign plotting and dealmaking; and he betrayed Eleanor by conducting an affair with Lucy Mercer, her own secretary. Eleanor’s uncle Theodore, as Booker T. Washington and many others noted, had seemed totally lacking in deviousness, possessing a “straightforward indiscretion, [a] frankness to the point of rudeness.” His cousin Franklin’s demeanor could not have been more different.
Part of the difference was due to changing times. In the decades after Theodore’s death, the advertising and public relations industries asserted that individuals (as well as corporations) must wear a carefully constructed public face in order to succeed, and the motivational speaker Dale Carnegie sold millions of books advising ambitious young men to mask their mundane, everyday selves in job interviews or in business transactions. In an era that celebrated public deception for the benefit of advancement, FDR was a truly representative man. His Herculean efforts to mask his paralysis and his despair made him a virtuoso of deceptive public performance.
As president, manipulating allies and foes alike, Roosevelt kept the goals of the New Deal multiple and often contradictory, so that he might preserve maximum political flexibility. He admiringly called himself “the juggler,” but some of his machinations also held a cruel edge. More than most presidents, as the biographer Conrad Black put it, “Roosevelt punished his enemies.” Stung by the opposition to the New Deal of Moses Annenberg, publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer, FDR led a relentless effort to convict Annenberg for income tax evasion and sentence him to maximum time. Roosevelt ignored petitions on Annenberg’s behalf from Jack Warner, the movie comedian Eddie Cantor, and many others, and the publisher remained in federal prison until shortly before his death.
Ambassador Joseph Kennedy had done FDR no favors by blatantly claiming that Great Britain—the country in which he was stationed—was doomed to fall to Hitler, but Roosevelt’s bizarre and utterly insincere audiences with Kennedy during his visit home in November 1940, in which he lavished praise and sympathy on the diplomat, seemed designed only to make his imminent firing all the more brutal. As in Annenberg’s case, the movie industry played a supporting role in Kennedy’s fall. Speaking at a luncheon in Hollywood given in his honor by studio chiefs, the ambassador made his most strident isolationist comments to date, praising Hitler’s regime in front of dozens of Jewish producers and directors. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. reported Kennedy’s comments to the White House, and the president summoned Kennedy to his home in Hyde Park. Moments after he greeted the ambassador, FDR seethed to Eleanor, “I never want to see that son of a bitch again as long as I live!” brusquely ordering her to take him to the train station.
Such deviousness and cruelty, of course, are not uncommon in the annals of politics and leadership, and more than most leaders, Franklin Roosevelt might be excused for utilizing such means to achieve noble ends. Nevertheless, if we observe his tactics in tandem with his campaign to hide his paralysis and with his sensitivity to the power of mass media, such as radio and motion pictures, we sense that FDR was building new connections among the presidential image, political tactics, and the growing cultural appetite for celebrity.
It is particularly notable that while Roosevelt and his inner circle worked to hide his paralysis, they also relied upon his audiences—the press and the electorate—to willingly suspend their disbelief, to play along with the ruse that FDR really could walk and “stand for office” like any other strong leader. As Sally Stein notes, the public conspired with FDR to cover up his actual physical condition, engaging in “a collaborative process of dealing with the president’s lack of conventional signs of mastery.” In late 1932, when an article in Time magazine made a passing reference to the president-elect’s “shriveled legs,” hundreds of readers wrote indignant letters, and the magazine refrained from using such language again. It is difficult to quantify the impact of the public’s desire to protect Roosevelt’s image and to help him maintain the illusion of conventional physical strength. Although he faced some of the most adverse political and social challenges in American history, across an unprecedented three full terms and four election campaigns, the illusion persisted.
Text from The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image, by Burton W. Peretti, Rutgers University Press 2012 and used with permission. This is the third in a series. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.
[First clip is from the 1933 Universal film The Fighting President, which is available in full on C-Span's site here.]