Wednesday, August 14, 2013

FDR's Third Term

This is a cool article on how and why FDR ran for a third term.
But in fact the decision was far from inevitable. President Roosevelt never challenged the wisdom of the sacrosanct two-term tradition. On the contrary, as his second term wound down, he made specific plans to retire to his beloved Hyde Park in January of 1941. He had already designed and begun construction on his presidential library there to serve as his retirement headquarters, and he had built a small private retreat not far away. Every time he returned to Hyde Park during the spring of 1940, he brought boxes of papers and artifacts for the library. Colliers magazine had persuaded him to sign a lucrative three-year contract to write regular articles, and FDR had in turn persuaded two of his closest aides, Harry Hopkins and Sam Rosenman, to move to Hyde Park to help him with that task as well as with his memoirs. Roosevelt strongly felt the need to replenish the family finances and to recover his health. Unbeknownst to nearly everyone, he had suffered a mild heart attack in February, and the sedentary life required of a polio victim had taken a huge, but largely unseen, toll. As he told a number of visitors, he was tired and he wanted to enjoy what time he had left.

When war began to loom, however, FDR began to hedge on the issue: he would only consider running for another term, he told a few confidantes, if Nazi aggression in Europe exploded into a major shooting war and if there was no one else who could step in. This became his caveat, his qualifier, although he never stated it publicly. In fact, during the second half of 1939 right up until the Democratic convention in July 1940 he said nothing publicly on the matter. Whenever a reporter tried to question him on his intentions, Roosevelt told him to put on a dunce cap and stand in the corner or he found another way to laugh off or ignore the question. Journalists and cartoonists began depicting him as a “sphinx” who wouldn’t reveal his secrets.

FDR’s method of making decisions, especially large and difficult decisions, was to put off making them as long as possible. Sometimes, he found, the issue would solve itself and disappear. Even if it didn’t, he would almost certainly have more information on which to base his decision if he waited, and in any case the longer he waited the longer he would control the situation. In this case there was an even more compelling reason to remain mute. If he announced he intended to retire, he would immediately become a lame-duck whom foreign and congressional leaders could ignore with impunity; at his core FDR was a man of action and he abhorred the idea of irrelevance. And if he said he was open to a third term, he would be denounced as a “dictator,” a term that was already in the air, and everything he said or did would be seen through a political prism. So he remained silent.

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