Roosevelt Myth - John T. Flynn

The Third Term

There is no doubt that Franklin D. Roosevelt toyed with the idea of a third term from the moment of his second inauguration. It was impossible that a man who took so much satisfaction from breaking so many comparatively unimportant precedents should fail to feel the urge to break this one.

However, it is possible that with the economic crash of 1937-38, he put the idea out of his mind. Henry Morgenthau has made it quite clear that Roosevelt had the hope that he could get through the remaining years of his second administration without balancing the budget and then go out of power to await the inevitable crash that would follow his departure and be the prologue to another Roosevelt term. The disastrous Court fight, the hopeless purge defeat, the deep cleavage within his party and inside his own cabinet, the failure of all his policies beyond doubt led him to look forward to a period of peace and he actually discussed with a magazine a proposal to write for them at a very large honorarium.

After the arrival in Washington of the academic champions of government spending and the rise of the war fever in Europe, which presented him almost like a fairy gift with the means of spending on a most elaborate scale, the sense of frustration that had extinguished in his breast the ambition for a third term was now gone.

Now he knew he had the perfect project for spending—national defense. Now he knew, because the economists from Harvard and Tufts had assured him, that all his fears about the unbalanced budget were just old-fashioned horse-and-buggy bogies. There is not the slightest doubt, from the accounts of all who saw him frequently, that by the beginning of 1939 his spirits soared aloft.

Roosevelt knew that war was coming, with a great probability that America might get into it. If America did not actually go into the war itself, she would certainly play a critical role on the edges of the war and when the war came to an end she would sit at the head of the table, perhaps as arbiter, in the making of some great and luminous peace. It must be very clear to anyone that Roosevelt could not bear the thought of surrendering the glorious experience of managing America's part in that war into other hands. It is fairly certain now that early in 1939, if not a little sooner, he made up his mind to seek a third election.

Roosevelt had a weakness that was a source of unending embarrassment and perplexity to his closest advisers. When he was bent upon some act which he was very eager to perform, yet which he believed would not stand exposure to discussion, he had a kind of childish habit of not only concealing his intention from those who ought to know but of even dissembling it like a small boy bent on mischief. Having made his decision to seek a third term, he kept the subject a complete secret from practically everyone. He realized the political difficulties involved in a third nomination. He wanted it, therefore, to be a "draft Roosevelt" movement, rising up spontaneously within the party. Certainly he did not tell any member of his cabinet or any of the sycophantic time-servers who formed his kitchen cabinet that they must not promote his nomination. There is an old Irish saying that sometimes half a word is better than a whole sentence. It is probable that to Hopkins and a few others, Roosevelt barely lisped that half word and they went with their whole souls and all their energies and most of their time into the great adventure of making sure of Roosevelt's nomination.

It was almost all done by the men who spent most of their time in and around the White House and so cunningly was this whole comedy of the "draft" carried on that Roosevelt himself was able at once to play the coy maiden and chairman of the Draft Roosevelt movement.

Apparently some time late in 1938, Edward J. Flynn discussed the third term with Roosevelt, who told him a story about his "Uncle Ted" as he called him. When Theodore Roosevelt was considering a similar situation he said to friends that the people of the United States "are sick and tired of the Roosevelts," that they "were sick of looking at my grin and hearing what Alice had for breakfast. In fact they want a rest from the Roosevelts." The people felt the same way about his own family, said Roosevelt. They were tired of looking at them.

Organization Democrats at this time were not so strong for Roosevelt to run. Certainly Garner was not and neither was Farley. Flynn says he refrained from urging Roosevelt to attempt another campaign. He felt the President was not in the best of health, that he was no longer young, that "he lacked some of the early resilience and power of quick reaction he once had." The eagerness for another term all came from the New Dealers and they were hard at work trying to get the necessary delegates, which Flynn says was not helping the cause any because they were deeply resented everywhere by the orthodox leaders. Charlie Michaelson,21 who I am convinced was not very much in the inner secrets of either the party or the White House, says he wrote in 1938, "Of course I am entitled to a guess and my guess is that FDR would take a case of the hives rather than four more years of the headache that being President means."

Miss Perkins, who worshiped Roosevelt, says that she never urged him to run for a third term because she "had real doubt about the wisdom of third terms as a matter of principle." And she insists that the President did not really want a third term. She called on him with Daniel Tobin of the Teamsters' Union on some labor matter, but she does not give the date. Tobin told Roosevelt he must run for a third term.

The President said: "No, no, Dan. I just can't do it. I tell you I've been here a long time. I am tired. Besides I have to take care of myself. This sinus trouble I've got—the Washington climate makes it dreadful . . . I never had it until I came here. The doctors say I have to go into the hospital for a month of steady treatment and I can't do that, you know . . . No, I can't be President again. I want to go home to Hyde Park. I want to take care of my trees. I have a big planting there, Dan. I want to make the farm pay. I want to finish my little house on the hill. I want to write history. No, I just can't do it, Dan." And then he added with a laugh: "You know, the people don't like the third term either."

Tobin assured him that labor would stand by him. This might have been in 1938, during those dark months. However, Roosevelt knew enough to know that such a disclaimer would not prevent the "draft" so long as all the men in the White House, from Hopkins up and down, were running it.

At this same session Roosevelt told Tobin that John L. Lewis had come to him and urged him to run for a third term, much as Tobin had, and that he had made the same answer to Lewis, but that Lewis had suggested that "if John L. Lewis was nominated for Vice-President all the objections would disappear."23 This statement was without a grain of truth. Besides, John L. Lewis was far too smart a man ever to go about getting the nomination for President or Vice-President that way.

In July of 1938, Fred Perkins of the Pittsburgh Press, at a White House press conference, asked: "Mr. President, would you care to comment on Governor Earle's suggestion that you run for a third term?" The President said: "The weather is very hot." Then Robert Post of the New York Times put in: "Mr. President, will you tell us now if you will accept a third term?" The President said: "Bob Post should put on a dunce cap and stand in the corner." Then Fred Perkins tried again: "Did your statement last winter fully cover the third term?" The President replied: "Fred Perkins to don a dunce cap likewise."

However, Farley says that after 1938 the President became increasingly interested in the 1940 convention and that he saw his successor in every man to achieve stature in the country and that as the time approached he became more and more critical of all these would-be presidential candidates. As a rule, a president who does not intend to run to succeed himself, is bound to want to see a successor friendly to his policies and to his fame and a candidate who can win. Actually the normal behavior for Roosevelt, if he was not grooming himself, was to be looking around earnestly for someone to follow him and to assist in building up either that man or some other strong candidate. After 1938, Roosevelt pursued precisely the opposite course. Theodore Roosevelt had surrounded himself with the ablest cabinet of any in our time. He was himself a big man, confident of his own capacity to deal with other big men and was not afraid to have that kind around him. Franklin Roosevelt surrounded himself with a cabinet of perhaps the smallest stature of any president in our time. Theodore Roosevelt, anxious to be succeeded by a strong man, went to great pains to build up William Howard Taft. Franklin Roosevelt, on the other hand, never failed to knock down anybody suggested as a possible successor. The name of Paul McNutt was being urged. Roosevelt sent him as High Commissioner to the Philippines and jokingly asked: "Is that far enough?"

The four names most prominently mentioned were Garner, Hull, Farley and McNutt. Farley says that Roosevelt could not see Garner under any circumstances—"he was too conservative." He didn't want Hull because he was too slow—"thought things over too long." He could not have Farley because Farley was a Catholic and that would not be wise. From all this Farley, in 1939, wrote in his diary:

"I am satisfied in my own mind that the President will not be a candidate for reelection, but might be willing to listen to argument. I don't know if he has anyone in mind definitely to succeed him. If he had to make a selection at the moment I believe he would select Harry Hopkins, Robert Jackson or Frank Murphy in the order named."

It has been said that Jim Farley's break with Roosevelt was occasioned by Roosevelt's determination to run for a third term and thus blast Farley's ambition to be President. But a careful reading of Farley's memoirs makes it pretty clear that he had no idea of being nominated for the presidency, that he was flattered at the suggestion but what he thought he might get was the nomination for the vice-presidency. For instance, he wrote in 1939: "There isn't any doubt in my mind if I assist in bringing about Garner's or Hull's nomination, I can have second place with either man if I want it."

In February, 1939, Farley made several long trips to sound out party sentiment. He wrote: "My own opinion is that the leaders of the party with few exceptions do not want Roosevelt to run for a third term." He noted that they were sick of Wallace, Hopkins, Corcoran and the rest and did not relish the idea of a bitter campaign defending a third term candidacy. This, he said, was the opinion of every responsible leader he talked with except Olson of California and Kelly of Chicago. Farley noted that after this, in frequent conversations with Roosevelt, as different names appeared in some connection wholly removed from the election, Roosevelt would dismiss them with "he wants to be president" as if this were an offense. He was angry that McNutt should even permit his name to be discussed for the presidency. He told Farley: "I consider it bad taste on his part to be letting his name be used when he is still a member of my administration." This meant that any Democrat with the Roosevelt administration could not permit his name to be discussed for the presidency without resigning.

In June, Garner told Farley that under no circumstances would he support a third term. Farley agreed and confided: "The two of us can pull together to stop Roosevelt." Garner told Farley he had committed the sin of becoming popular and that was something Roosevelt would not tolerate in anyone. He said: "He is jealous of Hull for his standing before the people. He is jealous of me for my popularity with Congress. He ought to be glad to see men in the party coming along but he doesn't like it."

This was in June of 1939 and a short time afterwards Cardinal Mundelein sent for Farley and urged him to support Roosevelt for a third term. Mundelein had come directly from the White House.

Roosevelt had not consulted Farley on an appointment for a year and a half and after this, his visits to the White House grew fewer. Then some time during the summer, Roosevelt asked Farley to come to Hyde Park. He talked about the 1940 campaign and the candidates. There was Garner—he's just impossible. Then Wallace —"he hasn't got 'it'". Then McNutt—he turned the thumb of his right hand down. Then he got around to the third term and after a pause, he leaned over and in a low voice of great confidence he said:

"I am going to tell you something I have never told another living soul," and then almost in a whisper: "Of course I will not run for a third term, but I don't want you to pass this on to anyone because it would make my position difficult if the fact were known prematurely." Farley pledged his silence.

After allowing this to sink in, he told Farley that while he would not run, he did not want to campaign for a losing ticket. Farley asked what kind of candidate he wanted. He said: "Pick someone who is sympathetic to my administration and will continue my policies."

It is perfectly clear from what Farley wrote at the time that he did not believe Roosevelt. Many men, enemies of the President, had accused him of being, to put it mildly, untruthful. Farley had been politically his most important lieutenant from the time he was nominated for the governorship. Roosevelt was now, under the veil of secrecy, making a firm statement to Farley about a matter of the supremest importance to both men. And Farley didn't believe him.

After this Farley went to Europe. While he was away, Hitler drove into Poland and the British and French declared war. When he came back the whole problem had been solved for Roosevelt. Farley found him in a state of the highest excitement. They had lunch and Farley said: "We are to all intents and purposes in a state of war. I think at this time politics should be adjourned. The people aren't interested in politics. They are interested in their country and their families." To which Roosevelt replied: "Jim, you have hit the nail on the head," which corresponds with Frances Perkins* statement that for Roosevelt the war years began in September, 1939.

Still later, at a dinner party at the White House, Roosevelt said to Farley's wife that he was having a terrible time. People were trying to make him run and he didn't want to. To which she replied: "Well, you're the President, aren't you? All you have to do is to tell them you won't run." He looked very much surprised and turned to the lady on his right. It was at this point that Farley knew definitely that Roosevelt was going to run again and after this the President virtually ignored Farley, and a White House assistant secretary was ordered not to assist Farley in a speech he was about to make. Cordell Hull says that from 1938 to July, 1940, Roosevelt told him definitely that Hull would be his successor. But all the time he was laying his plans for a "draft"—and acting out the comedy with Hull, who apparently still believes Roosevelt wanted him to run.

The whole story is a chapter of duplicity, in which Roosevelt, who had definitely decided to run if he could make it, was putting on before Farley the pose that he didn't want to run and before Hull the pose that Hull was his candidate, while all the New Deal agents, with his full knowledge and approval, were scouring the country for delegates and Roosevelt was using every artifice and pressure he could command to kill off every possible contender for the nomination. Saved now by the war from the disaster which overtook his administration in 1938, completely converted to the golden theories sold him by Hansen and Tugwell of eternal deficits and spending of billions on the greatest of all WPA projects, he could now rise out of the ashes of a mere New Deal leader to become a modern St. Michael brandishing his sword against Hitler and all the forces of evil throughout the world.