Man behind the political giants

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FDR’s SHADOW: LOUIS HOWE, THE FORCE THAT SHAPED FRANKLIN AND ELEANOR ROOSEVELT

By Julie M. Fenster

Palgrave/Macmillan, $27, 256 pages

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT

By Alan Brinkley

Oxford University Press. $12.95, 96 pages $12.95

REVIEWED BY JAMES SRODES

Louis Howe stank.

Although author Julie M. Fenster doesnt overdo it, it is clear that Howe, through much of his adult life, gave off a miasma of body odor enhanced by the effluvium of a chain smoker who got more of his cigarettes on his lapels than in an ash-tray. He also was incredibly and indiscriminately rude. His own wife recoiled at his embrace and spent most of her life as far away from his as she could.

The only reason we should remotely care about the life story of this cantankerous trash heap of a man is because of the two great inventions he created - those political giants we know as Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Without Howe, the Roosevelts well could have spent their lives in comfortable obscurity among the landed gentry of Dutchess County in upstate New York.

All great men and women seem to need to have cup bearers. And oftentimes, like the court jesters who could speak hard truths to kings, these devoted aides can sometimes paper over the flaws in the facade their masters present to the public. Indeed every member of both houses of the Congress has at least one “dragon-at-the-gate” who rations access to the boss, who edits the speeches, and keeps a check on promises that cannot be kept. But the Howe-Roosevelt symbiotic relationship is a darker story and Ms. Fenster brings a new depth to it by having had access to Howe’s private papers that had until recently been sequestered at the FDR Library in Hyde Park.

If Howe used both Roosevelts in order to achieve the prominence he had labored for without success, both Franklin and Eleanor needed him if each was to become something more than what they were likely to be with only their own efforts. Howe used both of them for advancement but also for a sense of family being and love that was lacking in his own life. The Roosevelts used Howe, but one senses neither Eleanor nor FDR mourned much when the asthmatic Howe’s abused lungs finally gave out at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in 1936 after 24 years of near slavish service to their cause. By then, both the Roosevelts had other loyal subalterns to serve them.

The Louis Howe portrayed by Ms. Fenster was a pretty abject character for the first 40 years of his life. While his parents had been wealthy at his birth, they managed with a rare zeal to fall into failed business ventures that kept them in and out of bankruptcy most of his young life. Louis himself scraped along as a newspaper stringer for big New York dailies that were interested in the tony social doings of the summer spa resort at Saratoga. Gradually he built a reputation for having a grasp of the political currents of upstate New York and from there to the fractious feuds and maneuvers of state government in nearby Albany.

While this was the time of the Republican post-Civil War ascendancy nationally, the real action going was the challenge to big city Democratic machines such as New York City’s Tammany Hall being waged by a new reform movement of younger good-government politicians, social workers, and progressives.

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