- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 15, 2004

Michael Janeway, professor of journalism and the arts at Columbia University and political aficionado, has given us a wide-ranging, well-considered, deeply researched and engaging study of Democratic Party developments in the FDR years and succeeding regencies. His thoughtful and penetrating review of the operations of party stalwarts furnishes potent cause for concern to anyone interested in the future of the Democratic Party and of the country.

Deeply impressed by the record of the early New Deal and educated by his family’s political involvement and his own prior employment as a Senate staffer, the author would like to see the return of the dedication and accomplishments of that generation’s movers and shakers.

But since he finds a continuing need for government intervention for reform of our political system, he concludes that radical change will not be forthcoming, due to the absence of sensitive leadership as well as the trend to limit and discontinue the government’s involvement in providing for the general welfare.

The broad and salutary changes which the 1932 election produced were the result, he reminds us, of a combination of the empowering leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the supporting genius of a group of Rooseveltians who recognized the need for revolutionary measures, supplying the legislative and administrative action to bring them about.

This team, which “booked the revolution,” Mr. Janeway terms the “House of Roosevelt.” He argues convincingly that the country benefited from its early vitality and suffered from its subsequent decline.

As principal early players Mr. Janeway includes Harold Ickes, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, Benjamin Cohen, James Landis, Jerome Frank, Abe Fortas and James Rowe. The leader, linchpin and party whip was Tommy Corcoran, Roosevelt’s “Tommy the Cork.”

Corcoran supplied the gusto, push and, with Cohen, the legislative skill that brought about the Securities and Exchange legislation, public utilities control, electrification expansion, public works development and the general broadening of the government’s power to spread the general welfare.

This unprecedented movement slowed with FDR’s proposal to pack the Supreme Court, and was never reactivated to the same degree.

Mr. Janeway’s inclusion of Douglas with the other activists, whose political contributions are better recognized, reflects a personal attachment of the author — and of his father, Eliot Janeway.

Corcoran had attracted Eliot Janeway’s literary and publicity skills to the Rooseveltian group. Douglas, although he had gone on the Supreme Court in 1939, was never contented there and, in disregard of judicial ethics, offered constant encouragement to Corcoran, Janeway pere and their circle for their efforts to push him to top political office.

In 1944, FDR’s physical decline had become obvious. In the fight to designate his probable successor, the Corcoran group even persuaded Roosevelt to include Douglas’ name with that of Harry Truman as potential running-mates.

Truman was nominated, of course, after one quick ballot disposed of Henry Wallace. This was a conclusion one can well believe FDR wanted all the time, since it has been generally accepted that Robert Hannegan, the Democratic National Committee chairman, Bronx leader Ed Flynn and others had convinced the president that the ticket needed beefing up with a new vice-presidential candidate.

In Mr. Janeway’s judgment, these “bosses” were the insensitive ones who conspired to return public affairs to inertia rather than open the way to reform.

This reviewer begs to differ. As a delegate to the 1944 convention, he has never regretted his vote for Truman and has felt that the “bosses” were leaders who, with FDR, wanted to win and chose a candidate who was a known quantity, rather than one whose appeal to average voters would be dubious.

Truman’s performance certainly justified this trust. Douglas was advocated again by the same sponsors in 1948 against Truman, then a sitting president, but he attracted no broad support beyond Claude Pepper, Jimmy Roosevelt and similar dissidents.

These efforts were backed at all times by the author’s father, to whom, along with his wife and family, a substantial part of “The Fall of the House of Roosevelt” is devoted. As one who knew the elder Janeways well, I agree enthusiastically with the description of them as a charming, talented and hospitable couple who recognized the obligations of citizenship and made their contributions to advancing the nation’s progress.

Babs Janeway was a brilliant, bestselling writer, famous for “Daisy Kenyon” and other books and movies. Eliot was an economist and a talented writer for Time, Life and Fortune magazines. He served as a seldom-reined roving reporter, gadfly and agent for Henry Luce, his boss.

At mid-century Eliot Janeway was a prominent and active force in Washington politics. A person of high, scrappy ambition, with an instinct for political maneuver, he was also in his heyday a dashing and romantic figure to his two sons, whom he folded into his stratagems and adventures.

In a soul-searching way, and in an unusual demarche, the author delves deeply into his family background to examine his father’s personality in detail, and to expand on his meteoric rise to fame and his ultimate disastrous fall.

Mr. Janeway discovered at 15 that his father was Jewish (he was born Eliot Jacobstein and changed his name as a teenager) and that he was previously married, both facts firmly hidden and excluded from discussion. He also learned that his father as a youth had been a member of the Communist Party, working in Britain and in Moscow.

These were facts to which the son adjusted himself, and he dutifully discloses them here to complete the full family genealogy. His father weathered publication of this distant background with some anxiety, but without disaster.

With World War II, the death of Roosevelt and the subsequent change of administrations, the House of Roosevelt lost its motivation and unity. Its fall from White House intimacy was not surprising since its members had opposed Truman’s nominations and had supported Lyndon Johnson against Jack Kennedy.

The group’s principals turned to profitable activity, with Corcoran a buccaneering lobbyist, Thurman Arnold involved in bibulous client assistance, and Fortas engaged in persuasive manipulation of the sources of power, on intimate terms with Johnson before his own final disgrace (he was pressured to resign from the Supreme Court after accepting money from a private foundation).

In Eliot Janeway’s case, there was lessened political clout but rising notoriety and success in publishing and client advice. He operated from a six-story house-cum-office on E. 80th Street in New York and had a chauffeured Cadillac limousine.

Unfortunately this affluence ended, as his son ruefully reveals, in ill health, business mismanagement and poverty.

There was a brief upsurge of hope among the activists for renewal of accomplishment in the mid-1960s, with the spate of social and civic legislation which Johnson pushed through to law. But the impetus was lost as Vietnam imposed its co-opting influence.

Thus, in informative detail, is presented the story of the Rooseveltians. They had their day and they made their contribution to the nation. The author treasures the excitement and education he derived from his association with them. He concedes that their effort could not be a model for the future, but he shows that they had been communal beyond their own intellectual circle, progressively dealing more people into the national corpus.

They made mistakes and were flawed in various ways, but, in various ways, they were effective — and, as Mr. Janeway persuasively asserts, they succeeded.

John S. Monagan is a retired U.S. congressman from Connecticut. His books include “The Grand Panjandrum: Mellow Years of Justice Holmes” and his autobiography “A Pleasant Institution: Key-C Major.”

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