- The Washington Times - Friday, January 8, 2010


By Julie M. Fenster

Palgrave/Macmillan, $27, 256 pages


By Alan Brinkley

Oxford University Press. $12.95, 96 pages $12.95


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.

Howe had three things going for him in the summer of 1912. He was an early expert on political opinion polling, he had boundless energy and he recognized in FDR the raw clay that could be molded into something great. That took a certain vision to be sure. Frank Roosevelt, as he was known then, was considered by his contemporaries as something of a mental lightweight and unreliable in a political fight. As a newly minted state senator in 1911, he had led a reformist revolt in the legislature against a Tammany choice for the U.S. Senate only to cave in and back an even more questionable choice in the end. But both men were early backers of the reformist Woodrow Wilson’s presidential campaign in 1912 and when both FDR and Eleanor were stricken with typhoid fever Howe took over Roosevelt’s re-election campaign and singlehandedly insured that he was one of two of the rebel legislators of 1911 who was returned to his Senate seat.

Not that FDR bothered to serve his new term. By 1913, he had reaped his reward by being named assistant secretary of the Navy - the post from which his cousin Theodore had begun his own rise to the presidency - and he took Howe along with him. From that point on the two men were - to Eleanor’s initial annoyance - inseparable. Indeed, in later years Howe actually moved into various Roosevelt residences, claiming the best rooms, competing with FDR’s children for both his time and affection. He also began to court Eleanor at first to overcome her instinctive distaste for his odorous and constant presence, but later to bring her into a more active political partnership with her husband.

Howe coached Eleanor on progressive issues, taught her to be a more effective public speaker and, after FDR was paralyzed with what was believed to be polio, he pushed her to create her own political persona in Democratic Party politics where she became not only the visible and mobile face of FDR’s ambitions, but a force in her own right for social issues which frankly did not interest her husband in the least.

Such single-minded devotion has to end in tears. By the time Howe moved into the White House with the Roosevelts there were a host of new cup bearers surrounding both FDR and Eleanor, each providing a special need and none of them beholden to him. His health, abused by a life of overwork and stressful habits began to deteriorate. Saddest of all is Ms. Fenster’s description of how quickly both Roosevelts forgot him once he was gone. It’s a lesson all dragons-at-the-gate learn.

As for the pocket biography of FDR produced by Alan Brinkley, the Provost and Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University, one has to wonder if he is unaware of the availability of such potted histories freely available from Cliff Notes or Wikipedia. As a crib note goes, there is little to object to, but nothing new to recommend it. Mr. Brinkley clearly approves of Roosevelt and his presidency and there is nothing wrong with that. The only questionable assertion Mr. Brinkley can be charged with is an over-emphasis on the contribution of Columbia University faculty to the FDR “brains trust” that created the New Deal, but perhaps that too is forgivable. One might safely give this book to a middle-schooler or an immigrant studying for the citizenship test.

c Washington author-journalist James Srodes covered the White House for various publications from 1967 through 1996. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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