Eleanor Roosevelt and those unbelievable days

There I sat, at the press table, in the House of Representatives, 45 years ago, and instead of making notes on the row that was going on between the committee chairman and the spokesman of the American Youth Conference my attention was fixed on a member of the audience. It happened to be Mrs. Roosevelt, wife of the President of the United States.

Those unbelievable days! I can tell you the exact date because I wrote a piece about it and have just looked it up: Dec. 1, 1939: ''Mrs. Roosevelt takes side of Dies critics.'' Rep. Martin Dies (D) of Texas was conducting a witch hunt against real and alleged subversives, many of whom supported the New Deal. Eleanor Roosevelt was tall and radiant with buck teeth. What a pair she and Franklin made at the head of the nation's affairs. She was born Oct. 11, 1884, and many parts of the country are celebrating the event in the next fortnight.

When critics attacked Mrs. Roosevelt, she counterat-tacked. In her daily syndicated column, ''My Day,'' she said she attended the committee hearing to make sure that the youths were not being looked upon ''with suspicion until they are proved guilty.'' She invited seven leaders to lunch at the White House. This reporter's narrative of the affair is almost self-consciously neutral; it notes that ''No previous president's wife has had the hardihood to attend a congressional committee much less so controversial a one as the Dies Committee. Her arrival was a surprise; she was treated courteously and made no comment on the evidence itself, though her sympathy was publicly and emphatically illustrated by her luncheon invitation to the witnesses.''

My account, reread 45 years later, cloaks the emotions that surged just below the surface. I don't know any other president's wife who would have appeared in such circumstances and got away with it. There was some heckling by congressmen. ''Mrs. Roosevelt was the witness of this scene and others,'' I wrote, ''and took notes during the testimony. So familiarly has she identified herself with the Youth Congress that to a considerable degree the effort to find if there is a subversive bias to the congress involves her personally. ... Mrs. Roosevelt has volunteered to appear before the committee if called; the committee has announced that it would be glad to hear Mrs. Roosevelt if she volunteered. But neither side was prepared to take the responsibility for the step. ...''

And the President? He had plenty of other things to think about. I explain that he had ''characterized the committee's publication of the names of federal workers on the mailing or membership list of the League for Peace and Democracy as a 'sordid business.' '' So there was no difference between the presidential couple here.

It was an intense time. Would FDR run for a third term? Would war overflow Europe? In the summer of 1939 Nazi Germany swallowed Austria and Czechoslovakia and in September joined Russia to smash Poland. The world hung on the brink. Who cared if Mrs. Roosevelt testified? Secretary of State Cordell Hull told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Roosevelt believed ''Hitler will march in September unless we pass this legislation'' (repeal of the constricting Neutrality Act). Isolationist Sen. William E. Borah told a White House meeting that there would be no war this year. How did he know? ''I have my own sources of information which are superior to those of your State Department,'' he said simply. A goodwill visit to America by the British King and Queen allowed the two ruling families to eat hot dogs at a picnic at Hyde Park. ...

To come back to the incident that prompted these reminiscences of Mrs. Roosevelt - she gave her own account of the affair in her book, ''This I Remember'': ''I sat through most of the hearings of the Dies Committee because I had heard that when they had people before them who seemed to have little influence or backing, their questions were so hostile as to give the impression that the witness had been haled before a court and prejudged a criminal. If there is one thing I dislike, it is intimidating people instead of trying to get the facts.

''At one point, where the questioning seemed to me to be particularly harsh, I asked to go over and sit at the press table. I took a pencil and a piece of paper, and the tone of the questioner changed immediately.''

Ah, me; she invited them to lunch at the White House! She was the eyes and ears of the President. Her presence was captured in the now famous New Yorker cartoon, when one miner says to another of a third figure coming into view, ''For gosh sakes, here comes Mrs. Roosevelt!'' Everyone understood.

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