A first lady who rejected the sidelines

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: VOL. II, 1933-1938 By Blanche Wiesen Cook Viking 686 pp., $34.95

Eleanor Roosevelt: She defied the quiet role of previous first ladies

The first volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook's capacious and monumental biography of Eleanor Roosevelt covered nearly four decades, from her birth in 1884 to her husband's inauguration as president in 1933 (reviewed May 19, 1992).

This second volume covers just five years. But what momentous years they prove to be, as Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt - or, as Cook prefers to call them, "FDR" and "ER" - faced the tremendous challenge of trying to save a country suffering from the worst and most prolonged depression of its history, while across the ocean, Hitler was transforming Germany into a menacing war machine.

Cook judiciously sums up the Roosevelts' long, not always comfortable, partnership: "ER and FDR did not have a traditional, correct, or conventionally happy marriage; but it was one of Washington's most notably successful marriages. Fueled by power, they were each dedicated to making life better for most people. Together they did more than either could have done alone."

When she stepped into the role of first lady, ER was not only well prepared by her years of political experience, but she had also devoted a great deal of thought to the role. As Cook shows us in a brief but masterly survey of the previous holders of that anomalous position - from Ida McKinley to Lou Hoover - this was a job that seemed to turn even the brightest, most dedicated women into pathetic shadows of their former selves.

The charming, witty Grace Coolidge had been a teacher of hearing-impaired children. On becoming president, her husband, who believed "woman's place was at the sink," insisted that she be silent on all political issues. Herbert Hoover's wife, Lou, a geologist, linguist, and outspoken feminist, chose on becoming first lady to fade into the background. ER was determined not to fall into any of these traps.

As first lady, ER continued to write, lecture, and make radio broadcasts, donating her earnings to charity. She maintained an active social life, independent of her husband's, keeping up ties with old friends and political allies. She also had a way of reaching out to all kinds of common people - farmers, workers, rural mountain folks, African-Americans, and others who'd been consigned to society's margins. On more than one occasion, she spoke out against policies of FDR that she deemed wrong. Her compassionate, dynamic personality won her an ever-widening circle of friends and admirers.

The loudest and most persistent criticism of the Roosevelts came from the right. Most of their fellow patricians considered them class traitors. Rumors circulated that the Roosevelts were Jewish. ER was an especially favored target: a photo of her accepting flowers from a little black girl was seized upon by her enemies as proof of her dangerous affinity for African-Americans.

In this biography, Cook - who admires the Roosevelts enormously - offers what might be called a critique from the left: not only of Franklin, who sometimes sacrificed idealistic principles to political expediency, but even, to some extent, of Eleanor, who was undoubtedly the more idealistic and uncompromising of the two. Cook notes that one of ER's first actions on coming to office was firing workers on the White House domestic staff and replacing them with black workers who were paid a lower salary. Over ER's objections, FDR fired married women in the civil service, the rationale being that men had greater need of these jobs.

Cook devotes a whole chapter entitled "A Silence Beyond Repair" to a searching examination of ER's protracted failure to speak out against the Nazis' treatment of Jews and political dissidents. Although ER's silence is usually ascribed to her lack of information on the subject, Cook shows that as early as the summer of 1933, "ER had full and immediate knowledge," provided by her friends, the distinguished humanitarians Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, and Carrie Chapman Catt.

Although it is possible to put the blame on FDR, who prohibited her from speaking out on foreign policy - as opposed to domestic issues, Cook has found that ER's "silence extends even to her private correspondence." The chapter is full of eye-opening material and also provides us with a shocking picture of just how pervasive anti-Semitism and racism were in America.

Although FDR's dependence on political support from the Dixiecrats severely limited his ability to do much about Jim Crow laws and rampant discrimination, ER spoke out against racial bigotry and supported the efforts of the NAACP to improve the status and lives of African-Americans.

She constantly brought attention to the problems of poor working families. She fought to establish a federal homesteading project in West Virginia that gave destitute miners decent homes with indoor plumbing, medical care, and schooling for their children. She even fought, unsuccessfully, to open that project to blacks as well as whites. And, like her uncle Theodore Roosevelt, she was an ardent conservationist.

Crammed with fascinating details, anecdotes, and incidents, Cook's account of these five, action-packed years manages to be clear, forceful, and easy to follow without sacrificing texture, subtlety, or political savvy. Cook pulls no punches when it comes to examining her heroine's political or personal shortcomings, but she also delights in showing us the excellence of her character and the scope of her achievements. Her enthusiasm lights up the pages of this story. As Cook tells us, "To contemplate ER's life of example and responsibility is to forestall gloom."

*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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