As he was constitutionally mandated to do, Woodrow Wilson submitted his grand scheme for the League of Nations and the Versailles Peace Treaty to the U.S. Senate for ratification. In his self-righteous arrogance, Wilson refused to permit the slightest compromise or modification. This spelled the doom of his utopian vision at the hands of the Senate opposition, led by Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.). So distraught was the president by the emotional struggle that he suffered a stroke, becoming a feeble invalid in his last months in office. Thus ended the ignominious administration of Woodrow Wilson, which had transformed America beyond recognition.
Meanwhile, Wilson’s assistant secretary of the Navy, a small but significant part of that administration, was having his own troubles. At a speech in Brooklyn, Franklin Roosevelt boasted that his first priority had always been to render the Navy ready for war. In doing so, he jovially blurted out, he had committed “enough illegal acts to put me in jail for 999 years,” including spending money on munitions before Congress or anyone else had given him authorization.
While FDR received only mild criticism for this gaffe, another problem had the potential to do much more damage. It seems that the naval base at Newport, Rhode Island, had become a center for such things as excessive drinking, prostitution, and drug dealing as well as homosexual activity. It was principally this last that disturbed a number of prominent local citizens. Roosevelt set up a secret investigating team, called “Section A — Office of the Assistant Secretary,” to uncover and root out the licentious miscreants. He stipulated that there was to be no written communication regarding the case. Instead, his appointees were to report to him from time to time in person.
Since it is exceedingly difficult, in the nature of things, to obtain evidence of consensual sexual acts, the diligent inquisitors employed the default method in such cases — entrapment. Homosexuals were enticed by the use of “straight” sailors, some as young as 16, who allowed lewd acts to be performed upon them. When this became known, there was outrage in Newport. In Washington, a naval commission, headed by an old friend of Roosevelt’s, was formed to probe the question. One member of Section A testified that he had, indeed, reported the relevant facts to Roosevelt; the other member was excused from testifying on account of “illness.” Franklin himself vehemently denied any knowledge of the immoral methods used by the secret team he had set up — in essence, his claim was that his attitude had been “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In the end, the naval commission exonerated him, thus saving his career.
Had Roosevelt known all along? Had he brazenly lied about his involvement? His devoted biographers have mostly just taken him at his word. But it is hard to believe that in all his dealings with Section A, Roosevelt never once inquired how the evidence was being gathered, or that his investigators never once informed him of their methods, if only to protect themselves. On the face of it, the Newport scandal is an early example of FDR’s singular skill — and near-miraculous success — in the arts of duplicity and deception.
In 1920, the Democratic convention in San Francisco gave its presidential nomination to James M. Cox, a three-time governor of Ohio, whose main advantage was that he had had no connection with the despised Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt, aided by the delegate-hunting efforts of his friend Louis Howe, was selected for the second spot on the ticket. Once again, there was an echo of the career of his cousin Teddy, who had served as vice president under William McKinley, and once again the Roosevelt name played a major role in FDR’s ascending career.
Franklin barnstormed the country, concentrating on the West and incessantly invoking what he claimed was TR’s legacy. His nonstop winning smile and easy charm showed that he was a born campaigner. For lack of anything better, he stressed entry into the League of Nations, which, however, did not sell well anywhere, especially not in the West. Interestingly for a leader who afterwards would pride himself in his “Good Neighbor” policy towards Latin America, Roosevelt on one occasion let the cat out of the bag. Referring to the period following the invasion and occupation of Haiti, he said: “The facts are that I wrote Haiti’s constitution myself, and if I do say so, I think it is a pretty good constitution.” He bragged that, in the Navy Department, he had “had something to do with running a couple of little republics.”
Roosevelt always tried to ingratiate himself with his audience, and he usually succeeded. But at a speech in Washington state to the local chapter of the American Legion, he went a little too far. He praised the Legionnaires’ patriotism as demonstrated in their dealing with some antiwar Wobblies (members of the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World). Though he mentioned none of the details, what the patriots had done, after a shootout with the Wobblies, was capture their leader, then castrate him and shoot him to death.
But Roosevelt’s efforts availed not at all. He and Cox lost the election, suffering the worst defeat in the history of presidential politics to that time. Warren Harding and his running mate, Calvin Coolidge, triumphed by nearly two to one. It wasn’t that Cox was particularly disliked, and certainly not that Harding was beloved. But Harding campaigned on a platform of returning the country to “normalcy.” This was a slogan that resounded mightily with a public sick to death of Woodrow Wilson and everything he stood for — the government controls, the taxes and deficits, the draft, and, above all, the entanglement in a world war that everyone could now see had been merely another bloody struggle among rival gangs of imperialist powers.
Despite the ringing defeat, the 1920 election was a great step forward for FDR. Even to be nominated by a major party for vice president at the age of 38 was a singular honor. Franklin had proven himself as a campaigner, gained national attention, and made innumerable valuable contacts. Still, he no longer held political office, and was not to do so again until 1928. He returned to his law practice in New York and once more exploited his political and family connections. The Fidelity and Deposit Company, a firm of corporate insurers, made him vice president in charge of the New York office, at a salary of $25,000 a year, and he, Eleanor, and the children and servants took up residence again at their home on East 65th Street, next door to his mother’s.
After he had become president, FDR was in the habit of castigating the business climate in the 1920s as “a mad chase for riches” — reminiscent of the Clintons’ hypocritical attack on the 1980s as a “decade of greed.” The fact is that while the going was good, FDR tried to cash in on that “mad chase” at every opportunity. He engaged in risky business ventures, most of which failed — a company to fly dirigibles between New York and Chicago; another to buy up firms in Germany; still another, called the Consolidated Automatic Merchandising Corporation, to replace clerks in retail shops with vending machines (this one with his new friend and devotee, Henry Morgenthau Jr.). Occasionally, he made money, but there were many times when he had cause to be grateful for his and Eleanor’s inherited wealth.
In August 1921, FDR and his family were at their summer home at Campobello. It was a turning point in his life. One day, slipping on the deck of a boat, Franklin was plunged into the icy waters of the Bay of Fundy, from which he emerged with a slight chill. The next day, a series of exhausting activities resulted in his going to bed early, complaining of achiness. In the morning, dizziness and pain in his leg were added to his symptoms. When the sharp pain spread to his other leg and his back, medical assistance was clearly called for. Paralysis was setting in, in his lower body. After two doctors misdiagnosed the condition, a specialist from Boston finally discovered the terrible truth. Roosevelt had fallen victim to poliomyelitis, known also as infantile paralysis, which that summer was rampant across the northeast.
Before long, Roosevelt could no longer walk and had to endure constant pain. He was moved by stretcher to a hospital in New York and then to his home. In the next months, Eleanor proved to be a dedicated nurse to her husband. She also fought fiercely against her mother-in-law. If Sara had had her way, Franklin would have retired to Hyde Park, to live out his life as an invalid. Eleanor had important allies in fighting for an active future for Franklin in politics — his friends, such as Howe, and, most of all, Roosevelt’s own ambition.
For the next seven years, Franklin’s chief preoccupation was regaining the ability to move around normally. He learned to walk with the aid of braces and crutches, and developed his upper-body muscles, ultimately coming to present, when seated, a rather imposing physical figure. Still, he had to be carried up and down stairs, and the pain of trying to exercise his leg muscles was excruciating. Through it all, he maintained his habitual good cheer and affable disposition.
His admirers often claim that his struggle with polio transformed FDR from a rather superficial, pampered child of the elite into a man who understood life deeply and empathized with the less fortunate. But whatever benefits it may have produced for his character, however edifying his long fight may have been for his soul, it should be obvious that Franklin Roosevelt must still be judged according to his actions and policies and the consequences that followed from them.
Still believing that he could overcome his affliction, Roosevelt investigated the facility at Warm Springs, Georgia, whose waters were reported to effect remarkable improvement in polio sufferers. Trying them out, he concluded that they were helping greatly in his case. He bought the hotel, pool, and some 1,200 acres of surrounding land, and set up the Warm Springs Foundation. Eventually, contributions from many donors turned Warm Springs into the best-known center in the country for treating the disease, and thousands of persons of all ages, including many with meager means, were treated there.
Gradually, Franklin resumed his public activities. He served in a number of capacities in philanthropy, in connection with Harvard and other institutions, and acted as chairman of the fundraising efforts for the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in Manhattan. From time to time, he wrote on politics for the press, although his contributions were never noteworthy for any depth or originality. On the question of immigration, which was being hotly debated at the time, FDR took the then-popular position that large-scale immigration had to be stopped. His special ire was reserved for the Japanese who came to America. “Californians have properly objected … that Japanese immigrants are not capable of assimilation into the American population.” We should be candid, he declared, about the grounds for exclusion of the Japanese, namely “the undesirability of mixing the blood of the two peoples.”
Now Roosevelt’s political ambitions were more intense than ever. But many doubted that, disabled as he was, he was fit for public office. At the Democratic convention of 1924, he brilliantly confounded the doubters.