'You Have to Go Out and Work for It'--and Roosevelt Still Does

If you know anyone who has an extra pair of tickets to this summer's Democratic National Convention, get in touch with James Roosevelt. He'd like to go. So would his brother, Elliott.

They were discussing it the other day. James lives in Newport Beach and Elliott in Palm Springs, and they talk at least once a week on the telephone.

"Elliott brought it up," recalled James Roosevelt the other day in his office in the Hutton Centre in Santa Ana. "He said that he'd like to go and asked if I knew any way we could manage it. I told him getting on a delegation was about the only way I knew."

If an outsider finds it odd that two of the three surviving sons of the Democratic Party's most famous standard-bearer can't wangle an invitation to the national convention, James Roosevelt accepts it philosophically. "In a way," he said, "I think that's good. You don't get anything by divine right in this country. You have to go out and work for it."

At 80, James Roosevelt is still working for it. He goes daily to his office where he serves as chairman of an organization called the National Committee for the Preservation of Social Security and Medicare, which two years ago attracted considerable congressional heat. That was a piece of cake compared to the colon surgery he came through just fine last June--and from which there have been no residual problems. His 6-foot, 4-inch frame is slightly stooped and his gait slow and cautious, but the Roosevelt grin is firmly in place and the Roosevelt mind blessed with total recall.

Well, almost. He does have some problems with his own grandchildren. He knows he has seven children (from four marriages) and four great-grandchildren, but he's fuzzy about how many grandchildren he has. When he turned 80 last December, his wife, Mary, and their 16-year-old daughter, Becky, threw a surprise party for him. They rounded up Roosevelt's progeny from all over the country and sprang them on him in the private room of a local restaurant.

"I was introduced," said Roosevelt, "to several of my grandchildren I'd never met before."

James and Mary Roosevelt have lived in Newport Beach since 1972, when he retired from two decades of public service that included six terms as a congressman from Los Angeles, an unsuccessful run (against Earl Warren) for governor of California and a stretch as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

The Roosevelts met in Switzerland where Mary, who is English, was teaching at the International School in Geneva. They married in 1969 and lived in Geneva--where Becky was born--for three years before settling in Newport Beach. Mary went to work at UC Irvine in 1975 and now supervises student teachers for UCI's office of teacher education.

The irony of making his home in an area where his father was rather widely regarded as the devil incarnate amuses Roosevelt. "I was something of an oddity here at first," he recalls, "although I'd spent a lot of time in Orange County when I lived in Los Angeles." He was a Democratic congressman, but Roosevelt allows that his political views over the years have turned toward the center. "I see myself as an independent today," he said, "but the Democratic Party stands more for the things I believe in than the Republican."

Does this mean he has had second thoughts about the multitude of federal social programs initiated by his father during the Depression years?

"No, not at all. In 1933, we had too little government, so the balance became much more even then. Today, the challenges to the country are not as clear-cut as they were then. The needs are still there, but now they can be approached in a number of different ways--by various levels of government or through private enterprise--so there's not as acute a need for federal programs. But that doesn't mean the responsibility isn't still there--and if those needs aren't fulfilled, we'll be in lots of trouble."

Although Roosevelt lives very much in the present, he acknowledges that he thinks more frequently than he used to about events of the past ("mostly because I have more time to do it now"). Remarkably few people ask him about his parents these days--and practically never the young. ("Young people regard those times as the Dark Ages--the same way, I guess, I looked on the Civil War when I was young.") But he's acutely aware of--and at the same time rather remarkably detached from--the fact that for more than a decade he was at the epicenter of some of the most momentous decisions in U.S. history, particularly during the two years he spent just before the attack on Pearl Harbor as F.D.R.'s secretary.

"When I was called to the White House that afternoon, I found my father sitting quietly at his desk, not agitated, much calmer than his staff. He said, 'We have a job to do, so get ready to work for the next 48 hours.' The charges made years later that he knew the attack was coming made me very angry. All of us who were close to him in those days knew it was as much a shock to him as it was to the rest of us. But from that day to the end of his life, Father was a prisoner at the White House. Never again was he able to enjoy the close contact with people that he loved so much."

As the eldest son, James Roosevelt often was directly involved in affairs of state. He remembers accompanying his parents on their formal protocol visit to President Herbert Hoover the day before F.D.R.'s first inauguration.

"We were met at the White House door by a servant and conducted to the Green Room. We cooled our heels there for 40 minutes before President Hoover appeared and talked with us for about 10 minutes. I was furious, and my mother was upset, but my father excused it by telling us how busy the President must be."

Both of his parents, says Roosevelt, were reluctant to tell their children what to do. "They'd advise, but they wouldn't make decisions for us. If we got in trouble, we'd have to get ourselves out."

Roosevelt's first real statement of independence came when he was a senior at Harvard. His grandmother had been putting him through college, and when she attached as a condition his compulsory attendance with her at all family affairs of her choosing, he balked and dropped out of school, lacking only one class for his degree. (He completed that class and won his degree from Chapman College five decades later.)

His father--then governor of New York--said nothing about his eldest son's decision until James took a job as a supervisor in a Boston yeast factory. Then he called his son and said: "What do you do with the by-products?"

When Roosevelt said he didn't know, his father pointed out that a by-product of yeast was alcohol and that federal law then prohibited the manufacture of alcohol for drinking. "He told me he would advise me to examine very carefully what was happening in my plant. I did, and I quit. But he never told me to do that."

James Roosevelt had a feeling long before it happened that the United States would be drawn into World War II, so he joined the Marine Corps Reserve in the late '30s. A few years later, his father took him on an official visit to South America as his military aide, jumping him in rank to lieutenant colonel. "It was the only time my father ever embarrassed me. I wasn't ready for that rank, and as soon as we got back home, I resigned and resumed my old rank of captain. My father understood and agreed."

F.D.R. also understood when James told him after Pearl Harbor that he wanted to go on active duty. He joined a hell-for-leather Marine group called Carlson's Raiders, who scored the Allies' first victory in the Pacific by attacking and destroying a Japanese supply depot on Makin Island after a 10-day trip in which 200 Raiders were packed into two submarines. It was the start of a distinguished military record that culminated several years later when Adm. Chester Nimitz flew into a remote Pacific Island at 2 a.m. to present then Col. Roosevelt with a Navy Cross. (In the Marine Reserves, he retired as a brigadier general.)

From the beginning of World War II, Roosevelt saw his father only when he came home on leave. "Toward the end of the war, I saw him failing every time I came home. The last time I saw him was at his inauguration in 1945. I thought he looked quite ill, but the doctors caring for him scoffed when I said that to them. They told me--as they'd been telling my mother--that all he needed was a weekend in Warm Springs. We never suspected that the doctors weren't being honest with us. My mother always resented that. I said goodby to him for what turned out to be the last time in his upstairs study at the White House."

Roosevelt and his outfit were on Leyte in the Philippines when his father died, and he was unable to get back in time for the funeral.

"My brothers were scattered all over the world, and none of us got back except Elliott, who was in England." Roosevelt remembers arriving in New York with a two-hour wait before he could get a train to Washington, where his mother was packing their belongings in the White House.

He walked the streets of Manhattan and was stopped by a man who asked him: "Are you who I think you are?"

When Roosevelt identified himself, the man said to him: "I mean no disrespect, and I hope you'll excuse me, but I think the country is better off not having him around."

"I told him," recalled Roosevelt, "that one of the great things about this country that my father believed in strongly was freedom of expression. But it was the first time I ever confronted the hatred some people felt for him, even though he never protected himself or us. He saw the good mail and the bad, and he talked with people who differed strongly with his views. He accepted criticism as part of what he enjoyed doing--and he didn't think it ought to bother the rest of us, either."

James Roosevelt feels that some basic misconceptions about both of his parents have almost become established fact, and he talks about these myths rather wistfully.

"My father was seen as jaunty and perhaps arrogant. But there was also a broad streak of humility in him. He needed self-assurance to do his job. But he also knew he needed humility to understand the vastness of the responsibility. Few people ever saw or acknowledged the humility.

"When he was elected the first time, he went to bed about 1:30 on election morning, knowing he had won. I went up to his room to say good night to him, and he stopped me at the door and said, 'I wish you would do something for me.' I said, 'Of course,' and he said to me: 'Say a prayer tonight that I can draw on the resources I need to do this job.' That's the part of him so few people ever saw."

Roosevelt feels that the criticism of his mother was especially unfair. "It came," he said, "from people who gave her no credit for her achievements. They saw her as a gadfly meddling into things she didn't understand. But everything she did had a point that she felt deeply about. Most of her activism took place after my father died, but I think he was delighted with what she did when he was living, even though at that time it wasn't acceptable for a woman to be an activist."

Eleanor Roosevelt's activism carried well into her 70s, just as it has for her son. Why, at his stage in life, is he working so hard?

"Well," he said, "I guess the first reason is that none of my father's children had capital; just earning power. And I guess the second reason is that I want to be this busy. If I don't feel I'm going full throttle, I have a feeling of frustration and annoyance."

In James Roosevelt's life today, that means full throttle on behalf of the organization he now represents to protect Social Security and Medicare on behalf of America's elderly. There are now 5 million members (at $10 a head), and Congress officially took notice of that by holding hearings two years ago to question the validity of the organization's informational and lobbying efforts. James Roosevelt testified and was worked over pretty thoroughly by committee members.

He's philosophical about that, too. "A lot of congressmen saw this organization as a potent political force--and that scared them. So they tried to put me down. But now they see we're only interested in protecting social programs for older Americans, so the criticism has died down. It was all understandable. I just had to live it down."

That's what most strikes a visitor about this son of Franklin D. Roosevelt: an impressive understanding of the democratic processes that allow--and encourage--pluralism in this country. James Roosevelt not only understands that but accepts it without rancor--on behalf of both himself and his parents.

Now, if someone could just come up with a couple of tickets to the Democratic convention. . . .

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