Roosevelts--Betrayed and Betrayers--but Loyal in Some Ways

James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn are co-authors of the forthcoming "The Three Roosevelts: Patrician Leaders Who Transformed America" (Atlantic Monthly Press). Burns is senior scholar at the Academy of Leadership, University of Maryland; Dunn teaches the history of ideas at Williams College

Last month, a Roosevelt--Elliott Roosevelt Jr.--announced his support for George W. Bush, contending that his grandfather, Franklin D. Roosevelt, would have approved of Bush’s Social Security plan. But the essence of FDR’s landmark legislation--one of his most enduring and transforming legacies--was the pooling of the interests of tens of millions of Americans into one vast program of mutual support. Bush’s plan for partial privatization betrays that essence.

And yet Elliott Roosevelt’s endorsement of the Republican candidate neatly fits into a pattern of revolt among Franklin and Eleanor’s progeny. Whereas George W. Bush and Al Gore--along with myriad Adamses, Tafts, Lodges, Kennedys and others--admire and follow their fathers’ politics and policies, Roosevelt offspring often took a different tack.

Striding to the podium at the Republican National Convention in 1952 to second the nomination of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower for president was none other than John Roosevelt, FDR’s youngest son. John would spend his last years in the gated and guarded enclave of New York wealth called Tuxedo Park, choosing to live among people who had been railing against progressives like Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt for decades.

Earlier, in 1937, Franklin Jr. married Ethel du Pont, whose family was the financial backer of the Liberty League, an anti-New Deal group. With a few exceptions, the Du Pont family was packed with Roosevelt-haters. “For a variety of reasons I found it a bit hard to swallow,” said Eleanor after the wedding, though perhaps the president savored the irony.


In the late 1930s, Elliott Roosevelt, the most insecure of the Roosevelt sons, spoke out on one of his Texas radio stations in favor of the investigations of his mother’s friends in the American Youth Congress conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He also opposed U.S. intervention in Europe and a third term for his father.

Yet it could be said that Franklin and Eleanor themselves betrayed their heritage. They left the confined, insular community of their elite Knickerbocker class, rejecting the world of inherited wealth into which they had been born, identifying instead with the aspirations of the working class, immigrants and the disenfranchised.

Franklin and Eleanor dedicated themselves to a social revolution whose goal, Eleanor wrote, was to provide “all our people with an equal opportunity to enjoy the benefits that have been the privileges of a few.” Their commitment to social change and economic justice still stands at the heart of all progressive agendas.

Not only was Theodore Roosevelt’s Square Deal the model for the New Deal, Teddy had also preceded Franklin and Eleanor in betraying their class. “The great bulk of my wealthy and educated friends,” TR confided to an acquaintance, “regard me as a dangerous crank.” But whereas TR had waged a passionate war against the plutocrats and scoundrels of wealth and privilege, his widow Edith would later make an about-face, supporting a man her husband would have deplored: Herbert Hoover.


And at the 1935 Lincoln Day dinner of the National Republican Club, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. in effect disavowed his father’s progressivism. FDR’s New Deal, Ted Jr. declared, had “flouted the Constitution, emasculated Congress, assumed judicial powers, used the emergency legislation to break down important provisions of the Bill of Rights and shaken the foundation of our liberty and democratic government.” His father had been accused of most of those sins.

People have many potential disloyalties. They can betray a spouse, a family, an employer or employee. They can be disloyal to their religion, political party, social cause, ideology, community, nation--and to their world. And what about disloyalty to oneself, to one’s better nature?

People cannot be equally loyal to all the above. They must make choices. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was disloyal to his political power base, the Grand Old Party. FDR was disloyal to his wife and was accused of disloyally “selling out” to Stalin at Yalta. Eleanor would be disloyal to her class and occasionally to her family as her loyalty to her widening circle of friends grew. But all three were steadfast in their loyalty to their vision of equality, human rights and economic justice for all.

Through our loyalties and our disloyalties we shape our lives--and leaders shape the destinies of their nations and the world.