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Nancy Reagan, Meet Eleanor Roosevelt

March 08, 1987|JOSEPH LASH | Joseph Lash is the author of several books on the Roosevelts, including the award-winning "Eleanor and Franklin" (1971).

I don't know whether Nancy Reagan has much time to read. So I don't know whether she ever looked into Eleanor Roosevelt's autobiography or into the many books written about Mrs. Roosevelt's efforts to cope with the responsibilities of being First Lady. Had she done so, she would have learned that one secret of an effective First Lady is concealment of her influence. The charge of "petticoat government" has lost some of the explosive impact it had in Eleanor Roosevelt's day, but it still carries a devastating punch, as I suspect Nancy Reagan is discovering.

Eleanor was considerably ahead of her husband in advocacy of economic and social programs, so much so that when then-Gov. Roosevelt first assembled his "Brains Trust" to brief him on national issues, a Roosevelt confidant astonished the professors by advising them that it was their job "to get the pants off Eleanor and onto Frank." Arthur Krock, a pillar of American journalism and a spokesman for American conservatism, wrote, "She had stronger convictions than he on the subjects of social welfare and progress. She was also a very determined woman."

"Wise as a serpent, guileless as a dove," was my label for the countless methods she developed to expose Franklin to influences other than the conventional. Yet she was so successful in covering her tracks that historians still are uncertain how to document her role and evaluate its importance. What seems to be agreed is that without her Roosevelt and the New Deal would have been different. She herself summed up her role in relation to Franklin: "I'm the agitator; he's the politician."

The real issue in the Nancy Reagan controversy is accountability--not hers but the President's. Some critics ask indignantly, "Who elected her?" That can equally well be asked of other presidential advisers--Donald Regan, Henry Kissinger, Harry Hopkins. The presidency is an awesomely complex office. It combines in itself functions of ritual, leadership and control. A President is ceremonial head of the state, active leader of the government, commander-in-chief, educator of the people, head of the party. Who will begrudge him the sympathetic assistance of anyone he feels can help him realize his purposes? A President is fortunate if he has a First Lady who can help.

The full story of the clash between Nancy Reagan and Donald Regan is not known. An important factor seems to have been Regan's insistence that the President deliver his State of the Union message in person. She feared that it would overtax the President. Her concern was natural and praiseworthy; mutual protection is a time-hallowed spousal function. But there is also a danger of over-protecting a President. When Roosevelt decided in 1944 that he had to run for a fourth term, he was an ailing man. But with millions of men and women at the front, the commander-in-chief felt that he had no right to let personal considerations come first. And Eleanor Roosevelt supported him in that decision.

Reagan's former national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, has said that he felt isolated in the White House. He wasn't part of the "inner circle" of wealthy, successful men who surrounded the Reagans. So far as we know, Nancy Reagan did nothing to counteract the President's preference for the company of the rich and powerful. Eleanor Roosevelt, on the other hand, made it a point to ensure a hearing for the powerless, slipping their petitions into the presidential in-tray, even having their representatives in for dinner at the White House.

Why does she bother him with that, some would ask when, for example, she pressed the case of a black tenant farmer on the President. If she didn't, who would? was her reply. It was a service that she rendered the President, and he and the nation were the better off because of it.

In a democracy, Eleanor Roosevelt felt, a President has to account for his actions to the people, and not even illness can be allowed to stand in the way of the processes of accountability. "I wasn't what you would call a 'yes man,' because that wasn't what he needed," Mrs. Roosevelt told an interviewer.

"But was that what he wanted?" the interviewer pressed on.

"I don't think it was what he wanted," she replied. "I think, however, there were times . . . and particularly toward the end when he found argument very difficult, and even in the earlier days . . . he might have been happier if he had always been perfectly sure that I would have agreed. He wasn't, and it was probably good for him that he wasn't."

So as I think of the Eleanor Roosevelt story in relation to Nancy Reagan's problems, the main moral seems to be that even in this day of women's liberation, she should keep her tracks hidden.

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