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

January 22, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

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.

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