Working with Roosevelt, by Samuel Rosenman

July 7th, 2006

Working with Roosevelt, by Samuel Rosenman
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952

Excerpt

If a visitor, familiar with the appearance of the Cabinet Room on an ordinary day, were to have looked into it, say about midnight of February 21, 1942, he would have been quite startled.

All the lights were burning. But there were black curtains pulled across the windows now; we were at war, and it was blackout time. The shining surface of the large table was hardly visible, for it was covered from one end to the other with papers, books, telegrams, letters. At one end of the table was a large tray; on it were a big thermos pitcher of coffe, two piles of sandwiches covered by a damp napkin, a large number of bottles of beer, Coca-Cola, ginger ale, and plain charged water, some cups and saucers and large glasses, a bowl of cracked ice, and a bottle of whisky.

Seated around the table were three men. They were all in their shirt sleeves and were obviously tired, for the had been working all day on a speech. They had just said good night to the President in his study in the White House, and then walked over to the Cabinet Room to do some more work on the speech. The tray of food and drinks had come over from the pantry of the White House at the direction of the President.

Robert E. Sherwood poured himself a whisky and soda; Harry Hopkins helped himself to a cup of black coffee and a sandwich; I took a bottle of Coke and two sandwiches. I phoned upstairs to the four stenographers who had been asked to report for duty at 11:00 PM to work with us….

Whatever the speech, the general pattern of our collaboration was always the same. When Bob had finished, he would silently pass to me what he had written; and Harry and I would read it together. We might say, “OK” or “fine” and clip it in the right place; or we might say “try again–that’s too complicated or too oratorical for the Boss”; or we might suggest a few changes here and there. The same thing would happen with what I had dictated to Grace, and with what Harry had written.

The inserts the President himself had dictated got the same close scrutiny. We changed his language and often cut out whole sentences. Where there was some dissent among us, we made a note to talk to the President about it the next day.

There was no pride of authorship; there was no carping criticism of each other. We were all trying to do the same thing–give as simple and forceful expression as possible to the thoughts and purposes and objectives that the President had in mind. Whatever language and whoever’s language did it best was the language we wanted.

“Here is a suggestion from Berle which is OK and one from Marshall which is a peach,” I said that evening, passing them around. By common consent, they went into the next draft, each marked as an insert clipped to the right sheet.

After a few pages of the carbon copy of draft five were corrected and added to in this way, I pushed a button in the table near the Presiden’ts chair. It was a bell connected with the messenger room. A messenger came in and took the pages to the girls upstairs to make six copies. This draft would be number six. From then on we sent the new draft up page by page, so that almost as soon as we were finished they could sent it down retyped, and we could immediately begin working all over again on the seventh draft–polishing, correcting, adding, deleting.


Comments

When the US invaded Iraq, I was moved to reread Working with Roosevelt, Samuel Rosenman’s memoir of his years as FDR’s speechwriter. It’s a terrific book that’s pretty much been out of print since it was first published in 1952 or so. Rosenman essentially takes the reader through FDR’s career from 1928 on by, using key speeches that he worked on as milestones.

What I recalled from first reading it, and was particularly struck by in contrast with Bush’s rhetoric the second time around, was how sensitive FDR was to the mood and temperament of the public. He wasn’t a guy who made his decisions by polling, as Clinton was sometimes accused of doing. His genius was in understanding when and how to move the country forward on an issue and when to back off and let people figure things out. Faced with a decision like invading Iraq, FDR would certainly have taken a much longer-range perspective and put a lot more work into building a case that had public and coalition support that would last more than 90 days.

Rosenman also shows throughout the book how positive and sympathetic FDR was on a public and private level. He could have his fits of pique, but he certainly wouldn’t have engaged in the kind of “Either you’re with us or you’re against us” crap we’ve had to endure from the Bush administration. When, as in the famous “Martin, Barton, and Fish” speech, he did choose to strike back at his opponents, he did so with humor, not vindictiveness.

I’ve read a number of Roosevelt biographies, as well as first-hand accounts from people like his secretary, Grace Tully, Harold Ickes, Frances Perkins, and even the head of his Secret Service detail, but Rosenman’s is by far the most illuminating when it comes to capturing how FDR balanced the public and private worlds of the presidency. I find it interesting that several Republican presidential speechwriters (including Peggy Noonan and Stephen Hess) single out Rosenman’s book as “a classic,” “wonderful,” and “one of my favorites.” President Carter himself is reported to have read and appreciated it–although, in his case, he certainly failed to learn from FDR’s example.


Reviews

This is, in fact, basically not a partisan but a technical book. It is a detailed and authoritative account of how the public utterances of a President of the United States are put together. … The particular value of the Rosenman account is that it deals with a President who was conspicuously successful in his employment of the method. It is all the better because it carefully describes the errors, as well as the triumphs. The book admits that Roosevelt made mistakes, and points them out. Indeed, it goes further–it admits that Samuel Rosenman made mistakes, and points them out, too. This makes it admirable as a textbook for aspiring politicians.

G.W. Johnson, New York Herald Tribune Book Review

An engrossing study of the late President in one of his less familiar roles–that of man of letters.Judge Rosenman, who helped write a great many of Mr. Rossevelt’s speeches from the time of his gubernatorial campaign in 1928 until his death, believes that the President was more of less propelled into authorship by the fact that in the very early thirties “there were few boks and no national precedents for the philosophy or legislation that came to be known as the New Deal. He had to write his own books in the form of speeches and messages, and then create the precedents himself to carry them out.” In his survey of this twofold creative process, which of necessity grew more and more complex as Mr. Roosevelt’s burdens multiplied, Judge Rosenman–an admiring but by no means purblind biographer–conveys an excellent idea of the development of both the content of and the philosophy behind most of Roosevelt’s major addresses, and analyzes, as far as possible, the literary contributions made by the President’s collaborators. Although Judge Rosenman gives full credit to these assistants (especially to Stanley High and Robert Sherwood) for their labors, he makes it abundantly clear that in his opinion they merely added graces notes to compositions that were the President’s own.

New Yorker, 31 May 1952

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Working with Roosevelt, by Samuel Rosenman
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952

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