Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Quiet Book

First impression of Grace Tully’s “FDR My Boss,” a memoir written by the president’s personal secretary in 1949: It would not be written today.

Well, maybe it would be written. But in today’s environment of tell-all political memoirs, it would pale in comparison to the crap that gets produced. It’s certainly partisan – in Tully’s mind FDR could do little wrong – but it’s also completely lacking in scandalous detail and scurrilous treatment of the opposition. What scurrilousness is contained therein is polite, demure, said in passing and as quickly forgotten.

Polite is the word for this book. Even when it comes to dealing with difficult White House guests – Madame Chiang Kai-shek treating White House staff as hotel busboys, for one – Tully is polite. Even the press this book comes from – The Peoples Book Club of Chicago, Ill., is polite. Aside: The Peoples Book Club. That sounds so New Deal-ish. I love it. (The price I got it for, $2, is also pretty New Deal-ish, as the book sells for between $12 and $99 (the ridiculous price) at Amazon.com.)

There is this given: This is the first political memoir I’ve read from this era. Maybe polite was de rigeur, though Tully drops enough hints about other writings that make me think this isn’t so. Maybe Tully’s point of the book bears the politeness through: FDR was a decent man doing a decent job during difficult times. End of story.

A few of my favorite bits:

FDR slaps down the American press (page 219):
On my recent mission of good will to South America I made the great discovery that the overpowering influence of your club has not yet extended to the Southern Hemisphere. Our friends in our sister republics are handicapped by being limited to the reading of nothing but actual news. They lack the North American habit of interpreting news. Perhaps in the days to come you can offer your services.
Ouch. That was delivered the Washington DC’s Gridiron Club. Yes, he was expected to deliver comedy at their annual dinner, but comedy always bears with it a bit of truth, no?

One more bit taking on press criticism (page 220-221):
One morning, about the middle of October, I became curious about this man Roosevelt and I went to a beautiful old mirror of the early Federal period and took a careful look at him in the glass. He smiled. I remember that one of the most damning indictments that had been brought against him was that self-same smile. I smiled back. And after a careful examination I decided that all that this villain looked like was a man who wanted to be re-elected President of the United States.

He was re-elected and the great 1936 campaign serial turned out to have a most surprising ending. On the morning of November fourth the editors decided that this villain was, after all, a reasonable person. He was deluged with editorial advice – suave advice, friendly advice, advice based on the apparent assumption that this man really was a reincarnation of a cross between Little Eva and Simple Simon.
May I recommend this habit of standing in front of a mirror? It is a good habit. It restores perspective. It brings out all the blemishes one ought to know about.
Yowza. More backhanded gallantries directed at the nattering class. I like this guy.

And speaking of Simple Simon . . .

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